Essay

Flights of Fancy

Two decades before Audubon, Alexander Wilson created a poetic catalog of American birds.

I don’t recall how I stumbled across the Scottish American poet Alexander Wilson, but it certainly wasn’t in the course of academic literary studies, in which he is unknown. It may have been through my friendship with Philip Lamantia, who, in addition to being the preeminent US surrealist poet, was an enthusiastic birder, as his 1991 poem “Passionate Ornithology Is Another Kind of Yoga” attests. Wilson is still known as the “Father of American Ornithology.” His nine-volume American Ornithology: or, the Natural History of the Birds of the United States (1808–1814) is the foundational account of North American birds. As Edward H. Burtt Jr. and William E. Davis Jr. write in Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology (2013)—the only recent book on him—Wilson remains relevant to the field. In addition to his comprehensiveness and his early adoption of the Linnaean system of taxonomy, the poet “introduced a truly scientific approach to ornithology—dissection to explore dietary and morphological detail—and used behavioral, ecological, and quantitative observations.” Moreover, though John James Audubon and the National Audubon Society have long eclipsed Wilson in popular awareness, there remains a Wilson Ornithological Society, founded in 1888 and active on Twitter.

Given the dearth of interesting American poets before Poe, I’m surprised by how utterly Wilson has disappeared from the American literary canon. I don’t contend that he’s a great poet. His verse, ranging from the early, Robert Burns-influenced Scottish poems to the more plainspoken English poems of his American period, is of intermittent interest at best. His most ambitious poem, The Foresters (1809), is a 2,218-line chronicle, in Pope-like couplets, of a 1,300-mile hike from Philadelphia to Niagara Falls. It’s perhaps more valuable as an early US travelogue than as poetry, though it establishes Wilson as a prototypical American road poet, a precursor to Vachel Lindsay and Jack Kerouac. But if we take the wider view of poetry as potentially inherent in the writing of a poet regardless of genre, then Wilson’s highest poetic achievement is American Ornithology itself. 

American Ornithology is a work of science, “the first major scientific work published in the United States,” according to Burtt and Davis. Yet its science is compatible with the poetic quality of Wilson’s writing. Compounding the difficulty of neatly separating his ornithology from his poetry is his occasional tendency to bust a rhyme amid prose, recapitulating in verse previously imparted facts about the bluebird or the fish hawk. Wilson the ornithologist seldom ceases to be Wilson the poet, even as he takes pains to dispel mythical bird lore in favor of rigorous observation. “The pages of natural history,” he writes, “should resemble a faithful mirror, in which mankind may recognize the true images of the living originals; instead of which, we find this department of them too often like the hazy and rough medium of wretched window-glass, thro’ whose crooked protuberances everything appears so strangely distorted that one scarcely knows their most intimate neighbours and acquaintances.” The poetry of Wilson’s prose doesn’t derive from fantastic accounts of the natural world but simply from his way of putting things. From a literary perspective, his writing is best classified not as naturalist or romantic but as a latter-day example of sentimentalism.


***


Wilson was born on July 6, 1766, in Seedhills, a suburb of Paisley, Scotland. His formal education ended when his mother died and his father remarried; Wilson was ten. He worked as a cowherd until 1779, then spent the next three years as a weaver apprenticed to his brother-in-law, William Duncan. Following this, Wilson spent about a decade working off and on for Duncan and others, both as a weaver and as a peddler hiking through the Scottish countryside, shouldering a massive pack filled with woven goods. 

Wilson began writing poetry around 1780, but the signal event of his early literary life occurred in 1786 with the wildly successful publication of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, by Robert Burns, which unleashed scores of imitators. Wilson too began writing dialect poems and raised subscriptions (an early version of crowdfunding) during his peddling rounds to publish his first book, Poems, in 1790. It wasn’t successful, though the following year, an Edinburgh bookseller published a revised edition under the title Poems: Humorous, Satirical, and Serious, which appeared after Wilson’s lauded performance at a poetry competition. Sales were modest, but the volume was received well enough to secure Wilson gigs contributing to the Edinburgh magazine the Bee, even if he was still bound to the loom and the pack for survival.

I find Wilson’s Scottish poems difficult to enjoy, although they’re occasionally amusing as depictions of his adventures as a packman. My favorite, “The Insulted Pedlar,” is an apparently true account of Wilson’s taking a shit outside and being caught by the property owner. In a ludicrous foreshadowing of the ecological arguments of American Ornithology—in which Wilson encourages farmers not to shoot species whose destruction of pests outweighs the amount of produce they consume—the still-squatting peddler insists that the landowner should be grateful given the fertilizing benefits of dung:

And sir, I’m seeking naething frae ye;
My ofi’ering here I freely lea you,
Sic presents ilka ane wont gie you,
                          Tak’ ye my word,
Ye’re richer since I first did see you,
                          That reeking turd.

