This week I've been fascinated by Elizabeth Mitchell, lately of the pop group Ida, and more recently ascending, slowly and with quiet confidence, to well-deserved fame as a singer of children's songs. Last week we ended up in a car ride with our little guy (he's almost two) and started listening to You Are My Little Bird: I couldn't stop for days. Everything on there is pretty-- even the call-and-response songs, which reach that hard-to-discover intersection of toddler-participation and adult-admiration-- but one song in particular, Mitchell's cover of David Welch and Gillian Rawling's Gillian Welch and David Rawlings' "Winter's Come and Gone," has kept me thinking about a certain effect.
If you don't know the song, go listen (PC users click here) or at least read the lyrics. Then come back-- and we'll see how they bring to mind Shakespeare.

Did you listen or read the lyrics? OK, welcome back. Here's the effect, which-- in Mitchell's version-- keeps making me cry: by the time she gets to the end of the refrain, "Winter's come and gone/ A little bird told me so," it's clear to us that winter hasn't gone: it's still pretty frozen up in the vicinity of Mitchell's/ Welch's/ the performer-persona's heart, and it's cold out in the atmosphere too. She's still extraordinarily lonely (she pines for the company of a passing bird), and she's still broke (just five nickels left-- they're cold nickels, too, which means there's no heat where she lives, and it's so cold outside that coins chill to the touch).
The pathos, in other words, overflows right where we hear her sing lyrics she nearly can't believe, where the singer (persona) is obviously and unsuccessfully trying to convince herself of a proposition that would make life look much less bleak, even though absolutely everything around her-- every other line in the song, in fact, except for that title-- suggests otherwise.
That's one bittersweet flavor of irony-- some would call it verbal irony, but we could also call it lyric irony, since it takes place in song lyrics, and since it depends on only the starkest, slightest of situations, the situation depicted by just a few words.
That sort of irony benefits from appropriate settings-- musical settings, for instance, and vocal delivery, since intonation gets lots of work to do. You can find it in other kinds of pop lyrics, too: yesterday I noticed the great farewell record by the Long Island band My Favorite, whose title track also features a singer trying to convince herself of a proposition she's nearly sure she doesn't believe.
Which brings us from song lyrics to lyric poems, the kind that work on the page: where can we find this specific sort of irony-- the singer, speaker, poet, person-in-the-poem saying something she wants to believe but is pretty certain (and, we realize, we are pretty certain) can't be true?
The first case that comes to mind might provoke a little debate: it's Shakespeare. "Love is not love/ Which alters when it alteration finds": oh, really? The speaker in that sonnet seems to hope not, or at least once to have hoped not, since he concludes with this couplet: "If this be error, and upon me proved,/ I never writ, nor no man ever loved." He'd love to think so (the poem implies) but it's not true.
You may be aware of a recent analysis in which the sonnet appears as "dramatic refutation or rebuttal": earlier readers, Helen Vendler points out, wanted to see a true "definition of true love" so badly that they missed the way the irony works. The lover in the sonnet at some point wanted to believe that perfect and unalterable love was the only kind of love one could have: that his love was "a marriage of true minds," and would (despite all evidence) endure (by contrast, the singer in "Winter's Come and Gone" not only wanted, but still wants to believe the title).
But Shakespeare's speaker has loved. His love has altered. The notion of true and perfect love as the only kind was indeed error, as his own experience shows ("upon me proved"). He might feel better had he never loved. Rather than admit as much directly-- that would be too painful, at least for now-- he ends the sonnet with an if-then proposition-- hopeful on its face, quite bleak in practice--- which we should know better than to believe.
I think this reading allows for at least two tones at the end: grim, with voice breaking, or else conclusive and sarcastic. You might call it an ambiguity. In both tones, though, the speaker knows for a certainty that the error has already been upon him proved.
Which means that Shakespeare's irony isn't-- quite-- the kind in the song. Where can we find the Mitchell-Welch-Rawlings kind of irony, where a speaker at a climactic lyrical moment says something she would desperately like to believe, something that she hasn't quite given up on believing, but something that we know that she knows is, sadly, not true?
Such moments suffuse Robert Browning's greatest poem: it's a lyrical poem, but dramatic, not lyric, in genre.
Can we find this effect anywhere else, in any modern poems meant for the page?

Originally Published: September 13th, 2007

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

  1. September 13, 2007
     K. Silem Mohammad

    I think of the last stanza of Hardy's "Darkling Thrush," where the speaker stands in a wasted winter landscape and says of a wretched little bird's evening song:
    "So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
    Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,
    That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
    Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware."
    I can see at least two ways of interpreting this. First, the thrush really does know that spring is near, and the speaker's intuition of hope is justified and sincere. Second, the bird is just singing because that's what birds do, and the speaker is being ironic ("I'm glad *someone's* happy"). But since neither of these readings is more demonstrably "correct" than the other, the superimposed possibility of both meanings generates a sort of wistful tone that I can't help relating to the effect you're talking about.

  2. September 13, 2007
     Henry Gould

    I find another kind of irony lurking around this analysis of supposed lyric irony : the chameleon way poems have of taking on whatever coloration the reader wants to find there.
    Shakespeare's sonnets can be read as a sequence, a narrative (soap opera?) of conflicted love affairs; this approach is certainly necessary if so much implicit background is going to be imported into this particular lyric. But the poem also stands alone, and can be read as such : and here a much stronger case can be made for a straightforward, less ironic reading. The poem is a simple apostrophe to - a characterization of - steadfast, "true" love - perhaps more agape than eros, but love nevertheless.

  3. September 13, 2007

    I like that idea, Kasey-- though Hardy is very self-conscious and distant about his own "could," both in tone and in time frame. The effect in the Mitchell song (partly an effect of her delivery) is as if Hardy were saying "There is, indeed, some blessed Hope," in the present time of the poem-- as if "The Darkling Thrush" were spoken at the turn of the century, maybe, rather than taking place (as a spoken event) after the perceptual event it records.

  4. September 14, 2007
     Jon Baines

    Great post! But bit of a mix-up with names: the original song is by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.