Friday, January 10, 2020

The Titmouse

    My first impression when I read this poem was that Emerson had his birds mixed up since the bird he is describing is so obviously the Black-Capped Chickadee! But on doing a little research I learned that the names Titmouse and Chickadee were used interchangeably in the 19th century. Anyway, I have always thought this brave little bird deserved to have its praises sung in verse and was delighted to find that it had been done! 😊
    Most of the bird pictures are not mine. I spent almost 3 weeks trying to get pictures to illustrate this but only succeeded in getting a few and those weren't very good! My camera just doesn't have the power to take good bird pictures. So I ended up using the few I had and getting the rest from a free photo download site. 

You shall not be overbold
When you deal with arctic cold,
As late I found my lukewarm blood
Chilled wading in the snow-choked wood.

How should I fight? my foeman fine
Has million arms to one of mine:
East, west, for aid I looked in vain,
East, west, north, south, are his domain.
Miles off, three dangerous miles, is home;
Must borrow his winds who there would come.
Up and away for life! be fleet!--

The frost-king ties my fumbling feet,
Sings in my ears, my hands are stones,
Curdles the blood to the marble bones,
Tugs at the heart-strings, numbs the sense,
And hems in life with narrowing fence.

Well, in this broad bed lie and sleep,
The punctual stars will vigil keep,
Embalmed by purifying cold,
The winds shall sing their dead-march old,
The snow is no ignoble shroud,
The moon thy mourner, and the cloud.

Softly,--but this way fate was pointing,
'T was coming fast to such anointing,
When piped a tiny voice hard by,
Gay and polite a cheerful cry,
Chic-chicadeedee! saucy note
Out of sound heart and merry throat,
As if it said, 'Good day, good sir!
Fine afternoon, old passenger!
Happy to meet you in these places,
Where January brings few faces.'

This poet, though he live apart,
Moved by his hospitable heart,
Sped, when I passed his sylvan fort,
To do the honours of his court,
As fits a feathered lord of land;
Flew near, with soft wing grazed my hand,
Hopped on the bough, then, darting low,
Prints his small impress on the snow,
Shows feats of his gymnastic play,
Head downward, clinging to the spray.

Here was this atom in full breath,
Hurling defiance at vast death;
This scrap of valour just for play
Fronts the north-wind in waistcoat gray,
As if to shame my weak behaviour;
I greeted loud my little saviour,
'You pet! what dost here? and what for?
In these woods, thy small Labrador,
At this pinch, wee San Salvador!

What fire burns in that little chest
So frolic, stout, and self-possest?
Henceforth I wear no stripe but thine;
Ashes and jet all hues outshine.
Why are not diamonds black and gray,
To ape thy dare-devil array?

And I affirm, the spacious North
Exists to draw thy virtue forth.
I think no virtue goes with size;
The reason of all cowardice
Is, that men are overgrown,
And, to be valiant, must come down
To the titmouse dimension.'

'T is good-will makes intelligence,
And I began to catch the sense
Of my bird's song: 'Live out of doors,
In the great woods, on prairie floors.
I dine in the sun; when he sinks in the sea,
I too have a hole in a hollow tree;
And I like less when Summer beats
With stifling beams on these retreats,

Than noontide twilights which snow makes
With tempest of the blinding flakes.
For well the soul, if stout within,
Can arm impregnably the skin;
And polar frost my frame defied,
Made of the air that blows outside.'

With glad remembrance of my debt,
I homeward turn; farewell, my pet!
When here again thy pilgrim comes,
He shall bring store of seeds and crumbs.
Doubt not, so long as earth has bread,
Thou first and foremost shalt be fed;
The Providence that is most large
Takes hearts like thine in special charge,
Helps who for their own need are strong,
And the sky dotes on cheerful song.

Henceforth I prize thy wiry chant
O'er all that mass and minster vaunt;
For men mis-hear thy call in spring,
As 't would accost some frivolous wing;
Crying out of the hazel copse, Phe-be!
And, in winter, Chic-a-dee-dee!
I think old Caesar must have heard
In northern Gaul my dauntless bird,
And, echoed in some frosty wold,
Borrowed thy battle-numbers bold.

And I will write our annals new,
And thank thee for a better clew,
I, who dreamed not when I came here
To find the antidote of fear,
Now hear thee say in Roman key,
Paean! Veni, vidi, vici.
                                              ~Ralph Waldo Emerson


  1. Well done, Joanna! A perfect poem and photos for this time of year. I love how the chickadees call to us as we walk in the woods. <3

    1. Thanks Eliza! :) I've always loved chickadees. They are such happy little birds and quite tame too. I've had them eat out of my hand a couple of times.

  2. Lovely pictures, we have tits here in the UK with the long tailed tit resembling some of the ones above.

    1. Thanks Noelle. :) I looked up your tits and they do look very similar!

  3. I loved this poem - and the photos as well. We have Chickadees in the back garden and they are one of my favorite birds. No Tufted Titmice, sadly.

    1. Glad you enjoyed them! I haven't seen Tufted Titmice since we lived in MO. They were one of the most frequent visitors to my feeders there!

  4. We have Black Capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice here in Florida. They look very different here. The Titmouse looks all gray with a tuft on the head, sort of like a Cardinal. The Chickadee looks like the one you posted. I love them all but the Chickadee has to be a fav. Loved the poem and your pics. Well done! Veleria

    1. Yes Titmice and Chickadees are two entirely different birds, although they do belong to the same family. But in 19th century bird books, the Black-capped Chickadee is also called Titmouse. Not sure what the real Titmice were called!