Helen Vendler: On "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"

The blackbird is the only element in nature which is aesthetically compatible with bleak light and bare limbs: he is, we may say, a certain kind of language, opposed to euphony, to those "noble accents and lucid inescapable rhythms" which Stevens used so memorably elsewhere in Harmonium. … There are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird because thirteen is the eccentric number; Stevens is almost medieval in his relish for external form. This poetry will be one of inflection and innuendo; the inflections are the heard melodies (the whistling of the blackbird) and the innuendoes are what is left out (the silence just after the whistling) …

… The blackbird has perhaps something in common with Eliot’s "shadow" that falls between potency and act, desire and consummation [in "The Hollow Men"]. But Stevens would deny that it is remediable or accidental intrusion between two things that without it would be better off. It is, rather, of one substance with the things it relates:

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections 

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after. (iv)

Between the man and the woman is the blackbird, one with them; between the man’s mood and his environment is the blackbird, the indecipherable cause of the mood which is man’s response to nature (stanza vi); between the man of Haddam and their imagined golden birds is the blackbird, the real on which they construct their "artifice of eternity" (vii); between the haunted man and his protective glass coach is the terror of the blackbird (xi); it lies at the base of even our powerful verbal defenses, those beautiful glass coaches of euphony and lucidity/ It is, finally, the principle of our final relation to the universe, our compulsions, first of all,

The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying. (xii)

and, lastly, our despair at death:

It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar limbs. (xiii)

But neurosis and death are only instances of a pervasive relational eccentricity. Our extent in space (as well as in time) goes only as far as the blackbird goes – the blackbird is our "line of vision" (ix), as it is our line of thought: when we are of two minds (or, as Stevens presses it, "of three minds"), it is not as if we had a blackbird, an oriole, and a pigeon in view, but only "a tree / In which there are three blackbirds" (ii). The blackbird is by no means all – it is surrounded by the vastness of twenty mountains, the autumn winds, the snow – but though only a small part, it is the determining focus of relation.

From Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens; Longer Poems (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), 75-77.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Helen Vendler: On "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Helen Vendler Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

Item Type Criticism
Average Rating 0/100
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media