Essays in Romanticism

Radical Birdcalls: Avian Voices and the Politics of the Involuntary

Essays in Romanticism (2020), 27, (2), 101–114.


This essay investigates Romantic-era treatments of bird calls as “unpremeditated”, spontaneous, and involuntary. Looking at parrots, starlings, mockingbirds, gamecocks, and skylarks in the work of writers including John Thelwall, Percy Shelley, Thomas Beddoes, and Helen Maria Williams, I explore the way in which talking and singing birds are often understood through reference to materialist philosophy and the associationism of David Hartley. Taking Thelwall’s King Chaunticlere and John Gilpin’s Ghost, and Shelley’s ‘To a Sky-Lark’ and A Defence of Poetry as my main focus, I argue that these writers use materialist metaphors of unconscious avian utterance to make nuanced claims about the seemingly ambiguous role of the will in political speech.

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Author details

Rhodes, Alice