‘The Birds of America’ by Billy Collins is an eight stanza poem that is separated out into sets of four lines, also known as quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a specific pattern of rhyme or rhythm, meaning that the poem is written in free verse. But, there are examples of rhyme within the lines themselves. Some are perfect or complete rhymes, while others are slant, or half, rhymes. In the first and second stanza, there is an example of the latter with the endings of the first lines, “morning” and “ceiling”. These words are related in their use of the “-ing” ending, but they are not perfect rhymes.
Usually, half-rhyme are seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. There is a good example of assonance in the last line of the second stanza with “pliant” and “expired”. Both of these words contain the long “i” sound.
The title of this poem comes from the title of John James Audubon’s seminal work, Birds of America. Today, Birds of America it is considered a masterpiece of the natural world, printed between 1827 and 1838.
The poem begins with the speaker explaining that early “this morning” he was in bed. While relaxing there, he saw a moving image of the naturalist John J. Audubon on his ceiling. The man was kneeling down next to a duck he shot and speaking to it.
Through Audubon’s words, the speaker explains why the duck was shot and what Audubon hoped would come of the death. By giving a larger percentage of the population a chance to study animals in detail, specifically birds, the speaker believes Audubon wanted to bridge the gap between the species. Perhaps, a viewer would come to love and understand the bird as they never have.
You can read the full poem here.
Internal rhyme is also present in the poem. This is a kind of rhyme that is not present to the end of the lines. Instead, it can appear anywhere. For example, “eye” and “fly” in the eighth stanza.
Another technique used in ‘The Birds of America’ is alliteration. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “chestnut crown” in the third stanza and “hear,” “him” and “hybrid” in the fourth.
Analysis of The Birds of America
Stanzas One and Two
In the first two stanzas the speaker introduces the naturalist John J. Audubon who, as the introduction states, composed the guidebook masterpiece, Birds of America. He describes how “Early this morning” he was in bed, with the covers all “rumpled,” listening to the song of birds outside his windows. This is an incredibly peaceful and simple moment that he expands in order to discuss Audubon’s importance.
The speaker imagines that the “figure” of the naturalist was on his ceiling. He was posed “before/ the pliant,” or relaxed and malleable, “body of an expired duck”. The creature was dead in this vision, and Audubon was studying it. This would’ve been a very common scene in the naturalist’s life. Later on, in stanza five, the speaker reveals, by taking on the persona of Audubon, that the duck was shot for the purpose of the study. He did not find it “expired”.
Stanza Three and Four
The next two stanzas provide the reader with a great deal of detail about the animal. They also make it clear that the speaker himself was able to obverse the scene very closely. It was vibrant on the ceiling and in his mind, so much so he could see the “slender, limp neck” and “rich chestnut crown”. It is because of this vision the speaker is able to take the time to look at this creature and see its strangeness and beauty.
In the fourth stanza of ‘The Birds of America’ the speaker describes how this vision was so real he was able to hear Audubon whispering to the bird. It was more of a video of the past than a picture.
Stanzas Five and Six
The final four stanzas of ‘The Birds of America’ come from the perspective of Audubon, who like the previous speaker described, was studying the bird. He was speaking out loud to the animal, telling it that he took its life for a good reason. It is needed so that “some night a man / might open a book / and run his hand over [its] feathers”. Because the bird has died, Audubon is able to draw it accurately and beautifully. Then, someone, somewhere (such as the first speaker of the poem) will be able to appreciate it in a way they never would’ve.
He tells the duck it had to die so the man could come “close enough” to see all the “pale brown flecks” and the “green of [its] neck”. These are the simple reasons and might seem frivolous to some. But, the vision of Audubon expands his reasoning in the next lines, making an argument for the good this closeness might bring about.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
The final two stanzas conclude the poem simply and beautifully. The speaker’s vision of Audubon tells the duck that because the viewer was able to take in all the details of the drawing then “he might approach / without frightening [the duck] into the sky”. They very well might better understand what it means to live as a non-human animal. Audubon hopes the new closeness will force the man to contend with his previous distance and want to forever collapse his gap between ‘human’ and ‘animal’.
The last lines of ‘The Birds of America’ suggest the man might become so enamored by thoughts of another life, and how the world appears through other’s eyes, that he might want to take to the sky.