Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

by Wallace Stevens

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Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” was first published in his 1923 collection Harmonium. Although Harmonium was Stevens’s debut, he had already achieved a mature, idiosyncratic style during his several decades of writing. While some of Stevens’s poems from this time cohere to formal constraints—such as “Sunday Morning”—“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is fluid in its form, restlessly evading fixed lines and stanzas.

The poem is comprised of thirteen numbered stanzas that range from two to seven lines. Each stanza depicts a vignette or aphorism that is marked by the presence of blackbirds. As in many of his poems, Stevens combines highly poetic diction and syntax with strange and often whimsical images and events. The resulting poem is both philosophically engaging and emotionally moving, both perplexing and humorous.

Stanza by Stanza Summary & Analysis

  • In the first stanza, a grand landscape of “twenty snowy mountains” is punctuated by “the eye of a blackbird.” The stanza draws a contrast between the stillness of the mountains and the flight of the blackbird, whose eye is “the only moving thing.”
  • In the second stanza, the speaker toys with the idiom of being “of two minds.” He claims to have been “of three minds, / Like a tree / In which there are three blackbirds.” This metaphor presents the blackbirds as various perspectives that are at odds with one another.
  • In the third stanza, the blackbird is described as “a small part of the pantomime” as it “whirled in the autumn winds.” Presumably the season—or nature itself—is the theatrical pantomime at play. The blackbird is “a part,” as in a part of the whole, as well as “a part,” as in a role in a play.
  • In the fourth stanza, the speaker draws on another convention: that of a couple being as one. In a humorous turn, the blackbird joins this union, so that “a man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one.” Here, the blackbird may represent the relationship that exists between the man and woman, particularly the mysterious dynamics of that relationship.
  • In the fifth stanza, the speaker weighs “the beauty of inflections” against “the beauty of innuendoes.” He finds respective examples in “the blackbird singing / or just after.” If inflection is the song in itself, innuendo is the listener’s gleaned meaning. These lines introduce the possibility that the speaker’s interpretations of the blackbirds’ actions are subjective.
  • The sixth stanza presents the image of the blackbird’s shadow crossing back and forth over a window of icicles. The speaker notes that “the mood / Traced in the shadow / An undecipherable cause.” The perplexing relationship between “mood,” “shadow,” and “cause” suggests the speaker’s inability to “decipher” the blackbird. It is unclear whether the blackbird’s shadow causes the mood, or the reverse—that the rider’s mood casts a figurative shadow on the world.
  • The seventh stanza addresses the “thin men of Haddam,” a town in Connecticut near where Stevens lived. The speaker asks the men why they “imagine golden birds” and ignore “how the blackbird / Walks around the feet / Of the women about you.” Here, the speaker frames the blackbird as an emblem of empirical reality, placing it in contrast to the idealized “golden birds.”
  • In the eighth stanza , the speaker claims to know “lucid accents / And bold inescapable rhythms.” But he also knows that “the blackbird is involved / In what I know.” The first two lines suggest the creation of poetry, with its verbal accents and rhythms. The blackbird’s involvement may stand for the creative...

(This entire section contains 1139 words.)

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  • element that exists beyond or below an artwork’s formal surface. This stanza also raises the question of knowing. In the fifth stanza, the speaker foregrounds what he “do[es] not know,” whereas here he repeats the phrase “I know” three times. Paradoxically, “the blackbird / Is involved in what I know” and yet is also the agent of perplexion and unknowing.
  • The ninth stanza describes the blackbird’s “flying out of sight,” thereby marking “the edge / Of one of many circles.” At the simplest level, the image of concentric circles suggests limitless expansion or possibility. Given the blackbird’s association with knowledge, the circles may be seen as markers of knowledge that extend into the limitless unknown. Where the blackbird disappears from sight is the provisional edge of knowing.
  • The tenth stanza places the blackbird “in a green light,” a sight which causes “the bawds of euphony” to “cry out sharply.” There are several tensions in this stanza: between the harmonious “euphony” of the bawds—or bordello madames—and the sharpness of their cries; between the connotations of euphony and those of bawdiness; and between the bawds—purveyors of red-light pleasures—and the green light of the blackbird. The precise meaning and source of green are unclear, but the color provokes outcry and sets off a series of contrasts.
  • In the eleventh stanza, an unknown “he” rides “over Connecticut / In a glass coach.” At one point, he is struck by fear when he mistakes “the shadow of his equipage / For blackbirds.” The image of the shadow cast by a glass coach suggests that the rider is the shadow’s source. Thus, the rider mistakes his own form for blackbirds. This recognition of the presence of blackbirds in oneself evokes fear, although the precise reason for the fear is unclear.
  • The twelfth stanza offers a pair of simple sentences: “The river is moving. / The blackbird must be flying.” The parallel between river and blackbird is reflected in the parallel appearance of the two lines in their horizontal flow across the page. The suggestion is that the blackbird is a purely natural phenomenon, its flight as inevitable and ongoing as the flowing of a river.
  • The thirteenth stanza builds on the suggestion of the twelfth stanza. The blackbird sits “in the cedar-limbs” as the speaker, continuing to draw on various tenses and conjugations of “to be,” remarks on the passage of time and the changing seasons: “It was evening all afternoon. / It was snowing / And it was going to snow.” The blackbird stands outside the movement of time, a steady and observant presence.

Throughout the poem, Stevens explores and expands on the symbolism of the blackbird. One of the central questions Stevens poses to readers is that of the meaning of the blackbird. The blackbird appears in each stanza, thus entering a series of disparate contexts. The thematic role of the blackbird stands as a riddle. Across the various stanzas, the blackbird embodies mystery, perplexion, human relationships, the forces of nature, and the self, among other possibilities. One sure reading is that the blackbird embodies the dizzying plurality of the world. The blackbird is a tool to represent the many facets of reality, parts which the mind cannot render into a coherent whole.