Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird : An Analysis

 

This essay will deal with the poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, by Wallace Stevens. The poem seems to be thematically structured to bring about a fuller understanding of our own thought processes and to enable us to realize shortcomings in our egocentric thoughts. By using the signifier blackbird, repeated in each of the thirteen stanzas, Stevens guides us through a process of self questioning. Separately, the verses are similar to Zen koans, designed to shatter your method of thinking to bring about enlightenment. Yet as a whole this piece seems gently to nudge you into the author's way of thinking, rather than shoving as Zen propounds.

 

 

I

 

The first stanza may be read as an introduction to the entire poem and a preparatory exercise for your intellect. Stevens conjures an image of a lone blackbird among twenty snow capped mountains, the only moving thing is the eye of the bird. If we consider the Blackbird as signifying the intellect, this suggests to me a feeling of omnipresence, of power and isolation, as many intellectually minded people may feel.

 

II

In the second stanza, we are asked to consider three blackbirds being as three minds within a tree. This seems strongly to suggest a trinity of the conscious mind, perhaps such as Freud suggested, the id, ego and superego. Adopting this reading, we may go further on to say that the tree represents the framework of our mind, i.e., the physical body, our brain, perhaps even knowledge. Then, the blackbird signifies singular thoughts on a particular subject.

 

III

 

The third sketch is more subversive than the first two. We are provided with an image of a blackbird being "whirled in the autumn winds", suggesting to me a loss of control, an overwhelming force acting on the blackbird. Not only that, the blackbird is said to be "a small part of the pantomime" suggestive of the Taoist notion of the ‘dance of life', the interplay of all living things, the blackbird is a microscopic example of all of life. I have therefore read this sketch to illustrate the role a thought plays in the mind as the role a blackbird plays in the cycle of life.

 

IV

A more concrete example of the style of thought Stevens wishes us to explore are in the fourth stanza. It is styled on a fundamental Taoist principle that "all things under heaven are born of the corporeal: The corporeal is born of the Incorporeal" (Tao Te Ching, chap.40, Shambala 1990). The incorporeal the Tao Te Ching speaks of is the universal unconscious, the base spiritual kinship we have to each other, and indeed, to every object in the universe. Therefore a man and a woman at base are the same if we add a blackbird, they are all a part of the ‘oneness'.

 

V

 

Stevens in the fifth stanza seems to be alluding to the importance of grasping the difference between what is implicit and what is implied. Other words to describe these phenomena could be signifier and signified. The ‘inflections' of the Blackbird whistling I took to illustrate the signifying sign ( be it whistling, text, speech, etc.). Similarly, the signifier implies the ‘innuendo', or the signified. We must consider this from the very beginning of Stevens' own poem, with the title. Blackbirds will give every reader a different picture in their mind, but if one takes into account what the word Blackbird actually signifies as a sign within the structure of the piece, we have an altogether different appreciation of the work.

 

VI

 

The complexity of the ideas and language in the sixth stanza lends a baffling air to the verse. However since Stevens has urged us in the last stanza to read deeper within the text in order to draw out the meanings, we are prepared for it. The first two lines "Icicles fill[ed] the long window with barbaric glass" is a very visual line, with images of looking out of an ice encrusted window, but it brings too the feeling of entrapment or encroachment. Then the "shadow of the blackbird" crosses the window, drawing our attention from the window to the flitting shadow where we are told "The mood traced in the shadow . . . an indecipherable cause.". The appearance of the shadow seems to provoke in the author a sudden flash of intuition, which unfortunately turns out to be ungraspable, or indecipherable to himself and to the reader also.

 

VII

 

Again I felt confronted by another Taoist interpretation while reading verse seven. Why would you reach for loftier heights that are impossible to attain when everything you need is at your feet? Stevens counsels the "thin men of Haddam" to "see how the blackbird walks around the feet of the women about you.". According to the Tao Te Ching, we should "Know the masculine, keep to the feminine." (Shambala, 1990). Apparently, in both sources, the woman (female tendencies) is equated with being down to earth, wiser than those foolish men (masculine tendencies) becoming thinner while pining for golden birds and ignoring the blackbirds.

