The Birds of "Harlem Shadows"
Birds sing and soar in many of the poems collected in Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows. Birds are at home in McKay’s poems, many of which describe idyllic landscapes in detail. However, birds express much more than the beauty of nature in Harlem Shadows. In “Birds of Prey,” birds serve as symbols of capitalist greed and violence and “In Bondage,” birds are part of a utopian society free from oppressive structures of race and class. In both of these poems, McKay incorporates birds into an expression of his anti-capitalist, anti-racist politics. I will discuss “Birds of Prey” and “In Bondage” in a separate post (pending). Here, I will focus on the prevalence of birds in poems concerned with McKay’s emigration from Jamaica to the United States.
Birds are most notable in Harlem Shadows in poems that express McKay’s experience of leaving Jamaica for the United States. In “To One Coming North,” “Homing Swallows,” and “To Winter,” McKay recalls the Jamaican countryside of his youth and explores his sense of the somewhat troubling beauty of his new home. In these poems, birds both conjure memories of home and represent McKay’s desire to feel at home in a foreign country. (The three poems I discuss here appear in full text before my reading of each. Click on the links above to see the poem on its own, and see the end of this post for a list of all the poems in Harlem Shadows that feature birds).
To One Coming North
At first you’ll joy to see the playful snow,
Like white moths trembling on the tropic air,
Or waters of the hills that softly flow
Gracefully falling down a shining stair.
And when the fields and streets are covered white
And the wind-worried void is chilly, raw,
Or underneath a spell of heat and light
The cheerless frozen spots begin to thaw,
Like me you’ll long for home, where birds’ glad song
Means flowering lanes and leas and spaces dry,
And tender thoughts and feelings fine and strong,
Beneath a vivid silver-flecked blue sky.
But oh! more than the changeless southern isles,
When Spring has shed upon the earth her charm,
You’ll love the Northland wreathed in golden smiles
By the miraculous sun turned glad and warm.
“To One Coming North” addresses a traveler coming north from the Caribbean. McKay emigrated from Jamaica to the United States in August 1912. He attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama before transferring to Kansas State College in October. In 1914, McKay left Kansas State and moved to Harlem (see the timeline in Gene Jarrett’s 2007 A Long Way From Home). Given his personal experience, it is reasonable to think of the speaker in “To One Coming North,” as well as the speakers in the other poems I will discuss here, as McKay himself. In “To One Coming North,” addressing a fictional traveler allows McKay to recall his own emotions and experiences in emigrating from Jamaica.
“To One Coming North” opens with the lines “At first you’ll joy to see the playful snow,/Like white moths trembling on the tropic air” (1-2). Here, familiar imagery of the tropics is mingled with snow, a new sight for the traveller. Excitement over the novelty of the new landscape, however, is tinged with a sense of longing for home. This longing, McKay warns, will soon overcome excitement. “Like me you’ll long for home, where birds’ glad song/Means flowering lanes and leas and spaces dry,/And tender thoughts and feelings fine and strong,/Beneath a vivid silver-flecked blue sky.” Interestingly, bird song is the first thought that comes to McKay’s mind when he thinks of home. Bird song not only “Means flowering lanes,” it signifies home. Despite the beauty and newness of the snow, bird song and home occupy McKay’s thoughts in speaking to a fellow traveller from the south.
And yet, the next stanza returns to the new landscape awaiting the traveler, a landscape that McKay has become intimate with since leaving Jamaica. McKay tells the traveler that when spring comes, they will once again love the northern landscape, writing, “But oh! more than the changeless southern isles,/When Spring has shed upon the earth her charm,/You’ll love the Northland wreathed in golden smiles/By the miraculous sun turned glad and warm” (13-16). McKay finds joy and charm in the changing of seasons, even suggesting that the traveller will love this changeable new landscape more than the “changeless southern isles.” Still, the sense of longing remains. McKay does not say that the traveller will cease to long for home, only that they will love the north when spring time and the sun replace winter. At the end of the poem, longing and nostalgia, not excitement, are the dominant emotions. Even in expectation of spring, bird song and home persist in Mckay’s and the readers minds.
Swift swallows sailing from the Spanish main,
O rain-birds racing merrily away
From hill-tops parched with heat and sultry plain
Of wilting plants and fainting flowers, say—
When at the noon-hour from the chapel school
The children dash and scamper down the dale,
Scornful of teacher’s rod and binding rule
Forever broken and without avail,
Do they still stop beneath the giant tree
To gather locusts in their childish greed,
And chuckle when they break the pods to see
The golden powder clustered round the seed?
