They Feed They Lion

Philip Levine

‘They Feed They Lion’ by Philip Levine is a powerful poem that visualizes a scene of apocalyptic proportions. It was inspired by the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit riots.


Philip Levine

Nationality: American

Philip Levine was an American poet born in 1928 in Detroit.

He experienced the Great Depression of the 1930s and the wars of the mid 20th century.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Those oppressed will eventually devour their subjugators

Themes: Death, New Life, War

Speaker: A white American man

Emotions Evoked: Greediness, Guilt, Vengeance

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

The poem offers with intense clarity a surreal vision of the ways in which those who are violently suppressed respond with rage.

‘They Feed They Lion’ is a powerful poem that uses rapturous imagery and figurative language to envision an apocalyptic uprising. Levine draws on his own observations of the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit riots to elucidate a somewhat prophetic view of the flashpoint of racial tension in the city.

The poem juxtaposes two motifs: the first is an image of the multitudes rallied to strength against their oppressors, and the second highlights the violent devouring necessitated by such an overthrow. A sobering reminder that a genuinely carnivorous world will one day devour itself.


'They Feed They Lion' by Philip Levine illustrates a surreal scene that's meant to symbolize the subjugation of a group of people and their rebellion against those forces. 

‘They Feed They Lion’ paints a compelling and visceral image of people rising up. Seated in their car as they drive across the countryside, the speaker envisions a people (“They Lion”) finding both strength and courage in their multitudes. The poem’s first two stanzas allude to the working-class Black Americans who moved in the Great Migration to cities like Detroit, only to find more of the same (i.e., economic exploitation and racial prejudice).

Two contrasting images are also threaded throughout each stanza: the feeding of the lion and all that is being devoured. By the end of the poem, the speaker (revealed to be a white American) has even offered themselves up, ending on the heavily ambiguous and foreboding final line: “They feed they Lion and he comes.” Which describes a scene that makes an allusion to a biblical apocalypse.

Historical Context

‘They Feed They Lion’ contains a number of allusions to both Levine’s life in Detroit and historical accounts. In an interview with The Atlantic from 1999, the author went into great detail about where he sourced the idea for the poem. Explaining its inception was borne out of his time working alongside a man named Eugene, sorting universal joints for the assembly of cars into burlap sacks (the same as the poem) from the Detroit Municipal Zoo.

It was then that Eugene started riffing off the words on the sacks using Black colloquialisms, saying: “They feed they lion they meal in they sacks.” It’s Eugene’s voice that Levine adopts in the poem. He also points to the devastating Detroit riots of 1967, which influenced much of the apocalyptic imagery in the poem.

Structure and Form

‘They Feed They Lion’ is organized into five stanzas, each of which uses between five and eight lines. These stanzas do not use any definite rhyme scheme or meter. The poem does have an incantatory cadence similar to a chant, which is developed by anaphora (“Out of”) and the repetition of the phrases like “They Lion” and “they feed.” Levine also uses cataloging to underscore the image of a resurgence undertaken by a great many people.

Literary Devices

‘They Feed They Lion’ uses both imagery and figurative language to create abstract and surreal scenes. In the first stanza, Levine catalogs a variety of images of the industrial working class, like “burlap sacks” and “black bean and wet slate bread” (1-2). He also slyly combines metaphor with personification — “acids of rage, the candor of tar” (3).

Levine also uses similes — “Mothers hardening like pounded stumps” (9) — and even personifies the Earth as engaging in some of the devourings: “Earth is eating trees, fence posts” (12). While some of the poem’s most transfixing imagery deals with the themes and motifs of consumption taking place: “From the furred ear and the full jowl come / The repose of the hung belly” (16-17) to “from the full flower / Of the hams the thorax of caves” (20-21).

The poem also contains biblical allusions and symbolism: “pig driven to holiness” (15) and “the reeds of shovels” (23). As well as apocalyptic ones: “From they sack and they belly opened / And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth…and he comes” (31-33). There’s also the symbolism of the ambiguous “They Lion,” which Levine uses to represent an uprising of Black Americans that’s been made possible by their continued exploitation.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.

The first stanza of ‘They Feed They Lion’ conjures up a scene of resurgence. A motif that’s developed throughout the poem and begins here with the anaphora that opens lines 1-4 (“Out of”). Though what exactly is coming forth isn’t addressed until the final line — yet the “burlap sacks” (1), “black bean” (2), and general industrial nature of the images clues the reader in on some possibilities. The most general being working-class men and women, though it will soon become apparent that Levine is honing in on the plight of Black Americans living in Detroit.

The stanza’s final line offers another hint and one of the poem’s repeated expressions: “They Lion grow” (5). But the identity of “they” remain ambiguous even after this somewhat confusing turn of phrase — which Levine borrows from Black colloquialisms and grammatical structure, both of which he tries to recreate in the voice of the speaker.

Line five entertains a number of simultaneous readings: one is to read “they” as the subject and “lion” as the verb (i.e., championing a cause or fighting bravely for something); another is to see “they” as possessive of “lion” (i.e., denoting the “lion” as either a physical thing or symbol owned by “they”). However, both build on the poem’s crescendoing motifs and tone of resistance.

Stanza Two

Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,

Stanza two solidifies the speaker’s focus on Black strife with an image of exodus en masse, which also serves as the first of the many biblical allusions in the poem. Every repetition of “out of” fosters an image of continuous streams of people pouring from “gray hills” (6), “industrial barns” (7), and bus rides.

