Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

A Barred Owl

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
X
Illustration You have already viewed an explanation Register now and access this and thousands of further explanations for free
English Literature

It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, in that words are a powerful weapon. They are also a powerful shield, and in 'A Barred Owl' (2000), a poem by American poet Richard Wilbur, the power of words to soothe and gloss over reality to lessen fear is put on display. Imbued with a deeper meaning, Wilbur utilizes literary devices such as diction, tone, and personification throughout the poem to present the themes of truthfulness and the power of language.

'A Barred Owl' at a glance

Poem'A Barred Owl'
Published2000
FormTwo sestets for a total of 12 lines
Rhyme SchemeAABBCC
MeterEach line contains 10 syllables in imabic pentameter
ToneInformative, cautionary
ThemesThe power of language, truthfulness
Literary DevicesRhyme, Diction, Symbolism, Personification, Juxtaposition, Tone
Overall meaningThe meaning of the poem is about the power of language. While the child is scared of the owl's hoot, the parents can assuage that fear by painting the owl as a benign creature asking a silly question. Simultaneously, he warns about the ability to misuse the power of language to obscure truths in a way that could be harmful to the child in the future.

'A Barred Owl' context

Richard Wilbur is often heralded by critics as a predecessor to what became the New Formalist or Neo-Formalist movement in poetry. This was a movement that showcased a return to metered poetry with formal rhyme schemes; it was a marked difference from the popular, free-verse poetry of the time that fell into the Modernist or Confessional movements that are characterized by their lack of formal structure or meter. 'A Barred Owl' can be seen as an example of Neo-Formalist poetry as it follows a strict AABBCC rhyme scheme and utilizes a metered line of iambic pentameter.

'A Barred Owl' summary

‘A Barred Owl’ tells the story of a child’s nighttime fears and how parents can use words to alleviate them. The speaker of the poem says ‘we,’ inviting the reader to share in the experience of soothing a frightened child. In the first stanza, a young child is frightened by the “boom/Of an owl’s voice” (1-2) that she can hear in her room at night. Her parents tell her not to worry, that it was just the owl asking her “‘Who cooks for you?’” (6).

The second stanza explains how words have the power to expose our fears but also to lessen them, as seen in how the parent’s explanation allows the child to fall asleep peacefully. In a slight turn, the reality of the owl’s lifestyle is described in detail – while the child sleeps peacefully, dreaming of a kindly owl, the owl is, in fact, devouring raw a small creature it has killed.

'A Barred Owl' full poem

The warping night air having brought the boom

Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,

We tell the wakened child that all she heard

Was an odd question from a forest bird,

Asking of us, if rightly listened to,

“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,

Can also thus domesticate a fear,

And send a small child back to sleep at night

Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight

Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw

Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

Meaning of the poem 'A Barred Owl'

In "A Barred Owl", Richard Wilbur points out the power of language. When a child is frightened by the booming voice of an owl, her parents must only explain that the owl is asking an innocent question and the child falls asleep easily. Never mind the reality that would surely be far more frightening to the girl than just the owl’s voice – that the owl is outside her window, eating its most recent kill. The poem is simultaneously an exaltation of the power of language, and the “Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,/Can also thus domesticate a fear” (7-8) are an acknowledgment of the way language is used to sugarcoat reality.

A Barred Owl, Face of an owl, StudySmarterThe potentially-frightening visage of an owl, pixabay.

'A Barred Owl' theme analysis

The power of language

Wilbur uses this poem as an opportunity to exemplify the power of language; he does so both in the poem’s meaning and in his own use of language. The interpretation of the poem shows its meaning – that language can both inspire and assuage fears – as we can see from the parent soothing the child through words. Wilbur plays with the power of language within the poem itself, alternately describing the dark reality of an owl in the night as well as obscuring reality by describing the owl as just a friendly woodland creature. In doing so, he both states his hypothesis and proves it true.

What other examples can you provide that either prove or disprove Richard Wilbur's hypothesis? Do you ultimately agree with him? Do you think his poem justifies his hypothesis?

Truthfulness

While the parents in the poem utilize the power of language to soothe their scared daughter, they do so by blurring reality. They tell her the owl is just asking an innocent question (Who cooks her food?), but the real circumstances of the owl would likely frighten her even more than she already is.

In this way, Wilbur makes a statement about truthfulness and the power of language to obscure the truth, even if in an effort to be helpful or kind. By seemingly protecting their daughter from the reality of the owl, they may be doing her a disservice as she will have to face up to reality in the future. As a result of her parent’s words, she will be underprepared.

