Campus Birds: Making American Renaissance Poetry Accessible through Birdwatching

I am lucky enough to teach on a small campus in upstate New York where the wooded areas, shrubbery, and native plant and flower species attract a wide variety of birds, especially in the spring.  These avian neighbors aren’t shy either.  When living, foraging, and breeding in campus environments, they become accustomed to seeing and hearing people around. The birds on my campus are a visible and audible presence.

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Black-capped Chickadee

Once the snow melts, it’s common to see American Robins hopping across the quad, White-throated Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, and Black-capped Chickadees foraging around bushes, House Sparrows nesting on the ledges of buildings, Blue Jays and Red-winged Blackbirds calling down from tree branches, and Northern Mockingbirds gliding from perch to perch. Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a huge Pileated Woodpecker tapping away in the tree right outside of my office.

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White-throated Sparrow

So how does observing these “campus” birds help my students understand American Renaissance poetry?

One of the most common obstacles that I encounter when teaching American literature before 1900 is the student struggle to connect or identify with literature produced in such a drastically different cultural context from their own.  I can easily understand why students might have trouble engaging with and relating to what seems to them to be a totally alien culture.  However, despite all of the socio-cultural differences, the birds that fascinated American writers in the 1800s are the same birds with the same personalities that zip through the trees and forage outside our classroom windows today.

Reading some “bird poems” by canonical American Renaissance writers helps students bridge the cultural gap between American in the 1800s and America today because birds are dependable.  As the nation rapidly changes over time, birds remain consistent…well, for the most part. The populations and ranges may change, but each species looks and behaves the same way that it did in the 1800s.  So, when we read Emily Dickinson’s poems about American Robins, there is no “I can’t relate to what she’s talking about here” or “This is too weird and unfamiliar for me to visualize” because Dickinson wrote about the same American Robins that students see hopping around campus each day from dawn until dusk.

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American Robin

Dickinson’s “bird poems” are an ideal place to start when exposing students to American Renaissance poetry since she was, as Jo Miles Schuman and Joanna Bailey Hodgman explain, a “bird watcher” and a “bird lover” (xii).  Schuman and Hodgman tally that in her collected poems, Dickinson references birds 222 times (xvi) with reference to 26 different species observable around her Amherst, Massachusetts home (xiii).  Dickinson’s poems reference a number of birds that my students are likely to see daily on campus, including robins, jays, blackbirds, and sparrows.

Furthermore, Schuman and Hodgman acknowledge that Dickinson “knew their [birds’] habitats” and “was aware of their seasonal comings and goings” (xvi).  During spring migration, birds are likely to revisit the very same areas in which they foraged and nested in previous years.  Dickinson describes such dependability in American Robins in “I have a Bird in spring.” She writes:

Yet I do not repine
Knowing that Bird of mine
Though flown—
Learneth beyond the sea
Melody new for me
And will return. (181)

The American Robin was a personal favorite for Dickinson, which works out well because they’re so populous on my campus from daybreak to nightfall, especially in the spring. Whenever possible, it is helpful to pair “bird poems” with famed nineteenth-century ornithologist John James Audubon’s bird commentaries.  He writes, “The American Robin must be the hardiest of the whole genus.  I hear it at this moment, eight o’clock at night, singing most joyously ‘Good Night!’ and ‘All’s well!’” (398).

In “No Brigadier throughout the Year,” Emily Dickinson describes the Blue Jay as a confident “warrior”:

The Pillow of this daring Head
Is pungent Evergreens—
His Larder—terse and Militant—
Unknown—refreshing things—
His character—a Tonic—
His Future—a Dispute—
Unfair an Immortality
That leaves this Neighbor out— (23)

Since students can hold Dickinson’s description against their personal observations of the Blue Jays on campus, close reading comes more naturally even when there might be some tricky language.  I make my students download the free Merriam-Webster Dictionary app on their phones, which they may use during class when close reading and annotating poems. When students look up the word “tonic,” for example, they discover an interesting contrast of definitions. On one hand, a “tonic” is a type of musical tone. On another hand, a “tonic” is something that refreshes or invigorates. So, when Dickinson describes the Blue Jay’s “character” as “a Tonic,” students immediately reference their individual observations: the Blue Jay’s loud, unmistakable call and the vigorous, energetic, and rapid ways that he moves around.

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Blue Jay

Of course, not all of my students are observant of avian life while walking around campus, which is why it is essential to present images, videos, and audio tracks of bird songs and calls alongside of the poetry in class. This is particularly important when reading poems about birds that students are less likely to encounter on campus. For example, I’ve spotted an Eastern Bluebird, our state bird, in a field nearby campus, but I’ve never seen one on the campus proper, so I rely on supplemental media as well as Audubon’s commentary as aides when discussing a poem like Henry David Thoreau’s “The Bluebirds.”

