From "A Tale. June 1793" by William Cowper:

The mother-bird is gone to sea,
As she had changed her kind;
But goes the male? Far wiser he
Is doubtless left behind.

Does it mean "as if she had turned into a sea-going animal?" As if she "had changed to another species"?

  • 3
    You got it, though I think a seabird like a gull or puffin is more likely to be what Cowper had in mind. Jan 18, 2016 at 11:19

1 Answer 1


Within the context of the poem

As she had changed her kind

has the meaning that she has changed her state of being. She has become a mother as stated in the previous stanza

Four ivory eggs soon pave its [nest] floor

The scene is on a ship and the two birds have used the ship's mast as their tree to nest in.

The mother-bird is gone to sea

The mother bird, while incubating her eggs must go wherever the nest goes, which is tied to the mast, which is attached to the boat, which has set sail. She goes because she is a mother now with eggs (so to speak), and her existence becomes more of a sea bird than the land bird that she actually is, which is also a change in kind for the mother-bird

This is contrasted with the father-bird

But goes the male? Far wiser he
Is doubtless left behind.

The expectation is he will stay behind because chaffinches are land birds, not sea birds, therein lies his wisdom to stay behind on land. However

He flew to reach it [the nest], by a law
Of never-failing love.

because of his love for his mate he joins her, and a reference to the danger involved is made later

The billows and the blasts defied

Were not afraid to plough the brine
In company with man;

They would normally be fearful to be so far off-shore since they are land birds.

It is about a mother's instinctive duty to her young, and a husband's love for his mate, and staying together despite the odds. Seeing this, the sailor's view it as a favourable sign.

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