Birdcage Walk

By Thomas James Merton 1915–1968
1

One royal afternoon
When I was young and easily surprised   
By uncles coming from the park
At the command of nurses and of guards,

I wondered, over trees and ponds,   
At the sorry, rude walls
And the white windows of the apartments.

“These,” said my uncle, “are the tallest houses.”   


2

Yes, in the spring of my joy
When I was visibly affected by a gaitered bishop,   
Large and unsteady in the flagged yard,
Guards, dogs and blackbirds fled on every hand.

“He is an old one,” said uncle,   
“The gaiters are real.”


3

Rippled, fistfed windows of your
Dun high houses! Then
Come cages made of pretty willows
Where they put the palace girls!
Green ducks wade slowly from the marble water.   
One swan reproves a saucy daughter.

I consider my own true pond,
Look for the beginning and the end.
I lead the bishop down lanes and islands.


4

Yes, in the windows of my first existence   
Before my yawns became seasons,
When nurses and uncles were sure,   
Chinese fowl fought the frosty water   
Startled by this old pontifex.

“No bridge” (He smiled   
Between the budding branches),
“No crossing to the cage   
Of the paradise bird!”

Astounded by the sermons in the leaves
I cried, “No! No! The stars have higher houses!”

Kicking the robins and ganders   
From the floor of his insular world
The magic bishop leaned his blessing on the children.


5

That was the bold day when
Moved by the unexpected summons   
I opened all the palace aviaries   
As by a king’s representative
I was appointed fowler.

Thomas Merton, “Birdcage Walk” from The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton. Copyright © 1957 by The Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1977)

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Poet Thomas James Merton 1915–1968

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Biography

A monk who lived in isolation for several years, and one of the most well-known Catholic writers of the twentieth century, Thomas Merton was a prolific poet, religious writer, and essayist whose diversity of work has rendered a precise definition of his life and an estimation of the significance of his career difficult. Merton was a Trappist, a member of a Roman Catholic brotherhood known for its austere lifestyle and vow of . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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