We start with Audubon’s commentary on Eastern Bluebirds: “Full of innocent vivacity, warbling its ever-pleasing notes and familiar as any bird can be in its natural freedom, it is one of the most agreeable of our feathered favorites.  The pure azure of its mantle and the beautiful glow of its breast render it conspicuous as it flits though the orchards and gardens, crosses the fields or meadows or hops along by the roadside” (494). We then compare Audubon’s commentary as well as short videos and audio tracks to the poem.

Some videos reveal that today Eastern Bluebirds rely heavily on man-made nesting boxes during the breeding season. Students then instantly latch on to the opening lines of Thoreau’s poem, which reveal that “bluebird boxes” were common practice even in the 1800s:

In the midst of the poplar that stands by our door,
We planted a bluebird box,
And we hoped before the summer was o’er
A transient pair to coax. (173)

When a bluebird pair moves into the nesting box for the “transient” breeding season, the poem’s narrator claims, “Methinks I had never seen them before, nor indeed had they seen me” (174). Despite this initial unfamiliarity, a powerful bond between the narrator and the birds forms by the next spring when the narrator hears a familiar “sound” of which he claims:

It thrilled but startled not my soul;
Across my mind strange mem’ries gleamed,
As often distant scenes unroll
When we have lately dreamed.
The bluebird had come from the distant South
To his box in the poplar tree,
And he opened wide his slender mouth,
On purpose to sing to me. (176)

Here, the narrator views the bluebird, very likely the same bluebird as the previous year, directly addressing him, acknowledging that the bluebird remembers him in the same way that he remembers the bluebird.

This type of human-bird bond or kinship is pervasive in “bird poetry.” In American Renaissance poetry, it is common to see birds personified and described as “brothers,” “sisters,” and “neighbors.”  Shuman and Hodgman explain that when it comes to birds, “their behavior defines them and suggests similar aspects of human behavior” (xvi). The human parallel is why birds have always been—and will always continue to be—popular literary subject matter around the world.  The diversity of birds and their personalities reflects the diversity of humans and their personalities, and the dynamics of avian relationships often parallel the dynamics of human relationships.

For example, Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” demonstrates both the human-bird bond as well as the human-bird relationship parallels. The narrator recalls childhood memories of his “sad brother” (236), the Northern Mockingbird, who mourns the loss of his beloved mate when she fails to return to their nest containing “four light-green eggs spotted with brown” (237). The narrator, as a child, is keenly observant and describes himself as “peering, absorbing, [and] translating” (237) as the he-bird’s tragic tale unfolds.  The narrator states:

He called on his mate,
He pour’d forth the meanings of which I of all men know
Yes my brother I know,
The rest might not, but I have treasured every note,

[…]

I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting in my hair,
Listen’d long and long.
Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes,
Following you my brother. (239)

Italicized stanzas throughout the poem represent the narrator’s English language “translation” of the Northern Mockingbird’s lonely “aria”:

O past! O happy life! O songs of joy!
In the air, in the woods, over fields,
Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!
But my mate no more, no more with me!
We two altogether no more. (241)

Audubon Northern Mockingbird

The ultimate goal is for my students to be as observant and thoughtful as Whitman’s narrator when examining the poetry, which, of course, requires its own form of “translation.” When it comes to interpreting “bird poems,” I encourage my students to get outside and watch birds. I encourage them to compare bird species that they see around campus and think about the differences in the ways they behave and interact. I encourage them to search for parallels between bird personalities and human personalities.

As an aide for my novice student birdwatchers, there are several user-friendly free apps that I recommend. The Audubon Birds app offers comprehensive descriptions of North American birds. The Merlin Bird ID app, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, offers a more localized package. Students can download bird packages specific to a region. The app allows students who spot an unfamiliar bird species to plug in information such as size, color, and location to determine the specific species. This app also includes useful images, range maps, and audio recordings for each species. Additionally, students can search for birds they are “most likely” to encounter on any day of the year in a particular location.

Works Cited

Audubon, John James. The Audubon Reader. Edited by Richard Rhodes, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Collins, Billy. Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds. Columbia UP, 2010.

Dickinson, Emily. A Spicing of Birds. Edited by Jo Miles Shuman and Joanna Bailey Hodgman, Wesleyan UP, 2010.

Dickinson, Emily. “I have a Bird in spring.” Collins, pp. 181.

McClatchy, J. D. On Wings of Song: Poems about Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Schuman, Jo Miles and Joanna Bailey Hodgman. Introduction. A Spicing of Birds, by Emily Dickinson, Wesleyan UP, 2010, pp. xiii-xxiv.

