Walt Whitman and the Hermit Thrush
Our summer neighbors have not been able to get to the Cape this year, so the other day I walked over to check on their house. There, on the lower deck, I found the body of a small bird, perhaps six inches long. Somehow, even before I picked it up, I knew it was that of a hermit thrush, the possessor of one of the most ethereal, and most moving, of all sounds in nature.
Unlike the virtuoso flute-like warblings of its more vocal cousin, the wood thrush, the hermit thrush’s song does not grab you by the collar and say “Listen.” No, like everything else about this bird, its song is hidden. It is several orders of sound softer and more elusive than the wood thrush’s. You have to be listening for it, that soft, reedy series of rising, diminishing spirals of sound. It seems like an echo of a song rather than a song itself, disappearing even as one apprehends it.
For some twenty years I lived among Brewster’s oak woodlands and never heard a hermit thrush, which breeds exclusively in remote pine barrens. When I moved to Wellfleet, where pitch pine is still the dominant forest cover, it was the song of the hermit thrush as much as anything that told me I was in a new place.
I picked up the bird, and saw that its head was loose in all directions, like a bobble head of a bird, which made me think it had flown into the sliding glass door and broken its neck. It has a flat head, a thin, sharp tapering beak, black on top, reddish on the bottom. Its plumage is striking for one of such “hermit -like” traits. The upper breast is spotted with black, the lower breast pure snow white. Its most striking feature, though, is its improbably-thin, coral-colored claws. Yet its back is an unbroken cover of forest-brown, so that when it perches with its back towards you, it disappears into the surrounding forest.
Despite its reclusiveness, the hermit thrush is one of the most celebrated song birds in American literature. Perhaps nowhere has the bird been more famously enshrined than in Walt Whitman’s great elegy to the recently slain Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” In this poem the hermit thrush’s song becomes an expression of Whitman’s own grief:
In the swamp [he says] in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
I have long loved this poem, but have always thought it strange that Whitman, the self-described poet of Democracy, that garrulous, gregarious, grandiose singer of what he calls his “barbaric yawp,” the Whitman who boasts that he “contains multitudes” – that lover of large crowds and celebrator of himself – I’ve always thought it strange that he should choose such a shy, solitary, soft-singing creature to identify with.
And yet the poem is a profoundly personal expression of the deepest and most intimate of human emotions – loss, grief, and ultimately an acceptance of death.
Near the end of the poem, the identification of the poet with the thrush becomes complete, and human and natural songs converge:
Sing on [says Whitman], sing on you gray-brown bird,
Sing from the swamps, the recesses, pour your chant from the bushes,
Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.
Sing on dearest brother, warble your reedy song,
Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe.