For the Birds Radio Program: John Bartlett

Original Air Date: June 15, 1987 Rerun Dates: June 14, 1989

Bartlett’s Quotations include plenty of fodder about birds.

Duration: 3′34″


John Bartlett

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

Yesterday was the birthday of John Bartlett, the American editor and owner of the University Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was born in 1820 and is most well-known today for his “Familiar Quotations.” He published his first compilation in 1855, writing in the preface that “the object of this work is to show, to some extent, the obligations our language owes to various authors for numerous phrases and familiar quotations which have become household words.”

With over 22,000 entries, “Bartlett’s Quotations” may well have an infinite number of uses, but I gravitate to its indexed references to birds. There are 130 quotations indexed just under the entries “bird” and “birds”–a veritable treasure house for any radio birdwatcher. If I limit myself to those entries alone, I can find Benjamin Franklin bad- mouthing the Bald Eagle as a “bird of bad moral character.” Paul Laurence Dunbar is there too, saying, “It is not a carol of joy or glee,/ But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core…I know why the caged bird sings!” Naturally Shakespeare appears, with lines like “The eagle suffers little birds to sing,” and “When birds do sing, hey ding a ding ding;/ Sweet lovers love the spring.” Bartlett’s quoted authors seem to have mixed feelings about birds–you can find a “clumsy dirty gray bird” and a “gold-feathered bird,” a “wild barbaric bird” and a “divine bird of Zeus.” And of course Lewis Carroll’s Jubjub bird shows up, too.

But much of the fun of using Bartlett’s comes from searching for specific birds. There are no woodpeckers, nuthatches, vireos, or even chickadees, but bitterns, eagles, and hawks are all represented. Macbeth’s chide to “thou cream-faced loon” is there, John Webster’s “call for the robin redbreast and the wren,” and Thoreau’s bluebird, carrying the sky on his back. Of course that nasty old Anonymous gets space, too–one of the few references to ducks is in the nursery rhyme: “There was a little man, and he had a little gun,/ And his bullets were made of lead, lead, lead;/ He went to the brook, and saw a little duck,/ And shot it through the head, head, head.” That’s one nursery rhyme that fortunately doesn’t show up in many children’s books.

Tennyson’s many-wintered crow is there along with Poe’s raven, still quothing nevermore. But there’s not much to sustain a Blue Jay lover–the only reference to a jay at all is Joel Chandler Harris’s “Jaybird don’t rob his own nes’.” You have to go beyond Bartlett’s to find Mark Twain’s line “A jay hasn’t got any more principle than a congressman” and nowhere will you find the that corollary for the eighties, “A jay hasn’t got any more principle than a lieutenant colonel.”

(Recording of a Blue Jay)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”