 

VIII

 

Here Stevens speaks of written or spoken texts, saying "I know noble accents and lucid inescapable rhythms." This at first seems to be very egotistical, telling the reader that he has extraordinary skills. Then, he admits that " . . . the blackbird is involved in what I know.". I draw two conclusions from this admission: that he hails the blackbird as an equal or even an influence to his writing, that this sentence is a tribute to the blackbird (nature). Also, that all of his rhythms and accents are easily traced back to a natural (not man made) source, for instance, the whistling of the blackbird has rhythms and accents, just as poetry has, therefore Stevens is not doing anything new, the blackbird does it all already.

 

IX

 

On the surface of stanza nine, it seems that Stevens is referring to the horizon, or man's own line of sight, with which we may trace a circle from and point with us as the focal point. I believe what is signified is especially present in the final line " . . . one of many circles", what are these circles? I was reminded of the circle in nature and in life, everything revolves in a circular fashion, the planet, the food chain, life and death.

 

X

 

Verses ten and eleven introduce the concept of fear and guilt into our thoughts. "At the sight of blackbirds flying in a green light" can only suggest to me the idea of something being wrong with the light that the blackbirds are flying in, which I believe would signify the carrier of the thoughts (blackbirds). Therefore I take it also to mean that when something is amiss within ones thoughts, even those who are devout followers of mellifluence may exclaim sharply, or simply be affected adversely by the disquieting effect the blackbirds have in that light.

 

XI

 

The theme of guilt is apparent in verse eleven, when we are told that a man riding "In a glass coach" which would suggest extreme fragility, coupled with an illusion of transparency, which are two things a guilty person may feel. Also, we are told that "Once, a fear pierced him, in that he mistook the shadow of his equipage for blackbirds." who but a guilty and fearful man would be pierced by fear at an illusion of blackbirds. Blackbirds in this case could mean many things, for example, the law, a party bent on revenge, an ex-wife/girlfriend, etc. The blackbirds I also take to symbolize his externalized guilt, projected into an illusion glimpsed below.

 

XII

 

The aphorism "The river is moving ... the blackbird must be flying" is a common form in philosophical texts. The cause and effect principal; if the water flows, nature lives, the blackbird flies. In the context of nature, it speaks of the immutability of all, the resistance to change working hand in hand with the process of change. In reading this to describe humans, it is essentially the same. The water symbolizes life, the blackbird intellect or consciousness, as long as we live, our intellect flies. This is a natural segue to the last verse, having both the effect of calming our fears and restoring our faith in life.

 

XIII

 

The final verse in my reading deals with aging and death even. "It was evening all afternoon.." suggests a person in his declining years, death being night, evening nearing night. "It was snowing, And it was going to snow." suggests the foresight of experienced eyes, someone who has seen many winters and has been granted a limited prescience over the effects of nature. For the first time in the piece, the blackbird we see is immobile, sitting in the cedar limbs. Going back to the second stanza, and the idea of a tree as our physical body, with blackbirds representing our intellect or thoughts, we see the slowing down and eventual stopping of creative thought as night comes nearer.

 

Wallace Stevens is a man deeply involved with philosophical problems as they relate to man and his universe. He seems to be asking us to open our minds to the magic of everyday life, ie; the blackbird and nature, but also to reevaluate our mindset in relation to living in an ordinary, mundane world. I believe he is attempting to counsel us in using an open mind and creative visualisation in order to bring about a conscious bond between the causal and seemingly acausal relationships enjoyed by every object and living being involved in the dance of life.

Comments

Thanks

Thank you, this really helped a lot.

Thirteen ways and more ...

Perspectives. A lovely study in perspectives. I have always wondered why thirteen were chosen; why not twelve or fourteen. Haply, an intent for an 'other' perspective. The keen mind can shift to more frames of reference with regard to the blackbird or a keener one, even without it: "All these days I was waiting for this song, to rise."

intent is intent is intent

I suspect that a prerequisite of a meaningful discussion here is a deliberate decision whether one means to add to it energy movement tone flavor texture . . . or Order, meaning, structure, analysis, insight. Really, can one stance defeat another if they are taken upon different planes?

