The phrase “thoughts like birds” is not from a poem by Emily Dickinson. At least I find no evidence to the contrary. I have been carrying this bit of misinformation in my head for some twenty years. Somewhere between AP English and middle age, I’d convinced myself that it was a snippet of Dickinsonian verse. I distinctly recall jotting the words “thought like birds” in an adolescent journal, along with, I would have sworn, something about them–thoughts, that is–flying away. Much like this recollection has flown away.
So naturally I Googled “thoughts like birds,” with and without “Dickinson.” Dickinson’s poetry employs bird imagery aplenty, but an exhaustive–well, I was exhausted–search turned up no hits containing said phrase and Dickinson. Suffice to say, though, “thoughts like birds” is a well-worn simile. If the Internet is to be believed, there’s an ancient proverb about not letting negative bird-like thoughts make a nest in your mind, which has devolved into more contemporary, rather crass admonitions against allowing your thought-birds to relieve themselves in your hair. In his play Don Carlos, Restoration dramatist Thomas Otway has an agitated King Phillip II of Spain lament “my Thoughts, like Birds when frighted from their their rest, around the place, where all was hush’d before, flutter; and hardly settle any more.” Some entrepreneurial Otway enthusiast has put a mangled version of that quote–“my thoughts, like birds, were frightened from their nest”–on coffee mugs and t-shirts. Lord Alfred Douglas, in his poem “Sonnet on the Sonnet,” writes of “wild thoughts like birds in thrall.” Psychologist William James, who coined the term “stream of consciousness,” described our fluctuating state of mind as “Like a bird’s life, it seems to be an alternation of flights and perchings.” While I doubt William James is the source of this particular preoccupation of mine, every rabbit hole I venture down seems to lead back to him–but that’s another post. More recently, the Police sang of “chasing” a spiritual teacher’s “thoughts like birds” in “Secret Journey,” from their album Ghost in the Machine, which I did own at about the same time I recorded those fateful words in my journal. Honestly, I didn’t recall that the Police had two songs about the dubiousness of seeking spiritual wisdom under the tutelage of others; I’m thinking of “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” which is a different, decidedly snarkier song. And neither last nor least, a web search turned up a delightful song by an Italian band called A.K. Ellis.
It may be that “thoughts like birds” arose spontaneously in my own mind (assuming I didn’t unconsciously lift it from Sting) and that I wrote it in my journal as a neat little idea to return to later. Possibly, at 17 or 18 or whatever, I thought I’d had an original thought, forgot that I thought it, and sometime, over the years, misattributed the simile to Emily. Whatever its origin, I’m rather attached to it now. My own thoughts, more hummingbird than owl, frequently flit hither and thither, alighting on an idea for a while before setting out for more verdant forests. This blog is intended as a place for those birds to perch, stretch their wings, and take flight (never let it be said that I don’t know how to squeeze the stuffing out of a metaphor). It’s both rookery and roost for creative ephemera. You’ll find nothing too substantial here–mostly just small, well-feathered skeletons. Besides, I seem to have a connection to birds, if you’re inclined to believe in such things. And that’s not just my own cuckoo notion–a medium told me so. But that, too, is another post.
Leave a Reply