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Analysis of Poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens and a Summary of the Poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" focuses on a bird in various landscapes and presents thirteen different insights into change—how bird, speaker and the natural world interact.

The poem appears as a series of short minimalist sketches, each a consideration of a blackbird as it goes about its business flying, whistling and simply being. To some, certain lines are formed in haiku fashion and have a meditative zen-like feel.

Essentially, the thirteen word-pictures are a whole study of identity and promote the idea that a creature seemingly simple, a common blackbird, is anything but, because at a given instant perception alters, depending on the physical environment, the action of the bird and the effect on the mind of the perceiver.

Stevens himself said that the poem 'is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or of ideas, but of sensations.'

Each miniature creates a world of possibility for the reader, each scenario has a different 'feel'. The landscape changes, there are subtle movements, there are degrees of involvement determined in part by poetic form.

Not all are straightforward. Stevens liked to keep his readers at a distance, saying that a poem should basically 'resist the intelligence' and make a reader work. This poem certainly does that, but it also enlightens and delights and leaves you quietly pondering the nature of bird existence.

His use of simple language to convey complex feelings, his eccentric loose ended lines, the magical way he takes the reader into the subject then leaves them to fathom the exit strategy themselves - there is so much for the reader to take on board! His imagination shines brilliantly, too bright for some.

It was written in 1917 and published in the first book Stevens put out, Harmonium, in 1923. The poetry world took a deep breath, not really knowing how to react, for here was a book full of enigmatic, quirky, obscure and wonderfully exotic poems.

'Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right,' Stevens later wrote. He certainly got the world of the blackbird right, thirteen times.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

VII
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

XI
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Poem Analysis

Stanza 1

Picture an Oriental image, snowy peaks, peaceful landscape and a blackbird, moving its eye. This opening stanza is haiku-like in form and certainly has an element of zen in it.

This tercet (3 lines) consists of 8, 6 and 7 syllables.

Here are massive mountains, twenty of them to be precise, and one tiny eye taking all the attention simply because it moves, has life.

Stanza 2

This is one of three stanzas in first person, the speaker relating to the blackbird in a psychological manner.

Note the simile, like a tree, which suggests a family tree or the tree of life.

Three is often associated with the trinity but here we have a fairy tale image with the tree as a vital symbol of that which brings human and blackbird into one with nature.

Stanza 3

A couplet, unrhymed but with assonance and alliteration which brings texture to the language.

The blackbird whirled in the wind, suggesting a special act of flight which is comedic and entertaining. That word pantomime derives from the British culture. The 'panto' is performed each year at Christmas time and is a slapstick farce based on a traditional nursery rhyme or fairy tale.

So here the emphasis is on the chaotic nature of autumn, a time of high winds, blown leaves, out of control birds.

Stanza 4

A quatrain, short and longer lines alternating, featuring a man and woman, who are one. One mind, one entity, in one relationship? Joining them is a blackbird, a three-in-one situation.

This unity reflects the ideas in basic eastern philosophy, in which humans and nature are all part of the great whole.

Stanza 5

First person again, the speaker undecided as to whether inflections (the changes in pitch of a voice or sound) or innuendoes (suggestive hints or remarks) are preferred.

So which is it - pure sound or an off the cuff remark which has to be evaluated?

Compare these with the whistle of the blackbird as the speaker listens, or the silence which immediately follows. The speaker has to then think about whether he enjoyed the whistling or not.

Stanza 6

Seven lines, three sentences, with a hint of full and slant rhyme connecting lines:

full rhyme: 1, 4, 6 (window/to and fro/shadow)

slant rhyme: 2, 7 (glass/cause) 3, 5 (blackbird/mood)

The blackbird has come down from the mountains and the trees and is now flying around a house? There is a window at least, so we know that humans live here and that the bird lives close to the humans, or visits them.

It is cold, icicles appear as barbaric, an unusual word, implying there is a primitive sharpness to these glassy things on the window. In stark contrast the reader does not see the bird itself but only its shadow, which is soft, ethereal perhaps, unlike the icicles.

For the first time in the poem the reader is given a hint at just what all of these different scenarios result from. Stevens said they were sensations - in this particular miniature it is a mood, which is actively affecting the shadow but only in such a way that we can never understand it. A paradox.

There is something about the toing and froing of the blackbird's shadow crossing the cold window; it creates a mood but there is no reason why it should. It is just an effect.

Stanza 7

Stevens often used place-names in his poems and it seems that he chose the town of Haddam, 26 miles south of his town Hartford, in the state of Connecticut, for this one.

Who exactly the thin men are we may never know, but they came from Haddam and were imagining golden birds. This is questioned by the speaker - in fact this stanza is the only one with questions in it throughout the whole poem - who suggests that this is unnecessary. Why?

Because the blackbird is available, a local bird, down to earth, found to be walking around the women, which is a pleasing thing to do because it shows they are not frightened and are at one with them.

