Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

“The Bird” presents the soldier’s view of war and employs three traditional literary themes: reversal of fortune, survival of the unfittest, and the picaresque (or journey). Heinrich, the young musician and miner, must become a soldier (reversal of fortune), and he is able to escape from death and capture (survival of the unfittest) through his songs of flying away like a bird (picaresque).

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Freedom is a common thread throughout the poem, set in Germany in the 1940’s. Hans, in the beginning of the poem, longs to be free; this desire is evident also in Heinrich and in the prisoners in the concentration camp. Heinrich as a young man escapes through his music and through his dreams of a bird flying away; later he literally escapes, like a bird.

Although Simpson vividly portrays images to the reader, he does not focus on the characterization; most are flat characters about whom the reader knows little. The people that Heinrich thought he knew were actually veiled to him. For instance, he does not expect to find the body of the colonel with “[a] pistol by his head.” Heinrich is also surprised when “He [finds] the Major drinking/ In a woman’s party dress.”

Alienation is typical of many of the characters in the poem. Heinrich does not talk with his mother, who cries; his attempt to contact Hans through a letter is unsuccessful. Heinrich’s officers do not know him. When Heinrich asks to fill the vacancy, they ask to see his dossier. His commanding officer does not even care to get to know him: “Dismissed! Don’t slam the door.” The fact that Heinrich does not know his officers—still more evidence of alienation—is evidenced by his surprise at the suicide and the cross-dressing. Heinrich’s alienation from the prisoners is evident by the matter-of-fact method in which he is able to kill them. Later, he is able to alienate himself from the search party by literally taking flight as a bird. Even with his own family, later, he separates himself through song.

The most enduring themes in “The Bird” are the ideas. Humans are executed, take their own lives, and die; material possessions, like clothes, are discarded. The song, however, remains; through creativity Heinrich finds escape from the pressures of war and life. The poem leaves one with a sense of sorrow for the life that others—Heinrich’s mother, the government, Heinrich’s own family—prescribed for the young soldier. The reader can take consolation, however, in the fact that Heinrich is able to escape through fantasy.

Despite Heinrich’s escape and the release of some of the prisoners from their confinement, the poem ends sorrowfully. Heinrich’s song “makes his children cry”; he appears lost to himself and to others. Whether Heinrich ever finds himself and whether his pursuers ever find him remain unclear. Simpson leaves the readers with an open denouement and with the freedom to create an ending that they deem acceptable. They may choose a realistic ending or, like Simpson, they may employ fantasy.

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