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Read our essay: "Land-locked with Celia Thaxter"
Read rarely seen prose version of "Sandpiper"

Bird Poems by Celia Thaxter
A Gull, a Kingfisher, a Swalow
& a Butcher Bird

bird Celia Thaxter is best known for her cute children’s poem about a sandpiper – but don’t be fooled. Like Alfred Hitchcock Celia knew the dark side of birds as well. Her poem about a shrike or "butcher bird" is a children’s story bound to hatch nightmares.

Readers who have come to know Celia Thaxter as a poet, and a painter and the owner of an island hotel have much more to learn about this complex Seacoast figure. From her earliest days growing up in White Island lighthouse at the Isles of Shoals, Celia was a Naturalist too. She grew flowers and studied the weather and well knew the birds that found their way to her island garden on Appledore.

Bird

She was also attracted to the work of ornithologist John Audbon. Politicized by the early preservationists, Thaxter became outspoken in the early movement to protect endangered birds, especially from the collection of rare feathers for use in women's hats. It is in her memory that much of the Shoals has become a sanctuary for birds today. Appledore Island, long the home of the family's hotel, is now a summer research institute for marine biology managed by Cornell and the University of New Hampshire. Shoals Marine Lab students, like Thaxter, find the region to be the ultimate classroom for the study of science amid a landscape of poetry.

Following are four poems about birds from the canon of Thaxter’s published work. "The Sandpiper" was anthologized countless times and memorized by generations of school children. There poems show a wider range of style and tone and poetic skills, but all show her passion and keen eye for the life of birds.

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The Butcher Bird
By Celia Thaxter

I’ll tell you a story, children,
The saddest you ever heard,
About Rupert, the pet canary,
And a terrible butcher-bird.

There was such a blinding snow-storm
One could not see at all.
And all day long the children
Had watches the white flakes fall;

And when the eldest brothers
Had kissed mamma good-night,
And up the stairs together
Had gone with their bedroom light,

Of a sudden their two fresh voices
Rang out in a quick surprise,
Mamma! Papa! Come quickly
And catch him before he flies!"

On a picture-frame perched lightly,
With his head beneath his wing,
They had found a gray bird sitting;
That was a curious thing!

Down stairs to the cosy parlor
They brought him, glad to find
For the storm-tossed wanderer shelter;
Not knowing his cruel mind!

And full of joy were the children
To think he was safe and warm,
And had chosen their house for safety
To hide from the raging storm!

"he shall stay with the pretty Rupert,
And live among mother’s flowers,
And he’ll sing with our robin and sparrow;"
And they talked about it for hours.

Alas, in the early morning
There rose a wail and a cry,
And a fluttering wild in the cages,
And Rupert’s voice rang high.

We rushed to the rescue swiftly;
Too late! On the shining cage,
The home of happy Rupert,
All rough with fury and rage,

Stood the handsome, horrible stranger,
With black and flashing eye,
And torn almost to pieces
Did poor dead Rupert lie!

Oh, sad was all the household,
And we mourned for Rupert long.
The fierce wild shrike was prisoned
In a cage both dark and strong;

And would you like, O children,
His final fate to know?
To Agassiz’s museum (*)
That pirate bird did go!

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(*) FOOTNOTE: Readers can still see the massive stuffed bird collection at the "Agassiz Museum", better known as the Museum of Comparative Zoology was founded in 1859, through the efforts of Louis Agassiz (1807-1873). Agassiz, a zoologist from Neuchatel, Switzerland, served as the Director of the Museum from 1859 until his death in 1873. A brilliant lecturer and scholar, he established the Museum and its collections as a center for research and education. It is located at 26 Oxford Street in Cambridge, MA.

The Swallow
By Celia Thaxter

The swallow twitters about the eaves;
Blithely she sings, and sweet and clear;
Around her climb the woodbine leaves
In a golden atmosphere.

The summer wind sways leaf and spray,
That catch and cling to the cool gray wall;
The bright sea stretches miles away,
And the noon sun shines o’er all.

In the chamber’s shadow, quietly,
I stand and worship the sky and the leaves,
The golden air and the brilliant sea,
The swallow at the eaves.

Like a living jewel she sits and sings;
Fain would I read her riddle aright,
Fain would I know whence her rapture springs,
So strong in a thing so slight!

The fine clear fire of joy that steals
Through all my spirit at what I see
In the glimpse my window’s space reveals,--
That seems no mystery!

But scarce for her joy can she utter her song;
Yet she knows not the beauty of skies or seas.
Is it bliss of living, so sweet and strong?
Is it love, which is more than these?

O happy creature! What stirs thee so?
A spark of the gladness of God thou art.
Why should we seek to fins and to know
The secret of thy heart?

Before the gates of his mystery
Trembling we knock with an eager hand;
Silent behind them waiteth He;
Not yet may we understand.

But thrilling throughout the universe
Throbs the pulse of his mighty will,
Till we gain the knowledge of joy or curse
In the choice of good or ill.

He looks from the eyes of the little child,
And searches souls with their gaze so clear;
To the heart some agony makes wild
He whispers, "I am here."

