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November 17 , 2009

They Tell of Birds

Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Drayton


Thomas P. Harrison here combines a lifelong interest in birds with a professional study of literature. This book, a study of birds as they are presented by four great English poets, inquires into the extent and sources of their knowledge of birds and analyzes the methods by which they adapted that knowledge for poetic purposes. The interrelationships of their poetry are also discussed, providing a new basis for comparison of four poets whose work is closely linked on other grounds remote from natural history. The first chapter reviews representative figures and works of the centuries preceding the Renaissance and illustrates the medieval poetic conventions about birds that influenced the four poets. The remaining chapters treat each poet and his works in detail, comparing their use of this area of the natural world. The book concludes with an index of bird allusions in the works of the four poets, with occasional quotations illustrating the manner in which the traditional or observed habits of particular birds were put to poetic use. The book is illustrated with medieval and Renaissance illustrations of birds. In this careful treatment of an important element of the poets’ works, Harrison has indicated the larger picture of their attitudes toward and use of the natural world about them. Accordingly, it might be said to constitute a chapter on the relationship of poetry and science at a crucial period in the history of thought. For much of his material, Harrison journeyed to England, where, among other research activities, he visited museums of natural history and bird sanctuaries throughout the country. Primarily intended for students of literature, They Tell of Birds will also be of interest to ornithologists in its presentation of the beliefs of antiquity and the Middle Ages about particular birds. For, as the distinguished ornithologist E. M. Nicholson has said: “We owe to poets a wealth of records of living wild birds long before scientific ornithology had started.”
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