Mention of the golden bird suggests an association with W.B.Yeats, who, through his Byzantium poems, portrayed the legendary golden bird that sang in the palace tree, as a symbol of the heights of human art and culture. Yeats wanted to leave behind his natural form and become the golden bird, an all-time songster.

Here is Stevens offering instead a humble blackbird, symbol of all-mind, not in a fantastic tree but on the ground, among the women. The second question implies that the thin men do not see how this bird walks...is this reference to the arts, how vital they are for the future...to be born?

Stanza 8

Five lines, one sentence, two caesurae (pauses in lines two and three) and the last of the first person stanzas.

With a repeated I know, three times, the speaker is reinforcing his conviction that the blackbird and he are strongly together in this knowing of lucid (clear) rhythms and strong, dignified (noble) accent.

Here the speaker is sure of his perception and expression of will. He listens to the blackbird's whistle and in turn knows that the blackbird also must listen. That word involved is open to discussion - the bird cannot know as the human knows but could know that the human knows it is there whistling away, in his presence, knowing him to be there.

Stanza 9

This is another haiku-like stanza that on the surface is so straightforward when read for the first time, yet offers so much more beneath the surface.

There is the blackbird flying off, as they do, fast and blurry, off into the undergrowth or over a clump of trees. Suddenly it's gone, seen no more.

The first line is clear enough, a trochaic tetrameter gets the bird in motion until it disappears. That is three trochee feet to get it going and an iamb sees it off.

What follows are the two lines that can bamboozle the reader with their content, not their accents. Questions may arise. For example:

What is the edge, and where are the circles? Where is the edge and what are those circles? Well, we have to imagine a series of invisible arcs making up the world of the blackbird, making up the natural order.

The bird is part of a system that is known to us humans but which also carries with it mystery. The circles of life, the great wheel of life, the multiple existences overlapping, crossing, weaving.

Stanza 10

A compact quatrain, the first two lines are easy to understand, the second pair challenge a little.

A bawd is a madam, head of a dubious house, a brothel, whilst euphony is some sound pleasing to the ear. Put the two together and you have the idea that no matter the lack of sensitivity, anyone can be influenced by blackbirds flying in a green light.

These lines conjure up a surreal image as birds, light and crying humans join ephemerally, the emotionally charged floating birds eliciting such expression from the bawds, the unlikely overseers of sensual sound.

Stanza 11

Six lines, unrhymed, tell the shortest story of a male journeying through Connecticut (Stevens lived in the state capital, Hartford, for most of his adult life) on horse and carriage, mistaking the equipage - equipage is a collective name for all the equipment a horse and carriage needs - for the shadow of blackbirds.

Note the return of glass, shadow and Connecticut, linking stanzas 6, 7 and 11. The anonymous male is riding on fragile, see-through transport and seems to have had a rather sharp experience.

In light of what has gone on in the poem previously the male's psychological state isn't what it should be, it is glass, it is fragile and he doesn't know the difference between what is real (the equipage) and what is not (the shadow of the blackbird).

This produces fear, but he appears to have gotten over it.

This stanza also echoes another of Stevens's well known poems, The Anecdote of the Jar, where a simple jar placed on a hill changes the whole perspective of the landscape and its relationship with the speaker.

Stanza 12

This stanza is the shortest of all thirteen, an unrhymed couplet, and relates strongly to the first stanza, and movement within the landscape.

In this stanza however it is the river that is moving and this motion triggers a thought in the mind of the speaker - if the river moves so must the blackbird in flight.

It is as if one cannot happen without the other, or, the flowing water reminds the speaker of a blackbird flying - energy in a pure elemental form.

Stanza 13

The last stanza, five lines, takes the reader back to a wintry landscape, similar we imagine to that of the first. So the circle is complete, winter to winter, snow to snow, blackbird to blackbird and so on.

Time is blurred. It seems like evening even though it is afternoon. It's snowing and will likely snow again. The use of the past was gives this last stanza a slightly unreal tone, as if the speaker is looking back, leaving the world of the blackbird for the last time.

Stevens had a thing about the verb to be, it is the focal point in many of his poems relating to existence and being, and here is in play again, in a snowy scene which could have come from his poem The Snow Man.

The reader gets to know that the blackbird is in a cedar tree, an evergreen, and is sitting there still, knowing its place as snow falls.

Sources


© 2020 Andrew Spacey

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 04, 2020:

There are so many meanings in these thirteen stanzas. My favorites were the first and last.

Ann Carr from SW England on April 18, 2020:

I love this! Blackbirds are probably my favourite birds so I took to this instantly. I particularly like stanzas 5, 9 and 13; they appeal to me.

Your analysis brings more detail to my original thoughts as I read this; it's useful and expands our knowledge of the forms within these stanzas.

I knew nothing of Wallace Stevens before but I'm off to look up some more of his poetry and find out about him.

Thank you, Andrew, for the education and introducing me to a intriguing poet.

Ann