While “To One Coming North” contains only one reference, albeit a significant one, to bird song, the description of birds in “Homing Swallows” suggests that McKay was fairly familiar with the birds of his homeland. The opening stanza describes “Swift swallows sailing from the Spanish main/O rain-birds racing merrily away/From hill-tops parched with heat and sultry plain” (1-3). Here, McKay describes a particular type of bird, the swallow, in flight. The marvelous swift movement of swallows comes across in these lines, and McKay’s poem follows these deft birds as they fly from parched hill tops to a large tree not far from “the chapel school,” a location McKay knows from his youth.
In the remainder of the poem, McKay asks the swallows if the children still “stop beneath the giant tree/To gather locusts in their childish greed/And chuckle when they break the pods to see/The golden powder clustered round the seed?” (9-12). The children, who “dash and scamper down the dale” on their lunch time break from school, act like birds, flying in their moment of freedom to the locust tree to break open seed pods (6). Yet the birds have a freedom inaccessible to the children. They are separate from the human world of school and rules, their lives dictated instead by the whims of nature, including the heat that parches the earth and wilts flowers in the first stanza. Despite the separation of the human world and the world of birds, the swallows nonetheless link McKay to Jamaica. Although McKay is no longer in Jamaica to see for himself if the children still gather beneath the tree, the swallows, constant in their presence, will know if the children have continued this tradition. The swallows act as messengers for the absent poet, reconnecting McKay with his homeland and with a recurrent scene from his childhood.
Stay, season of calm love and soulful snows!
There is a subtle sweetness in the sun,
The ripples on the stream’s breast gaily run,
The wind more boisterously by me blows,
And each succeeding day now longer grows.
The birds a gladder music have begun,
The squirrel, full of mischief and of fun,
From maples’ topmost branch the brown twig throws.
I read these pregnant signs, know what they mean:
I know that thou art making ready to go.
Oh stay! I fled a land where fields are green
Always, and palms wave gently to and fro,
And winds are balmy, blue brooks ever sheen,
To ease my heart of its impassioned woe.
Both “Homing Swallows” and “To One Coming North” express a similar longing for home. However, birds also populate poems in which McKay praises the beauty of the northern United States. In “To Winter,” the speaker observes the seasons beginning to change from winter to spring. The poem’s speaker knows that spring is coming because, “The birds a gladder music have begun” (6). While the reader might think that such a sign of spring would be welcomed, in contrast McKay implores the cold season to remain, writing, “Oh stay! I fled a land where fields are green/Always, and palms wave gently to and fro,/And winds are balmy, blue brooks ever sheen,/To ease my heart of its impassioned woe” (11-14). McKay describes the ever idyllic quality of Jamaica as causing his heart “impassioned woe,” an emotion that can be interpreted as a sort of deep sorrow, perhaps sorrow mixed with longing.
In “To Winter,” McKay seems to want the birds to delay their singing and for spring to halt its arrival because sunlight and birds remind him too much of the home he has left, a place that he loves but that has also caused him sorrow. But as this post has shown, no matter how far from home, McKay cannot leave the land of his birth behind. The birds and brooks, trees and flowers of Jamaica are on his mind, even as he watches snow falling.
Many songbirds are migratory, making their homes in different locations depending on the season. Migration may seem like a magical endeavor, but in reality it is a dangerous, life threatening experience. Still, birds continue to migrate. They face hardships in order to reach their destination and benefit from what nature provides in disparate locations. Similarly, many of McKay’s poems that feature birds deal with the hardships of his emigration from Jamaica to America. In these poems, the reader senses that distance from his homeland brought McKay a keen sense of the emotional and intellectual imprint that the island left upon him. Furthermore, these poems show that McKay sought a sense of home in a foreign land that was not altogether hospitable to a young black poet from the Caribbean with a sense of the injustices and violence of colorism and racism, part of the legacy of slavery in the Jamaica and America.
Birds are a constant presence in the landscapes of Harlem Shadows, whether rural or urban, Jamaican or American. In McKay’s poems, birds, creatures that fascinate humanity in part because of their utter difference, represent the prominence of McKay’s homeland and heritage in his thoughts, even when his subject is far from home.