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Originally published in Others: An Anthology of New Verse in 1917, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is one of Wallace Stevens' most widely read and anthologized poems.1 The poem is a series of thirteen short stanzas, each referring to a blackbird literally, figuratively, or hypothetically. It is highly abstract and rich with figurative language, literary devices, and complex philosophical themes.…
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Originally published in Others: An Anthology of New Verse in 1917, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is one of Wallace Stevens' most widely read and anthologized poems.1 The poem is a series of thirteen short stanzas, each referring to a blackbird literally, figuratively, or hypothetically. It is highly abstract and rich with figurative language, literary devices, and complex philosophical themes. Perhaps best understood as a work of abstract art, similar to the Cubist and Impressionist paintings produced around the same time Stevens was writing, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" delights in the idea of a multiplicity of perspectives.
"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" defies any simple summary since there is no clear story or obvious sequence of events in the poem. It contains thirteen numbered stanzas between 2 and 7 lines in length. Each stanza refers to a blackbird at least once, but not all stanzas are clearly about looking at a blackbird in the visual sense. The blackbird is sometimes literal, sometimes a metaphor or symbol, and sometimes imaginary or hypothetical.
It is a matter of debate whether the thirteen stanzas can be read as a single poem, or whether they are just a collection of thirteen very short, mostly unrelated poems. Stevens himself described the poem as a "collection...of sensations", suggesting that there is no necessary connection between them.2 Many readers have discovered patterns and interconnections between the stanzas that suggest it is, in fact, best read as a single poem.
The first stanza presents an image of a blackbird in a wintry mountain landscape:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.7
It is unclear who the speaker of the poem is or whether the bird is flying or stationary—its eye moving along with its body, or moving back and forth in the bird's head as it surveys the landscape, which has an unusually specific number of mountains.
The second stanza makes a sudden shift to the first person, as the speaker of the poem tells us:
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
This plays with the phrase “to be of two minds,” meaning to be undecided about something. Here the tree is analogous to a human being: the tree's trunk is the human body, the leaves and branches the head, and the birds perched on its branches the mind. There is, then, a high degree of indecision in the speaker, whose mind is like three separate living organisms, each with its own desires, inclinations, and preferences.
The third stanza returns to an image of a blackbird in nature, this time in flight and clearly struggling:
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
This suggests that the bird's attempt to fly on a windy day is a kind of dramatic entertainment or “pantomime”, and since the blackbird’s struggle is just a “small part” of this, the pantomime must be a collection of similar struggles against nature—perhaps the struggle of all organic life to stay alive.
The fourth stanza invokes the blackbird seemingly arbitrarily, declaring that
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
The indefinite article “a” makes it unclear whether the speaker is talking about some particular man and woman or any man and woman, creating an ambiguity between the romantic cliche that two lovers are like one person and a statement of metaphysical unity or monism. All people, that is, could be "one" in the sense that they are made from the same material or soul. Adding the blackbird into the mix suggests that monism or the identity of all things is what the stanza is aiming at, but the suggestion of romantic love spreading from the human couple to the natural world via the blackbird is another possible reading.
Stanza V returns to the first-person perspective of the speaker:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
The blackbird’s whistle is described as an “inflection” or a change of pitch or voice. The silence that follows it is an “innuendo,” a suggestion that more birdsong will follow at some point. The speaker can’t decide which is more beautiful, the notes or the silence between them (or, perhaps, the anticipation of more music to come). The speaker uses the "blackbird whistling" as a metaphor for all beauty, natural and artistic.
Stanza VI returns, like stanzas I and III, to a description of a scene featuring a blackbird. This time the setting is domestic:
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
The setting is the interior of a house during winter while the shadow of a blackbird flitting back and forth, distorted by the icicles that bar the window, is cast inside. The speaker of the poem connects this in an indeterminate way with a “mood.” The placement of the word ‘traced’ creates this ambiguity: it could be a transitive verb, meaning something like “The mood traced a cause in the shadow,” in which case the mood is actively coloring reality, drawing the causal connection between the shadow and the blackbird; or it could be a participial adjective, meaning something like ‘The mood which was traced in the shadow (had) an indecipherable cause.’ In either case, the mood seems melancholy, dominated by cold, shadows, and silence.
