For the Birds Radio Program: Emily Dickinson

Original Air Date: Dec. 16, 1996

Today Laura Erickson celebrates the bird poetry of Emily Dickinson. (3:54) Date verified.

Audio missing


December 16 is Jane Austen’s birthday. I don’t recall Austen talking much about birds, though in Pride and Prejudice, she does have Mrs. Bennett magnanimously invite Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley to come shoot the birds on the Bennett estate after they shoot all the ones at Mr. Bingley’s. Jane Austen obviously wasn’t much of a birder, but Emily Dickinson was. Dickinson’s 166th birthday was December 10, and I missed it. Today I’ll make up for lost time.

I have a complete and authoritative volume of Dickinson’s poetry—all 1,775 of her poems. Dickinson writes about the great themes of literature—life, death, God, love, eternity, and friendship—so of course she has three poems about Blue Jays. My favorite, settling the question of whether Blue Jays go to heaven, is number 1561.

No Brigadier throughout the Year
So civic as the Jay—
A Neighbor and a Warrior too
With shrill felicity
Pursuing Winds that censure us
A February Day,
The Brother of the Universe
Was never blown away—
The Snow and he are intimate—
I’ve often seen them play
When Heaven looked upon us all
With such severity
I felt apology were due
To an insulted sky
Whose pompous frown was Nutriment
To their Temerity—
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—

Dickinson defines plenty of birds in her poetry. She writes of the woodpecker in Number 1034:

His Bill an Auger is
His Head a Cap and Frill
He laboreth at every Tree
A Worm, his utmost Goal.

She writes of the Lark:

The Lark is not ashamed
To build upon the ground
Her modest house-­
Yet who of all the throng
Dancing around the sun
Does so rejoice?

Dickinson loved Bobolinks, and wrote three poems specifically about them. For her, when Bobolinks left in autumn, “How nullified the Meadow—Her sorcerer withdrawn!” But my favorite mention of a Bobolink is in her Number 324:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it, staying at Home—
With a Bobolink for a Chorister—
And an Orchard, for a Dome—
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice—
I just wear my Wings—
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church
Our little Sexton — sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman—
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last—
I’m going, all along.

Dickinson wrote many poems specifically about orioles, hummingbirds, doves, bluebirds, and other species of the New England meadows and pastures, and birds figure in many other poems with larger themes. Reading her poetry, we get a glimpse of the natural world of long ago. Not many people read Dickinson anymore, but it would be a kinder, gentler world if we did.