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By definition, freedom is the absence of subjection to foreign domination. Some of the most liberated beings in the world are found in nature. In nature, plants and animals are not suppressed by the constraints of man. These human boundaries include time, money and physical restraints. Birds, are commonly viewed as the most liberated animals to have ever existed. The popular phrase, “free as a bird” has been coined as a result of the large amount of freedom possessed by birds. Not everyone can understand the full magnitude of what birds truly symbolize. However, birds have provided inspiration to several intellectuals over the years. In fact, the romantic period was a time when birds were a major staple of freedom and liberty. The followers of the romantic era were devout believers in becoming one with nature and discovering enlightenment within oneself. Some of the greatest influences and minds of the romantic era were poets and writers. These romantic writers included William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. For all of these romantic poets, birds represented different aspects of life and their poetry reflected their different views. During the romantic era, poets used birds as a symbol of freedom and they expressed the meaning of this symbol in their own unique way. Based on the poetry readings and personal background information about the romantic poets previously listed, one can view the meanings and purposes of birds during the romantic era.
On April 7 of 1770, the second child of John Wordsworth and Ann Cookson was born. This child’s name was William Wordsworth and he would grow up to be one of the greatest poets of all time. Wordsworth grew up in Cockermouth, Cumberland, which is part of a northwestern area in England known as the Lake District. Wordsworth grew up with several individuals that provided him with encouragement for his literary prowess. In fact, Wordsworth’s mother “had been his first teacher, giving him instruction in reading, while his father made him learn by heart passages from Shakespeare, Milton and Spenser” (Legouis 18). However, Wordsworth was still plagued with negativity in his life time, such as losing his brother and being separated from his lover as well as his daughter during the “French Revolution”. Wordsworth overcame his trials by finding solace in nature, much like a bird finds refuge in the wilderness. Writer Margaret Wanless stated that “Nature was to Wordsworth a great, wonderful passion, beautiful in itself alone”, meaning that Wordsworth drew most of his inspiration from the natural elements (Wanless 4). While being inspired by nature, Wordsworth was also fond of birds and other forms of natural wildlife. In one of his more popular poems “To the Cuckoo” Wordsworth describes his journey into a valley by exclaiming “O blithe New-comer! I have heard, I hear thee and rejoice. O Cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird, Or but a wandering Voice?” (Cuckoo-Wordsworth 1). He goes on to say “The same whom in my school-boy days I listened to; that Cry Which made me look a thousand ways In bush, and tree, and sky” (Cuckoo-Wordsworth 20). This line explains that the nostalgic sound of the cuckoo reminded Wordsworth of his childhood and the large sense of wonder that birds and other animals gave him. Wordsworth has written other poem such as “Lines Written in Early Spring”, which has been “Often dismissed as a dogmatic display of ingenuous nature-worship, this poem nevertheless reveals an unsuspected thematic complexity in its portrayal of the relationship between nature and human society” (McKusick 34). According to his writings, Wordsworth is emotionally attached to nature and the freedom that nature contains.
Wordsworth had a close friend that was also a literary genius in his own unique way. His friends name was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge himself was not exempt from worldly issues and matters beyond his control. Coleridge was born on the 21st of October in 1772, in Ottery St Mary, a town in Devon, England. The struggles that Coleridge faced included his father’s death, his childhood illnesses and his strong addiction to opium. While spending time with nature, Coleridge gained an almost spiritual knowledge and his writing reflected his intellect. One of his most popular pieces of writing was titled “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner”, which was “a connection beyond the force of his human responsibilities, whether conventional or personal, either of which can seem arbitrary” (Fischer 183). This poem focuses on a man who has killed an albatross while at sea. An albatross is a large bird that spends most of its time at sea. The main character of the poem, “The Mariner” recalls an old memory and shares it with a wedding guest while they were attending a wedding ceremony. “The Mariner” tells the wedding guest about his sea journey and states “At length did cross an Albatross, Thorough the fog it came; As if it had been a Christian soul, We hailed it in God’s name”, as if the large bird was a sign from God himself (Coleridge Part 1). Later on in the poem “The Mariner” states that “With my cross-bow I shot the ALBATROSS” (Coleridge Part 1). In a sense, “The Mariner” was shooting at a divine spirit of some sort. It is speculated that “He thus may have killed the bird not to radicalize his distance from it, as suggested earlier, but “to silence the bird’s claim upon him” (Fischer 183). According to Coleridge, the albatross represented more than a large bird. The Albatross also stood as a “Christ figure” in the sense of dying because of wrongful actions.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was an interesting figure during the “Romantic Era”, because he did not reach any major fame until after his death. Shelly’s life was surrounded by complications during his adolescent years. Shelly would also find himself confined within an unhealthy marriage after eloping himself with Harriet Westbrook. After Shelley’s passing, several of his poems became popular. One of his most memorable pieces of writing was called “To a Skylark” and in it Shelley “brings the attention of bird and teaches us to enjoy natural attitude of it” (Sofi 82). In this poem, Shelley asks for wisdom from the Skylark by saying “Teach me half the gladness That thy brain must know, such harmonious madness from my lips would flow the world should listen then, as I am listening now” (Shelley 105). Shelly believes that the skylark can bestow enlightenment upon him and teach him about becoming one with nature. Over time “Shelley accepts that natural (fountains, fields, waves, mountains etc.) things are the source of happiness. He feels human beings are beyond the happiness of this bird. If they give up hate, pride, fear and sorrow they will reach the steeps of joy like Skylark” (Sofi 83).
John Keats was one of the main figure heads for the second wave of the “Romantic Era”. Keats’ work was published only a few years before his death. However, Keats died at the young age of twenty-five. Keats was “well-loved by all poets, especia1ly by those of his own era, and has been termed “the bard of beauty” (Wanless 20). One of the most popular poems that Keats wrote is named “Ode to a Nightingale”. In it, he mentions his incredible drowsiness when he states “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains. My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains” (Keats 1). Keats later goes on and speaks of happiness by saying “Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, But being too happy in thine happiness,— That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees In some melodious plot” (Keats 5). Keats exclaims that he is extremely overjoyed for the happiness of the nightingale and he would also like to understand why the nightingale is so happy. The peculiar thing about Keats “was alert to the least little sight or sound in; nature, so much so that with the help of his wonderful imagery, his reader’s senses are awakened just as his were and we have before us a glorious world that some of us have never seen or heard or smelt before” (Wanless 20). Keats understood that birds also possessed these senses of enlightenment.
The poets of the “Romantic Era” deeply understood the symbolic importance of birds and what they represented in nature. The “Romantics” and their love for birds can even be seen at a scientific level “with the use of “pleasure” in poems by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. This link between the poetic and the scientific in Romantic natural history also reveals aspects of our current cultural sense of the interrelatedness of human and nonhuman nature” (Bartram 1). Susan Wolfson once said that “in theory and practice, Romanticism addressed, debated, tested, and contested fundamental questions about what is at stake in poetic forming of language” (Wolfson 1). That statement goes on to say that “The Romantic Poets” can completely grasp the concept of freedom and so much more. During the “Romantic Era”, poets use birds as inspiration and for a symbol for freedom and nature. Each poet understood that birds represent liberty, but each poet searched for liberty in their own unique fashion. It can be an albatross, a nightingale, cuckoo or even a skylark. Each of these birds has the ability to spread their wings and soar towards freedom.
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