By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ appeared in Harmonium (1923), the first poetry collection of the American modernist poet Wallace Stevens, although it had originally been published in an American magazine, Others, in 1917. At once a poem and a series of thirteen loosely linked images or mini-poems – all of them united by being, in some way, about blackbirds – ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ is a puzzling and provocative piece which calls for further analysis.
But first, you can read ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ here.
Wallace Stevens’s titles don’t always help us to get our bearings (see ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’ or ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’), but at least here, the title ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ offers us a direct clue as to what the poem is about. Stevens is offering different ways in which we might ‘look at’ the blackbird, but by ‘look at’ here he means ‘study’ or ‘think about’ (in a more abstract sense) as much as ‘watch’ or ‘observe’.
We should be wary, as Richard Allen Blessing cautions in his excellent study of Harmonium, Wallace Stevens, of offering interpretations of ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ which reduce the blackbird to a monolithic symbol. Some critics have analysed it as a symbol of death, but even this cannot help to illuminate every one of Stevens’s ‘thirteen ways’.
And we should remember that Stevens is offering multiple ways of thinking about the blackbird – a symbol, as image, as thing in the world. He is not setting out to offer one unified vision or interpretation of the bird.
Rather than offer a ‘summary’ followed by an ‘analysis’ in a traditional dual manner, perhaps it might be more productive to summarise or paraphrase each of the thirteen sections of Stevens’s poem, and draw attention to salient details (by way of ‘analysis’) as we go? Yes? Good. To summarise those ‘thirteen ways’, then:
1: a blackbird among twenty snowy mountains, with the only moving thing being the blackbird’s eye. Not the implied contrast here between the black of the blackbird and the white of the snow; but note how the eye of the bird is what’s moving, rather than the bird itself.
2: the poet considers being ‘of three minds’ (a variation on being ‘in two minds’ about something?), much like a tree containing three blackbirds. Stevens’s point appears to be, as Blessing brilliantly observes, that ‘to the mind lacking inner harmony, the external world becomes emblematic of the mind’s own fragmented condition.’
3: the poet now considers the blackbird moving, or rather being moved, passively, by the autumn winds. The performance is like part of a pantomime, suggesting a dumb show, or an exaggeratedly comic turn.
4: the poet declares that a man and a woman are ‘one’ (as in the marriage ceremony? Or before the Spice Girls, that 2 become 1?). The poet then expands upon this statement, declaring that a man and woman and blackbird are one.
Note the numerical symbolism throughout this poem: in the second poem, we had three blackbirds in a tree reflecting the poet’s tripartite mind or attitude; now we have three ‘people’ (man, woman … and blackbird) joining together. 3 become 1.
5: The poet is now in two minds (rather than three): which does he prefer, the beauty of inflections or innuendoes? He expands on this: an inflection is the sound of a blackbird whistling, while the innuendo is the silence following the sound of the blackbird whistling. Is a pleasing sound heard the nicest thing in the world, or is the memory of the sound even more powerful? (Compare John Keats here on how ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter’.)
6: We have another cold scene now: the shadow of a blackbird can be seen moving across a window filled with icicles in winter. In a version of pathetic fallacy, Stevens says that a mood that can be deciphered in the movement of the bird’s shadow has an ‘indecipherable cause’: there is something enigmatic about the mood (Stevens cannot even articulate what the mood is) that the movement of the bird (or its shadow) inspires.
7: Stevens addresses the ‘thin men’ of Haddam, a town in Connecticut, asking them why they imagine golden birds, when the real blackbird walks around the feet of the women in the men’s lives. This suggests the idea of missing what’s right under one’s nose in our rush to go on a fool’s errand for something better (but unattainable, and possibly unreal).
8: Stevens tells us that he knows ‘noble accents’ and clear, ‘inescapable rhythms’ (suggesting speech, and perhaps, poetry), and the blackbird has helped to create such knowledge. The suggestion here is that nature informs the way we respond to culture and to man-made artefacts and ‘things’ (whether language or poetry).
9: The blackbird flies out of sight, marking the edge of ‘one of many circles’. This is one of the most elusive of Stevens’s ‘thirteen ways’, suggesting limitations and horizons, but human limitations more than the blackbird’s own: note how the blackbird flies repeatedly out of our sight, but it has ‘many circles’ or routes it takes when flying. Just as the blackbird can fly to escape the bounds of earth (unlike us), so it can seems to see further in nature, too – recall that ever-moving eye from the opening section.
10: Stevens now praises the sight of blackbirds flying ‘in a green light’. As with the first section of the poem, there’s an interesting palette of colours here – not black and white this time, but black and green. This tenth section approaches the experience of synaesthesia in blending, or at least comparing, a visual experience to an aural or heard one: Stevens says that the ‘bawds’ or gatekeepers of ‘euphony’ (pleasing sounds, in music or, again, poetry) would involuntarily cry out in a most uneuphonic (i.e. dysphonic) way.
In other words, the sight of blackbirds flying against a green landscape isn’t just the most harmonious and pleasing thing you can see; it beats any pleasing sounds, too. It’s probable that by ‘bawds of euphony’, Stevens is having a dig at inferior poets who try to make everything sound pleasing (through using poetic clichés and obvious literary devices), but who don’t bring us any closer to the truth of what the blackbird (for instance) is like.
11: A well-to-do man riding in a glass coach in Connecticut is frightened when he thinks he sees blackbirds moving, but it turns out to be the shadow of his ‘equipage’ (i.e., the carriage and horses with attendants).
12: If the river is flowing, the blackbird must be flying, suggesting the interrelated nature of … nature. But this couplet also hints at the timelessness of the blackbird, as much a part of the natural landscape as the river.
13: This final section merges present and future: it feels as if the languorous evening is already here, even though it’s only afternoon; similarly, it is snowing already, but it also feels as if it is going to snow later. While all this is going on, one thing remains the same (timeless again): the blackbird sits in the branches of the cedar tree.
Note how this final section recalls the first one, with the contrast between the blackbird and the white snow – but note also, how whereas in the first section the snow was stationary and the bird (or its eye) was moving, now the snow is moving (it is ‘snowing’) and the bird is stationary.
This concludes our summary-cum-paraphrase-cum-analysis of ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. A few additional thoughts: these sections are irregular in form and metre, written in free verse; some of them are just two lines long, some are three lines (summoning the haiku form), and some are up to six or seven lines in length.
The haiku is an important influence on these short, imagistic pieces, although the method and attitude Stevens uses is decidedly American, decidedly modernist, and decidedly Wallace Stevens.