Stanza VII takes the form of an address with biblical undertones:
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?
Haddam is a small town in Connecticut not far from Stevens’ residence in Hartford. Condemning the "thin men" of this town for focusing on imagined “golden” birds rather than the blackbird at the “feet / Of the women about” them has clear echoes of Moses' criticism of the Israelites for worshiping a golden calf, a false idol, instead of God. Stevens puts a twist on this story: the problem is not with idol worship per se, but with worshiping a “golden” idol that they "imagine" rather than the black ones that they already have. The “thin men” then seem to be concerned more with wealth, with what is superficially attractive, and with what is possible than with true beauty, the natural world, and what in fact surrounds them.
Stanza VIII returns to the first person perspective, like stanzas III and V. Like stanza V, it is concerned with beauty, art, and poetry.
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
The “accents” and “rhythms” of this stanza are a reference to poetry itself, which is often organized by patterns of stressed (or accented) and unstressed syllables which combine to form rhythmical patterns. While poetry is a human phenomenon, the involvement of the blackbird in these rhythms and accents suggests that birdsong, and perhaps nature as a whole, is a crucial part of both creating and understanding poetry.
Stanza IX returns again to a scene featuring an actual blackbird. This time a stationary observer of the blackbird also takes on a role as they watch it fly towards the horizon:
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
This is likely a reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Circles". The idea is that the world is a series of interconnected circles, that there is no clear center but that all living (or at least conscious) things are connected by the degree to which their circles overlap. In this case, there is a circle whose center is the observer and whose outer circumference is the last visible point of the blackbird. The blackbird itself could be another such circle, and any other creature or observer would be still another.
Stanza X invokes blackbirds hypothetically, claiming that
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
The source of the mysterious “green light” is never identified or explained. It perhaps suggests a natural, leafy surrounding in the sunlight. The “bawds of euphony” are likely a reference to poets themselves (a bawd is a brothel-keeper, so a bawd of euphony would be someone who pimps out nice sounding words—perhaps a hack poet or writer). The simple beauty of a blackbird in a beautiful, natural surrounding would even startle these people, jaded as they are and used to the exploitation of language and beauty for cynical purposes.
Stanza XI shifts suddenly and inexplicably to the third person, informing us that
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
Other than a passenger in “a glass coach”, we are given no clue who "He" could be. That a carriage could be made out of glass suggests a fairy-tale like whimsy, but the glass could also be there to represent fragility or transparency. The glass coach's shadow resembling that of blackbirds has echoes of the icicles, windows, and shadows from stanza VI. Perhaps even more mysterious than the man's identity or the material his carriage is made of is why he would be so deeply afraid of blackbirds. Given that the blackbird has, so far, represented things like consciousness and nature, the speaker implies that this is someone who (like the thin men of Haddam) lives in denial of reality in favor of some dream. His mistaking his own shadow for blackbirds further testifies to an overactive imagination.
Stanza XII juxtaposes a simple observation with a seemingly unrelated thought:
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
This is a likely reference to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. The couplet suggests that motion and change are universal qualities, shared by the living things of the earth as well as geographical features, like rivers. This creates a kind of continuity between the inanimate earth, represented by the river, and its animate creatures, represented by the blackbird.
The final stanza echoes stanza I, returning once more to a blackbird contrasted with a snowy white setting:
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
In this case, we are in the midst of a snowstorm that has blocked out the sun all afternoon, making it feel like evening. The snow shows no sign of stopping, and the blackbird simply sits in a cedar tree, motionless, to wait out the storm. In contrast to the first stanza, which depicts the motion of a living creature in contrast with the stillness of a mountain landscape, this image suggests stillness, peace, and repose.
Figurative language includes any literary devices that describe one thing in terms of another. It can be contrasted with literal language, which makes straightforward descriptions or statements. Metaphor and simile are two of the most common types of figurative language.
Metaphor plays an important role in all of Wallace Stevens' poetry, and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is no exception. According to one influential reading, every stanza is itself a metaphor for "the imagined and the real, the idea and the thing, or the visible and the invisible".2 This is according to Stevens' own somewhat peculiar conception of metaphor, which he defined as "the creation of resemblance by the imagination, even though metamorphosis might be a better word".2 This metaphor or metamorphosis is how the human imagination perceives the external world—in other words, it is our way of looking at things. In this sense, the blackbird is a metaphor for reality, and the ways of looking at it are a metaphor for human perception.
