Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Poem of the Week
"Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same"

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"Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same"

Robert Frost

Why do people sing?

Our Word of the Week, song, suggests not just what the birds like, for whatever aviary purposes they have, but what people love, and for a lot more than what we’d call a purpose at all.

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know why Mr. Cardinal, during mating season, perches on a limb and sings out, “What cheer-cheer-cheer birdie birdie birdie.” Maybe it means, “Here I am, and all you other boys better stay clear!” Maybe it means, “Here I am, Miss, and I can sure get food for you!” Do birds ever sing out from a full feeling of life, as a puppy, much excited, will race around in circles like a happy fool, for no other reason than that it is a good thing to do? But if you ask, “Why does the girl sing?”, you are asking a question that really verges upon quite a mystery. “Singing is what the lover does,” said Saint Augustine. She doesn’t just say; she sings. Imagine some staid over-rational fellow named Irving, trying to court a young woman. Imagine that, as he adjusts his thick spectacles, he says that he never sings, because reason governs all he does, and she can be assured that in any situation, he will always do what is rational, reckoning it by probabilities and advantages and so forth. What young woman would not burst out laughing before he got through a minute of it! And rightly, too!

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It’s easy to suppose that people learn to sing by imitating the birds. Easy, and probably not right. I think we’d have sung had we never heard a bird in the world. I do love birdsong — I can identify an oriole in April from a single clear-throated whistle, and there’s nothing quite like hearing two mockingbirds competing in the hours before dawn, endlessly singing, and a whole hour can go by before they repeat a single melody, not to mention their imitating a truck’s alarm or a barking dog and whatever else they hear. But what if we are the prime singers, and we have influence upon the birds?

That’s what Robert Frost muses about, in our Poem of the Week, the lovely sonnet that takes its title from its penultimate line, “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same.” Imagine that you are Adam, perhaps still in the garden of Eden before the Fall, perhaps in some other garden afterwards — it isn’t meant to be entirely clear, though the light-hearted mood of the poem suggests innocence and freshness. But it is no simplistic freshness. It’s as if, remembering when God said, “Have dominion over the beasts of the field and the birds of the air,” Frost said to himself, “What lovelier dominion can there be than for man to enter the very song of the birds?” Hasn’t something like that happened to the dog, the horse, and maybe even the cat? Isn’t the dog raised up by man to be a little more than dog — a real companion for man, his best friend, making man’s ways his own, as far as he can?

“.Songbird on Blossom Branch,” Ohara Koson. Public Domain.

There’s more, too. It’s not Eve who utters the poem, but the man, Frost, in the person of Adam, appreciating the woman’s beauty. She sings by her tone of voice and her laughter, and she moves him to sing, too, and a Shakespearean sonnet, of all things. She sings because she is Eve, and he also sings because she is Eve — he sings the poem in her praise. Never again would man’s 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 had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, 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.

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymns, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast for paid subscribers, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. Paid subscribers also receive audio-enhanced posts and on-demand access to our full archive, and may add their comments to our posts and discussions. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Poem of the Week
Stop by on Wednesdays to listen to Tony read the poem of the week. Sometimes you have to hear it to believe it!