by Wallace Stevens
Birds are a big deal in the poem. Seriously, they’re all over the place. The first bird mentioned is the cockatoo, which is a kind of ridiculous-looking tropical bird. But, the cockatoo makes the protagonist feel happy and safe. It makes her think of the majestic birds she sees in nature. Birds are a symbol of paradise and freedom – they can go wherever they want. At the end of the poem, however, she starts thinking more realistically. Let’s face it: a lot of the birds we see every day are not so majestic. The pigeon, for example. But, the pigeons in the final image have their own strange sense of majesty.
- Line 3: For the woman, the green cockatoo is a symbol of freedom – but, not exactly the freedom to go anywhere, because it’s a pet bird and its wings are probably clipped. It’s more a sign of luxury and leisure. She’s free to enjoy this exotic little pleasure because she’s not in church.
- Line 9: In these lines, the "bright, green wings" of the cockatoo seem more serious than they did before. Using simile, the poet compares the bird to a funeral gift that ancient people bring along on a procession to visit an important tomb – in this case, the tomb of Christ. The bird is like a gift that someone brings to place on the tomb as a sacrifice to the dead.
- Line 20: The phrase "bright, green wings" is repeated to refer to the cockatoo. But, now, the colorful bird is listed as one of the "beauties" of the earth. It is a source of comfort that competes with "the thought of heaven" for her attention.
- Line 46: The woman thinks about other birds that make her happy. Unlike the cockatoo, these birds are not pets and live in nature. The imagery of the birds in the "misty fields" is a metaphor for paradise. For her, this beautiful sight represents an almost perfect happiness.
- Lines 58-60: The woman thinks her memory of birds waking up in the field, mentioned again at the end of stanza IV, is more "enduring" than any religious images of paradise. She thinks the same thing about her "desire" to see the swallow, another kind of bird with very distinctive wings, flying in the summertime. Notice that it’s not the birds themselves that last or "endure," but her feelings about them.
- Lines 114-115: Unlike the birds earlier in the poem, the imagery of the quail whistling "spontaneous cries" is not compared to paradise: it’s just a part of nature that lives outside the control of people.
- Lines 118-120: The poem ends on the powerful image of pigeons flying "at evening." The motions of their flight are described as "ambiguous," which means that we don’t know how to interpret them. The same could be said about the whole image, especially the beautiful and mysterious last line: "Downward to darkness, on extended wings."