Friday, March 14, 2014

The Birds of Killingworth

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882)
From Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems & Other Writings

Wayside Inn (1870), Thomas Hill, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the Skinner Auctioneers website.
Inspired by Chaucer and Boccaccio, Longfellow published Tales of a Wayside Inn in three parts between 1863 and 1873. Each part features a cycle of seven tales told by seven travelers staying at the Wayside Inn, established as Howe’s Tavern in 1716 and still in operation today in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Longfellow used friends as models for the characters, and the traveler who relates the tale “The Birds of Killingworth” was based on Thomas William Parsons, a now-forgotten poet who was the first American translator of Dante’s Inferno. It is not surprising, then, that the tale’s prophetic hero, the Preceptor, is also a poet—but, as Christoph Irmscher points out in a recent study, the “satire cuts both ways, and it is characteristic of [Longfellow’s] deflated view of authorship that his stand-in, the poet, would not be exempted from his mockery.”

“The Birds of Killingworth” is the only episode in Tales of a Wayside Inn that Longfellow had not adapted from an older textual source. For many years readers suggested that Longfellow might have likewise based this tale, describing the massacre of pestilent birds by the citizens of the town in Connecticut, on some forgotten legend or historical incident. Shortly after Longfellow’s death a literary sleuth wondered whether the tale originated on the other side of the Atlantic, since Killingworth got its name from Kenilworth, in England. A letter was sent to Kenilworth’s town clerk, and the reply appeared in The New York Evening Post:
[I] looked in the record of town votes, supposing the town gave a bounty for killing certain birds and animals, but I did not find any vote. One thing I know by actual knowledge. When I was young, say fourteen years, the men in the northern part of the town did yearly, in the spring, choose two leaders and then the two sides formed. Their rules were: The side that got beaten should pay the bills. Their special game was the hawk, the owl, the crow, the blackbird, and any other bird considered to be mischievous in pulling up corn and the like.
Convinced that this account was more than a coincidence, the editors of the 1886 Riverside Edition of Longfellow’s writings referred to this letter in a note to the poem, and subsequent editions repeated this explanation for decades. But in 1890 American Notes and Queries published a note from Samuel Longfellow (Henry’s brother), saying that he had “found among his [brother’s] papers a newspaper cutting—a report of a debate, in the Connecticut Legislature, upon a bill offering a bounty upon the heads of birds believed to be injurious to the farmers; in which debate, a member from Killingworth took part. The name may have taken his fancy, and upon this slight hint he may have built up his story.”

And there the matter rested until, prompted by Longfellow’s centenary in 1907, British librarian and journalist William E. A. Axon reported in The Nation that, a year before Longfellow died, he had written to him, asking “whether this narrative had any basis of fact or was merely the fantasy of a poetic brain”—and the great poet himself had replied. Thus, a quarter century after his death, Longfellow himself confirmed for readers what his brother’s discovery had suggested:
The poem is founded on fact. Killingworth is a farming town, on Long Island Sound, in the State of Connecticut. Some years ago there was an animated debate in the State Legislature, and the birds were doomed, as stated in the poem. Of course, the details of the poem are my own invention, but it has substantial foundation of fact.

Notes: The Saxon Cædmon, mentioned in the first stanza, is the earliest English poet known by name; he flourished in the seventh century. The reference to St. Bartholomew on page 445 is to the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of French Huguenots in Paris and elsewhere.

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