A Classic Collection of Bird Poems

A Collection of Classic Poems About, Addressed to, or Inspired by Birds

Osprey flying above fir trees with sunrays streaming through mist
Diane Miller / Getty Images

Birds wild and domestic are naturally interesting to humans. For poets in particular, the world of birds and its endless variety of colors, shapes, sizes, sounds, and motions has long been a rich source of inspiration. Because birds fly, they carry associations of freedom and spirit. Because they communicate in songs that are unintelligible to humans but musically evocative of human feelings, we connect them to character and story. Birds are distinctly different from us, and yet we see ourselves in them and use them to consider our own place in the universe.

Here’s a collection of classic English poems about birds:

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “The Nightingale” (1798)
  • John Keats: “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819)
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley: “To a Skylark” (1820)
  • Edgar Allan Poe: “The Raven” (1845)
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “The Eagle: A Fragment” (1851)
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Paraphrase on Anacreon: Ode to the Swallow” (1862)
  • William Blake: “The Birds” (1800–1803)
  • Christina Rossetti: “A Bird’s-Eye View” (1863); “On the Wing” (1866)
  • Walt Whitman: “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1860); “The Dalliance of the Eagles” (1880)
  • Emily Dickinson: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers [#254]" (1891); “High from the earth I heard a bird [#1723]" (1896)
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar: “Sympathy” (1898)
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The Windhover” (1918); “The Woodlark” (1918)
  • Wallace Stevens: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1917)
  • Thomas Hardy: “The Darkling Thrush” (1900)
  • Robert Frost: “The Oven Bird” (1916); “The Exposed Nest” (1920)
  • William Carlos Williams: “The Birds” (1921)
  • D.H. Lawrence: “Turkey-Cock” (1923); “Humming-Bird” (1923)
  • William Butler Yeats: “Leda and the Swan” (1923)

Notes on the Collection

There is also a bird at the heart of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—the albatross—but we have chosen to begin our anthology with two Romantic poems inspired by the song of the common nightingale. Coleridge’s “The Nightingale” is a conversation poem in which the poet cautions his friends against the all-too-human tendency to impute our own feelings and moods onto the natural world, responding to their hearing the nightingale’s song as sad because they themselves are melancholy. On the contrary, Coleridge exclaims, “Nature’s sweet voices, [are] always full of love / And joyance!”

John Keats was inspired by the same species of bird in his “Ode to a Nightingale.” The little bird’s ecstatic song prompts the melancholy Keats to wish for wine, then to fly with the bird on “the viewless wings of Poesy,” then to consider his own death:

“Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!”

The third of the British Romantic contributors to our collection, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was also taken with the beauty of a small bird’s song—in his case, a skylark—and found himself contemplating the parallels between bird and poet:

“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
. . .
Like a Poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not”

A century later, Gerard Manley Hopkins celebrated the song of another little bird, the woodlark, in a poem that conveys the “sweet—sweet—joy” of God-created nature:

“Teevo cheevo cheevio chee:
O where, what can tháat be?
Weedio-weedio: there again!
So tiny a trickle of sóng-strain”

Walt Whitman also drew inspiration from his precisely described experience of the natural world. In this, he is like the British Romantic poets, and in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," he too attributed the awakening of his poetic soul to his hearing of a mockingbird’s call:

“Demon or bird! (said the boy’s soul,)
Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it really to me?
For I, that was a child, my tongue’s use sleeping, now I have heard you,
Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake,
And already a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful than yours,
A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die.”

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is neither a muse nor a poet, but a mysterious oracle—a dark and spooky icon. Emily Dickinson’s bird is the embodiment of the steadfast virtues of hope and faith, while Thomas Hardy’s thrush lights a tiny spark of hope in a dark time. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s caged bird epitomizes the soul’s cry for freedom, and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ windhover is ecstasy in flight. Wallace Stevens’ blackbird is a metaphysical prism viewed 13 ways, while Robert Frost’s exposed nest is the occasion for a parable of good intentions never completed. D.H. Lawrence’s turkey-cock is an emblem of the New World, both gorgeous and repulsive, and William Butler Yeats’ swan is the ruling god of the Old World—the classical myth poured into a 20th-century sonnet.