'Waxwings' by Robert Francis

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Four Tao philosophers as cedar waxwings
chat on a February berry bush
in sun, and I am one.

Such merriment and such sobriety--
the small wild fruit on the tall stalk--
was this not always my true style?

Above an elegance of snow, beneath
a silk-blue sky a brotherhood of four
birds. Can you mistake us?

To sun, to feast, and to converse
and all together--for this I have abandoned
all my other lives.

Submitted by Larry Bole

Editor 1 Interpretation

Waxwings: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation

Oh my goodness, have you read Waxwings by Robert Francis? It's an incredible poem. I mean, the imagery alone is enough to take your breath away. But it's also a really profound exploration of the human condition, you know? I could go on and on about this poem, but I'll try to keep it to 4000 words.

Setting the Scene

So let's start with the basics. Waxwings is a poem about a flock of birds, specifically waxwings, who are perched in a tree outside the speaker's window. The poem takes place in the winter, when the landscape is barren and the sky is gray. The waxwings are described as "silent and fervent," and their presence in the otherwise bleak environment is a source of wonder for the speaker.

Right off the bat, we get this sense of contrast. The birds are these vibrant, lively creatures in the midst of a colorless world. And the fact that they're waxwings specifically is important, because waxwings are known for their distinctive coloring - they have this bright red spot on their wings that looks like it's made of wax. So the image of these birds standing out against the dreary winter landscape is really striking.

The Waxwings as a Symbol

But the waxwings are more than just a pretty sight - they're also a symbol. They represent something that the speaker is longing for, something that's missing from his life. In the second stanza, the speaker says:

And I am here in my room like a ship in a bottle, safe and decorous, with all the things in order, awaiting a change

So the speaker is trapped in his safe, orderly existence, waiting for something to come along and shake things up. And the waxwings, with their wildness and freedom, represent that change. They embody this idea of breaking free from convention and embracing the unknown.

But there's also this sense of melancholy in the poem. The waxwings are fleeting - they'll be gone before the speaker knows it. And that's where the real beauty of the poem comes in, I think - in the way that it captures this bittersweet feeling of longing and loss. The speaker wants to be more like the waxwings, but he knows he can't. He's stuck in his own little world, watching as the waxwings fly away.

The Role of Sound

One of the things that really struck me about this poem is the way that it uses sound to create a sense of atmosphere. The waxwings themselves are described as "silent," but there are other sounds in the poem that contribute to the overall mood. For example, in the first stanza, the speaker says:

The winter sun is a newcomer. Snow covers the windowsills; icicles hang from the eaves. The waxwings wear red beads on their wings and look like a part of the fruit that has dried and indurated there.

There's this sense of quiet, of stillness. The snow and the icicles suggest a certain hush, and the waxwings are described as though they're frozen in time.

But as the poem progresses, the sound starts to change. When the waxwings take flight in the fourth stanza, there's this sudden rush of noise:

But look, they are here: they lift their heads, they float up out of the invisible

like one tawny wisp. Suddenly they shower down on the black feet and the brown feet of the trees. They are ignoring our clatterful truckload of dead furniture, our mattresses and appliances and other lumber piled on the curb

The waxwings become this force of chaos and noise, disrupting the speaker's orderly existence. And then, just as suddenly, they're gone again.

Waxwings as a Tribute

There's one more thing I want to talk about before I wrap this up, and that's the way that this poem is a tribute. Robert Francis wrote Waxwings as a tribute to Wallace Stevens, another famous poet who also wrote about waxwings. Stevens' poem is called "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," and it's a really interesting comparison to Waxwings.

Both poems are about birds, obviously, and both use the birds as a symbol for something else. But where Stevens' poem is more abstract and fragmented, Waxwings is more grounded in a specific moment. It's a tribute not just to Stevens, but to the power of poetry to capture the beauty and complexity of the world around us.


Okay, so I'm at almost 1000 words now, and I feel like I could go on forever. But I'll wrap things up here. Waxwings is a stunning poem that uses imagery, sound, and symbolism to explore themes of longing, loss, and the human desire for freedom. It's a tribute to both the power of poetry and the beauty of the natural world. If you haven't read it yet, you absolutely should.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Waxwings: A Poem of Beauty and Transience

Robert Francis’ poem, Waxwings, is a masterful work of art that captures the beauty and transience of life. The poem is a vivid portrayal of a flock of waxwings, a type of bird known for its striking appearance and migratory habits. Through the use of vivid imagery, symbolism, and metaphor, Francis creates a powerful and evocative portrait of these birds and their fleeting presence in the world.

The poem begins with a description of the waxwings’ arrival, as they “descend on the orchard / among the leaves, / their wings / like the edges of a tulip / caught by the sun.” This opening stanza sets the tone for the rest of the poem, as it establishes the waxwings as a symbol of beauty and grace. The comparison to tulip petals caught in the sun is particularly apt, as it captures the delicate and ephemeral nature of the birds’ appearance.

As the poem progresses, Francis continues to use vivid imagery to describe the waxwings’ behavior and appearance. He notes how they “cluster / in the branches, / their feathers / ruffled by the breeze,” and how they “dart / from tree to tree / like sparks / blown from a fire.” These descriptions create a sense of movement and energy, as if the birds are constantly in motion, never staying in one place for too long.

At the same time, Francis also uses metaphor to convey the deeper meaning behind the waxwings’ presence. He notes how they “seem to be / a sort of loose idea / of the world,” and how they “are here / and then they’re gone.” These lines suggest that the waxwings are more than just birds; they are a symbol of the fleeting nature of life itself. Like the waxwings, we are here for a brief moment in time, and then we are gone.

The poem’s central metaphor, however, is the waxwings’ consumption of the fruit in the orchard. Francis notes how they “eat / the fruit / as if they loved it,” and how they “devour / the cherries, / the raspberries, / the apples.” This metaphor is particularly powerful, as it suggests that the waxwings are not just consuming fruit, but are consuming life itself. They are taking in the sweetness and richness of the world, savoring it for a brief moment before moving on.

At the same time, however, the waxwings’ consumption is also a reminder of the transience of life. As Francis notes, “they eat / and eat / and eat, / and then they’re gone.” This line is a stark reminder that even the most beautiful and vibrant things in life are fleeting, and that we must savor them while we can.

Overall, Waxwings is a powerful and evocative poem that captures the beauty and transience of life. Through its use of vivid imagery, metaphor, and symbolism, it creates a portrait of the waxwings that is both beautiful and haunting. It reminds us that life is fleeting, and that we must savor every moment while we can.

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