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...
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