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Birds of Passage Summary by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This poem summary focuses on the poem ‘Birds of Passage’ by H. W. Longfellow. Longfellow was a lover of nature, and his poetry is best known for their descriptions of nature. In nature, Longfellow finds an analogue of human experiences, and this is exactly what ‘Birds of passage’ is all about.

The poem itself is made up of ten stanzas. Each of these stanzas is again made up of four lines. In the first stanza, Longfellow describes the setting of the poem. He describes how a large number of linden trees have created a huge wall along the southern sky, and the shadows of these lindens have made the entire surroundings dark.

In the second stanza, Longfellow describes how there are other trees in the wilderness that the action of the poem takes place in. There are also elm trees there, in addition to the linden trees. However, unlike lindens, it is not the length of the elms that distinguishes them, but their breadth, for they cover a wide area with their branches. Over this wide area, they too cast shadows like the lindens. It seems as if a rushing tide of darkness has enveloped the whole place, which is separated from the wilderness by the fields that surround it.

Despite the darkness, that particular night is a beautiful night, says Longfellow in the third stanza. On this night, a warm vapour penetrates the atmosphere. One is able to hear pleasant sounds as well, but one is sure that those sounds are coming from a substantial distance.

In the fourth stanza, Longfellow comes to the most astonishing thing that is visible on that particular night. He says that the stars are lighting up the sky, and as a result of this, one can see flights of birds as they fly through the “dewy atmosphere”. The use of these words – “dewy atmosphere” – shows that the poet is referring to the passage of birds as they fly to the tropical and humid climates from the more temperate and cooler ones for the duration of the winter months.

We get further evidence of the fact that Longfellow is describing the migration of birds in the fifth stanza. In this stanza, he describes how he is able to hear the wings of the birds beating fast in their attempt to flee from the “land of snow and sleet” to areas that are more towards the south, and are thus warmer.

In the sixth stanza, Longfellow says that the birds are flying at a very high elevation. As a result of this, by the time the sound of their voices reaches the earth, it is much diminished in force and strength. Only a fraction of the original sound can be heard, and that is perhaps why Longfellow tells us in the third stanza that any listener would be able to hear certain sounds, but would also be aware that such sounds are coming from far away. In fact, the birds are flying so far above him that Longfellow cannot even distinguish their shapes in the sky with his naked eye.

It is in the seventh stanza that Longfellow first suggests that the sounds are not really made by birds. Those sounds convey both joy and sorrow, he says, but it is not the joys and sorrows of birds that they are concerned with.

In the eighth stanza, Longfellow reveals that those sounds are created by the wings, not of birds, but of words. These are the words that are written by numerous poets as they use the medium of poetry to express their delight, their pain, or the wrongs that they have been subjected to.

In the ninth stanza, Longfellow further elaborates his point saying that the sounds that he had heard are actually the cries of many souls as they try to escape (as if they could fly away from their troubles) to a place that they believe is better than their current homelands.

In the tenth stanza, Longfellow says that the words of the poets give us light in the world of darkness that we inhabit, and introduce rhythm into our monotonous lives.

Sreejata

Sreejata Paul is pursuing M.Phil in English. Her interests include gender studies and popular culture.

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