Quartz Hill School of Theology

The Mystery

Dandi Moyers

There is something within mankind that makes him wonder at the world in which he finds himself; a curiosity that keeps him searching and questing for some answer to the mystery that is God.  For ages men have tried to access the mind behind the order and design implicit within the complex beauty of creation. Philosophers, theologians, mystics and even mathematicians try to find some answer.  Poets look and see the enigmas, but in facing them, leave the questions unanswered and open to many possibilities. Wallace Stevens faces the mystery of God in his poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  In it, Stevens vignettes 13 scenes linked only the presence of a blackbird. Using the blackbird as a symbol to represent God, Stevens suggests the transcendence of God in relation to his creation.

In a close reading of this poem we can see the different aspects of God’s transcendence revealed within the scenes.  Transcendence has a very specific meaning in this context: God is all-knowing, all-powerful and ever-present to his creation and existing outside of time.  We will look at each scene to see which aspect of God’s transcendence is implied and what literary techniques he utilizes to create that impression. 

            In scene I we see the blackbird gazing upon a mountain range:


Among twenty snowy mountains,

the only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird. (line 1-3)


The image created is one of a vast wilderness in which only the blackbird is alive. The use of the past tense word “Was” alludes to the creation of the world. The terrain was formed and not yet filled with life.  The blackbird – God -- watched over it.  The statement that the eye of the blackbird was “moving” evokes a sense that God was not only present at the creation of the world, but was interested in it.  Where stanza I stresses God’s presence in the vast openness of the world, Scene II demonstrates how God is present even within each individual.


I was of three minds

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds


This is a clear reference to the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity. The idea of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as three persons in One God is pictured as a tree with three blackbirds perching in it. This tree is used as a simile to describe the persona’s state of mind: being three in one.  This may be a reference to the idea of mankind being like God in that he is body, mind and spirit.  These first two scenes demonstrate that God is present among the vastness of the landscape as well as within the design of a single man.

            In stanza III we see God is even present in the smallest things.  “The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. It was a small part of the pantomime.”  This image evokes a playful kind of feeling with the use of words like “whirled” and “pantomime.” The wind is used as a metaphor for the invisible things. The blackbird playing in the wind is a small part of the pantomime and implies that God’s involvement with the invisible things is only a small part of what He does.  This idea is expanded in the next stanza, Scene IV, where we see God’s presence in the relationship between two people.


A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one.


This is an obvious allusion to the Biblical teaching of marriage “and the two will become one flesh (Gen.2:24).”  In adding the blackbird to the union of man and woman, Stevens is again alluding to the “three as one” Trinity idea as well as implying that God’s presence is a part of that special union of marriage.

            In the preceding stanza’s we have seen how God is present somewhat passively in his creation.  In the stanzas V - VII we see that his presence is more active. In V the persona muses about his preferences:  “ I do not know which to prefer; The beauty of inflections; Or the beauty of innuendoes.”   The persona points to communication and wonders about the beauty of its parts.  Inflections are how the person speaking manipulates sound to create a desired emotional effect in the listener.  This practice, done skillfully, can be as lyrical and pleasing to the listener as the melody of a song. The listener is not required to do anything in this kind of communication but feel.  However, a speaker’s artful use of innuendo requires that the listener actively juggle what is said so that an alternative meaning is understood. Stevens couples this picture of passive and active listening with “…The blackbird whistling; Or just after.”  The blackbird whistling suggests God speaking. One can listen to the preaching of scripture and be moved by the beauty of the verses and the truth that they contain.  But merely hearing God’s words does not require any response from the listener.  It is in the moments after God speaks that the listener is required to act; to respond in some way to the truth that they have heard.  This exchange in communication demonstrates a more interactive involvement between God and his creation; that God is not only present but involved with His world.

            Not only is God involved, but he also is deeply concerned for his creation.  In stanza VI we see that God is present in the extraordinary things in life, such as tragedy.


Icicles filled the long window,

With barbaric glass.

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the shadow

An indecipherable cause.


We get the sense of tragedy from the imagery Stevens uses in the first two lines.  The words “icicles” and “barbaric glass” brings with them the feeling of cold, unmerciful harshness: the kind of feeling that accompanies those unexpected events in life that leave one asking “why me?”  This time it is not the blackbird that is seen, but its shadow.  It is in times of despair when God does not seem to be present, but Stevens seems to suggest by the blackbird’s shadow that God is present even then.  The moving of the shadow back and forth across the window echoes the pacing actions of one who is anxious but cannot take action.  This leaves the impression that God is present and emotionally involved in the extraordinary event.  The final lines, “The mood; Traced in the shadow; An indecipherable cause”, implies that God is sensitive to the suffering and that He is present even though He offers no explanation for the suffering.

