Mocking-Birds. To the Editor of The New Statesman
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[ 209 Mocking-Birds1 To the Editor of The New Statesman The New Statesman, 36 (22 Nov 1930) 203-4 Sir, – I have just read Mr. Brian Howard’s interesting remarks about my­ self in your last issue but one. I was glad also to read Mr. Brooks’s historical corrections, which are entirely justified, except that instead of Mr. Huxley, a later arrival, he might have added one or two more eminent names.2 It is not however on this subject, whereon I am hardly qualified, that I wish to take up your space. I write as an amateur ornithologist, to protest against Mr. Howard’s use of the mockingbird as an illustration. Mr. Howard, no doubt deluded by the name of this unfortunate bird (who is also doubly maligned by his scientific style of mimus polyglottos) seems to think that the mockingbird does nothing but mock.3 I dare say I have listened to more mockingbirds than he has; and my own observation is supported by the great authority of Dr. Frank Chapman, who writes “in my experience many mockingbirds have no notes besides their own, and good mockers are exceptional.” I have less knowledge of nightingales, except for their literary associations which are useful; but I am ready to affirm that a fine mockingbird in his own pure-song is at least the nightingale’s equal. Dr. Chapman also says that the mockingbird “is a good citizen, and courting rather than shunning public life, shows an evident interest in the affairs of the day.”4 I will add only a few words by another authority, Dr. R.W. Shufeldt, which I do not however quote as a specimen of prose style: “I believe were he successfully introduced into those countries where the Nightingale flourishes, that princely performer might some day wince as he was obliged to listen to his own most powerful strains poured forth with all their native purity by this king of feathered mockers.”5 I am, Sir, Your obliged servant, T. S. Eliot Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1930 210 ] Notes 1. The carbon copy is dated 15 Nov 1930 (L5 389); title supplied by NS. 2. TSE writes in response to Brian Howard’s review of Ash-Wednesday in the NS of 8 Nov, in which Howard suggests that the influence of Eliot’s poetry after World War I affected Georgian nature poetry: “The nightingale had become a mockingbird” (146); and to a letter by the poet Benjamin Gilbert Brooks (ca. 1895-1966) in the NS of 15 Nov disputing “the actual historical importance” of Eliot’s poetry and grouping him with Yeats, Pound, Ford, Aldington, Huxley, and Graves as members of a “new epoch” (174). The aesthete Brian Howard (1905-58), author of a volume of poetry titled God Save the King (1930), was a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh at Oxford and a model for Anthony Blanche in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945). On 28 Aug 1930, Howard had written to TSE inquiring about several contemporary poets (L5 303-04). 3. TSE refers to the North American mockingbird whose scientific name Mimus polyglottos, or “many-tongued mimic,” refers to its ability to mimic the calls of other birds, animals, and even mechanical sounds. 4. Handbook of Birds of Eastern Northern America (New York: D. Appleton, 1902), 378, 377. TSE also quotes from his childhood copy of this book (a birthday present from his mother, now held at King’s) by the Canadian naturalist Frank M. Chapman (1864-1945) in a note to line 357 of TWL (CPP 79). On 2 Jan 1930, after receiving a poem titled “Chaffinches” from Julian Bell, TSE replied: “I like your birds very much. They are real birds, to begin with; and I have spent a great deal of time myself in bird study – though in another country” (L5 7). 5. TSE quotes the entry on the mockingbird in Alfred Newton’s A Dictionary of Birds (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1896), 585. American ethnographer and osteologist Robert W. Shufeldt (1850-1934), honorary curator of the Smithsonian Museum, published over a thousand notes on natural history, many on bird anatomy. In a letter of 11 May 1935, TSE reminded Ralph Hodgson: “you know my convictions a good mockingbird can beat the nightingale all holler if you discount the fact of the latter having the advantage of the stage all to himself and people feeling sentimental at that time of night.” ...