Metaphor is a literary device that describes one thing in terms of another. Common examples include "Men are pigs," "time is money," and "life is a stage."
In addition to this guiding metaphor, several other interesting examples of metaphor can be found in the poem:
A blackbird whirling “in autumn winds” is “a pantomime” (Stanza III, lines 1-2). A pantomime is a form of exaggerated dramatic or comedic theatrical entertainment made for children.3
“The beauty of inflections” are “the blackbird whistling” (Stanza V, Lines 2, 4). Inflections strongly suggest human language, so the metaphor is that beautiful human language is birdsong.
Icicles are “barbaric glass” (Stanza VI, lines 1-2). The icicles being described as "barbaric" implies the cruelty of nature and the cold winter outside.
Other literary devices that make notable contributions to this poem's rich literary texture are juxtaposition, symbolism, enjambment, and allusion.
The juxtaposition of ideas and images plays a major role throughout the poem and is arguably the most important literary device in stanzas I and XII.
Juxtaposition is when two images, ideas, or a combination of both are placed next to each other in order to create a contrast. The result is usually increased clarity of one or both of the images or ideas.3
The device occurs throughout the poem, as the blackness of the blackbird is juxtaposed with the whiteness of snow (stanzas I and XII), motion is juxtaposed with stillness (Stanzas I and IX), and imagination is juxtaposed with reality (Stanzas V, VII, and XI). These all end up being important themes in the poem, and juxtaposing them helps to heighten and clarify them.
Stevens makes use of a number of symbols in the poem. Some of these are common and easy to identify, but others are somewhat idiosyncratic, or unique to Stevens and his poetry.
Symbolism is when an object or action stands for or represents something else, typically something abstract like an idea or process. Symbols that are so common that nearly anyone would recognize them include a rose to symbolize beauty, a fist to symbolize aggression, or a dove to symbolize peace.
Wallace Stevens uses the blackbird to represent a somewhat complex set of ideas. The symbolic qualities that Stevens uses most are the bird's color, its constant movement, and its singing or whistling. The color black, far from having the negative symbolism typically associated with it such as death or despair, simply marks the blackbird off as distinct from the world around it, which is represented by the contrasting white of snow and is typically cold and silent. The bird's being nearly always in motion (Stanza XIII being a notable exception) and again juxtaposed with inanimate things like mountains, trees, rivers, and icicles, make the blackbird stand out as a symbol for the animate natural world.
But the blackbird symbolism doesn't end there: Wallace Stevens also plays with idea that birdsong symbolizes poetry. Putting this together with the insight above that the blackbird seems to symbolize animate life, the blackbird now seems more specifically to symbolize consciousness and creativity.
While the recurring colors black and white seem to serve mainly to create contrast, the color green does have an important symbolic role. Creating an image so beautiful that even the jaded “bawds of euphony” are impressed, green represents nature's warm and beautiful side.
The seasons often serve as universal symbols of the human life-cycle: spring symbolizes birth, summer = childhood and youth, fall = old age, and winter = death. Stevens plays with these universal symbols, sometimes undermining them. The "snowy mountains" from stanza I indicate that the poem begins in the winter, while stanza III's "autumn winds" suggest a progression through time to the fall. The icicles of stanza VI suggest winter again, and the "green light" of stanza X spring or summer. Stanza XIII, which closes the poem, takes place in a snowstorm, suggesting once more that it is winter.
Winter, then, turns out to be both a beginning and an end, not only serving as a bookend for the opening and closing of the poem but even recurring in its very center. The suggestion seems to be that even if winter does symbolize death, another season inevitably comes after it. In the first case, this is the fall, which brings harsh autumn winds that seem to symbolize the natural world's indifference to an individual's struggle for survival (the "pantomime" mentioned in the section on metaphor above). In the second case, it is spring and summer, bringing a beauty so great that even the "bawds of euphony" can't help but be struck by its beauty. Winter as Stevens presents it is peaceful, quiet and still. If there is death here, it is a calm and collected one with no signs of panic or despair.
