‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ by Wallace Stevens is a thirteen stanza piece that has been divided up into short sections by the poet. Upon looking at the text of this poem, a reader will immediately notice the roman numerals that separate one stanza, or canto, from another. This plays into the title of the poem which speaks on “thirteen ways” of understanding and seeing “a blackbird.”
This poem was originally published in 1917 by Alfred Kreymborg in, Others: An Anthology of the New Verse. Two months later it would appear in the December issue of Others: A Magazine of the New Verse. The poem was also included in Stevens’ first collection of poetry, Harmonium. The work was inspired by the form of a haiku, but none of the stanzas follow that precise pattern.
‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ which was influenced by both imagism and cubism, is a perfect example of the role that linguistics played in Stevens’ work. One should take note of the number of times the writer experiments with the verb ‘to be’ in the text. He describes a blackbird in a variety of tenses and situations.
Summary of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
The poem begins with a number of short stanzas, cantos, or sections which place the blackbird as an integral part of the world. It outlasts other creatures in the snow, stands in as a muse for the speaker, and appears in a number of different forms. The bird is made up of more than its simple physiology. It contains beauty, innuendos, and eccentricities which separate it from other creatures.
‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ concludes with the speaker returning to a snowy day in which he can look out at the landscape as see his muse and guardian, within a cedar tree, looking down over his home. The bird is a force on which he can depend. It will always be there, in one form or another, to watch over him.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
IAmong twenty snowy mountains,(…)Was the eye of the blackbird
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins his varied understandings of a blackbird by describing the power that it has within a landscape. In this particular instance, the landscape is one made out of “twenty snow mountains.” As is the case with most of the stanzas, Stevens has chosen not to illuminate the context or fully describe the setting for his readers. This allows the Imagist-inspired moments to purely exist within forcibly pinning them down to one particular place or time.
It is interesting to note the contrast between the ephemeral moments of this piece and the way in which Stevens has chosen to categorize them. His speaker describes precisely “twenty…mountains,” no more no less.
In amongst the very still scene, there is only one moving part, the “eye of the blackbird.” It swivels back and forth in its socket, keeping watch over the terrain below. This brings up another important contrast which is evident throughout the stanzas, the flat black color of the bird against another background, in this case, the white mountains. The way in which the bird would stand out from its backdrop imbues it with a certain kind of power. It refuses to blend in or become anything less than it is.
III was of three minds,(…)In which there are three blackbirds.
In the second stanza, the speaker refers to himself. This does not mark a change in the perspective of the poem but only alludes to the ways in which the poet plans to experiment with narrative points of view. Some sections will be written from a first-person context, others will remain separate.
The speaker states that he is “of three minds.” His thoughts are split between three separate trains and are represented, as will become obvious as the poem progresses, by blackbirds. His thoughts are like a tree in which “there are three blackbirds.” They perch within the tree, as they do within his mind— symbols of tensions, and perhaps strife, depending on the cultural association.
IIIThe blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.It was a small part of the pantomime.
The third stanza is a couplet, meaning that it is only made up of two lines. Although the phrases are short they are able, through their clear and exacting descriptions, to paint a picture of the scene the speaker has in mind. This is evidence of Stevens’ clear Imagist influence— a movement which was defined by its desire to get away from flowery, overly indulgent language.
The birds are spoken about in this stanza as moving fluidly, but also chaotically through the air. They are being “whirled” about by “the autumn winds.” One will notice the birds if they look closely, but otherwise they are just a “small part of the pantomime” that is nature. In this context, the word pantomime means something extravagant or theatrical. This is how the speaker sees the world around him, and also how the blackbirds move through it.
IVA man and a woman(…)Are one.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker presents another description of what a blackbird is like. He sees the bird as being an integral part of humankind’s own being. The speaker describes “A man and a woman” as being “one.” There is no definition between male or female, or between one person and another. Everyone is part of the same force of life.
This fact remains true when the blackbird is added into the equation. It is as equal to the man and the woman as they are to one another. It is through the comparison to the woman, the woman who the speaker is able to further one’s perceived importance of what the bird is and can be.
VI do not know which to prefer,(…)Or just after.
The fifth stanza expands on the speaker’s already elaborate understanding of the blackbird. In these lines he speaks of how the sound of the birds “whistling” should be appreciated and compared to the beauty of the moment “just after” it has finished. It is very clear by this point that the bird represents more to the speaker than just what it seems to be.
The blackbird is a lovely creature, which is also made up of “inflections” and “innuendoes.” It is able to transcend the speaker’s everyday life and remind him of the beauty which exists within a solid-colored exterior.
VIIcicles filled the long windowWith barbaric glass.(…)Traced in the shadowAn indecipherable cause.
