It’s high time I concluded the little exercise I posted last month.

To explain a little, I wrote the poem in one morning, when I should have been paying attention to other things. After it was done, I thought it was the kind of poem that would reward the careful observer, so I put it out there for careful observation. To make a case study out of a poem is to cheapen it, of course, but I decided this one had gone as far as it was going to, anyway, and was more interested in peoples’ response to it as it was, than in letting it collect dust in my SOMEDAY file until it could be finished properly.

This exercise was not intended to be a simple exhibit of poetry skills. It was my hope that I would be able to pass along some insights into what makes poetry tick for some of you who may not have thought much about it before. Maybe, like most modern readers, you tend to interpret a poem using only vague impressions — if so, you could be missing out on a great deal of what the author was trying to tell you.


When I asked for comments on the poem, I mainly had in mind comments on form of it — structure and rhyme — but this was treated hardly at all in the responses I received1. More on that later.

The poem has both rhyme and structure, though neither is immediately obvious.

Wheeling overhead I hear the ravens' voices — which I have compared to the serpents' bite: the poison, entering your ear finds its feeling — by degrees and choices ending in a fatal pagan rite. God! the rider of the storm is their true master — who have sent us reeling, etc...

In each verse, the ends of the first and third lines rhyme; the middle of the second line rhymes with the end of the fourth; the middle of the third with the end of the fifth; and the middle of the fourth with the end of the second line of the next stanza.

The first line has four stressed syllables (“feet”). The pattern of feet per line is 4–5–7–5–5.

Why the complicated form? Why not something simple? Simple poetry can be very enduring, after all:

Mary had a little lamb, Its fleece was white as snow; And everywhere that Mary went The lamb was sure to go.

The answer is that the form should go well with the subject. The simple rhythm above is nice for what it is; but it would become almost comical if I tried to use it for a poem about ravens and rites.

Note, also, that the rhythm in Mary had a little lamb is terribly obvious, like the bold, primary colors in a child’s bedroom. The rhythm in Wheeling overhead is more subtle, and spoken aloud, quite a bit more like normal, natural speech.


Most of the comments I received addressed the imagery and ideas in the poem, which is understandable. Comments ranged from a mere “Sounds dark” to detailed analysis spanning many pages. My thanks to all who took time to write in their thoughts.

I was actually surprised by how detailed and accurate most of the responses were, and they even brought new perspectives on meaning that I hadn’t originally considered. I wish I had the space to treat each one individually, but fortunately my favorite is already online and available for you to read here: Observations on A Poem by “The Chieftain of Seir.” I suggest you read it, as it really nails the explanation of many of the details of the poem, and I feel it would be a waste of time to repeat it all here.

In short, though, when I wrote the poem, I was in a time of constant heaviness, and drew what I was experiencing in my mind. Birds in scripture are commonly associated with demons, and the analogy has been reinforced by the experience of Christians in every age2. The “pagan rite,” to which I felt compelled by (what I thought were) my thoughts, does indeed refer to suicide.

God, the rider of the storm, is indeed the true master of calamity as he is of deliverance, of the demons who accuse us and urge us on to destruction. As we see in the life of Job, and in the story of the serpents in the wilderness, he proves his children by the fires that are lit in hell, and at the same time saves them from the destruction they deserve.

For the rest I refer you to the Chieftain’s observations linked above. I admit I did not much consider the change from “I” to “we” in the second verse that irritates him so. I suppose I agree with him at last, but cannot say that I care much one way or the other about that aspect of — there are arguments to be made either way.

  1. An accident, I suppose, of my having titled the original post Interpret instead of Observe - a mistake that has since been rectified as you can see.

  2. E.g., from The Pilgrim’s Progress: “Just when he was come over against the mouth of the burning pit, one of the wicked ones got behind him, and stepped up softly to him, and whisperingly suggested many grievous blasphemies to him, which he verily thought had proceeded from his own mind. This put Christian more to it than anything that he met with before, even to think that he should now blaspheme him that he loved so much before; yet, if he could have helped it, he would not have done it; but he had not the discretion either to stop his ears, or to know from whence these blasphemies came.”