The imagery alludes in part to the so-called Great Migration that took place across the bulk of the 20th century, during which an estimated six million Black Americans migrated from the country’s South to areas like the industrial midwest.

The speaker’s tone becomes dreary and acerbic in relating the scenes being left behind — “buried aunties” (8), “Mothers hardening like pounded stumps” (9) — with those that lie ahead: “West Virginia to Kiss My Ass” (8).

Underscoring the bitter irony that Black Americans trying to escape racism and economic hardship only found more of it wherever they relocated. Line 10 returns to the motif of growth, though, creating a symbol of strength (“bones’ need to sharpen”) and adaptability (“muscles’ to stretch”) that the speaker tacitly attributes to the ambiguous “they lion.” The general meaning of the speaker’s words is clear: out of so much misery and discontent, a strength is maturing.

Stanza Three

Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
“Come home, Come home!” From pig balls,

In stanza three, the speaker conjures up a carnal scene of devouring that begins in the first line. The speaker personifies the Earth as “eating” a variety of objects — “trees,” “fence posts,” and “gutted cars” (12-13) in a scene that helps accentuate the poem’s apocalyptic characteristics. But it’s not all destruction and death as the Earth is also described as acting maternally, “calling in her little ones” (13) — though it’s not immediately clear humans are among them.

The most ambiguous image in this stanza is the two references to “pig” in lines 14-15. One reading might focus on the connection the animal has with the poem’s motifs of growth as a symbol of a voracious appetite — both a human flaw and historical consistency — that could also explain why the Earth hungers for such symbols of human expansion as fences and cars (making it another form of retaliation observed in the poem).

Another might look to the use of “pig” as slang for a policeman or any authority that sustains itself via greed and oppression (“fat cats” is another neologism that comes to mind). Either interpretation functions with the speaker’s statement that “they lion” continues to grow, in part, from feeding on the pig’s “furred ear” and “full jowl” (16).

Stanza Four

Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They Lion grow.

In stanza five, the speaker references the “pig” from stanza three again but this time as a dish (“trotters,” i.e., pig’s feet). Another appendage appears — “kinks of the fist” (20) — as a symbol of violent retaliation. Another compelling image envisions the pig as a readily prepared piece of food: “hams” (21) being in “full flower” (20), implying its ripeness to be eaten with a blooming flower. A juxtaposition that highlights the poem’s theme of destruction being tempered and succeeded by new life.

In line four, the speaker puts it in even starker terms: positioning the slogans “Bow Down” and “Rise Up” (22) next to one another. The following line makes it even clearer who “they Lion” is as the speaker describes them coming out of a field of “reeds of shovels” (23) which ties up biblical imagery with a symbol of working-class Americans. It’s important to note that with each stanza, the images representing this theme of upheaval become more tangible.

Stanza Five

From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.

Lines 1-3 of the final stanza of ‘They Lion They Lion’ reveal some important context about the speaker. Firstly, the reader learns they are white, and second, they’re speaking the words of the poem in observation of the things seen on a drive through the landscape: “From my car passing under the stars” (28).

These two details of perspective help orient the reader in the speaker’s mind as they seemingly offer themselves up to “They Lion.” They offer all their limbs — “From my five arms and all my hands” (26) — and acknowledge the ways they’ve either been complicit or benefited from racism towards Black Americans as “white sins” (27).

As the stanza continues, the motifs of an uprising and devouring taking place return via abstract but no less impactful imagery. Echoing once more apocalyptic scenes, the speaker alludes to the destruction of cities — “From they sack” (31), i.e., to sack a city — and further violence: “they belly opened” (31). But the most startling image is that of the destroyed land, which is described with a declarative, parable-like symbolism: “And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth” (32).

Yet out of this wasteland, the speaker states that “They Lion” persists, ending the poem with another possible biblical allusion — “he comes” (33). One’s first thought might turn to Christ, though the lack of capitalization indicates the figure is no deity returned for judgment. Instead, it makes far more sense to see this use of a pronoun as an extension of the far more general and ambiguous “they” repeated throughout the poem.


What is the theme of ‘They Feed They Lion?

At the center of the poem are two contrasting but symbiotic images: an oppressed people rising up and the world being devoured as a consequence. Like any vision of the apocalypse, the images Levine creates are paradoxical in the emotions they elicit — hope mingles with despair, salvation with violent retribution. Ultimately, the poem’s theme boils down to the understanding that the prophetic vision offered by the speaker is just that, a revelation of what’s to come if humanity continues to profit off the marginalization of others. The inherent tragedy is that when the bill comes due, not much will be left in the aftermath after we’ve devoured one another.

Why did Philip Levine write ‘They Feed They Lion?

Levine first got the idea for the poem from a Black man he was working with named Eugene, who started riffing off the writing on some sacks they were filling. After the 1967 riot in Detroit, he was reminded of Eugene’s words. He was tying the strife of Black Americans facing racism in the U.S. with the phrase “they lion.” At the same time, the destruction of the riots (which the poem’s speaker sees as a natural byproduct of an oppressed group driven to such extremes) can be seen as part of the devouring throughout the poem.

What is the meaning of ‘They Feed They Lion?

Even without knowing the context in which Levine wrote the poem, it’s apparent that his poem stresses the ways a group of people rises up against those responsible for their repression. Ultimately, the victory is bittersweet and somewhat pyrrhic: in devouring those responsible, the collateral is implied to be vast. The poet is making the poem a cautionary tale about how humanity’s carnivorous hunger for more will only lead to self-destructing violence.

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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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