The landowner takes a dim view of this logic and attacks the peddler, who manages to escape. This is funny, if undistinguished, poetry but no worse than Wilson’s bestselling Scottish poem “Watty and Meg.” Inspired by the ballad form of Burns’s “Tam o’ Shanter” and mistakenly attributed to Burns at the time, Wilson’s anonymously issued pamphlet is the story of a husband taming a shrewish wife. Although devoid of dramatic tension (or much else), the poem was unaccountably popular when it appeared in 1791. It sold 100,000 copies and satisfied the poet’s debt to the printer of the 1790 Poems.

Anonymous pamphleteering cleared up Wilson’s debts but led him into crisis and precipitated his flight to the United States. Paisley was then the technological capital of Scottish weaving, where the factory-like mills of the early Industrial Revolution were displacing longstanding guild practices, and workers took democratic inspiration from the American and French Revolutions. Wilson, a laborer with an unfulfilled romantic attachment above his station, was sympathetic to these anti-aristocratic developments. He attended radical political meetings and lent his pen to the cause. As Burtt and Davis note, Wilson wrote “arguably the first protest literature of the Industrial Revolution” and immediately got into trouble for it. Mill owner William Henry sued Wilson for libel over his pamphlet poem “The Hollander” (1790), though the lawsuit was never prosecuted. Wilson wasn’t so lucky with “The Shark, or Lang Mills Detected” (1792), his attack on William Sharp, which accused the mill owner of cheating weavers by altering the measuring devices used to tally their daily yield of cloth. An inept attempt to extort £5 from Sharp in exchange for not publishing the poem landed Wilson in and out of jail over the next couple of years, culminating in the public humiliation of having to burn “The Shark” and other offensive poems in front of the court building on February 6, 1793. In May of the following year, the disgraced 28-year-old poet embarked for the United States, along with William Duncan’s 16-year-old namesake son. 

Wilson’s first decade in the United States was unremarkable. After stints as a weaver and peddler, he became a schoolmaster in Milestown, Pennsylvania (later incorporated into Philadelphia). He also purchased farmland in New York, where Duncan and other family members lived. Wilson learned German to communicate with his students’ parents and taught himself arithmetic to improve his teaching and to make extra money as a surveyor. For most of this period, Wilson laid low until he was swept up in Thomas Jefferson’s 1800 presidential campaign. Wilson made speeches to support the candidate and published an oration and a poem upon Jefferson’s victory. Just as Wilson was achieving something like contentment, however, he abruptly fled Milestown in 1801, some say to avoid a scandal over his romantic connection to a married woman. After a summer in New York City and an autumn teaching in Bloomfield, New Jersey, Wilson accepted a teaching job in Gray’s Ferry—a village south of Philadelphia, since incorporated into the city—where his ornithological destiny began.

The year 1803 was a watershed in Wilson’s life—he began to mix with Philadelphia’s intellectual elite, including painter and museum owner Charles Willson Peale, engraver Alexander Lawson, and botanist and ornithologist William Bartram. The latter maintained the first US botanical garden—founded by his father, John Bartram—and instructed Wilson in the rudiments of ornithology and drawing from nature. Bartram’s Garden, in the Kingsessing neighborhood, was a frequent refuge for Wilson, and it was there that he resolved to describe and illustrate “all the finest birds of America.” The importance of this milieu to Wilson can’t be overstated—he had stumbled into a hotbed of Linnaean taxonomy. Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus had corresponded with John Bartram, and Peale labeled the exhibits in his museum according to the then-controversial Linnaean system of binomial Latin nomenclature. Wilson’s use of this system is one reason American Ornithology still holds up as science.

In 1804, Wilson became a naturalized citizen of the United States. He also began to outline his plan for a projected ten-volume American Ornithology. Though Lawson ended up engraving most of the plates, he initially thought the idea was crazy. He objected to the cost of printing and coloring so many engravings, no matter that Wilson was a 38-year-old poet with no previous scientific experience. At the beginning of the 19th century, Western intellectual life was still in its heroic phase, and a lack of specialization and professionalism was not yet a barrier to devoted amateurs. In the fall of that year, Wilson set out on his first ornithological expedition, the aforementioned walk to Niagara Falls that produced the initial draft of The Foresters, which he polished over the next five years. It ran as a serial in the early Philadelphia magazine the Port Folio.