Wallace Stevens was a free-verse poet, meaning that his poems don't necessarily follow a pattern in terms of rhyme, meter, or line length. Even so, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is a peculiarly irregular poem for Stevens. Enjambment, or the decision to break a line of the poem before a sentence is over and cause the next line to begin mid-sentence, is one feature contributing to this irregularity. Eleven out of the thirteen stanzas contain at least one enjambed line, each at a different point in the stanza and for no easily discernible reason. Stanza IV provides perhaps the most striking example:
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Here Stevens' choice to divide each sentence so that lines two and four of the stanza each contain the same phrase, "are one," creates an interesting balance and symmetry, emphasizing the equivalence of the subjects in lines one and three. Enjambment often adds emphasis or shifts the reader's focus to a particular point. The other enjambed lines in the poem each serve a unique purpose that should be carefully considered.
Looking through the other stanzas of the poem, can you think of an explanation of why Stevens chose to break each line where he did and what effects it has on you as a reader?
"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" contains subtle allusions to at least two literary and philosophical figures. The first of these, in stanza IX, is to Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Circles." The second, in Stanza XII, is to the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus.
Stanza IX remarks that "When the blackbird flew out of sight, / It marked the edge / of one of many circles" (Stanza IX, lines 1-3) In an essay called “Circles,” Emerson begins by stating that “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature, this primary figure is repeated without end.”3 The idea is that each person's perspective can be represented as the center of a series of overlapping circles. Stevens seems to be simply re-stating Emerson's point here, but putting the blackbird in the picture adds a twist: is the circle's center at the (presumably human) speaker or the blackbird? Or are they each one of the "many circles"? These unanswered connections suggest further continuity between human consciousness, the blackbird, and nature as a whole.
Stanza XII is a single couplet stating, "The river is moving. / The blackbird must be flying." (Stanza XII, lines 1-2). This has strong echoes of Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher whose writing only survives in fragments. Heraclitus famously wrote that all things were constantly in flux, or, as paraphrased by Plato, "that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step into the same river."4 Heraclitus seems to be saying that change and flow are essential features of the world, that change is inescapable and everything is subject to it. Stevens again seems to be simply agreeing with this idea, but suggesting that the blackbird, whose flight and motion are emphasized throughout the poem, are as good a symbol of the necessity of change and movement as the river.
"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" deals with a number of abstract philosophical ideas about the nature of perception and reality.
The poem's concern with perception is already indicated in the "ways of looking" in its title. 'Looking' turns out to have little to do with vision, as images of a blackbird have a fairly limited role in the poem. Ways of looking at a blackbird encompass not only its appearance and its sound, but also the moods it helps create, how it contrasts with the world and the people around it—in short, with a whole host of perceptions. The blackbird sometimes serves as a focal point, sometimes to create contrast, and at other times as an excuse for some apparently unrelated musing and philosophizing. The result is a portrait of human consciousness with a blackbird on its periphery.
A running concern in Stevens' poetry is the distinction between reality and the imagination. Stevens tended to think of the imagination as a way of making the world of facts and reason more delightful and meaningful. The blackbird, with its whistling, flight, and motion, represents this imaginative world and the pleasures it affords. The mountains, snow, and cold that it contrasts with, the wind that it struggles against, and the green that emphasizes its beauty all represent reality, or the world of facts and reason as discovered through scientific observation.
At various points in the poem, Stevens plays with the idea that separate things are in fact identical. This is most clear in stanza IV, where we're told that "A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one," but is also implied in stanza II, where a single self can have "three minds" (Stanza II, line 1 and Stanza IV, lines 1-4). There is an interesting symmetry between these two stanzas: stanza II suggests that three things are one, and stanza IV that one thing is three. This also has an interesting correspondence with the seemingly arbitrarily chosen number 13 of the poem's title. The numbers 1 and 3, indicating unity and plurality respectively, recur in interesting ways throughout the poem.1
"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is often compared to haiku, a type of Japanese poem with three lines, each of standard syllable length: five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five again in the third. None of the poem's stanzas actually has this form, but Stevens does make use of a number of techniques often associated with east Asian poetry: comparing and contrasting seemingly unrelated images (Stanza II and Stanza V), using seasons to set the mood or tone of a stanza (Stanzas I, III, VI, X, and XIII), and making an apparent leap between seemingly unrelated topics (Stanza X).1
Despite these apparent similarities, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" can be better understood as a product of literary modernism than as an attempt to imitate Japanese poetry.
