Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
by Wallace Stevens
Section I Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
- The first section contrasts the movement of the blackbird's eye to a vast, motionless, mountainous landscape.
- Digging into the image, we can see that the landscape is a huge expanse of whiteness, in which the bird is a black speck. The poem zooms in on this speck, and then zooms in further to its eye, which is like a microcosm of the landscape. The eye of a blackbird is light-colored like the snow, but contains a black pupil like the blackbird. Confused? Basically, at an abstract level, the image depicts white or black dots contained within a larger field of the opposite color.
- The eye of the blackbird has an almost magnetic power. We like to think of it as the nucleus of a giant atom.
- The blackbird is looking at something, but we don't know what. The fact that it only moves its eye and not its head or body makes the bird seem sly, content, or even wise.
- Why are there twenty mountains? In part, the number shows the size of the landscape, but in another way it's completely arbitrary. It contrasts with the number thirteen from the title because twenty is an even number and a multiple of ten: it seems "normal" to us.
- Asian paintings – from China and Japan, for example – frequently depict rugged environments with "mountains beyond mountains" off into the distance. Stevens was a connoisseur of Asian art.
- "The only moving thing" is probably an exaggeration. We find it hard to believe that there could be any large place on earth where nothing is moving except for an eyeball.