William Blake’s “The Birds”
William Blake, the 18th and 19th century English poet, painter and engraver, is most remembered for his two linked collections of poems, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Of all of Blake’s poems, people are most familiar with the oft-anthologized “The Tyger” from the latter volume, though he wrote many other poems worth reading (to say nothing of his inventive and delightful illustrations). Because this is a bird-blog though, I will not be focusing on “The Tyger” or any other poem about mammals, but on “The Birds,” a poem that I might never have read had a nineteen year old Dante Gabriel Rossetti not found a notebook of Blake’s in The British Museum and bought it for ten shillings from a museum attendant (warning: link is a pdf).
The notebook, now usually known as “The Rossetti Manuscript,” held many literary treasures, among them “The Birds.” The poem is a rather simple back-and-forth between a male bird and a female bird, apparently long separated, who are pleased as can be to have found each other.
He. Where thou dwellest, in what grove,
Tell me Fair One, tell me Love;
Where thou thy charming nest dost build,
O thou pride of every field!
She. Yonder stands a lonely tree,
There I live and mourn for thee;
Morning drinks my silent tear,
And evening winds my sorrow bear.
He. O thou summer’s harmony,
I have liv’d and mourn’d for thee;
Each day I mourn along the wood,
And night hath heard my sorrows loud.
She. Dost thou truly long for me?
And am I thus sweet to thee?
Sorrow now is at an end,
O my Lover and my Friend!
He. Come, on wings of joy we’ll fly
To where my bower hangs on high;
Come, and make thy calm retreat
Among green leaves and blossoms sweet.
I don’t think there are any deep meanings to be found in the poem, just (just?) beautiful language and the heartening image of two lost lovers having found each other after a long absence. Perhaps this is how all songbirds feel when they pair up on prime breeding grounds after a long migration.
Those who tire of a lonely mockingbird singing its heart out all night long can certainly understand the male bird saying “And night hath heard my sorrows loud” though it is extremely unlikely that Blake, who never traveled more than a day’s walk from London, ever heard a mockingbird. And anyone who has heard the exuberant song of a Bobolink in flight can appreciate “the wings of joy.”
Anyway, I hope folks appreciate this poem as much as I do and if you want to read more of Blake’s work, well, click here.
If you liked this post and would like to browse the entire archive of poetry posts on 10,000 Birds please check out our Bird Poems page.