Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 626
The most apparent theme of The Bat-Poet is the value of looking at life from a different point of view. This theme is developed through contrasts between the bat-poet and the mockingbird, who represent different kinds of poets, and between the chipmunk and the other bats, who represent different kinds of audiences. Although the story is about poetry, The Bat-Poet is ultimately concerned with the nature of life and how one should live it. The attitudes toward poetry of the animals in the story represent various ways of relating to life and to others.
The mockingbird substitutes poetry for life. An egotist, he feels superior to the other creatures, whom he either drives out of his territory or ignores completely. All that he wants is to listen to the sound of his own voice singing his own songs. Although he enjoys being praised, he is not interested in knowing and communicating with others. The bat-poet, on the other hand, is curious about life. He wants to know what happens in the daytime. He wants to know the other animals and to communicate with them. He writes poems not for himself but to please others, to warn them against danger, and to show them things that they do not know, even about themselves.
The difference between the mockingbird and the bat-poet is reflected in their attitudes about form and content. The mockingbird imposes form on content; this parallels his domination of the other birds and animals. For the bat-poet, on the other hand, form is a result of content. In its form, his poem about the chipmunk goes in and out because it reflects the activity of chipmunks going in and out of their holes. The last line of his owl poem is minus two poetic feet because the little bat was holding his breath when the owl was out, not because he was thinking about metrical structure when he composed the poem.
The chipmunk represents the ideal audience for the poet. He is willing to listen and to learn. He is open to the poem’s content and to its meaning. Most important, he is willing to change his life because of the poem, deciding to go to bed earlier and to dig more holes for escape in case he does encounter the owl. In contrast, the mockingbird is not interested in the owl and responds to the content of a poem only when it is about him. He then becomes defensive when he thinks that he is being criticized. Unwilling to admit his faults and unable to empathize with others, the mockingbird, ironically, never really knows the world that he imitates in his songs.
The other bats, as an audience, are not much different from the mockingbird. The bat-poet wants them to stay awake during the day so they can experience the world that they never see. They consent to listen to his poem about the daytime only to be polite, then interrupt him to argue about its accuracy. Their minds are closed to any reality other than their own. As a result, their lives are impoverished; they are asleep to the possibilities of life. This is ultimately what The Bat-Poet is about.
To be truly alive, human beings must be curious about the world, willing to learn about themselves and about others. The ability to do so depends on giving up egocentric views and developing the capacity for empathy. This need is exemplified by the narrator’s self-effacement at the beginning of the story. The conclusion of The Bat-Poet shows that there is hope for the bats—and for human beings as well. Perhaps they will respond positively to the little bat’s poem when they wake up from their hibernation in the spring.