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18 September 2011

For every Bird a Nest—

For every Bird a Nest—
Wherefore in timid quest
Some little Wren goes seeking round—

Wherefore when boughs are free—
Households in every tree—
Pilgrim be found?

Perhaps a home too high—
Ah Aristocracy!
The little Wren desires—

Perhaps of twig so fine—
Of twine e'en superfine,
Her pride aspires—

The Lark is not ashamed
To build upon the ground
Her modest house—

Yet who of all the throng
Dancing around the sun
Does so rejoice?
                                                                     F 86 (1859   143

Dickinson presents us with a parable here: The Wren and the Lark. She gently teases the little wren for seeking an exquisite nest high up in the tree, “too high”, when  lower  “boughs are free” and other birds have contentedly, one presumes, established their “households” there. The wren’s “pride aspires” to the finest twigs and twine—in fact to be an Aristocrat of birds! The wren, of course, is the symbol of the small and humble—and Dickinson even identified herself  in a letter to her mentor Thomas Higginson  as “small as the wren”. This may be her self-deprecating humour: I may just be a wren looking for finery high up in a tree, writing and sending you poetry.
            But I think her true identity is the Lark. Of all the birds, the lark is reknowned for flying very high and nesting quite casually on the ground. Even though not as nightengale-ish as the European skylark, the American Eastern Skylark has a beautiful song and it is among the first to be heard in the  morning, calling out over the fields and gardens. And so Dickinson, I think, would  choose to view herself—flying high with her poetry, her verses singing, “dancing around the sun” she so often included as a symbol of intellectual and spiritual illumination or as a symbol of divine or royal authority.
            There is a fondness for both birds, though: the lark for all its passion, love, and carelessness about worldly wealth; and the little wren for aspiring and desiring a fine nest high in a tall tree. It is a “Pilgrim”—and that is a good thing. Maybe Dickinson sees herself as the wren yet envies the lark.
            At any rate it is a charming poem. 


  1. I think you pose interesting interpretations of a clever poem. As to whether she is seeing herself in either bird would offer a picture of someone who takes herself seriously, and that takes some thought, as I never see her like a Whitman, who does take himself seriously.
    As to birds, however, she characterizes the Wren incorrectly. Wrens do not look for bows, but look for cavities. Cavities with small holes for safety. So, they are not trying to be aristocrats, but keeping their eggs safe from bigger egg eating creature's. In fact, the male looks for them, and builds many nests in the cavities for the female to look over, and she picks the one she likes. Wrens have been known to build nests in broken tail lights of old, abandoned cars.

  2. Commenter #1 is correct, no self-respecting House Wren would be caught dead nesting high in a tree. For the record, Susan K correctly describes the song of the only lark native to North America, the Horned Lark, as beautiful, if not quite as melodious as the song of the Eurasian Skylark. American birders have tried repeatedly to introduce the Eurasian Skylark to New England and Vancouver, BC, but those populations have vanished or are close to extirpation because of habitat loss.

    Converting the final stanza of ‘For every Bird a Nest’ to prose clarifies that ED speaks of the Lark, not the Wren: “The Lark is not ashamed to build upon the ground her modest house, yet who of all the throng dancing around the sun does so rejoice?” Metaphorically, ED is telling us she finds plenty of spiritual inspiration in her garden and woods here on Earth, without needing a nest high in a tree, aristocratically closer to Heaven.