Birds of Passage Analysis by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This poem analysis of H. W. Longfellow’s ‘Birds of Passage’ is divided into three parts – context, rhyme scheme, and Longfellow’s view of poetry.

Context: This part of the poem analysis focuses on the context in which ‘Birds of Passage’ was published. An investigation of this nature will also explain why the subtitle of this poem is ‘Flight the First’. ‘Birds of Passage’ was published in the collection of Longfellow’s poems entitled The Seaside and the Fireside, and its subject matter afforded the poet a convenient subtitle under which to group successively poems contributed to various periodicals, especially Putnam’s Monthly and The Atlantic Monthly, which also have the theme of flight as their subject matter. Thus, ‘Birds of Passage’ was made the introductory poem of The Seaside and the Fireside, and subtitled ‘Flight the First’, while all subsequent poems were numbered in the series as ‘Flight the Second’, ‘Flight the Third’ and so on.

Rhyme Scheme: Longfellow is known for the simple rhyme schemes of which he makes use in most of his poems. Like a true inheritor of the Romantic tradition, he does not believe in using lofty and complex rhyme schemes, but is better able to express his love of nature through relatively unadorned verse patterns. In ‘Birds of Passage’, his rhyme scheme is consistent for every two stanzas, and the pattern he follows in this respect is as follows – AAAB CCCB. This same pattern continues for each of the five pairs of stanzas that make up the entirety of the forty lines of the poem.

Longfellow’s View of Poetry: This part of the poem explanation focuses on how Longfellow implicitly tells readers that poetry has a therapeutic value through the poem ‘Birds of Passage’. First of all, he says that poetry is an expression of the very experiences that a poet has been through. Therefore, a poet is able to give shape to all the joy, the sorrow, the pain, or the injustice that he has gone through in his life through his poetry. The impression we get here is that by being able to put all those experiences on paper, the poet is able to affect a catharsis of those emotions in his being. Once they have been set down for others to read, the poet no longer holds on to those experiences anymore. Like the birds that fly in the sky, his emotions are also let loose.

Secondly, poets also look at poetry as a mode of escape. Like the common adage that says that the grass is always greener on the other side, poets also try to reach greener pastures through their imaginative enterprise. In the realm of poetry itself, they can find a place of refuge so that when life brings them down, they can simply resort to poetic composition to deal with whatever life brings – whether it be joy, or sorrow.

Thirdly, the work of poets is beneficial not only to them, but also to the larger community of readers, shows Longfellow. Just as the songs of the birds lend some pleasantness to the otherwise dark and daunting atmosphere of the forest, so poetry lends some comfort to man as he goes about the hectic schedule of his day-to-day life. As a result of industrialisation, man had become so busy that his life seemed to go on without any breaks or any opportunity to relax. However, reading poetry is an activity that he recommends for the modern man, saying that it will act as a way to calm down one’s mind when one has been running around all through the day. At the end of the day, one must escape into a book of poems in order to maintain one’s sanity, and to retain some enjoyment of life as one knows it.

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