Poems “A Barred Owl” (Richard Wilbur) and “The History Teacher” (Billy Collins)
Prompt: In the following two poems, adults provide explanations for children. Read the poems carefully. Then write an essay in which you compare and contrast the two poems, analyzing how each poet uses literary devices to make his point.
Irony Rhyme Juxtaposition
Aphorism Rhyme assonance
Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
When I was six years old the one thing in the world that scared me the most was pirates, but when my mom told me they were really just silly scalawags who roamed the seas in search of adventure and gold, my perspective changed. She softened the truth so that my childhood fears wouldn’t keep me from enjoying Disneyland and soon all I could think about was becoming a pirate myself. Looking back, my mother’s explanation was a tool used to influence my behavior.
In comparing “The Barred Owl” by Wilbur and “The History Teacher” by Collins each poet incorporates their own literary devices to show just how easily young children can be influenced.
Ignorance plays a large part in Billy Collins’ poem as he tells the story of this naive history teacher and his students. Unlike Wilbur’s poem, Collins’ use of irony clearly reveals that the bullies on the playground are doomed to repeat history because they know nothing about the past. For example, “the children would leave his classroom for the playground to torment the weak and the smart...” this quote shows the ironic comparison between the bullies and the knowledge of past events. (lines13-15) Another ironic situation is the history teacher’s idea that his students are still innocent and in need of protection. Collins also uses juxtaposition within his poem to highlight the theme of ignorance between his students and people in the past. This comparison reinforces his ideas about the importance of not being ignorant to history’s lessons, right up to the end as the teacher walks home amidst “flower beds and white picket fences,” completely unaware of his influence on the children. (line 18)
In contrast to Collins’ poem, Richard Wilbur wrote “A Barred Owl” to show how lying to children can sometimes yield its own benefits. His use of assonance gives off a more calm tone than that of “The History Teacher.” The repetition of certain consonants and sounds such as, “the warping night air having brought the boom of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,” emphasizes Wilbur’s idea that calming words will sooth a child’s fears. (lines1-2) Aphorisms are another literary device that is found within the poem. “Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
can also thus domesticate a fear,” this clear statement shows how well words can calm a child’s fears. (lines7-8) So instead of lying to children and teaching them to be ignorant, as we saw in the first poem, Richard Wilbur has shown how a simple lie can sometimes “send a small child back to sleep at night.” (line 9)
While the two poems are different in many ways, similarities can be found between their makers. For example, both used rhyme to keep the reader interested and to help their stories flow. “A Barred Owl” had a more effortless rhyming scheme, whereas “The History Teacher” incorporated a more rigid one to make the reader feel uneasy, but both poems used rhyme to accentuate their points.
Both Richard Wilbur and Billy Collins wrote about how children are always learning and they learn the most from the adults around them. Through the uses of different literary devices they are able to show just how easily a child can be manipulated.