The sixth stanza is longer than those which preceded it. In these lines, the speaker describes a special moment in which he observed the bird through an icy window. This is the second instance in which the speaker contemplates the meaning of the blackbird within a cold environment. The poem will come around to this same type of scene once more before the ending.
He speaks of the “Icicles” which “filled the long window” on one particular day. The glass through which he looks is “barbaric.” This is likely to do with its ability to skew his vision. He needs it to protect him from the elements but it also keeps him from being able to see the bird. It is a necessary constraint on his world.
All that is visible to the speaker in this moment is a “shadow of the blackbird” which moves across the window. This solemn moment is enhanced by its imperceptible and “indecipherable cause.” To the speaker, it is clear what the bird is, but due to its existence in shadow, it takes on an element of mystery.
Another viewer, who does not value the bird as the speaker does, might not have been able to interpret the shadows. They might have frightened someone less knowledgeable, such as the “thin men” in the upcoming seventh stanza.
VIIO thin men of Haddam,(…)Walks around the feetOf the women about you?
There is another element of mystery in the seventh stanza of the poem. The speaker mentions the “thin men of Haddam.” Haddam likely refers to a town of approximately 7,000 located in the Connecticut River Valley, about 30 miles from Stevens’ hometown of Hartford. The men are “thin” due to the speaker’s perceived depth of their perception. Perhaps they are lacking something the speaker feels should be integral to their natures.
He asks the men why they waste time imagining “golden birds” when there are “blackbird[s]” walking around them. The blackbirds are clearly superior in the speaker’s view. It is the difference between pining for wealth and knowledge.
VIIII know noble accents(…)In what I know.
The eighth stanza is used to acknowledge the role the bird has played in the speaker’s own life. He wants to make sure it gets the credit it deserves for its contribution to his “noble accents” and “lucid, inescapable rhythms.” The bird is the speaker’s muse and he intends to treat it with the proper respect.
The speaker is fully aware that the “blackbird is involved” in everything he knows. The bird is from where his inspiration is gained and knowledge flows. It is a source of all spiritual and moral knowledge the speaker needs to function in the world.
IXWhen the blackbird flew out of sight,(…)Of one of many circles.
In the ninth stanza of ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ the speaker once more mentions the bird’s importance. It is said to “mark the edge” of the circles of his life when it flies “out of sight.” The bird makes up the boundaries and contours of what he knows and when it moves, so does his knowledge of what the world can be.
A reader might note the use of juxtaposition in these lines between forces that are tangible, like the sides of a circle, and those which are not, the edges of one’s own life. This relates to the way the speaker was previously counting mountains and is systematically going from one to thirteen, counting ways to look “at a blackbird.”
XAt the sight of blackbirds(…)Would cry out sharply.
The speaker moves away from describing experiences in his own life in this stanza. Instead, he refers to the bird’s ability to influence others. In this case, the “bawds” or brothel madams, of “euphony” or pleasing sounds. The women who run these establishments, and are bent on administering the pleasure of others, would be surprised by the sight of “blackbirds / Flying in a green light.”
The women are used to fickle, emotional pleasures. In this case, though they are confronted with something much deeper. This relates directly to the “thin men” who do not have the intellectual capacity to appreciate the blackbird. The image of these birds would be so majestic, overwhelming and shocking to anyone, even those who have seen everything. Anyone would “cry out sharply” in surprise and wonder.
XIHe rode over Connecticut(…)For blackbirds.
Within the eleventh stanza, the speaker describes the progress of an unknown male character. This person is riding “In a glass coach” through “Connecticut.” The man, who is never illuminated in any detail is traveling when a “fear pierced him.” The traveler “mistook” the shadow of his own “equipage” for that of blackbirds. After glancing at the shadow his coach makes on the ground the man, who is likely being made fun of, becomes scared he is instead of seeing birds.
XIIThe river is moving.The blackbird must be flying.
The second to last stanza of the poem is also a couplet. It once more equates the movement of a blackbird, and its general life force, to that of the world. The speaker sees the bird as being part of the most important forces that make the world work. It drives the river forward.
Without the unity and strength of the images the speaker has presented so far, the world would not be as it is. The blackbird can be seen as a representative of the force that moves humankind forward.
XIIIIt was evening all afternoon.(…)
In the cedar-limbs.
In the final stanza of ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ the speaker returns to his image of snow which appeared at the beginning of the poem. In these last lines, the speaker describes a moment in which he was sitting through an evening, “all afternoon,” in which it was snowing. He knew at this time that it was going to snow for the rest of the day and that there was nothing he could do about it.
From his position, he could see the “blackbird” sitting “in the cedar-limbs.” This is a common occurrence. Likely this is a spot where the bird is seen most often. It outlasts all other creatures on the coldest of days, remaining in its position as both muse and guardian. The speaker will always be able to turn to the bird, and the emotions, powers, and strengths it represents when he needs to.