At first glance, Richard Wilbur’s “A Barred Owl” appears to be short and straightforward: a child, awakened by the hoot of an owl, calls for her parents, who soothe her with a lie about the owl’s supposed harmlessness. The child, blissfully unaware of the owl’s true nature, falls back to sleep, leaving the parents to reflect upon the owl, who they know to be a predatory creature. However, after a closer look at the puns and symbols Wilbur uses, “A Barred Owl” becomes more than just a simple poem about a child’s fear. Furthermore, Wilbur’s theme about ignorance is applicable in life, especially politics, today.
Wilbur uses puns, most notably on the word “barred,” to help express theme. Barred has two meanings: “having… stripes” and “forbidden or excluded” (Collins English dictionary at onelook.com). Wilbur uses the word in a literal sense as the owl is barred with stripes. He again uses the word literally as the house is physically unable-- forbidden, even-- to enter the house. But Wilbur also uses “barred” another way: the owl is figuratively barred-- excluded-- from the house as the frightening thought of it is blocked from the mind of the child by the parents.
Wilbur also uses symbols to express theme. The poem takes place in a “darkened room,” (2) one in which light, like the owl, is “barred” from entering. Initially, the reason behind Wilbur’s choice of setting seems rather obvious: it’s night, therefore the child’s room is dark. However, the dark room is symbolic: the parents lie to the child when they claim the owl is friendly--the child is in the dark about the truth; the dark of the room symbolizes ignorance. This isn’t the only place where Wilbur uses the word “dark” as a symbol: he writes in lines eleven and twelve, “... some small thing in a claw/ Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw” (11-12). Like the child’s room, the branch is dark because it is night. However, Wilbur also uses the word “dark” to mean morbid and immoral, as the owl is killing its prey.
In the last line of the first stanza, the parents tell the child that the owl says “Who cooks for you?” (6). In the last line of the second stanza, the parents privately admit that the owl carries its prey “up to some dark branch and [eats