Despite its length, The Foresters is far more enjoyable than Wilson’s Scottish poems are. Wilson makes the quintessentially American argument that the country’s lack of cultural achievement is offset by its natural resources, which merit celebration in verse: “Nature’s charms that bloom so lovely here, / Unhailed arrive, unheeded disappear; / While bare bleak heaths, and brooks of half a mile / Can rouse the thousand bards of Britain’s Isle.” The Foresters is short on plot and dramatic incident, though this gives the poem what today might be called a rambling Ashberyan quality. In the middle of his wilderness poem, Wilson inveighs against the difficulties of being a schoolmaster and reviews establishments such as “Pat Dougherty’s Hotel and Drygood Store,” where livestock wandered freely indoors, and products such as Dupont’s Eagle, a fine brand of gunpowder. Such oddball details partly atone for the poem’s otherwise pedestrian nature. The most revealing insight into Wilson’s character is the evident delight he takes in shooting American birds, whether to collect study specimens or to provide food for his journey.

Wilson took his first real steps toward producing American Ornithology in 1806, when he quit teaching and took a job at the publishers Bradford and Inskeep, editing an American edition of the British reference book Rees’s Cyclopedia (1806–1820). He convinced his employer, Samuel Bradford, to take on American Ornithology, provided Wilson could raise sufficient subscriptions. (Whenever a new volume was published, it was delivered to subscribers, who had until the end of the year to pay the requisite $12.) This set the pattern for the next several years of Wilson’s life as he alternated between working on Rees’s and traveling the United States to gather regional bird specimens and drum up subscribers. Traveling on foot, by horse, and by boat at a time when travel was difficult and dangerous, Wilson hit 15 of the then 17 states and all four extant territories—covering roughly 12,000 miles over six years, according to Burtt and Davis.

Wilson’s travels are an astonishing achievement, and his adventures on the road make for gripping reading. But rather than retell tales documented elsewhere, I want to indicate the value of American Ornithology as a type of poetry. Its science is corroborated by present-day ornithology, and Wilson devotes much space to detailed descriptions of birds, their plumage and nests, and the contents of their stomachs. His inquiries adhere to scientific method; for example, he repeatedly dissects members of the same species to dispel myths about what particular birds ate. In investigating the widespread belief that only the female rice bunting migrated, he made probably his most significant biological discovery: the male’s testes vary in size depending on the season. But this scientific empiricism doesn’t stifle the poetic verve of Wilson’s writing. Among the more celebrated passages in his prose is the following excerpt from his account of the bald eagle:

Elevated on the high dead limb of some gigantic tree that commands a wide view of the neighbouring shore and ocean, he seems calmly to contemplate the motions of the various feathered tribes that pursue their busy avocations below, — the snow-white Gulls slowly winnowing the air; the busy Tringӕ coursing along the sands; trains of Ducks streaming over the surface; silent and watchful Cranes, intent and wading; clamorous Crows; and all the winged multitudes that subsist by the bounty of this vast liquid magazine of nature. High over all these hovers one, whose action instantly arrests his whole attention. By his wide curvature of wing, and sudden suspension in air, he knows him to be the Fish Hawk, settling over some devoted victim of the deep. His eye kindles at the sight, and, balancing himself, with half-opened wings, on the branch, he watches the result. Down, rapid as an arrow from heaven, descends the distant object of his attention, the roar of its wings reaching the ear as it disappears in the deep, making the surges foam around. At this moment, the eager looks of the Eagle are all ardour; and, levelling his neck for flight, he sees the Fish Hawk once more emerge, struggling with his prey, and mounting in the air with screams of exultation. These are the signal for our hero, who, launching into the air, instantly gives chase, and soon gains on the Fish Hawk; each exerts his utmost to mount above the other, displaying in these rencontres the most elegant and sublime aerial evolutions. The unencumbered Eagle rapidly advances, and is just on the point of reaching his opponent, when, with a sudden scream, probably of despair and honest execration, the latter drops his fish: the Eagle, poising himself for a moment, as if to take a more certain aim, descends like a whirlwind, snatches it in his grasp ere it reaches the water, and bears his ill-gotten booty silently away to the woods.

This passage is a poem in itself and is more powerful than anything Wilson achieved in verse. Freed from the constraints of rhyme and meter, he sustains a level of inventive phrasemaking far above his formal poems: the gulls as “winnowing the air,” the ocean as a “vast liquid magazine,” even the stolen fish as “ill-gotten booty.” One can hardly ask for a more striking poetic metaphor than “his eye kindles at the sight.” The prose of American Ornithology is studded with such gems, and ironically, when Wilson does break into verse, his language is nowhere near as engaging.

Wilson’s lyricism is heightened by a frank anthropomorphism. Throughout American Ornithology, he insists on birds’ intellectual capacities. About variations in nest building among orchard orioles, for example, he writes, “If the actions of birds proceeded, as some would have us believe, from the mere impulses of that thing called instinct, individuals of the same species would uniformly build their nest in the same manner, wherever they might happen to fix it; but it is evident from these just mentioned, and a thousand such circumstances, that they reason à priori, from cause to consequence; providently managing with a constant eye to future necessity and convenience.” Such a purchase on avian intelligence informs the bald eagle passage above, with references to the various birds “pursu[ing] their busy avocations” and characterizations of the fish hawk’s “screams of exaltation” when it captures its prey and its “despair and honest execration” when the prey is stolen.

