Stevie Smith’s ‘Parrot‘ explores the consequences that arise from removing a creature from its natural environment and placing it in one that seems alien. Ultimately, the poem is concerned with the incongruity experienced by the titular parrot in its new urban surroundings. Smith appears to suggest the modern world is incompatible with such creatures.
‘Parrot‘ depicts the declining health of a wondrously beautiful bird in north London, where it appears to have been taken against its will.
The poem begins by describing the unwell bird and its view over the houses near Noel Park in north London. The creature’s ill health is emphasized as early as the poem’s opening line. As the poem continues, Smith creates a sense of dislocation by contrasting the bird’s current surroundings with the tropical environment it came from. In the final stanza, the parrot appears close to death, and Smith appears to hope for its swift arrival so that the bird may be free from its suffering.
You can read the full poem here (on page 6).
The old sick green parrot
High in a dingy cage
Sick with malevolent rage
Beadily glutted his furious eye
On the old dark
Chimneys of Noel Park
Smith’s use of the rule of three in the opening line emphasizes the frailty of the titular bird, as well as creates a sense of exhaustion due to the list-like nature of the adjectives. The metaphorical description of how the bird is “sick with malevolent rage” suggests its incarceration is the cause of its ill health rather than a mere coincidence. Smith could be implying that, when imprisoned, sickness and death become preferable alternatives. Smith herself was sent to a sanatorium for three years as a child, and her preoccupation with the removal of freedom may have influenced this poem.
The evocation of the setting is significant as it further alienates the parrot, which is not native to Britain. However, it also evokes wider concerns about the potential dangers of urban living and pollution, as demonstrated by the reference to chimneys.
Far from his jungle green
Over the seas he came
With a beauty that’s not for one
Born under a tropic sun.
The use of colors is significant in this stanza, notably the use of the adjective “green” in the opening line. At first, it appears to simply be repeating the word from the opening stanza. However, this time it evokes the lush, regenerative powers of the bird’s homeland, whereas earlier, it connoted sickness and decay. Likewise, Smith juxtaposed the lush “jungle green” with London’s “yellow skies” to reinforce her view that urban life was toxic to the bird and potentially other living beings too.
The surrealist description of puddles reflecting streetlamps imbues the city with a gothic, unsettling quality and creates a sinister atmosphere. The focus on artificial light invites the reader to question whether other parts of the poem should be considered unnatural.
He has croup. His feathered chest
Pray heaven it won’t be long.
Smith reverts back to her typically direct style in this stanza, immediately diagnosing the bird’s condition. This refusal to abstract the creature’s condition any longer creates a degree of urgency and finality, further emphasized by the subsequent use of caesura. Smith then uses hyperbole when describing how the parrot “knows no minute of rest” in order to create sympathy for the creature, as well as suggesting that death may be preferable to suffering.
The decision to list the verbs in lines three and four creates the sense that the bird and, by extension, the reader are simply waiting around for the animal to die. This reading is confirmed by Smith, although the final line remains ambiguous as it is not clear whether the narrator wishes the bird’s suffering to end or whether the bird itself wishes to die. These lines display the poet’s career-long interest in death, which she once described as “the only god who must come when he is called.”
Stevie Smith was born in Yorkshire in 1902 but moved to London when she was three years old after her father left the family. Raised in a female-only household, Smith grew up very protective of her independence and remained in north London until she died in 1971. Having worked as a secretary for many years, Smith retired after a nervous breakdown but went on to read her poetry on the BBC, which helped introduce her work to younger audiences.
Despite her secluded life, Smith was in contact with many artists and writers of her time, including George Orwell and Sylvia Plath, the latter of which was vocal in her admiration of Smith’s work. She remains an inspiration to many artists, and her work is regularly cited as influential. The songwriter Nick Cave lists her as one of his favorite poets.
The poem is written across three stanzas with no fixed rhyme scheme. There are, however, several rhyming couplets, notably that of “chest” and “rest” in the final stanza. These rhymes function as echoic reminders of an earlier time, possibly when the bird was in better health or when it was in the jungle.
Smith’s message appears to be that certain creatures cannot inhabit the urban world. More broadly, this could symbolize her view that beings must have the means to escape their surroundings, whether that be their physical environment or their emotional suffering.
Stevie Smith’s poetry is often characterized by the simplicity and clarity of her expression, through which she was able to translate abstract ideas about death and mortality into powerful language. Her work often engages with questions about health, religion, and the nature of life.
On the one hand, the parrot does not represent anything – it is merely a suffering creature that the poet wishes it could help. However, it is possible to view the bird as emblematic of those who were forced to move somewhere due to circumstances beyond their control, whether by a doctor’s orders, in Smith’s case, or by economic realities.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Parrot‘ might want to explore other Stevie Smith poems. For example:
- ‘Not Waving But Drowning‘ – Smith’s most famous poem, which explores how easily a person’s suffering can go unnoticed.
- ‘Come On, Come Back‘ – A poem in which Smith explores humanity’s response to moments of tragedy and pain.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘Caged Bird‘ by Maya Angelou – One of the most iconic poems of all time, Angelou uses the image of a caged bird to explore themes including racism and freedom.
- ‘I have a Bird in spring‘ by Emily Dickinson – Dickinson uses the image of a bird to explore ideas about friendship and loss.