He smiles in the face of every flower;
In the swallow’s twitter of sweet content
He speaks, and we follow through every hour
The way his deep thought went.

Here should be courage and hope and faith;
Naught has escaped the trace of his hand;
And a voice in the heart of his silence saith,
One day we shall understand.

The Burgomaster Gull
By Celia Thaxter

The ol-wives sit on the heaving brine,
White-breasted in the sun,
Preening and smoothing their feathers fine,
And scolding, every one.

The snowy kittiwakes overhead,
With beautiful beaks of gold,
And wings of delicate gray outspread,
Float, listening while they scold.

And a foolish guillemot, swimming by,
Though heavy and clumsy and dull,
Joins in with a will when he hears their cry
‘Gainst the Burgomaster Gull.

For every sea-bird, far and near,
With an atom of brains in its skull,
Knows plenty of reasons for hate and fear
Of the Burgomaster Gull.

The black ducks gather, with plumes so rich,
And the coots in twinkling lines;
And the swift and slender water-witch,
Whose neck like silver shines;

Big eider-ducks, with their caps pale green
And their salmon-colored vests;
And gay mergansers sailing between,
With their long and glittering crests.

But the loon aloof on the outer edge
Of the noisy meeting keeps,
And laughs to watch them behind the ledge
Where the lazy breaker sweeps.

They scream and wheel, and dive and fret,
And flutter in the foam;
And fish and mussels blue they get
To feed their young at home:

Till hurrying in, the little auk
Brings tidings that benumbs,
And stops at once their clamorous talk,--
"The Burgomaster comes!"

And up he sails, a splendid sight!
With "wings like banners" wide,
And eager eyes both big and bright,
That peer on every side.

A lovely kittiwake flying past
With a slippery pollock fine,--
Quoth the Burgomaster, "Not so fast,
My beauty! This is mine!"

His strong wing strikes with a dizzying shock;
Poor kittiwake, shrieking, flees;
His booty he takes to the nearest rock,
To eat it at his ease.

The scared birds scatter to left and right,
But the bold buccaneer, in his glee,
Cares little enough for their woe and their fright—
"’T will be your turn next!" cries he.

He sees not, hidden behind the rock,
In the sea-week, a small boat’s hull,
Nor dreams he the gunners have spared the flock
For the Burgomaster Gull.

So proudly his dusky wings are spread,
And he launches out on the breeze,--
When lo! What thunder of owrath and dread!
What deadly pangs are these!

The red blood drips and the feathers fly,
Down drop the pinions wide;
The robber-chief, with a bitter cry,
Falls headlong in the tide!

They bear him off with laugh and shout;
The wary birds return,--
From the clove-brown feathers that float about
The glorious new they learn.

Then such a tumult fills the place
As never was sung or said,
And all cry, wild with joy, "The base,
Bad Burgomaster’s dead!"

And the old-wives sit with their caps so white,
And their pretty beaks so red,
And swing on the billows, and scream with delight,
For the Burgomaster’s dead!

The Kingfisher
By Celia Thaxter

Could you have heard the kingfisher scream and
  scold at me
When I went this morning early down to the smiling
   sea!
He clamored so loud and harshly, I laughed at him for
   his pains,
And off he flew with a shattered note, like the sound of falling
  chains
He perched on the rock above me, and kept up such a
   din,
He looked so fine with his collar snot-white beneath
   his chin,
And his cap of velvet, black and bright, and his jacket
   of lovely blue,
I looked, admired, and called to him, "Good morning!
  How do you do?"
But his kingship was so offended! He hadn’t a
  pleasant word,
Only the crossest jargon ever screamed by a bird.
The gray sandpiper on one leg stood still in sheer
   surprise,
And gazed at me, and gazed at him, with shining
   bead-black eyes,

And pensively sent up so sweet and delicate a note,

Ringing so high and clear from out her dainty,
   mottled throat,
That echo round the silent shore caught up the clear
   refrain,
And sent the charming music back again, and yet
   again.

Then the brown song-sparrow on the wall made haste
   with such a song,
To try and drown that jarring din! But it was all too
   strong.
And the swallows, like a steel-blue flash, swept past
   and cried aloud,
"Be civil, my dear kingfisher, you’re far too grand and
   proud."

But it wasn’t of any use at all, he was too much
   displeased,
For only by my absence could his anger be appease.
So I wandered off, and as I went I saw him flutter
  down,
And take his place once more upon the seaweed wet
   and brown.

And there he watched for his breakfast, all
   undisturbed at last,
And many a little fish he caught as it was swimming
   past.
And I forgot his harsh abuse, for, up in the tall
   elm-tree,
A purple finch sat high and sang a heavenly song
for me.

VISIT OUR CELIA SECTION
VISIT POEMS & BALLADS SECTION

BIRD POEMS FROM: "Poet on Demand: The Life, Letters and Works of Celia Thaxter," by Jane E. Vallier, Peter E. Randall Publisher. 

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Copyright © 2003 SeacoastNH.com

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