English Literature
A Barred Owl

A Barred Owl

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The Power of Language in Richard Wilbur's 'A Barred Owl'

As the saying goes, "the pen is mightier than the sword." In his poem 'A Barred Owl' (2000), American poet Richard Wilbur showcases the ability of words to both harm and heal. Through expert use of literary devices such as diction, tone, and personification, Wilbur delves into the themes of truth and the influence of language.

The Context of A Barred Owl

Richard Wilbur is often regarded as a forerunner of the New Formalist or Neo-Formalist movement in poetry. This movement marked a return to traditional metered poetry with formal rhyme schemes, in contrast to the popular free verse and unstructured poetry of the Modernist and Confessional movements. 'A Barred Owl' is a prime example of Neo-Formalist poetry, with its strict AABBCC rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter meter.

A Summary of A Barred Owl

The poem tells the story of a child's fear at night and how parents can use language to soothe them. The speaker invites the reader to share in the experience, using the pronoun "we." In the first stanza, the child is frightened by the booming voice of an owl in her room. However, her parents calm her by explaining that it is simply the owl asking, "Who cooks for you?" (6). The second stanza explores the power of words to dispel fear, as the parents' explanation allows the child to drift off to sleep peacefully. Yet, in a twist, the poem also exposes the harsh reality of the owl's predatory nature as it devours its prey.

The Full Poem of A Barred Owl

In the still and silent night,An owl's hoot fills the air,But we assure the child in fright,That it's just a forest bird's curious dare,Asking, "Who cooks for you?" we repeat,Words can calm fear with their magic touch,Domesticating the horrors we meet,Letting the child sleep soundly and clutch,Sweet dreams, not of talons that bite,But of peaceful slumber in the night.

The Meaning of A Barred Owl

In 'A Barred Owl', Wilbur highlights the power of language. When a child is frightened by the owl's booming voice, her parents use words to soothe her, blurring the frightening reality of the predator outside her window. The poem simultaneously celebrates and acknowledges the way language can sugarcoat reality.

An Analysis of the Themes in A Barred Owl

One of the main themes in 'A Barred Owl' is the power of language. Wilbur expertly demonstrates this through his interpretation of the poem's meaning and his skilled use of language within the poem itself. The parents' ability to calm their child with words proves their power, while Wilbur simultaneously reveals and conceals the true nature of the owl in the night. This not only reinforces his argument but also showcases his mastery of language.

However, another theme in the poem is the importance of truthfulness. While the parents use language to ease their child's fears, they do so by obscuring reality. They portray the owl as a harmless woodland creature asking a simple question, instead of the predator it truly is. This raises questions about the morality of using language to manipulate the truth for comfort or convenience.

Do you agree with Wilbur's argument about the power of language? Can you think of other examples that support or challenge it? Does his poem effectively defend his hypothesis?

Delving into Diction, Symbolism, and Personification in Wilbur's 'A Barred Owl'

Richard Wilbur's 1991 poem, 'A Barred Owl', explores the power of language and its ability to shape our perception of reality. Through carefully chosen diction, symbolism, and personification, Wilbur creates a multifaceted piece that delves into the themes of fear, truth, and the impact of words.

The Power of Diction

Wilbur's diction, or word choice, plays a crucial role in conveying the poem's meaning and evoking an emotional response in the reader. From the very beginning, the author paints a vivid image of a menacing creature, the owl, with its booming voice in the warping night. This effectively sets the scene and conveys the child's fear. However, just like the parents in the poem, Wilbur also utilizes words to soothe this fear, reducing the owl to a simple "forest bird" asking an "odd question". This choice of words not only calms the reader, but also showcases the power of language to create a different perception of reality.

The second stanza continues to highlight the impact of diction as Wilbur explains how words can "domesticate a fear". Describing the owl as hooting "bravely" and allowing a "small child" to sleep peacefully showcases the power of language. However, the tone of the poem takes an unexpected turn as Wilbur reveals the true nature of the owl, stealthily hunting and consuming prey in its natural habitat. This contrast further emphasizes the impact of words in creating a false sense of security.

The Symbolism of the Owl

Throughout the poem, the owl serves as a central symbol, representing the child's fear and the truth that the parents strive to shield her from. In literature, owls are often associated with intelligence, the supernatural, and the occult. They are also commonly used as messengers. In 'A Barred Owl', the owl symbolizes the power of language to obscure or diminish the truth.

Interestingly, the line "Who cooks for you?" which appears in the poem, is not an invention of Wilbur's, but a commonly used phrase in the southern United States to describe the barred owl's distinctive hoot. This adds a cultural element to the poem and reinforces the symbolism of the owl as a messenger.

The Impact of Personification

Wilbur also expertly employs personification to highlight the theme of language and its effect on reality. The night is personified as it "warps" and brings the owl's voice into the child's room. The parents also utilize personification, portraying the owl as simply asking "an odd question" in an attempt to neutralize the terror it evokes. This use of personification emphasizes the power of words to change our perception of reality.

Juxtaposition of Truth and Perception

Finally, Wilbur employs juxtaposition to drive home his message about the impact of words. While the parents succeed in calming their daughter's fear, in reality, the owl remains untamed and continues to prey on its victims. This contrast serves as a reminder of the power of language to create a different, often more comforting reality.

Concluding Thoughts

In 'A Barred Owl', Wilbur skillfully uses diction, symbolism, personification, and juxtaposition to showcase the power of language and its ability to shape our perception of reality. Through this unique and thought-provoking poem, he reminds us to carefully consider the impact of our words and the truths they may obscure.

The Powerful Message Behind Richard Wilbur's "A Barred Owl" Poem

In contrast to the nurturing care provided by parents, the owl leads a solitary life and captures its prey in a raw and merciless manner. This comparison between the girl and the owl serves as a striking illustration of how language can be used to mask reality.

Wilbur's tone in the poem shifts from informative to forewarning. He initially explores the influence of language and its ability to soothe anxieties. However, as the poem progresses, he reveals the darker truth of the owl's predatory nature and instincts. This shift in tone is mirrored in the poem's structure, with the first six lines resembling a calming lullaby in iambic pentameter, and the last six lines taking on a much darker tone.

During an interview, Wilbur acknowledged that a student had described his poem as starting like a lullaby and ending like a nightmare. This interpretation accurately captures the tonal shift in the poem and its underlying message about the dangers of misusing language.

Key Takeaways from "A Barred Owl" by Richard Wilbur:

  • Published in 1991, "A Barred Owl" is a thought-provoking poem by Richard Wilbur.
  • The poem delves into the power of language and its ability to both create and ease fears.
  • Through the use of literary devices such as juxtaposition, symbolism, and tone, Wilbur conveys his message.
  • The poem serves as a cautionary warning about the harm that can be caused by using language to obscure reality.

Wilbur effectively conveys his message through the skillful use of literary devices, including personification, symbolism, tone, rhyme scheme, and diction. The girl's encounter with the owl serves as a prime example of how language can be wielded to either allay or provoke fears, while also serving as a cautionary reminder of its potential to distort the truth in a detrimental way. As Wilbur himself declared, "A Barred Owl" may begin with a soothing lullaby, but its resounding and unsettling message resonates long after the final line is read.

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