Read our essay: "Land-locked with Celia Thaxter"
Read rarely seen prose version of "Sandpiper"
Bird Poems by
A Gull, a Kingfisher, a Swalow
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
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.
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.
By Celia Thaxter
I’ll tell you a story, children,
The saddest you ever
About Rupert, the pet canary,
And a terrible
There was such a blinding snow-storm
One could not see at
And all day long the children
Had watches the white flakes
And when the eldest brothers
Had kissed mamma good-night,
the stairs together
Had gone with their bedroom light,
Of a sudden their two fresh voices
Rang out in a quick
Mamma! Papa! Come quickly
And catch him before he
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
the storm-tossed wanderer shelter;
Not knowing his cruel mind!
And full of joy were the children
To think he was safe and
And had chosen their house for safety
To hide from the raging
"he shall stay with the pretty Rupert,
And live among mother’s
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,
fluttering wild in the cages,
And Rupert’s voice rang high.
We rushed to the rescue swiftly;
Too late! On the shining
The home of happy Rupert,
All rough with fury and rage,
Stood the handsome, horrible stranger,
With black and flashing
And torn almost to pieces
Did poor dead Rupert lie!
Oh, sad was all the household,
And we mourned for Rupert
The fierce wild shrike was prisoned
In a cage both dark and
And would you like, O children,
His final fate to know?
Agassiz’s museum (*)
That pirate bird did go!
(*) 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,
The swallow twitters about the eaves;
Blithely she sings, and sweet
Around her climb the woodbine leaves
In a golden
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 golden air and the brilliant sea,
The swallow at the
Like a living jewel she sits and sings;
Fain would I read her riddle
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
In the glimpse my window’s space reveals,--
That seems no
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
Is it love, which is more than these?
O happy creature! What stirs thee so?
A spark of the gladness of God
Why should we seek to fins and to know
The secret of thy
Before the gates of his mystery
Trembling we knock with
an eager hand;
Silent behind them waiteth He;
Not yet may we
But thrilling throughout the universe
Throbs the pulse of his mighty
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
"I am here."
He smiles in the face of every flower;
In the swallow’s twitter of
He speaks, and we follow through every hour
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
One day we shall understand.
The Burgomaster Gull
By Celia Thaxter
The ol-wives sit on the heaving brine,
White-breasted in the
Preening and smoothing their feathers fine,
And scolding, every
The snowy kittiwakes overhead,
With beautiful beaks of gold,
wings of delicate gray outspread,
Float, listening while they
And a foolish guillemot, swimming by,
Though heavy and clumsy and
Joins in with a will when he hears their cry
For every sea-bird, far and near,
With an atom of brains in its
Knows plenty of reasons for hate and fear
Of the Burgomaster
The black ducks gather, with plumes so rich,
And the coots in
And the swift and slender water-witch,
like silver shines;
Big eider-ducks, with their caps pale green
And their salmon-colored
And gay mergansers sailing between,
With their long and
But the loon aloof on the outer edge
Of the noisy meeting
And laughs to watch them behind the ledge
Where the lazy
They scream and wheel, and dive and fret,
And flutter in the
And fish and mussels blue they get
To feed their young at
Till hurrying in, the little auk
Brings tidings that benumbs,
stops at once their clamorous talk,--
"The Burgomaster comes!"
And up he sails, a splendid sight!
With "wings like banners"
And eager eyes both big and bright,
That peer on every
A lovely kittiwake flying past
With a slippery pollock
Quoth the Burgomaster, "Not so fast,
My beauty! This is
His strong wing strikes with a dizzying shock;
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—
will be your turn next!" cries he.
He sees not, hidden behind the rock,
In the sea-week, a small boat’s
Nor dreams he the gunners have spared the flock
So proudly his dusky wings are spread,
And he launches out on the
When lo! What thunder of owrath and dread!
pangs are these!
The red blood drips and the feathers fly,
Down drop the pinions
The robber-chief, with a bitter cry,
Falls headlong in the
They bear him off with laugh and shout;
The wary birds
From the clove-brown feathers that float about
glorious new they learn.
Then such a tumult fills the place
As never was sung or said,
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,
the Burgomaster’s dead!
By Celia Thaxter
Could you have heard the kingfisher scream and
scold at me
When I went this morning early down to the
He clamored so loud and harshly, I laughed
at him for
And off he flew with a shattered
note, like the sound of falling
He perched on the rock
above me, and kept up such a
He looked so fine
with his collar snot-white beneath
cap of velvet, black and bright, and his jacket
I looked, admired, and called to him, "Good morning!
How do you do?"
But his kingship was so offended! He hadn’t a
Only the crossest jargon ever screamed by a
The gray sandpiper on one leg stood still in sheer
And gazed at me, and gazed at him, with
And pensively sent up so sweet and delicate a note,
Ringing so high and clear from out her
That echo round the silent
shore caught up the clear
And sent the
charming music back again, and yet
Then the brown song-sparrow on the wall made
with such a song,
To try and drown that jarring
din! But it was all too
And the swallows, like
a steel-blue flash, swept past
and cried aloud,
civil, my dear kingfisher, you’re far too grand and
But it wasn’t of any use at all, he was too
For only by my absence could his anger
So I wandered off, and as I went I saw him flutter
And take his place once more upon the seaweed
And there he watched for his breakfast,
undisturbed at last,
And many a little fish he
caught as it was swimming
And I forgot his harsh
abuse, for, up in the tall
A purple finch sat
high and sang a heavenly song
VISIT OUR CELIA
& 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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