‘Three Little Birds in a Row’ is a short and simple poem by the realistic writer Stephen Crane. Crane is best known for his leading role in modern American Naturalism. He’s remembered for his novel The Red Badge of Courage, published in 1895, and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, published in 1893. The latter is lesser-known but is considered to be an important work in the development of American Naturalism, a movement that portrayed a bleak view of human existence and treated characters with cynicism. While ‘Three Little Birds in a Row’ is more light-hearted than either of these works, the poem does deal with a similar subject matter in regard to how human beings behave.
Explore Three Little Birds in a Row
The “Three Little Birds” in this poem are depicted with human characteristics. They are stand-ins for human beings who often act in the same ways described in this poem. The speaker depicts the birds as gossiping, cruel friends who judge a man who walks past them singing. They consider themselves superior singers and therefore laugh at the man’s attempts. The birds don’t think about the man’s feelings or how the song might bring him joy. They also don’t consider how they themselves appear and what judgments one might pass on their laughter.
In ‘Three Little Birds in a Row,’ Crane engages with the theme of human behavior, particularly kindness and cruelty. The poem was written in an attempt to make it clear to readers what it looks like to ridicule someone or judge them before you know them. In this piece, the birds laugh at someone they don’t know, ignoring the fact that this person has feelings and would likely if they could understand the birds, be upset but what he heard. One should walk away from the poem feeling as though they have a better understanding of what it’s like to be on both sides of this situation and perhaps think twice before joining in with their friends in laughter at someone’s expense.
Structure and Form
‘Three Little Birds in a Row’ by Stephen Crane is a two-stanza poem separated into one set of four lines and one set of six. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, meaning that the poem is written in free verse. But, the lines come together quite well due to some literary devices the poet uses as well as the simple and direct language. Any reader could approach this piece and understand the words that the poet chose to use. This makes it accessible for any reader of any age.
Crane makes use of several literary devices in ‘Three Little Birds in a Row.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, alliteration, and personification. The latter is the most important technique the poet chose to use as it allows the birds to take on personalities that are startlingly human. It is through the personification of the birds that ht poet is able to convey the allegorical message he was seeking.
Alliteration is a type of repetition in which the poet uses the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “passed” and “place” in line three of the first stanza and “he” and “heads” in lines one and two of the second stanza. This technique often helps create a feeling of rhyme and rhythm and is often helpful when a poem is written in free verse.
Enjambment occurs several times in this poem. For example, in the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as lines three and four of the second stanza. It often helps create a specific flow to the lines and control how fast or slow a reader moves through them.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Three little birds in a row
A man passed near that place.
Then did the little birds nudge each other.
In the first lines of ‘Three Little Birds in a Row,’ the speaker beings by using the line that later came to be used as the title of the poem. He describes three birds “musing” watching a man pass by them. These birds are immediately personified, meaning that the poet gives them human abilities. They can talk, judge, and laugh just like people do. The little birds “nudge each other” as the man passes them as though they are trying to draw one another’s attention to him. Although the poet uses birds as the characters in his poem, it’s quite obvious that he’s trying to make a statement about human beings. The chatty, gossiping birds are just a stand-in.
They said, “He thinks he can sing.”
They threw back their heads to laugh.
With quaint countenances
They regarded him.
They were very curious,
Those three little birds in a row.
In the next lines, the poet makes use of anaphora through the repetition of the same word at the start of multiple lines. In this case, “They.” He describes how “They,” the little birds, laughed at the man who walked past them. They cackled at his attempts at singing, making fun of him as human beings would who are encouraged by their friends. They did nothing to hide their joy at his lack of skill.
The birds continued to regard the man as the poem concludes, expressing their curiosity about him and his choice to sing when they believe he can’t. The poem end son, an interesting note, suggesting that there might be something more on the bird’s minds than just cruel judgment. But, overall, this poem is trying to depict the cruelty of laughing at someone else for something they enjoy doing.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Three Little Birds in a Row’ should also consider reading some similar poems. For example:
- ‘Auguries of Innocence’ by William Blake – This is one of Blake’s longer poems that is built around ideas of childhood and growing up. He explores innocence, adulthood, and the natural cycle of life and death.
- ‘Once the World Was Perfect’ by Joy Harjo – This is a poem that explores loss and an attempt to regain the perfection that once existed in the world. The “spark of kindness” fuels the “light.” In the end, it’s all up to individuals to live in a way that betters the world for all people.
- ‘The Human Abstract’ by William Blake – This is an example of a metaphysical poem. In it, Blake explores humanity versus divinity through the analysis of different virtues.