In Which a Work of Literature is Confronted

    We will go through this one number at a time. This is offered without knowing anything about the poet. The original will be in italic type.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

by Wallace Stevens


Among twenty snowy mountains,   

The only moving thing   

Was the eye of the blackbird.   

    The blackbird's eye (like most birds) does not actually move in its socket. If the eye is moving, the whole head is moving.  I suspect the twenty snowy mountains are old white-haired literary men, and the poet sees himself as the only one who can see the way to social progress. 


I was of three minds,   

Like a tree   

In which there are three blackbirds.   

blackbird : tree :: mind : Wallace Stevens.
    But blackbirds will fly off. 
    Therefore Wallace Stevens will lose his mind.


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   

I think he must mean raven. Or turkey vulture. Maybe when he writes "blackbird he simply means "black [space] bird."

It was a small part of the pantomime.   

    Pantomime because silent, I would guess. But pantomime is artificial. Is the poet implying that the visible world is not real? 


A man and a woman   

Are one.   

A man and a woman and a blackbird   

Are one.   

A man and a woman and a blackbird walk into a bar.
    The bartender says, "What'll it be?"
    All three say, "Gimme a shot of Old Crow."


I do not know which to prefer,   

The beauty of inflections   

Or the beauty of innuendoes,   

The blackbird whistling   

Or just after.   

Blackbirds do not whistle. Perhaps the poet is remembering a Black Phoebe? But that would make it a black-and-white bird. 
At any rate: 
    inflection : innuendo :: blackbird whistle : silence;
    that is, to simplify, 
    voiced : unvoiced ::  voiced : unvoiced;
    or more simply,
    1 = 1.
A tautology is not a very deep statement.


Icicles filled the long window   

With barbaric glass.   

    Also, it was autumn a minute ago, and now it's winter. 

The shadow of the blackbird   

Crossed it, to and fro.   

The mood   

Traced in the shadow   

An indecipherable cause.   

The antistrophe of this verse is an indecipherable clause.


O thin men of Haddam,   

Why do you imagine golden birds?   

Do you not see how the blackbird   

Walks around the feet   

Of the women about you?   

    Residents of Haddam, Connecticut, would perhaps have better appreciated the in-joke here.  I think the poet is asking this: Why think about those who are fighting and dying in the Great War when you should be concerned about their mothers and sweethearts here at home. Perhaps I am crediting the poet with far more philanthropic sentiment than he has demonstrated.


I know noble accents   

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   

But I know, too,   

That the blackbird is involved   

In what I know.   

The poet recognizes war rhetoric and patriotic marches, but also acknowledges that with war comes death (and carrion eaters).


When the blackbird flew out of sight,   

It marked the edge   

Of one of many circles.   

Two questions:  a.) Does the poet believe in object permanence? Does he believe the blackbird continues to exist when it crosses out of his visible horizon?; b.) Does the poet believe that at the centers of others of the "many circles" there are Others who are potential blackbird observers who may have something to contribute to the conversation? Or are the "many circles" simply the poet's conjecture of other places he himself may someday occupy?


At the sight of blackbirds   

Flying in a green light,   

(A train passing a green lighted track signal at night.)

Even the bawds of euphony   

Would cry out sharply.   

    The power and the unstoppable momentum of the rushing train both inspires and frightens the poet. Embarrassed by these emotions, the poet insists that other poets and literary types would have been scared to be scared too, if they had been so close to that train that night. 


He rode over Connecticut   

In a glass coach.   

    Clutching his gin bottle and high as a kite... 

Once, a fear pierced him,   

In that he mistook   

The shadow of his equipage   

For blackbirds.   

...The poet is scared of his own shadow.
   Or: The poet, buying into pacifist rhetoric, imagines that the Great War is the actual end of civilization.


The river is moving.   

The blackbird must be flying.   

   Ah, now it is Spring! The thaw has opened the waterway, and even the poet's depressive episodes must be temporarily eased. 


It was evening all afternoon.   

It was snowing   

And it was going to snow.   

Wait! it was Spring a minute ago... 

The blackbird sat   

In the cedar-limbs.

And -- his depression is back. He's already starting to want that gin bottle again.

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