The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 470 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 565 words.)