Thoreau, Henry David. “The Bluebirds.” Collins, pp. 173-6.

Whitman, Walt. “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” McClatchy, pp. 236-42.

History’s Inconsistent Characters

My students expect authors who make it onto the syllabus to be “good” people.  If these writers don’t have sound morals, why would we care about what they have to say?

Some of my students want the same thing from authors and historical figures as they want from fictional characters: consistency. Because of this, I see students lump both fictional characters and actual people into the overly general groups of “good” or “bad.”

Of course, this overgeneralizing is a problem that I try to tackle from the get-go each semester.

In nearly all of my literature courses, I introduce students to a chapter titled “Worth the Consideration of Those to Whom It May Prove Worth Considering” from Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1856).  In this chapter, the narrator directly addresses readers and their mounting concerns about the novel’s “inconsistent” characters.  The narrator first acknowledges that in fiction “there is nothing a sensible reader will more carefully look for, than that, in the depiction of any character, its consistency should be preserved” (75).  Next, despite this seemingly reasonable criterion for judging a character’s effectiveness, the narrator refutes:

while to all fiction is allowed some play of invention, yet, fiction based on fact should never be contradictory to it; and is it not a fact, that, in real life, a consistent character is a rara avis? Which being so, the distaste of readers to the contrary sort in books, can hardly arise from any sense of their untrueness. It may rather be from perplexity to understanding them. (75)

I find the narrator’s rationale here persuasive and so do my students.  People are, by nature, inconsistent and complex.  I frequently change my mind about things without any reasonable explanation, I listen sometimes to opera and sometimes to death metal, I donate to animal rights organizations even though I eat meat, but all of this is ok.  According to Melville’s narrator, my behavior is natural—it’s simply human—and I’m reminded of several lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (224)

While my students readily and enthusiastically agree that humans are inconsistent, they still struggle to apply it at times, especially with figures they’ve long-term internalized or romanticized as “good” or “bad”. They can’t conceive how I would allow a morally “bad” author to have a voice in the classroom. Such is the case when I teach James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

Last of the MohicansAlthough The Last of the Mohicans is set during the French and Indian War, Cooper writes, and subsequent editions appear, throughout the peak era of Indian Removal. I like to use the Broadview edition that includes relevant historical documents that provide context for the narrative, such as excerpts from the “Indian Removal Act” (1830) and excerpts from Andrew Jackson’s “Second State of the Union Address” (1830).

I initially ask my students, “So what do you think Cooper tries to accomplish in The Last of the Mohicans?”

Students generally respond that the text is explicitly sympathetic to indigenous plight not only because of how Uncas and his father Chingachgook, the heroic Mohicans, are depicted as wise and brave but also because even the villainous Magua only seems to be villainous because of white influence. The English manipulate Magua to act against his own nation and turn him into a drunk, resulting in his exile and fueling his desire for revenge.

However, based on everything scholarship knows about Cooper’s life and political ideologies, The Last of the Mohicans actually functions as a justification for Indian Removal, and Cooper himself was, in fact, pro-removal and pro-Jackson. By setting the novel in the context of the past and focusing on the extinction of a particular tribe, Cooper essentially argues, “It’s a shame about those Indians and their suffering, but it’s too late to do anything about it now. It’s ok though because as long as we remember them fondly, we don’t have to feel guilty about anything. Progress must continue.”

This typically comes as a surprise to students and forces them to reevaluate the connection between the novel and the section of the supplemental document, Jackson’s second “State of the Union Address,” in which he explains:

Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and Philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth.  To follow to the tomb the last of his race and to tread on the graves of extinct nations excite melancholy reflections.  But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another. (451-2)

Students realize that just as Jackson discusses indigenous groups in terms of “extinction” and suggests that philanthropy can “reconcile the mind” of white Americans struggling with guilt and “melancholy reflections”, Cooper like-mindedly believes that literature can further help to “reconcile the mind,” so Americans can move forward with progress. Rightly so, my students see this as a “bad” and brain-washy thing.

This is the point in discussion where my students outwardly mourn. I hear students say: “What Americans did to Native Americans was horrible,” “Native Americans were here first, and the land was rightfully theirs,” “Native Americans were treated so unjustly, so unfairly,” “Jackson and Cooper—they were both terrible people who made everything worse.” My students ask me why I would assign a novel that is basically, in their opinions, propaganda for the historically “bad” team.

I don’t see the novel’s value in the classroom as determined or affected by whether or not Cooper was a “good” or “bad” person.  I’m okay with understanding Cooper, as I understand many other early American authors, as inconsistent.  I teach Cooper’s novel because it reveals so much about American culture in the Jacksonian era. I also teach the novel because it reveals so much about my students in the contemporary era.  I say to my legitimately concerned group: “Well, this campus stands on what was once Iroquois territory. Why don’t you take action, right the wrongs of the past, and give it back? The Iroquois nation still exists—give it all back.”

