For the Birds Radio Program: Robert Frost

Original Air Date: March 26, 1997

Laura Erickson marks Robert Frost’s birthday with a few of his bird poems. (4:24) Date verified.

Audio missing


Today is Robert Frost’s birthday. He was born on March 26, 1874 in San Francisco, where he lived until he was 11 and his father died—then the family moved to New England, where he spent most of the rest of his life. Many of his poems reflect a strong New England sensibility, and since the birds of New England are pretty much the same as those in the north woods of Wisconsin and Minnesota, the birds he writes about are familiar to many of us northlanders.

Robert Frost wrote lovingly and often about nature, but he viewed nature as being mysterious, its secrets somehow unknowable, and not always benign. He wrote about the noise of Whip-poor-wills in “A Nature Note”:

Four or five whippoorwills
Have come down from their native ledge
To the open country edge
To give us a piece of their bills.

Two in June were a pair—
You’d say sufficiently loud,
But this was a family crowd,
A full-fledged family affair.

All out of time pell-mell!
I wasn’t in on the joke,
Unless it was coming to folk
To bid us a mock farewell.

I took note of when it occurred,
The twenty-third of September,
Their latest that I remember,
September the twenty-third.

“Questioning Faces” tells of the beauty of children encountering nature at their window:

The winter owl banked just in time to pass
And save herself from breaking window glass.
And her wings straining suddenly aspread
Caught color from the last of evening red
In a display of underdown and quill
To glassed-in children at the windowsill.

Frost wrote about the Garden of Eden and Adam hearing Eve’s voice in the songs of birds in “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same.”

He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as it may, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds’ song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.

When Frost heard a bird singing in the middle of the night, he thought about the evolutionary advantages in “On a Bird Singing in Its Sleep.”

A bird half wakened in the lunar noon
Sang halfway through its little inborn tune.
Partly because it sang but once all night
And that from no especial bush’s height,
Partly because it sang ventriloquist
And had the inspiration to desist
Almost before the prick of hostile ears,
It ventured less in peril than appears.
It could not have come down to us so far,
Through the interstices of things ajar
On the long bead chain of repeated birth,
To be a bird while men are on earth,
If singing out of sleep and dream that way
Had made it much more easily a prey.

Not all bird song pleased Frost, though he accepted even unmelodious song as a pure expression of the heart. As he wrote in “A Minor Bird”

I have wished a bird would fly away,
And not sing by my house all day;

Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could bear no more.

The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.

And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.