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With Birds You’re Never Lonely: Worlds and Lives Analysis

With Birds You’re Never Lonely is written by Raymond Antrobus, who was born in Hackney (East London) and is of Jamaican and British heritage. His deafness was discovered when he was six years old, a theme he often explores in his poetry.

Poem Summary

The speaker is in a café. The noise of the coffee machine makes him feel uncomfortable. He sees a customer reading a book about trees, and this reminds him of a recent trip to New Zealand where he spent a lot of time among trees.

In the poem, the speaker is in a café, where the noise of the coffee machine makes him feel uncomfortable. He observes a customer reading a book about trees, which triggers a memory of a recent trip to New Zealand, where he spent a lot of time among trees.

The speaker recalls sitting in a forest, initially disturbed by the loud chirping of birds. He then turns down his hearing aid and appreciates the silence for a moment. Upon turning his hearing aid back up, the resuming sounds interrupt his peace.

He contemplates what trees might think of humans and reflects on a Māori woman’s words, “with birds you’re never lonely”. This leads him to think about the contrast between the abundant nature in New Zealand and the relative lack of it in London’s trees.

The poem’s key message:

The poem encourages the reader to consider the profound effect that sounds have on our thoughts and well-being. It also compares the nature and experiences of urban and rural environments, highlighting the stark differences.

Language

Language featureExamples and the effect of this
Sound imagerySound is frequently depicted as intrusive in the poem. In the café, the “Spoons slam”, where the onomatopoeia “slam” suggests a sudden, disruptive noise. The birds landing near the speaker are described as “blaring so loudly”, further emphasising how overwhelming these sounds are.

When the speaker turns up his hearing aid, he notes that “silence collapsed”, suggesting that the return of sound abruptly ends his moment of peace. These auditory experiences hinder his enjoyment of his surroundings.
ColourIn contrast to the city, the natural setting of the New Zealand forest is described more positively. The speaker observes “brazen Tui birds with white tufts/ and yellow and black beaks” and describes the trees as “brown and green trunks of sturdiness”.

These descriptions convey a sense of liveliness and health in the natural environment. In stark contrast, the trees in London are depicted as “grey”, highlighting the lifelessness and impact of urbanisation on nature.
Rhetorical questionsWhile reflecting in the forest, the speaker begins to think about the perspective of trees. He asks, “I wondered what the trees would say about us?/ What books would they write if they had to cut us down?”

These rhetorical questions invite the reader to consider the natural world’s view of humanity. The speaker imagines a scenario where trees, as sentient beings, might think of humans as inferior. This is a reversal of the usual human-centric perspective on nature.

Structure

The time and setting changes in the poem, illustrating the development of the speaker’s thoughts:

  • It opens in a London café in the present tense.
  • Seeing a customer reading a book about trees triggers the speaker’s memory of his time in New Zealand. He speaks in the past tense when recalling this memory.
  • He remembers that, while in New Zealand, he thought about the trees in London. Visiting a new place allowed him to see his home city with a fresh perspective.

Form

The poem is primarily written in couplets. This could reflect the theme of connection as it brings together several contrasting and complementary ideas, such as:

  • The Contrast Between Urban and Natural Settings
  • Past and Present
  • Sound and silence
  • Human and Natural Perspectives

The poem concludes with a single, standalone line, that is open to interpretation: “the Gods they can’t hold.” This isolation of the final line, and its ambiguity, encourages the reader to think about its meaning more deeply, and how it relates to the themes explored in the poem.

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
ConnectionInitially, the speaker feels a moment of connection when making eye contact with a customer reading about trees. He relates to this, as trees are “all I can think about”.

He recalls being “sat alone on a stump” in New Zealand, furthering his connection to nature. He is impressed – and even “jealous” – of the trees and their “brown and green trunks of sturdiness”. This makes him think about humans from the perspective of trees, deepening his connection with the natural world.

The speaker also resonates with a Māori woman’s understanding of forest sounds, learned from her grandfather. This further emphasises the theme of connection.
Sounds and silenceAs a deaf individual, the speaker provides a unique perspective on sound and silence. Sounds are often portrayed as disruptive, such as the café’s “slam” of spoons and the “blaring” of birds.

In contrast, silence is depicted as peaceful. The speaker observes that “silence…was not an absence”, implying that it offers him a richer experience. The silence allows him to think about philosophical ideas involving nature and humanity, suggesting it gives him a deeper level of understanding and reflection.
Nature vs the cityThe poem contrasts the richness of nature with the lifelessness of urban settings. You can see this in the description of the forest, which uses colourful imagery in the metaphor “sun-syrupped Kauri trees”.

The Māori woman’s saying that “with birds you’re never lonely” resonates with the speaker, who enjoys nature’s companionship. However, the poem ends on a more downbeat note as the speaker thinks about the nature in London. The “grey” trees, affected by urbanisation, lack the vitality and meaning found in their natural counterparts. They are shown to be lonelier, lacking “family” or “Gods” to give their lives any meaning.

Key Quotes to Learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“Spoons slam, steam rises”The speaker is disturbed by the sounds and sights in the London café.
“a silence that was not an absence”In the forest, the speaker appreciates nature without auditory distractions, finding value and presence in silence.
“I felt sorry/ for any grey tree in London”This comparison between the rich New Zealand forest and the more lifeless, urban setting of London highlights the negative impact of urbanisation on nature.

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