            Where stanza VI shows how God is present in the extraordinary events in life, stanza VII shows that God is present in the ordinary things of daily living. The persona addresses the men of the city asking them :


Oh 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?


            Steven’s use of the color “golden” evokes images of the opulent and lavish ornamentation that is found in cathedrals and other traditional places of worship. This is the key to understanding Steven’s choice of the blackbird to symbolize God. This stark contrast between the opulence and splendor of  “golden birds” and the somewhat ugly ordinariness of the blackbird argues, most effectively, Steven’s desire to represent God as someone who is near and approachable.  He further brings this purpose to light by pointing to the presence of the blackbird at the “feet of the women.”  This choice of words carries with it some very strong domestic feelings. It draws to mind the picture of a woman, barefoot and pregnant, taking care of the home.  Here Steven’s seems to be telling the men to look to the ordinary things in life, not the formal and elaborate structures of religion, to experience God.

Up to this point Steven’s has concentrated on the ever-present aspect of God’s transcendence.  But in stanzas VIII and IX he moves to addressing God’s transcendent knowledge.  In VIII the persona recognizes his knowledge comes from God.


I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.


The first two lines seem at first to be proud claims of his own abilities, but he them admits that God is a part of all that he knows.  Then, in IX, he gives God the credit for innovation and revelation.


When the blackbird flew out of sight.

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.


The circles represent limits in his understanding and known experience. Here God leads him beyond the edge of his immediate circle and outward to a greater knowledge and understanding.  Though expressed obliquely, God’s role as giver of knowledge points to His all-knowing transcendent nature.

            The next two stanzas seem to address the awareness of God that is built into His creation.  In X, we find an allusion once again to a biblical idea that the inanimate parts of nature recognize God’s glory: “ …even the rocks will cry out. (Luke 19:40)” 


At the sight of blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.


The image of blackbirds flying in a green light evokes feelings of exultation. The green light refers to the moment when the sun dips just below the horizon sending a flash of green light across the sky.  The obscure phrase “bawds of euphony” seems to refer to the lowliest members in natures balance, suggesting that even the most insignificant part of God’s creation is aware of and will glorify God. 

That awareness is not limited to the rocks and dirt.  In stanza XI, Stevens gives a haunting glimpse into the mind of a man momentarily aware of God’s sovereignty.


He rode over Connecticut

In a glass coach

Once, a fear pierced him,

In that he mistook

The shadow of his equipage

For blackbirds.


In this scene we see a man riding over Connecticut in a glass coach.  The glass coach brings to mind the idea of royalty.  The use of the words “riding over” give the impression that the coach is flying over the landscape, likening the mans progress in the carriage to the flight of the blackbird.  The use of flight symbolizes authority over the creation, or sovereignty.  So, the impression we get is that the man, in his pride, has elevated himself to the place of God.  And yet once, in the midst of his self-aggrandizement, he experienced a momentary awareness of God’s authority and he was “pierced” with fear.  This realization happened when he mistook the shadows, cast by the framework of his carriage, for blackbirds.  In reflecting God’s sovereignty, these stanzas help to demonstrate the all-powerful aspect of God’s transcendence. The final two stanza’s however, demonstrate more clearly the power of God and his existence apart from time. In XII Stevens sees a cause and effect relationship between God’s power and the movement of life through time.


The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.  


The river moving is a metaphor for the progression of life through time.  The image of a moving river evokes the sense of a constantly flowing thing and represents time. The water is used as a symbol of life. From this understanding that “life goes on”, the persona concludes that God must still be actively governing his creation and that he holds the power of life and the passage of time in his hands. The implication of this is the converse: if God stops governing the creation, life will stop moving through time.  This single stanza powerfully argues for not only the power of God, but also God’s existence outside of time.   This stopping of time: death, is captured in the final stanza, XIII, where we are faced with a dreary, cold picture.


It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.


“It was evening all afternoon” shows that the passage of time has halted. The darkness of evening and the coldness of the constant fall of snow evoke a somewhat sad and hopeless feeling. This winter scene is a metaphor for death. Yet even in death, God is present.  The blackbird perching in the branches of the cedar is contrasted to the flight of the blackbird in the previous stanza.  This contrast serves to re-enforce the power that God holds over his creation.  When he stops governing, time and life stops.

            In these 13 sparsely worded vignettes Wallace Stevens makes a powerful and vivid argument for the Transcendence of God.  The overall timbre of the work seems to be a challenge for men to see God in all of life’s experiences and not only in the vaulted ceilings of a church. 


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