Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The unusual nature of the apostrophe in “Still, Citizen Sparrow,” the poem’s use of striking words and phrases, and its sudden switch of focus are all congruous with the unusual perspectives it is attempting to convey. Wilbur’s poem is trying to shake up the sparrow’s preconceptions and, ultimately, those of the reader as well.
The sparrow may be said to be a representative of the norm, an ordinary “citizen,” having conventional responses both to the vulture and to the idea of cataclysmic destruction. This common bird is presumed to feel repugnance in both cases, being put off both by the vulture’s feeding on what has died and by the prospect of surviving in a world where everything one has known has come to an end. The sparrow, according to the poem, would have been only too willing to die along with its world if it had been in Noah’s place.
In the view of the poem, which modulates from making a positive aesthetic judgment of the vulture to a positive moral judgment of that bird as well as of Noah, both the scavenger and the biblical character are capable of confronting death and enabling life to continue—the link between the poem’s seemingly unrelated subjects. The vulture participates in a physical cleansing of the earth, while Noah participated in a moral cleansing of the same. Neither of them is a “nice” figure. The bird eats rotting meat, while Noah agrees in effect to see his fellow humans killed without having to share their fate. Niceness is not a premium for the poem, however, although it may be for the sparrow, which is viewed as living at a relatively low level. Both the vulture and Noah are placed at a height, the elevated position being ultimately that of the hero, the unusual being, who can confront and absorb the awful, which is part of the necessary rigors of life. It is a difficult endeavor but one that is required if life is to continue. The hero may in some way be a repugnant figure, one who has to be forgiven, but he does what must be done, and in that sense humankind is indebted to him—“all men are Noah’s sons.”