Like many other poems in English, some of them quite famous, Richard Wilbur’s “Still, Citizen Sparrow” takes as its subject, at least partially, a bird—in this case, a vulture. It does so, however, by addressing itself to another bird, a sparrow.
The use of the opening word, “Still,” suggests that the reader is entering the poem at a point where the speaker has already been talking to the sparrow, in a way presumably sympathetic to that bird’s belief that the vulture is an “unnatural” creature. This negative characterization is undoubtedly based, for the most part, on the vulture’s habit of feeding on dead flesh, “carrion.” The use of “Still,” however, indicates that the speaker now wishes to qualify whatever he has conceded before the start of the poem proper. In fact, the poem will make a case for the vulture and his mode of existence. This view needs to be argued, not simply because the sparrow thinks otherwise, but also because many human beings share the sparrow’s view, responding to this scavenger bird with revulsion, both because of its appearance (its bald head is registered here by the term “naked-headed”) and the nature of its diet.
The vulture is presented as rising into the air, bearing the dead flesh he has seized. The initial part of his flight is seen as clumsy (he “lumbers”), but very quickly Wilbur creates an effect of contrast. Once the vulture has ascended to a very high point (“the tall/ Tip of the sky”), he appears to move with effortless ease (he “lie[s] cruising”). In fact, the poem makes an extremely positive judgment of the vulture, saying that there is no more beautiful bird in the sky. Part of the bird’s appeal at this point in the poem (the second stanza) lies in its alertness, presumably with respect to detecting creatures who have died.
The vulture is seen as in some way supporting nature, and the sparrow is asked to forgive this scavenging bird, because it rids the earth of dead things. It thereby jeers at changeability (“mutability”) by removing evidence of one of its chief manifestations, the change from life to death.
Having devoted half of “Still, Citizen Sparrow” to the vulture, Wilbur then uses the second half of the poem to give his version of a story found in the Bible. Because the inhabitants of earth were wicked, according to the Old Testament, God decided to destroy the world by causing a great flood. Humanity, however, was not to be entirely wiped out; it would survive in the form of Noah and his family. In order to withstand the Flood, Noah was directed by God to create a boat, an ark. According to legend, when the floodwaters subsided, Noah’s ark came to rest on Mount Ararat.
The sparrow (along with the reader) is asked to “forget” Noah’s activity in building the ark as well as his ability to look down on the drowned world. Rather than make a negative judgment of Noah, the sparrow is asked to empathize with the difficult position of the man, who had to live with the experience of seeing almost everything he knew brought to an end and who had to preside over the surviving small world of the ark and its inhabitants. The sparrow is told that, put in the same position, it would rather have died along with its world. Noah, however, chose to live and is to be seen as the father of humanity.
An “apostrophe” is a device often found in poetry. It is an...
(This entire section contains 590 words.)
address, usually of an elevated nature, to someone or something not literally present or, if present, not literally capable of hearing or understanding. Yet its use presumes, for the purposes of the poet, that the being or object addressed will hear and comprehend. The apostrophe constitutes a kind of theoretical communication with the reader of the poem; the ultimate audience of the apostrophe, the reader, overhears, so to speak, the words being uttered. “Still, Citizen Sparrow” falls into the category of apostrophe. What makes the employment of this device unusual here is that the apostrophe is not addressed to its initial central subject, the vulture, but is directed instead to another sort of bird, one of the most commonly seen, the sparrow. As such, Wilbur’s poem contrasts with two famous works where the bird-subject is directly addressed: John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark.” In neither of these cases is the poet confronted with having to defend a bird commonly regarded with revulsion, as Wilbur is.
The sparrow is startlingly addressed as “citizen.” This is one of several instances in the poem of a notable or unusual diction. Another example is the term “watch-fuller,” which is an invention, or coinage, on Wilbur’s part, one that would seem to violate convention. He uses it instead of the “correct” form—“more watchful”—to dramatize the vulture’s admirable alertness. Other examples of unusual diction are found in the phrases “frightfully free” (used to describe the vulture) and “bedlam hours” (used to describe the poem’s second central subject, Noah, as he goes about building his ark). In the first case, a negative term is conjoined to a positive one, the freedom in question perhaps that of the vulture’s being able to soar on the basis of feeding off the dead; in the second instance, a word most often used as a noun, “bedlam” (meaning a madhouse), is used as an adjective. Other phrases of note include “rotten office” and “carrion ballast.” The first of these uses “office” in its sense of “duty” or “function,” attaching to it the adjective “rotten,” which can be seen as doing double service. It could constitute a pejorative comment on the vulture’s function, as seen by the sparrow; it could also refer to the rotting meat the vulture is willing to consume. The term “ballast,” which usually refers to heavy material placed in the bottom of a ship to give it stability, is here made to refer to the carrion the vulture eats and carries with him into the sky. It gives his flight a stable foundation.
Another device Wilbur uses is that of allusion—reference to well-known material drawn from history, literature, mythology, and the Bible. In this poem, the allusion is to the biblical story of Noah. Incorporating that story as he does, Wilbur is making use of yet another device: apparent discontinuity of subject matter. Without warning, the sparrow (and therefore the reader) is asked to shift focus from a scavenger bird to a biblical character. The reader may wonder what one thing has to do with the other, but the poet seems to be leaving it to the reader to close this apparent gap.
There is a notable use of sound patterning, particularly alliteration, in the poem. Alliteration is employed to intensify the effect of certain phrases, such as “the tall/ Tip,” “frightfully free,” “Devours death,” and “mocks mutability.”
Bixler, Frances. Richard Wilbur: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.
Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
Hougen, John B. Ecstasy Within Discipline: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.
Michelson, Bruce. Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.
Reibetang, John. “What Love Sees: Poetry and Vision in Richard Wilbur.” Modern Poetry Studies 11 (1982): 60-85.
Salinger, Wendy, ed. Richard Wilbur’s Creation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.
Stitt, Peter. The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.