The August 17, 1880 issue of Harper’s Young People – a children’s magazine – included a poem titled Adrift by Margaret E. Sangster. Adrift is a brief poem about a nest of young birds floating down a river, unbeknownst to the bird parents. In this post, I will reprint Adrift along with the illustration that accompanied it in the 1880 issue of Harper’s Young People. I discussed Margaret E. Sangster in an article about a poem she wrote for an 1896 issue of Harper’s Round Table about George Washington.

“Adrift” by Margaret E. Sangster

Etching of three birds in a nest floating down a river created for Margaret E. Sangster's poem "Adrift" in an 1880 issue of Harper's Young People.
Original etching accompanying Sangster’s Adrift from Harper’s Young People.
Header for Margaret E. Sangster's "Adrift" from Project Gutenberg upload for August 17, 1880 issue of Harper's Young People.
Adrift upon a silver tide,
With banks of green on either side,
And, far above, a smiling sky,
A tiny craft goes floating by.

Queer little boat, this woven nest,
Where birdies three had tranquil rest
Until a rough wind shook the tree,
And sent them sailing off to sea.

Oh, father-bird and mother-bird,
In you what trouble will be stirred
When, home returned from weary flight,
You learn your babies' hapless plight!


Sangster’s Adrift is not an optimistic poem. Young readers must have been very concerned about the fate of the three birds floating (not merrily) down a river. The final stanza serves as a reminder – perhaps – that parents worry greatly if they do not know the whereabouts of their children.

The poem reminded me that this is not the first time the story of a nest on water has reached The New Leaf Journal. On February 3, 1880, Harper’s Young People published a very interesting article about the arrival of sparrows in the United States. In describing sparrows generally, the article included an anecdote about sparrows building their nest on a seafaring boat. Sangster was an editor for Harper’s Young People. Did the seafaring sparrow nest inspire her to publish Adrift six months later? The connection is tenuous, but I cannot help but notice the reappearance of the aquatic nest theme.