Lest it appear that Wilson’s poetry depends on dramatic action, consider this excerpt, from his account of the blue jay:

This elegant bird, which, as far as I can learn, is peculiar to North America, is distinguished as a kind of beau among the feathered tenants of our woods, by the brilliancy of his dress; and, like most other coxcombs, makes himself still more conspicuous by his loquacity, and the oddness of his tones and gestures. . . . When disposed for ridicule, there is scarce a bird whose peculiarities of song he cannot tune his notes to. When engaged in the blandishments of love they resemble the soft chatterings of a Duck, and while he nestles among the thick branches of the cedar, are scarce heard at a few paces’ distance; but no sooner discovers your approach than he sets up a sudden and vehement outcry, flying off, and screaming with all his might, as if he called the whole feathered tribes of the neighbourhood to witness some outrageous usage he had received.

What could have been a mundane recitation of the blue jay’s appearance and song is instead a decorous account that wouldn’t seem misplaced in a work of sentimental literature (blandishments of love, vehement outcry, outrageous usage, etc.). To be sure, Wilson reserves such treatment for those birds he lived among and had opportunity to observe at length; those encountered only in passing merit less expansive entries. Wilson prized direct observation, whether his own or occasionally that of a trusted correspondent, such as Bartram, lepidopterist John Abbot, or his collaborator and protégé George Ord. The latter completed the ninth and final volume of American Ornithology after Wilson’s untimely death from dysentery in 1813, at age 47.


***


The tragedy of Wilson’s life is that he discovered the true outlet for his literary genius only ten years before his death, too late for him to complete the project or enjoy the fruits of his labors. Originally printed in a subscribed edition of 400, with nine or ten hand-colored plates in each, American Ornithology was profitable, although at $12 a volume it was beyond the reach of most readers. Yet it was rightly regarded as a monumental publishing achievement of the early United States and afforded its author international fame, including favorable mention in Blackwood’s Magazine and the entry on Wilson in the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was also admitted to several scholarly organizations, including the American Philosophical Society. French naturalist Charles Lucien Bonaparte updated and expanded American Ornithology after Wilson’s death, and the book appeared in innumerable editions with and without plates. Even Wilson’s poetry fared well, with the Reverend Alexander B. Grosart noting in his 1876 book, Memoir and Remaind of Alexander Wilson, the American Ornithologist “that with the exception of Allan Ramsay, Fergusson, and Burns, none of our Scottish vernacular poets has been so continuously kept ‘in print’ as Alexander Wilson.” Grosart also notes Wilson had already been the subject of seven full biographies “and indeed twice as many more, lesser notices.”

Yet, as the 20th century ensued, Wilson was almost entirely eclipsed in popular awareness by John James Audubon and his Birds of America (1827–1838). To be sure, Audubon’s project was directly inspired by Wilson’s; in 1810, the two ornithologists met in Louisville, Kentucky, during one of Wilson’s tours to collect specimens and subscriptions. Audubon was unquestionably the superior visual artist, and the production values of the Edinburgh- and London-printed Birds of America were more lavish than anything Philadelphia could have achieved two decades earlier. But Audubon also worked to obscure Wilson’s reputation, even as he reportedly plagiarized his predecessor’s work, a charge for which Burtt and Davis marshall abundant substantiating evidence. The 1905 founding of the National Audubon Society, with its admirable preservationist agenda and popular field guides, made Audubon nearly synonymous with American birds, at Wilson’s expense.

Wilson has been the subject of only one comprehensive modern biography, Robert Cantwell’s excellent Alexander Wilson: Naturalist and Pioneer (1961), on which I have relied throughout, and even it is more than 50 years old. Although Wilson has retained his reputation among ornithologists, he is seldom read these days, given the accretive nature of scientific knowledge. There hasn’t been an edition of American Ornithology in more than a century. This is a shame, for, as the Encyclopedia Britannica once noted, “Passages occur in [Wilson’s] prefaces and descriptions which, for elegance of language, graceful ease, and graphic power, can scarcely be surpassed.” Wilson brings a poet’s touch to his scientific prose, and there’s no reason not to restore him to the canon of early American poetry. Quite apart from its scientific value, American Ornithology remains a work of poetic art.

Originally Published: July 2nd, 2018

Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), Retrievals (2014), and Power Ballads (2016). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Caples was also a contributing writer to theSan Francisco Bay Guardian and has coedited the Collected Poems of Philip...