‘Song’ is an extended metaphysical conceit, representing Sheers and his lover as magpies, one trapped in a farmer’s cage. Sheers uses the poem as a sign of devotion to his lover, alimenting her and staying near. The poem can be understood as either ruminating on the power of love, or on the difference in power between men and women within relationships.
Title – ‘Song’
The title can be understood as either birdsong or the song of a siren. If interpreted as birdsong, ‘Song’ takes on a positive and harmonic tone, reflecting the perhaps positive outcome of the poem. Yet, if understood as a siren song, it reflects the opposite, focusing instead on the infidelity and pain relationships can cause. The poem is one that can have two very different interpretations, which I will discuss further within stanza 8. You can read the full poem here.
If we were magpies love,
and you were taken in a magpie trap,
Owen Sheers begins ‘Song’ by posing the metaphysical conceit, the situation is not a realistic one and he reflects this by starting with ‘if’, employing the conditional tense of writing.
We know this is a poem directed to someone he is in a relationship with through the substitution of their name or pronoun for ‘love’. Moreover, he binds the two together, using the shared pronoun of ‘we’ as an umbrella term which surges connection between the couple.
The plosive ‘b’, carried across ‘bright bait’ is out of place in the smoothness of ‘Song’. It draws the reader’s attention to the words, manifesting the idea of ‘bait’ through the aural sounds they produce.
a siren in a cage, then I would stay,
and fan you with my feathers in the sun.
In Greek mythology, a ‘Siren’ is a mermaid who lures sailors to their death through their beautiful singing. Tempting the sailors to jump overboard as they seek the Siren’s song, they often would watch the sailors drown as they tried to reach the mermaids. By employing this imagery, Sheers compounds this sense of being trapped. Not only is his lover ‘trapped’ in a ‘cage’, but he himself is drawn to her, like a sailor to a siren. This suggests the idea of female power, with the female using her sexuality as a mechanism of trapping Sheers. This idea of female empowerment echos back to poems such as ‘Night Windows‘.
The disruption of this stanza with frequent caesura and end stop is a representation of the entrapment Sheers faces. He cannot escape his lover, he is constantly fixated on her. Echoed by the truncated lines, there is a catch at every turn. This leads the reader to wonder what type of relationship Sheers has with this woman, it seems as if his complete obsession is verging on unhealthy.
He is presented as protecting the female magpie, standing over her and ‘spreading my wings’. The diversity of weather of which he endures shows his undying devotion to her, both in ‘rain’ and ‘sun’.
And when the others came,
the darkness of your eye,
This stanza perhaps suggests that the woman is unfaithful to Sheers, yet he stays with her. ‘When the others came’ is written in the past tense, which rings as oddly truthful when compared to the normal conditional sentences within ‘Song’. Sheers’ lover has cheated on him, but he remains with her, locked in by her siren song.
The ‘oil spill’ and ‘darkness of your eye’ suggest the innate evil of his lover. He cannot quite trust or forgive her for cheating, using these images to present the evil of what she has done. There is something deeply unnerving about these images, especially the ‘oil’ which seems to seep from the very core of the bird.
I’d watch them strut in,
to find themselves trapped.
The continual suggestion of Sheers watching is compounded through ‘I’d watch’, with the tense used having an indication that this is a repeated process. Sheers has known his lover has cheated on him several times, and he just watches as she does it. ‘Their doom’ is again a presentation of the evil of his lover, with her ruining the men she is with. The birds are ’themselves trapped’, ensnared by the woman’s siren song until they too face a similar fate.
The power of women is suggested as stemming through sexuality, yet possesses an aspect of evil. Sheers elevates the power of women within ‘Song’, but suggests it is something damaging, something that ruins people due to the obsessive nature of man.
All night I’d listen to their confusion,
and the farmer came to wring their lives away.
‘All night’ bears reference to sexual activities, with Sheers again referencing his lover being unfaithful to him.
The consonance carried across this stanza forms a representation of the entrapment of the men. The ‘W’ across ‘wing on wire… wring’ compounds a sense of ensnarement, the words selected shifting the tone into a sinister presentation of this environment. This is furthered through the introduction of the ‘father’, who arrives to ‘wring their lives away’. Female sexuality is presented as ultimately destructive within ‘Song’, ensnaring Sheers and leading to the death of many other magpies.
And through the winter I would feed you,
And in the Spring I’d sing, touch my wings to yours
Stanza six shifts backward in tone, exploring again Sheers’ protective nature over the woman in ‘Song’. He again references a long period of time, spanning from ‘Winter’ to ’Spring’, suggesting his devotion. This devotion is seemingly tragic, considering her infidelity against his commitment.
The internal rhyme between ’sing’ and ‘wing’ creates a happy sense of cohesion within the stanza. The atmosphere when focusing on just the couple is much brighter, with Sheers seeming genuinely happy. This happiness is why he continues to be committed to the woman, trapped within his relationship.
while we waited for that day
that love is all there is to save,
Sheers returns to the pronoun used within the first stanza, focusing on the couple as a ‘we’, instead of ‘you’ and ‘I’. This compounds the sense that they are completely together, both sharing in the fateful ‘waiting’. Sheers perhaps gives an answer to why he keeps on staying with the woman, stating that ‘love is all there is to save’. This tribute to his lover is one that ebbs and flows. Although he understands the infidelity is something that hurts him, he prioritizes the love and connection the two have -‘love’ being the most important aspect for him.
This sense of realization, that ‘love’ and history is more important than a sense of betrayal seems a little deluded from the readers’ perspective, with the negative association of his lover with the siren shifting the balance of the poem to look at her betrayals, more than they actual genuine love between them. Sheers is perhaps overly idealistic within ‘Song’. This could reflect why he chose a metaphysical conceit to house the poem, using a form that naturally inspires the fantastical.
will open the door to your cage
to help you try your wings again.
This stanza has an additional line to the other 7 stanzas, with the moment of release being represented through the form. Sheers’ lover is released, the realization that they can be together again exciting Sheers. He is again presented as completely reliable, always ready to help and support her ‘try her wings’.
Yet, the ending of the poem is somewhat ambiguous. Whereas while locked in the cage, the woman had all of the power, Sheers is now the one that is helping her. She has been stripped of her power, now relying on Sheers for support. If we take the leaving of the cage as a metaphor for her deciding to enter into a monogamous relationship with Sheers, this can be seen as him stating that relationships lead to the disempowerment of women.
Contrastingly, the final lines can be understood as a moment of pure love between the couple. Sheers is ready to ‘help you try your wings again’, which is a beautiful sentiment of support within a loving relationship. Depending on how you personally read ‘Song’, the meaning can greatly change. Deciding if the poem is negatively presenting relationships or not is an interesting aspect of ‘Song’. The beauty of the poem lies in this poetic ambiguity, with Sheers performing a spectacular form of Modern Metaphysical Poetry.