The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

In Louis Simpson’s lyrical ballad “The Bird,” the poet attempts to appeal to both the intellect and the fashion of the day. This poem was published in A Dream of Governors (1959), the first of Simpson’s poetry collections to be divided into sections. The fourth section, “The Runner,” contains “The Bird,” one of the six poems relating to World War II in the volume. Because Simpson intertwines fantasy with the gruesome realities of war in “The Bird,” it differs from the other five.

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This ballad-like lyric of World War II is divided into seven parts and tells the tale of Heinrich, a German private assigned to a concentration camp. The poem has twenty-eight quatrains, and the second and fourth lines are in regular, iambic trimeter. The first and third lines use feminine rhymes and end, therefore, with an unaccented, additional syllable. The final result of the quatrains—the abab rhyme scheme, the three-stress lines, and the meters—is a rhythm that is singsong. The controlled result is appropriate for a poem about a soldier who has a prescribed military life and little say in or understanding of what is happening to him. The regular rhythm also suggests the structured cadence of marching, an activity common to most soldiers. The experiences are set in Germany, but the lack of control over one’s life is a common occurrence for enlisted people everywhere.

The first part of “The Bird” presents the German soldier Heinrich as an idealistic young man who plays the zither and sings. His best friend Hans wants to be a soldier and goes to war; Hans dies. In the second division Heinrich is a young man who has been drafted and has been relegated to a Jewish extermination camp. The third section describes Heinrich’s duties: sorting the clothing of those killed in the gas chambers. The fourth section depicts Heinrich as changed from a romantic youth to a hardened soldier who has volunteered to execute those whom he has learned to hate. Heinrich attends dutifully to his assignments, but he still plays his zither and dreams of escape as a bird.

The fifth part of the poem is one of tragedies: The Russians are rapidly approaching; the colonel kills himself; Heinrich discovers the major dressed in women’s clothes; the prisoners demand vengeance upon Heinrich, “the Bird.” The Russians search for Heinrich in the sixth part of the poem, but they do not find him; there is no clear image of him to use for identification. The Russian in charge of writing the reports, however, notes a bird that flits from tree to tree. The final part, consisting of only one quatrain, leaves the reader with an image of Heinrich still singing and dreaming of flying away across the sea; his sad song “makes his children cry.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565

Simpson commands meter, rhyme, and stanza to be used his way; he does not allow them to control his verse. He employs the tight lyric in traditional English form to separate himself from the material and to place more emphasis on the means of conveyance than on the tragic content. Like the soldier who alienates himself from life, the reader and poet can separate themselves from the horrors of the narrative by the structured form, which allows the story to unfold and reach its surprising climax with a minimum of emotion. As Simpson intended, the reader’s interest is focused not on the narrator but on the poem and its story. The strictly regulated form reflects the controlled life of the German soldier—and soldiers universally.

The repetition of the German refrain “‘Ich wünscht’, ich wäre ein Vöglein’” (“I wish, I would be a bird”) makes parts of the poem predictable and encourages the active participation of the reader in the unpleasant narrative. In contrast, part of the content of the poem is unpredictable and imaginative, the fantasy making it easier for the reader to bear the harrowing story.

The poet allows the sensitive character Heinrich to compartmentalize, or separate, his job and his life—an all-too-real occurrence for those who worked in the concentration camps of Germany. Heinrich continues to retreat into protective isolation, which even his children eventually mourn. The story comes full circle with the crying of Heinrich’s children, rather than Heinrich’s mother.

Using many stylistic devices in the poem, Simpson employs personification when he writes “The stars looked down from heaven,” “The zither softly playing,” and “The wind bore from the East.” Foreshadowing is another important element in “The Bird.” The sound of Heinrich’s zither and the song of flight precede important events, such as Heinrich’s leaving home, the death of the Jews, and Heinrich’s escape. The same song foreshadows the escape through death of the Jews in the gas chamber. As a father, Heinrich continues to sing; his children cry as they hear the song that foreshadows Heinrich’s separation from them.

Simpson provides the reader with realistic images, both visual and aural, of World War II Germany. Stacks of clothing (“Skirt, trousers, boot and shoeFor every size of Jew”), a bird that flits “from tree to tree,” the envelope marked “Deceased,” and the “‘group snapshots, badly blurred’” become familiar images to the reader. Simpson also presents the sounds surrounding the events. He mentions the snap of a pocketknife, the birds that sang in the woods, and even “a drumming/ Of small arms that increased.”

Simpson’s use of contrasts makes the images and events even more real to the reader. For instance, he juxtaposes the banks “bright with flowers” with “a fence with towers/ On which armed sentries stood.” He also makes use of metaphors in his narrative. For instance, the doctor calls Heinrich “Scamp.” The sergeant refers to the gas chamber as a chimney, a metaphor that Heinrich recognizes immediately; in the poem the chimney Sis a tangible symbol of the destruction of human life. When Heinrich asks for a change in duties, he calls the officer “Herr Ober-Leutnant”; this title (“Over-Lieutenant”) is both a hyperbole (exaggeration) and a metaphor. The most important metaphor, however, is the bird that symbolizes freedom and serves as a means of escape for Heinrich.

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Themes