A couple of comments

The poem could possibly be inspired by Japanese prints. Often they are a series, a variation on a theme. This goes nicely with the haiku-esque nature of the stanzas and the Japanese zen Koan-like nature of some lines.

"It was snowing and it was going to snow..." can be interpreted as "It's snowing now, and it will continue to snow". I always interpreted as a type of Koan: It is snowing now... yet at the same time it is not snowing but is about to snow. Or, things don't continue to happen, but are continually on the verge of happening even as they are happening. Aligns with Stevens interests in borders, the imminent, the in-between like the season of Autumn.

Interesting

Thank you for sharing your viewpoint. You expressed your ideas very well and in great detail. I certainly will consider this argument. I would also like to say to the people that are saying this this argument is "wrong" that this article is an opinion. Poetry is not simple and obvious. A single poem, such as this one, can be interpreted in various ways, as it should be. Saying that an argument is just wrong is proving that you are not open-minded and willing to gain knowledge from others and that is just an idiotic way to live. Additionally, if you disagree with something, then you have to explain yourself and be nice about it. Just saying.

the bird

well there are 3 minds and one is the mind of the blackbird you need to look the blackbird in the eye......and you should look to H. Bogart he sought the blackbird too

Thank you so much

I have been looking all over to find a meaningful analysis, and I finally found it. Thank you so much. This analysis proved the poem to be far more thought-provoking than I initially thought. I am a student and had to write a poem similar to this, and this post not only helped me understand what Wallace was trying to convey, but also how he thought. Again, thank you so very much.

Helen Vendler

As a long-time professor of English, I would humbly suggest that those of you who are looking for interpretive help with this poem for an academic project read Helen Vendler's commentary. Helen Vendler, professor at Boston University, is a renowned poetry scholar. I understand this automatically makes her suspect for some of you. As a political pundit recently stated, in America these days, someone who has devoted years of study to a complex subject or issue and, therefore, actually knows something about it is considered a phony. (Not a direct quote, btw). Of course, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," a poem I have always found haunting, can be interpreted at least thirteen ways and enjoyed and appreciated on different levels and from different perspectives, and the Taoist readings make perfect sense (if Taoist readings are supposed to make sense). I'm just sayin' that if you are writing about the poem for school, Helen Vendler is far and away a more credible source than Jeremy Chapman. Of course, her piece is an actual essay, which requires some time and attention to read.

The "Blackbird" reading

I've read Stevens for years and could make sense of most of his poems. The "Blackbird" poem has eluded me for years, and I refused to consult any scholar. I continued to think I'd figure it out. This semester I am teaching poetry again and admitted to my students that I did not understand the poem. Then, I began feeling guilty again, so I decided to resort to some sort of interpretation. After reading your comments, I thought, "Well, hell, yes. Stevens was always a "thinking poet" besides being a precious one with words. He was always trying to have readers think, no doubt partly because he was an attorney. So, definitely, you are correct; Stevens was definitely trying to use the blackbird as a pivotal to thought, the variations of perspectives. My students may think how bright I am now! Ho, ho, hum, hum. All best, Lenny Emmanuel

good one sir

the concept of cubism in poetry becomes clearer after your notes on each stanza. good one sir. I appreciate it.

terrific.

thank you very much for your analysis. you brought up points i had not considered and it forced me to examine the poem itself more in-depth. i appreciate this.

I had to analyze this poem

I had to analyze this poem for my English class and had no idea where to start. This helped a lot and I was also able to branch off from your ideas and create my own meaning for each stanza. Thanks so much! I really liked the way you went into detail and explained your reasoning too. THANKS!!!

Implicit versus Implied and the "Universal Unconscious"

Beautiful--but two questions as of Stanza V: what is the difference between implicit and implied--are they not the same? Also, unconscious does not suggest unknowable which is the great mystery of Pure Awareness as an aspect of Truth.