Literary Devices in 'A Barred Owl'

Rhyme Scheme in 'A Barred Owl'

Wilbur uses a strict, formal rhyme scheme throughout the poem. The stanzas consist of two sestets and follow a rhyme scheme of AABBCC. His use of a strict rhyme scheme only serves to exemplify his skill with word choice and subject matter. Even within the confines of a rhyme scheme in just 12 lines, Wilbur is able to deliver a stirring, evocative poem that posits a grand idea about the nature and power of language.

A Barred Owl, Lightning strikes in a forest at night,  StudySmarterThe woods at nighttime can be scary to a child, pixabay.

Diction in 'A Barred Owl'

Diction refers to an author's word choice.

Wilbur’s word choice is precisely done to convey the poem’s meaning and jar the reader. He utilizes vocabulary to clearly paint a picture of a frightening creature to a little girl: an owl with a “boom” (1) of a voice within the “warping” (1) night. He sets the scene and conveys her fear. He then does what the parents do: he soothes that fear and tension by immediately reducing the owl to “a forest bird” (4) asking an “odd question” (4). Rather than a booming voice echoing in a dark, sinister night, the owl becomes a mundane citizen of the local woodlands asking a neighborly question.

Similarly, in the second stanza, the first three lines are measured as Wilbur explains the power of language. He helps clarify words' power by using the adjective “bravely” (7) and shows that the power of words “domesticates” (8) fears so that a “small child” (9) may sleep. This word choice serves to put the reader at ease.

Then, just as suddenly, the owl is “stealthily” (10) in flight and has captured something in its “claw” which it has subsequently flown up to a “dark branch” (12) and “eaten raw” (12). Once again, Wilbur puts the reader at ease and then reinforces the power of language by exposing its ability to be unsettling.

Symbolism in 'A Barred Owl'

Throughout the poem, Wilbur makes use of a central symbol in the form of an owl. Owls are a commonly-used symbol in literary history that often represent intelligence as well as the occult and supernatural. Additionally, they are often used as messengers. In this poem, the owl is the spark of the child's fear. Wilbur utilizes the owl as a symbol of a messenger that harkens the truth.

Therefore the owl can be linked to the deeper meaning of the poem: the child is frightened of the owl, and the parents calm the child's fear. Wilbur ends the poem by meditating on the reality of the owl and the ability of language to obscure or diminish the truth. The owl is a harbinger of the truth, and the parents, in softening its image, only serve to further obscure reality.

The line "'Who cooks for you?' and then 'Who cooks for you'" (6) is not an invention of Wilbur's. It is a common phrase in the southern part of the United States for the cadence of a barred owl's hoots—this species of owl hoots in a distinctive eight or nine hoot pattern, and it is colloquially thought to be saying either "who cooks for you?" or "Who cooks for you all?"

Personification in 'A Barred Owl'

Wilbur utilizes personification throughout the poem to paint a clear picture of the source of fear. The night is “warping” (1), moving and alive in a way that would frighten a child. The owl doesn’t just hoot, but the night brings its booming voice into the girl’s room. The parents, in an effort to counteract these frightening characteristics of both the nighttime and the owl, choose to personify the bird differently. They tell their daughter that the bird is just asking “an odd question” (4) in order to lessen its terror.

Juxtaposition in 'A Barred Owl'

Wilbur employs juxtaposition in the poem to exemplify the theme of truthfulness and the power of words. While he acknowledges that words can “domesticate a fear” (8), this statement is juxtaposed with the reality of nature. While the parents in the poem were able to ‘domesticate’ their young daughter’s fear, nothing would be able to domesticate the owl in reality, which was causing her fear. It remains wild and untamed, killing rodents and eating them raw.

Juxtaposition is seen also in the question the parents impose upon the owl: they assure their daughter that the owl only asks “‘Who cooks for you?’” (6) so that she may think of the owl as a friendly, curious creature. In all likelihood, the girl’s loving parents cook her meals for her. Compare this to the owl: it has no one to cook its meal and consumes its fresh victims raw. This juxtaposition is striking, and Wilbur uses it to serve his ultimate message about the power of language to soothe, and to obscure reality in doing so.

Tone in 'A Barred Owl'

Wilbur utilizes both an informative and cautionary tone throughout the poem. It is informative in his hypothesis about the power of language, how it can both create and calm fears. The girl's experience with the owl is used as an example to show the power of language. At the end of the poem, however, he moves to a darker tone that expounds upon the slightly scarier reality of the owl – his tone shifts to a cautionary one to warn the reader about the power of language to obscure reality.

Wilbur once stated that a student had said of 'A Barred Owl', that it "begins like a lullaby and ends like a nightmare."1 Wilbur's tone shift in the poem reflects this analysis.

