A Barred Owl

by Max, Nikita, and Iain



A Barred Owl

by Richard Wilbur

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.


Richard Wilbur was born in 1921 in New York City. He attended Amherst College, and then took a break to fight in World War II before furthering his studies at Yale. Throughout his career, he has published many poems, both for children and adults, as well as prose and some translations of French plays. He often writes about common topics that may be based off experiences in his own life. His works have earned him much recognition and several awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, a Frost Medal, and a T. S. Elliot Award. This poem, A Barred Owl, was published in 2004 as part of his collection, Mayflies: New Poems and Translations.

Poetic Structure

A Barred Owl is written in iambic pentameter with rhyming couplets. The poem is divided into two stanzas, each comprised of six lines. The stanzas are one sentence long and they stanzas flow very well when read. The lines are fairly short and are all of comparable length, due to the poem being written in iambic pentameter.

Vocabulary and Allusions

warping - twisting; turning; distorting
"Who cooks for you?" - a common allusion to the sound of a Barred Owl's call
domesticate - to control; to tame
borne - past participle of "bear" (to thrust; to put somewhere forcibly)

Poetic Devices

The poem uses many images. There is the ever-present image of the owl, which shifts throughout the poem. The owl is seen as both a friendly creature and a scary predator. This image can be seen as representing nature, an unpredictable and changing force. Personification is seen in the poem when the child’s parent says the owl is talking. The bird is given a voice and asks, “Who cooks for you?” Additionally, there is a pattern in the rhyming couplets and in the similarly sized stanzas.

The poem possesses a somewhat somber tone. The first stanza evokes peacefulness, while the second stanza is darker, invoking the wrath of the unpredictable predator. The diction is informal, as it could easily be an anecdote of a parent. The language is simple and conversational, so if flows quite well. The combination of these structural elements allows the poem to express somewhat abstract ideas in simple, easy to understand manner.

Analysis and Inferences

Nikita's Analysis
Iain's Analysis
Max's Analysis

Video Interpretation


1. "A Barred Owl by Richard Wilbur." Poetry Archive. Web. 06 Dec. 2009. <http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=1672>.
2. "Barred Owl." Online image. Jan. 2005. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 08 Dec. 2009. <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Strix-varia-005-crop.jpg>.
3. Dictionary and Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. Merriam-Webster, Inc. Web. 09 Dec. 2009. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/>.
4. "Richard Wilbur." Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More. The Academy of American Poets. Web. 06 Dec. 2009. <http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/202>.
5. "Richard Wilbur." The Poetry Foundation : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry. Poetry Foundation. Web. 06 Dec. 2009. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=7411>.


The title clearly states who one of the main characters of the poem is. The title does not reveal any plot or pose any discernible poetic significance.
No unusual words
No discernible allusions to historical things
Written in iambic pentameter with rhyming couplets
An owl’s scary hoots are heard in the night. The child is told by her parent that the owl saying, “Who cooks for you?” Sounds can calm us as well as frighten us. This new interpretation of the owl allows the child to go back to sleep, not fearing a scary predator.
The first stanza shows the owl as an innocent tame animal. The second stanza shows the owl as a fearsome predator. This sort of duality is also seen in the mention of cooking in the first stanza as compared to the mention of a raw animal in the second stanza.
There is the imagery of the owl eating a dead animal raw on a broken branch. There is personification in that the animal is portrayed as talking. The tone could be described as solemn, but not overly so. It is rather informal. It flows and seems conversational, as it could be a parent relating a story of their child.
Points to touch on:
  • Man vs nature
  • Duality
  • Point of view affecting situation
The point of view in which a situation is viewed can completely change the supposed nature of it and can soften the perceived instability and scariness of nature. In A Barred Owl by Richard Wilbur, the changing point of view of the child shows that a shift in perspective can turn a fearsome predator into a friendly domestic animal.