Interesting

Thanks for the comments. I read this poem as having the blackbird as a symbol for human consciousness throughout. However, I think your reading of the poem was accurate, and there are multiple interpretations that could all be called correct.

yay

i need help with my project!!!!!!!!! HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!

extremely superficial analysis

what a limited and close-minded reading of a great poem! And especially sad as a reading of *this* poem, which is first and foremost an argument for multiple and open-ended readings of life, the universe, and everything, including blackbirds.

that is ridiculous.

i think the writer here did a very accurate job in analyzing the poem. as it has been said, there are many possible interpretations of it. obviously, it strikes everyone that reads it differently. you dont have the right to decide what is or is not an accurate reading of the poem, as there are many ways in which it could be taken to mean.

damn right.

Hear, hear!

You are amazing!

Thank you so much this really helped me on my english test and, although there are other possible explanations for the blackbird, yours is the best that I've heard yet. You rock!

Notice in the beginning of

Notice in the beginning of the poem "Was the eye of the blackbird." You almost wonder right off the bat if the black bird quite literally was...it makes you worry a little about what happened to the blackbird.

Maybe

I'm not so sure that you are 100% correct. I have discussed this poem with multiple teachers and friends of mine and we have all had different ideas of what the blackbird represents. I initially thought it was death. My friend thought it was God or religion. My English teacher thought it was perspective at first. There have been a multitude of ideas that we have had and we all have had exceptional justification for each. After my teacher studied the poem for longer than any poem he had studied before, he came to a conclusion. He stated that the poem was written in such a way that multiple conclussions could be drawn from it and that the purpose of the poem was to promote and be a catalyst for in depth thought. We talked for a while, and while a portion of me feels that it is just a cop out for finding what the blackbird REALLY represents, it make sense to me. Given that outlook, I really appreciate every word that was used in the poem. Either way, you could be right, but I don't feel that the blackbird represents thought as much as the poem is written to promote thought.

Wallace Stevens

If you look at anything Wallace Stevens ever wrote, you will see that this is his favorite mode - write something fraught with meaning but open enough to allow multiple readings. I love Stevens for this, and in fact I've written several different perspectives on his "Anecdote of the Jar" and "The Emperor of Ice Cream," all of which are "correct" according to a close reading of the poem. However, in a persuasive essay, a writer MUST pick a stance and stick with it. To turn an essay in that says "This poem is about making you think" would result in a great big C from almost any instructor.

Thanks a lot man

Great job. I found your conclusions very helpful.

Greatly appreciated!

If this poem was a nail, you'd be the hammer!
Thank you!! Barbie

hi

hi

Thanks

Thank U! It helped me with my project majorly!:)

Thank you

KUDOS!

Cool

It all makes sense to me now, I knew i was interpreting this poem in the right direction
but i needed to brush up on my philosophical knowledge. Good analysis for a deep poem.

yo yo yo!!!

I'm glad you wrote a poem and all, and I'm gonna let 'ya finish... but shakespear wrote the best poems ever!!!

god, shakespeare'd've hated

god, shakespeare'd've hated Wallace

queer

queer

hey thanks a lot

thanks that was really helpful,
i liked your analysis of stanza nine, the only connection i made with it was the nine circles of hell from dantes inferno

This critique is the fourth

This critique is the fourth i've read on this poem and probably encapsulates the best attributes of all. Although, every critque has told me more about the critiquer than the poem, this one is obviously written by a knowleadgable sort.

yea

your wrong

umm...

Maybe you shouldn't comment and use improper grammar. It should be you're wrong...think about that. Way to look like an idiot.

excuse me sir,

but you are obviously one of a lesser knowledge. I, a student of the most prestigious high school in the U.S., have had 30 or more hours in concentration just on this poem alone, and it is impiety to say that this man is wrong or to call his work foolish. Wallace Stevens was one of the most influential modernistic writers in American history. You, sir, are out of line to say this man is wrong with out any evidence or any material to back up your statement.
Thank you.

YAY!!!

thank you sooo sooo much..
read the poem and thought it was extraordinary..but you gave explanations that i would never have thought of...
thanks again...xoxox

what the heck... i honestly

what the heck... i honestly dont get it!

thanks

this really helped with my english project

Wallace rocks!

I've read his work and never depicted it to such detail. Wonderful! It gives me a greater appreciation for something I already love.

comment

we can concider this poem as an example of diversity of meaning throw the word " three mind." i can say that there is man differnt ways of looking at on thing

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