Study Guide

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Wallace Stevens

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

The Seasons

Traditional Japanese haikus include a "season word," or kigo, that indicates the time ago. Usually the season is implied by words like "blossom" (spring) and "snowy" (winter). "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is set amid the austere beauty of the colder seasons, winter and autumn. The poem contrasts the blackness or the bird with the whiteness of the snow.

  • Section I: Stevens uses a seemingly random number of mountains – twenty, no more, no less – to make the image of a snowy landscape more concrete. The word "snowy" functions like a "season word."
  • Section III: The metaphor of this section compares the blackbird to a bit player in a dramatic performance called a "pantomime."
  • Section VI: Through metaphor, the icicles are compared to glass, which is personified as "barbaric." Glass – how uncivilized!
  • Section XII: The movement of the river could be a subtle hint that the season has shifted to spring, when the rivers melt.

Indecisiveness

The poem features several examples of confused or disoriented humans. The relationship between their indecisiveness and the blackbird remains a mystery. For the speaker, at least, the inability to choose can be a good thing, when he is choosing between two things he likes. But, hey, who's to say he shouldn't be of three, four, or a million "minds"?

  • Section II: The word "like" is our simile alert, letting us know that the blackbirds are being compared to "minds." The phrase to be "of two minds" is an idiom: it means to have two conflicting opinions or desires.
  • Section V: The middle of the section uses two parallel expressions, "the beauty of inflections" and "the beauty of innuendos." These are compared metaphorically to the sound of the blackbird whistling and the silence that immediately follows the whistling – which may or may not make things any clearer for you.

People

Our feathered friend is the true star of the poem, and people make only random, mysterious appearances. The speaker scolds those unappreciative "men of Haddam," makes fun of the "bawds of euphony," and describes a dude who rides around in a glass carriage. And the blackbird is like, "You think I'm mysterious?" People only appear in the middle sections of the poem, and they have an uneasy relationship to their natural surroundings.

  • Section IV: A man and woman form a symbolic unity through the act of sex, love, or marriage, depending on how you want to look at it. The speaker then humorously plays with this old cliché by throwing a blackbird into the mix.
  • Section VII: The speaker asks two rhetorical questions. The "golden birds" could be asymbol of wealth and money, like the goose that lays golden eggs, or of exceptional, impossible beauty. The blackbird is a symbol of more commonplace beauty, the kind that is too often ignored. The "thinness" of the men of Haddam symbolizes the poverty of their spirits. Think Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man."
  • Section X: A "bawd" is like a female pimp, and "euphony" is pleasant, soothing sound. The "bawds of euphony" represent people who like easy, relaxing pleasures. They don't take the time to appreciate complicated experiences.
  • Section XI: Fear can't actually "pierce" someone, except metaphorically. "Pierce" reminds us of all the glass and icicles in the poem.

Imagining the Blackbird

Well, the title pretty much says it all. The poem is about different ways to look at this bird, and several of them are highly symbolic and imaginative. The bird is basically an excuse for Stevens to get creative.

  • Section I: The hyperbole in this section is that the blackbird's eye is the only thing moving in a huge landscape with twenty mountains. Come on, not even a tree branch is vibrating somewhere? Hyperbole means "exaggeration."
  • Section VI: The end of this section contains highly symbolic language. The shadow of the blackbird relates to the "mood" of the icy day and hints at an "indecipherable cause." The cause of what?
  • Section IX: This section captures the image of the blackbird on the circumference of an infinite number of possible circles. Could the "one" circle represent the horizon as it appears to the speaker?
  • Section X: The image of a blackbird flying in green light produces a striking contrast. Those "bawds" don't even know what to do with themselves: Wow. Just…wow.

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