At dusk last Saturday evening, Sukie and I, accompanied by our dog Digory, went for a walk in the woods of the neighboring estate. It had begun to rain lightly and the forest was shrouded in a fog that had come ashore later that afternoon. Through the mist, not far off, we heard the ethereal, flutelike song of the hermit thrush as it perched on some low-lying branch. Further off, we could hear the teach'er, teach'er, teach'er of an ovenbird's song building in crescendo.
In When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, his elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman uses the hermit thrush as one of a trinity of core symbols. A notebook entry of 1865 suggests the significance of the thrush: "Solitary thrush...sings oftener after sundown sometimes quite in the night/is very secluded/ likes shaded dark places in swamps...his song is a hymn...he never sings near the farm houses--never in the settlement/ the bird of solemn primal woods and of Nature pure and holy."
A creature of "nature pure and holy," the hermit thrush expresses itself in song, and thus has been considered a figure of the bardic poet or the seer, a visionary singer of ultimate insight. In section 4 of Lilacs, Whitman introduces the thrush:
In the swamp, in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
Solitary, the thrush,
The hermit, withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
Song of the bleeding throat!
Death's outlet song of life--(for well, dear brother, I know,
If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would'st surely die.)
(From from Google Image)