What Literary Devices Are Used in the Poem "A Barred Owl"?
Richard Wilbur's "A Barred Owl" effectively uses, despite its brevity, three strong literary devices. The poet -- whose works, according to his biographers, "brim with wit and paradox" -- seems to be over-filling his cup here, as if to overwhelm his readers by demonstrating the sheer love of words in his imagery, personification and paradoxical irony.
Personification in Owls and Other Things
Wilbur personifies elements such as the night air that bring's the owl's cry; it is "warping," as if it were twisting the bird's message, which it is. The owl becomes a questioner, asking a child the repeated message "Who cooks for you?" The speaker calms the child with words that "make ... terrors clear" and "domesticate our fears," as if words were animate things that bring both horror and relief. This is what the poet's words actually do: calm a child who might otherwise be terrified at an owl's real intent.
Imagery Both Civilized and Savage
Wilbur's imagery evokes different worlds of civilization and savagery: the small child sleeping peacefully contrasts horrifically with the "small thing in a claw ... eaten raw." But for fate, the human sleeper might be a "small thing" destroyed by natural forces; the child also sleeps "at night," the same night in which the owl's victim is "borne up to a dark branch." One is reminded of "Rockabye Baby's" imagery, including its terrifying fall at the end; we all fall eventually, owl or human.
Irony into Paradox Soaks the Work
Wilbur's poetry is also infused with irony. The owl's call "Who cooks for you?" is an ironic comment to the child, whose parents will make him breakfast, while the owl, fending for itself, eats its capture raw. The night that brings the child peaceful slumber also brings horror and a gruesome devouring for the owl's prey. The paradox takes over the work: man's fear may be "domesticated" but the owl never will be. It is "barred," isolated and locked away from innocence, and yet it feeds on the innocent.
Emily Dickinson spoke of telling truth to children as "lightning ... eased with explanation kind." The literary devices of imagery, paradoxical irony and personification Wilbur employs have the same effect -- to "explain" the savagery of natural life in contrast to the thin coating of civilization that mankind enjoys. Occasionally, says Wilbur, nature calls to remind us of its terrors; even then, we use our own words to blunt the message.
Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.