Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird Summary
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 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...
(The entire section is 1,138 words.)