'A Barred Owl' - Key takeaways

  • 'A Barred Owl' is a poem by American poet Richard Wilbur published in 2000.
  • The poem is two sestets written in iambic pentameter.
  • The poem tells the story of a young girl frightened by the hooting of an owl at night; her parents are able to calm her fears by painting the owl as a benign woodland creature that is asking a silly question.
  • The deeper meaning of the poem is about the power of language to both assuage and create fear, while also providing a cautionary warning about the ability of language to obscure and obfuscate the truth in a way that is potentially harmful.
  • Wilbur utilizes personification, juxtaposition, symbolism, and tone throughout the poem to convey its meaning.

1. Richard Wilbur. Poetry Readings: 'A Barred Owl'. Web of Stories: Life Stories of Remarkable people.

A Barred Owl

‘A Barred Owl’ was published in 1991. It was a part of the collection Mayflies: New Poems and Translations by Richard Wilbur.

The meaning of ‘A Barred Owl’ has to do with the power and use (or misuse, perhaps) of language. Wilbur exemplifies how language can be used to both give voice to and to silence fears. At the same time, it can be used to sugarcoat reality in a way that may be harmful down the line.

‘A Barred Owl’ is about a girl who is frightened during the night bythe sound of an owl outside of her room. Her parents assure her that the owl is just asking an innocent question, and, her fears assuaged, the girl sleeps soundly. Wilbur notes, however, that the reality of the owl is quite different, and that if the girl was aware of the natural instincts of the owl, she would likely be even more frightened.

The tone that Richard Wilbur adopts in ‘A Barred Owl’ is informative and cautionary. He writes in a first-person narrative that includes the reader in the action by referring to the action as done by ‘we.’ He explains his hypothesis about the power of language in an informative way, using the experience of the girl and her parents as an example. His ending, using the reality of nature and the instinctive viciousness of the owl, however, lends a cautionary tone to the entirety of the poem about the possibility to misuse language’s power.

Wilbur utilizes the literary devices of juxtaposition, symbolism, tone, personification, rhyme scheme, and diction throughout the poem. Each of these devices serve to underscore Wilbur’s ultimate message and the emotional impact of the poem.

Final A Barred Owl Quiz

Question

What is 'A Barred Owl?'

Show answer

Answer

'A Barred Owl' is a poem by American poet Richard Wilbur. It ruminates on the power of language and its ability to both inspire and assuage fear.

Show question

Question

Who wrote 'A Barred Owl?'

Show answer

Answer

Richard Wilbur, American poet, author, and translator, wrote 'A Barred Owl." The poem was originally published as part of his collection Mayflies: New Poems and Translations in 1991. 

Show question

Question

What perspective is used in 'A Barred Owl?'

Show answer

Answer

Second-person

Show question

Question

What rhyme scheme is used in 'A Barred Owl?'

Show answer

Answer

ABABCC

Show question

Question

What does Wilbur refer to as being 'domesticated' in the poem?

Show answer

Answer

The owl

Show question

Question

What literary devices are used in ‘The Barred Owl?’


Show answer

Answer

Wilbur utilizes the literary devices of juxtaposition, personification, rhyme scheme, and diction throughout the poem. Each of these devices serve to underscore Wilbur’s ultimate message and the emotional impact of the poem.

Show question

Question

What is the tone of ‘A Barred Owl?’


Show answer

Answer

The tone that Richard Wilbur adopts in ‘A Barred Owl’ is informative, and cautionary. He writes in a first-person narrative that includes the reader in the action by referring to the action as done by ‘we.’ He explains his hypothesis about the power of language in an informative way, using the experience of the girl and her parents as an example. His ending, using the reality of nature and the instinctive viciousness of the owl, however, lends a cautionary tone to the entirety of the poem about the possibility to misuse language’s power.

Show question

Question

What is ‘A Barred Owl’ poem about?


Show answer

Answer

‘A Barred Owl’ is about a girl who is frightened during the night bythe sound of an owl outside of her room. Her parents assure her that the owl is just asking an innocent question, and, her fears assuaged, the girl sleeps soundly. Wilbur notes, however, that the reality of the owl is quite different, and that if the girl was aware of the natural instincts of the owl, she would likely be even more frightened.

Show question

Question

What is the meaning of the poem ‘A Barred Owl?’


Show answer

Answer

The meaning of ‘A Barred Owl’ has to do with the power and use (or misuse, perhaps) of language. Wilbur exemplifies how language can be used to both give voice to and to silence fears. At the same time, it can be used to sugarcoat reality in a way that may be harmful down the line.

Show question

Question

When was ‘A Barred Owl’ written?


Show answer

Answer

‘A Barred Owl’ was published in 1991. It was a part of the collection Mayflies: New Poems and Translations by Richard Wilbur.

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the A Barred Owl quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.