As expected, I hear no enthusiastic “yes!” from the group. Instead, the following type of dialogue ensues:

Students: “Well, we can’t do that. That doesn’t make sense”

Me: “Why not? You clearly feel indigenous people have been wronged. You feel sorry for them.”

Students: “But we can’t just give land back. We’ve done so much and accomplished so much with this space over all these years.”

Me: “Ah, you’ve ‘cultivated’ the land—it’s now too late to make a change?”

Students: “If we just give everything back, where would the university go? Where would our cities go?”

Me: “That kind of large-scale displacement would cause a lot of chaos…”

Students: “And what would Native American groups with populations way smaller than ours even do with all of the space?”

Me: “So, the land would be ‘wasted’?”

In a nutshell, the student rationale for why we can’t give the land back today sounds a lot like the rationales provided by those “terrible people” Andrew Jackson and James Fenimore Cooper.  In his address, Jackson, like my students, explains how Americans have “accomplished so much” with the land:

What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion? (452)

The most common arguments for removal in the 18th and 19th centuries centered on the idea that indigenous peoples failed to cultivate land and use it to its full potential. As a result, what mattered was not who was there first but who was using the land most productively and efficiently.

I ask my students, “Does that mean you’re all ‘bad’ people?”, but this question only yielded silence.

To get students talking again, I ask, “Was Thomas Jefferson a ‘good’ person?” They respond with a definite “yes.” I ask them to explain why, and they, as expected, cite the “Declaration of Independence” and his role in the American Revolution. I then tell them that as president, Jefferson devised manipulative plans to trick Native Americans into debts that they would only be able to pay off by giving up lands. Jefferson was unquestionably pro-removal. I can point to specific letters Jefferson wrote which prove so.

Is Jefferson still a “good” person? Is the “Declaration of Independence” enough of a reason to forgive his problematic ideologies about other races? Even if my students aren’t familiar with Jefferson’s plans for indigenous peoples, they are aware that Jefferson was a slaveholder.

But why do people feel compelled to categorize Jefferson, anyone else for that matter, as “good” or “bad”? Why this drive to figure out in which group to place history’s characters? Why do we need to see Jefferson as a hero and Jackson as a villain instead of as what they are: flawed, contradictory humans?

I tell my students an overly simplistic story: Once upon a time, there was a boy who was orphaned because his family died helping others during a war.  Despite being an orphan, the boy worked hard and became a lawyer.  Now a man, he eventually fell in love, got married, and tried to have children, but his wife couldn’t conceive, so they adopted. One of the adoptees was a Creek Indian, orphaned when his parents were killed during a battle. The man claimed that he saw himself in that orphaned little boy and felt compassion for him.  About 40 years later, the man got a really important job, but before he could start, his beloved wife died on Christmas Eve. In her memory, and because he loved children and was once an orphan himself, every Christmas he would go to the city orphanage and bring all the children presents.

Can my students guess who this story is about? No. How could they possibly believe that Andrew Jackson, a “bad” man who readily exterminated indigenous populations could ever do something as inconsistent and “good” as identify with, adopt, and raise an indigenous child? Jon Meacham’s 2008 biography describes Jackson in the following way:

He was the most contradictory of men….A sentimental man who rescued an Indian orphan on a battlefield to raise in his home, Jackson was responsible for the removal of Indian tribes from their ancestral lands….Like us and our America, Jackson and his America achieved great things while committing grievous sins. (xix)

Does a story about bringing orphans Christmas presents justify or forgive Jackson of his policies or actions regarding Indian Removal? Absolutely not—those are things that can never be forgiven or forgotten, especially by those whose ancestral lines were directly impacted.

But the anecdote about Jackson does at least reveal that he, like Cooper, like all other humans, is inherently contradictory. My own students, certain of their own “goodness” shared sentiments quite reminiscent of Jackson’s and Cooper’s during our discussion of The Last of the Mohicans. Does that mean they’re secretly “bad”? I don’t know. Regardless, I think they will consider their own inherently contradictory natures before hastily applying labels like “good” or “bad” in the future.

Works Cited

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. Edited by Paul C. Gutjahr, Broadview,

Jackson, Andrew. “Second State of the Union Address.” Gutjahr, pp. 451-3.

Meacham, Jon. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Random House, 2008.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Edited by Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer, Norton, 2006.

Spengemann, William C., and Jessica F. Roberts, editors. Nineteenth-Century American Poetry.  Penguin, 1996.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Spengemann and Roberts, pp. 165-225.