Modernism: an artistic movement (including literature, poetry, music, painting, and architecture) that began in the late 19th century and reached its high point in the 1910s through the 1930s. Modernist works can be characterized by their experimentalism as they broke established rules and abandoned forms in an attempt to create something new and different. Key modernist artists include the poet T. S. Eliot, the novelist James Joyce, and the painter Pablo Picasso.
Showing a story from a particular perspective or series of perspectives was a common approach in modernist literature, and can be seen in roughly contemporary authors like Marcel Proust and Samuel Butler. The poem's sudden and apparently arbitrary shifts in topic, point of view, and tone are also similar to T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", which was also published in 1917, as well as to other contemporary poets such as Gertrude Stein. The abstraction, random leaps, and fragmented perspectives of the poem also have a great deal in common with the methods of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism in the visual arts, all of which were highly influential while Stevens was writing.1
One way of reading "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" would be to see each of the 13 stanzas as a different thought or perspective centered around a single speaker in a story-like way. In this reading, the first three stanzas introduce the speaker and give some fairly realistic descriptions of a natural setting.
Stanzas 4 and 5 delve into the speaker's thoughts, which their observations of a blackbird have caused. Stanza 6 finds the same speaker in a room inside a house in the winter, and stanzas 7 and 8 are further thoughts and reflections spurred on by their observation of a blackbird outside the window.
Stanza 9 returns again to the speaker observing a bird flying away. These lead to two more thoughts, one about the blackbird's beauty in stanza 10, and one about the speaker's own misunderstanding of the blackbird's meaning—referring to himself as "He" as he no longer identifies with those thoughts. The final two stanzas return once more to the speaker's perspective, where there is a river and snow but no blackbird. The speaker closes the poem with a seemingly new appreciation of the meaning of the blackbird.5
In this reading, the blackbird is the occasion for a single speaker's various meditations on themes such as perception, imagination, reality, unity, and nature. The poem indirectly broaches each of these themes, often using subtle symbolism and shifts in mood, tone, and perspective. While this reading makes sense of the poem as a whole, it is certainly not the only possible way of understanding this rich and strange poem. Indeed, part of the poem's message seems to be that we can never complete our "ways of looking" at anything, whether it be a blackbird or a poem.
The blackbird in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is often depicted in a cold, snowy setting. The blackbird is also described along with a mysterious "green light" and is juxtaposed with a river, among other things.
"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is an abstract poem with no single, easily identifiable meaning.
"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is a series of 13 separate stanzas, some of which describe a blackbird, and others of which are just meditations or expressions of a thought or attitude in which a blackbird makes some appearance.
The tone of the poem varies considerably between its thirteen stanzas, from solemn and philosophical in the first stanza to playful and lighthearted in the second. In addition to these shifts, the complexity of the poem often obscures the tone.
Not in any obvious sense. It seems to be a series of loosely related stanzas, all connected by the image or thought of a blackbird. See the explanation for an attempt to read the poem like a story or narrative.
What literary movement is "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" a part of?
When was "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" published?
Which literary device does NOT play a major role in the poem?
Which best describes a "way of looking" in the poem?
Any kid of perception or conscious thought
"A man and a woman / are one. / A man and a woman and a blackbird / are one."
These lines from Stanza IV are divided mid-sentence. What is the name of this literary technique?
Who are most likely the "bawds of euphony"?
people who write for money
All of the following are important themes in the poem EXCEPT
The ethics of bird ownership
The "green light" in Stanza X likely refers to
What does the speaker imply about the "thin men of Haddam" in Stanza VII?
They are greedy and oblivious
What do the "noble accents" and "inescapable rhythms" from Stanza VIII most likely refer to?
What does the pronoun "it" in line 4 of Stanza VI refer to?
What is the speaker trying to choose between in Stanza V?
Pleasure and its anticipation
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