- The Need of Being Versed: Frost, Stevens, and Birds
ALTHOUGH ROBERT FROST sometimes promoted himself as one who delivered the “straight goods” (CPPP 915), using plain, if tonally variegated, language to express the plain sense of things, it was Wallace Stevens who wrote a poem called “The Plain Sense of Things” and who could plainly entitle poems “An Ordinary Evening” or “Sunday Morning.” Frost and Stevens were not close as friends or aesthetically affiliated; nonetheless, it is not unreasonable to think that these two adoptive New Englanders (Frost from California, Stevens from Pennsylvania) might have had at least one eye on each other. Maybe it was even more than that, considering how Frost and Stevens, separated in age by only five years, sometimes riff on each other’s poems, especially when the subject is birds.
Birds may seem an unlikely entrée into the concerns of these two poets, but I will argue that both poets exhibit the difficulty of writing about birds in the aftermath of romanticism, which often used birds as symbols and translated them into human terms. Both Frost and Stevens, who came of age in a time of great ornithological interest, engage the postromantic challenges of writing about birds explicitly and repeatedly. Are birds to be naturalistic creatures of the environment or emblems of verse? We find evidence of both tendencies in these poets, but the trajectory is toward empirical observation. The legacy of their breakthrough is the practice of contemporary poets, which has in turn helped to inspire a new ecocriticism.1
Although serious people at the end of the nineteenth century could still speak of birds as our little feathered friends, various national ornithological movements were advocating new protections for the avian world. According to Robert Henry Welker’s Birds and Men, the development of ornithological societies and scientifically based bird studies occurred throughout the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century, a period when both poets were coming of age. It should also be noted that a book about [End Page 10] the birds of New Hampshire by Frank Bolles, called Chocorua’s Tenants, was published in 1895 (Welker 154). Bolles was the Secretary of Harvard University, where Stevens, who would ultimately write his own poem about Chocorua and its neighbors, was a student.
While there is no direct evidence that Frost or Stevens had specific knowledge of these historical developments, there is circumstantial evidence. Cambridge, and Massachusetts in general, was a hotbed of avian protectionism, and both poets were associated with this region. While Stevens was home from Harvard and walking the fields of Reading, Pennsylvania, he could identify the birds by name (Mariani 19), and years later, when he took his young daughter Holly on walks, he “taught her to whistle ‘melodies and bird calls’” (166).
All of the bird societies were created in direct response to the rapacious desire in the fashion industry for “plumes and other millinery ornaments” (Welker 194). An Audubon warden was shot by a plume hunter in one famous case in the Florida Keys (210; see McIver passim), a location important to Stevens in his later work. And Frost’s poem “The Wood-Pile” relates how a bird the narrator followed into the woods “thought that I was after him for a feather—/ The white one in his tail” (CPPP 101). Whatever the bird thought, it is clear that Frost knew about millinery practices. I hope to show that under the pressure of a new cultural interest in ornithology, these two poets’ representations of birds, even when veering toward the mythopoetic, take on a new environmental or at least empiricist aesthetic.
Let us begin with two poems, specifically ornithological and specifically American, to illustrate each poet’s orientation toward birds. Frost’s “The Oven Bird,” probably written while he was still living in England, is—like so many of the poems in Mountain Interval (1916)—about a North American bird, a warbler in this case. That is, if this is “a singer everyone has heard,” then everyone is necessarily an American. The song he sings “in all but words” is usually understood to be a call that sounds like “Preacher” or “Teacher,” and what...