People have always gathered to be entertained, but the focus of their entertainment has shifted from century to century. For the Romans, gladiators battling in the Coliseum were their gathering point. People of the medieval ages would congregate to hear bards tell their epic tales of chivalry and bravery, while people of the modern day snuggle up around the television or in a movie theatre. People in the Romantic era, however, did not have any of these things, but what they did have were the Fireside Poets. These Romantic poets’ works were the gathering point for family and friends during the Romantic era because of their themes of family, love, and patriotism, and among their ranks was one John Greenleaf Whittier (Langley).

Whittier was a simple Northeasterner born on a farm in New England in the early 19th century (“John Greenleaf Whittier“). He got involved with the literary process and abolitionism when he went to work alongside William Lloyd Garrison at the Newburyport Free Press (“John Greenleaf Whittier“). He championed this cause until the end of the Civil War, and it became the focus of many of his works, including the poem “What the Birds Said,” written at the end of the Civil War. The poem shows its Romantic colors through its theme of freedom, its tie-ins with nature, and its connection to one of the greatest Romantic poets of the time.

As a poem of the Romantic era, “What the Birds Said” has a few defining qualities. One of these Romantic qualities is the theme of freedom within the poem (Langley). For example, the poem mentions in one stanza that the birds in their journey to the South heard “the freedman’s song” and “the clash of Slavery’s broken locks” (Whittier, “What”) Both of these allude to the emancipation of the slaves in the South, a compelling story of freedom and great inspiration for a poem about it. Also in the poem, Whittier mentions “Freedom’s ample gates,” adding more talk of freedom to his poem (Whittier, “What“). Freedom was widely used in Romantic works along with “What the Birds Said” because the Romantics valued freedom of all sorts: freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and freedom of the individual (Langley). This poem, however, specifically talks about the freedom of the slaves, reflecting Whittier’s abolitionist beliefs of the time and the end of the Civil War (“John Greenleaf Whittier”).

Aside from freedom, another Romantic quality found in Whittier’s poem is the mention of nature (Langley). Stanza Three mentions seeing the dead soldiers from battle lying “in shrouds of moss, in cypress swamps,” and in the second to last stanza, Whittier says, “So to me, in a doubtful day / Of chill and slowly greening spring, / Low stooping from the cloud gray, / The wild-birds sang or seemed to sing” (Whittier, “What”). The Romantics often searched for truth in nature, and they made reference to it often because they wished to be one with it (Langley). In this poem, Whittier uses nature to convey feelings to the audience; for example, “shrouds of moss” insinuates a burial shroud, only one made of nature (Whittier, “What“). The moss makes the audience think of the soldiers dead bodies being forgotten in the swamps. In using swamps, Whittier also makes the audience think of a dark place, wet and unsuitable for life. In these ways, Whittier uses nature to enhance the emotions instilled by the poem.

Naturally, “What the Birds Said” is very similar to Whittier’s other poems, but they still have their differences. Another poem by Whittier, “Flowers in Winter,” has its similarities to “What the Birds Said” along with its differences. They are similar in the way they are written with their rhyme scheme, with both of them having an ABAB rhyme scheme (Whittier, "Flowers" "What"). They also mention nature, though “Flowers in Winter” mentions it much more than “What the Birds Said” (Whittier, “Flowers“). Also, both poems have a message of hope at the end: in “Flowers in Winter,” hope for the coming of spring and the blossoming of winter is expressed (Whittier, “Flowers“), while in “What the Birds Said,” hope for equality, peace, and unity is talked about (Whittier, “What“). However, “Flowers in Winter” is mainly about the bleak season of winter and the desire for rebirth in the spring (Whittier, “Flowers“); “What the Birds Said” is an optimistic hope for the future without slavery (Whittier, “What“). Despite this difference, though, both poems are very much similar.

However, “What the Birds Said” and The Tell-Tale Heart share almost no similarities. The most obvious difference is that one is a poem and the other is a short story, but also, “What the Birds Said” is a part of the generic Romanticism movement, while The Tell-Tale Heart takes a seat at the Dark Romanticism table. It features a much darker story, highlighted by murder, insanity, and fear (Poe). It appeals to the emotion of fear in the audience, while “What the Birds Said” tries to inspire hope and optimism in its audience by telling of the emancipation of the slaves, the reunification of the Confederacy and Union, and the end of the Civil War (Whittier, “What”). These two pieces of work, though from the same movement, are about as different as night and day.

Despite its differences with other literary works of its time, though, “What the Birds Said” has much good company with its fellow brothers and sisters of Romanticism. Its key characteristics are aimed to appeal to the heart of its audience, tying it to the rest of the movement. Its author, despite his humble beginnings, rose to a position of eternal fame through his works and inspired an entire generation of Americans to look towards the future with hope, optimism, and an open mind, making him one of America’s most influential and important authors.

Works Cited

"John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)." Whittier Birthplace. COCO+CO. Web. 9 Dec. 2010. <>.

Langley, John. "Romanticism." Mr. Langley's Digital Classroom. John Langley, 24 Oct. 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2010. <>.

Poe, Edgar A. "The Tell-Tale Heart." Poe Museum. Poe Museum, 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2010. <>.

Whittier, John G. "Flowers in Winter." Poetry Archive. Web. 10 Dec. 2010. <>.

Whittier, John G. "What the Birds Said." The Complete Works of John Greenleaf Whittier. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1894. Poetry Archive. 2002. Web. 9 Dec. 2010. <>.