Ornithological Passions of American Poet Celia Thaxter


  • Ellen Taylor University of Maine at Augusta




birds, ecology, poetry, Audubon, Thaxter


       American poet Celia Leighton Thaxter (1835 – 1894) was shaped by both environmental beauty and destruction she witnessed in her New England community. As a woman who spent much of her life on a small wind-swept island, she was educated by seasons and migrations that later informed her work. A brief education among Boston’s literary elite launched her creative career, where she focused on her local ecology. At that time, over-hunting and newly fashionable plumed hats and accessories had created a serious possibility of avian decimation. By creating awareness of humans’ culpability for birds’ endangerment, Thaxter’s work evoked public sympathy and contributed to social and political change.

      This essay applies ecofeminist and cultural analyses to Thaxter’s work written as part of the 19th century bird defense movement, by examining the emotional rhetoric employed and activism implied in her poems and prose about birds, specifically: “The Kittiwakes,” “The Wounded Curlew,” and “The Great Blue Heron: A Warning.”  Little attention has been paid to Thaxter’s didactic poems which use birds as subjects to instruct children and adults about the fragility of birdlife and to warn of humans’ destructive behaviors. These works illustrate Thaxter’s ecological sensibility and her use of emotion and reason to communicate an ecological message. Her poetry and prose about birdlife fortified the budding Audubon Society and contributed to the birth of the environmental movement. We can learn from such poetic activism, from attention to nature turned commodity, and the dangers of depleting finite resources. In our global environmental crisis, we recognize the interwoven relationships between birds and humans. Perhaps poems can help stymie our current ecological trajectory.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biography

Ellen Taylor, University of Maine at Augusta

Ellen M. Taylor is a Professor of English at the University of Maine in Augusta, Maine. Her research interests include nineteenth and twentieth century women poets, ecofeminism, and memoir. She has published work on Kate Barnes, Elizabeth Coatsworth, and Celia Thaxter, in all cases looking at formative gendered experiences and subsequent cultural readings of their work.  Taylor is also a poet, author of Floating and Compass Rose, and has published in journals such as the New England Review, North American Review, Passages North, TriVia and others.  She has been a Fulbright scholar / teacher at the University of Ljubljana, in Slovenia.