#37 “Roosters” (Elizabeth Bishop)

Elizabeth Bishop’s “Roosters” is probably the longest poem in the Countdown by sheer number of lines (132). And I do remember that I set a 100-line limit for our poems. But the lines in “Roosters” are so short that I figured a foolish consistency would be the hobgoblin of my little mind. It’s probably not our longest poem in terms of word count, and it’s certainly one of the more focussed poems on the whole list.

The poem starts with a literal description of roosters. Whatever town we’re in, it’s a town full of roosters: not a sanitized 21st-century mid-American city, but some place distant enough in time and space from us to have an immediate living relationship with its poultry. The roosters wake the village; they fight; some of the fights end badly.

But the speaker, in the process, gets to thinking about roosters and what they mean in culture. She’s a verbal collector of images of roosters, the way some people collect porcelain pigs, or glass owls, or prints of mushrooms. The stereotypical rooster image, in America, is on a weathervane, even though few of our houses have weathervanes anymore, and fewer of those vanes have roosters. The central cultural depiction of a rooster that she focuses on is from the Bible. It is the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus, and it appears in all three “synoptic” Gospels, as in Matthew 26:75:

And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

In the Latin version of the Bible that was long the standard text for the Catholic Church (and therefore for pre-Reformation art, and for the Vatican City**), “gallus canit” means “the cock crowed,” and “flet Petrus” means “Peter wept.” The poet isn’t showing off; she’s just reading what is written on this work of art (which may well be imaginary; at least; I can’t find it quickly on the Internet).

The climax of the poem is beautifully rendered. Peter denied Jesus. Well, he was human. The fact of his humanity, as symbolized by the rooster (which becomes a kind of metonym for not having superhuman strength) is what, paradoxically, led Jesus to forgive him, and to forgive us all.

Whether you’re Christian or not, the idea that a symbol of weakness can be a reminder of love and strength is a powerful idea. And the weakness of the literally “cocky” roosters subsides in the last part of the poem (its denouement) to become an image of peace. “The cocks are now almost inaudible.” Morning has returned, with immense hope, to the world.

**Edit Saturday 10/3: The “Lateran” (the basilica of St. John Lateran) is in Rome itself, not in the Vatican City. My bad.


14 responses to “#37 “Roosters” (Elizabeth Bishop)

  1. The poem “Roosters” is one of symbolism and allusion; it uses the rooster as a symbol of strength and beauty. The poem alludes to the story in the Bible of Peter’s denial of Jesus. After Jesus told Peter that he’d deny him three times before the cock crowed, it came to pass; the cock’s crow in the Bible to me represented awareness and alertness–it made Peter aware of his sin and alert that he just confirmed what Jesus had told him. I think that cock crows nowadays make us aware and alert that it is morning and that it is time for us to wake up. Bishop says in her poem that the “rooster come to mean forgiveness” and I believe it’s true because Jesus already knew what Peter was going to do before it happened and had already forgiven him for it so I guess the cock’s crow represented or confirmed his forgiveness toward Peter. The thing I love most about this poem is the way in which Bishop describes roosters. Each stanza is filled with rich description; and they challenge the reader’s imagination.

  2. Reading this peom all I could picture is when a husband and wife fight and there are times when a wife will peck and peck at her husband till she may think that she gets her point across, that what I could think of is when a man and woman try and share their views with each other and neither one wants to listen they deny the other of any part of talking it out or listening to the point. Don’t some people already know the answer to the question before they ask it just like Jesus knew about Peter. Don’t we all crow to each other about something until we get the answer we want or beat the topic to death in some cases.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this poem. I think it is very interesting, as mentioned in class that the rooster fight seems to kind of symbolize Jesus being taken in the garden because it was an intense emotional occurrence in the bible, as is the rooster fight in the poem. Also, the rooster fight ends in bloodshed, as well as the story in the bible. Then the poem recalls the story in the bible of Jesus at the last supper telling Peter that before the rooster crows three times he will deny him. As mentioned, it seems as though Elizabeth Bishop is just talking crazy about roosters, and then tells a story about them fighting and dying but, as with every other poem upon closer examination it is much more than that.
    This poem gives the image that roosters are strong, fierce, and vile creatures that fight with each other all the time, even for no reason. Before reading this poem, I viewed roosters as annoying animals but, I realize now they have a much deeper symbolism within them.

  4. I enjoyed the formation of the poem even more than what the poem actually meant. I don’t usually enjoy long poems but I really liked how this poem was split in the simple three line stanzas. Another thing I found interesting about the poem is how Bishop describes the roosters. I found that the more one reads it the more the more meanings we can find from it. Apart from the relation to Jesus I feel like the roosters description can be related to us humans, men a lot, the violence and strength, they are roosters (male) after all, sharing male qualities/similarities.

  5. decarlocoleman

    I really enjoyed reading this poem by Elizabeth Bishop. In the beginning of the poem I love how subtle the discription is, yet the visual obtained by the reader is so bold. It reminds me of the routines that we have in the mornings when we start our day. You tend to notice all of the little things that take place and go on around you. In the lines, ” grates like a wet match from the broccoli patch,” the example used is described using universal objects that are familiar with almost everyone so that no matter who reads it they can somehow relate to the speaker.

  6. This another poem in which I understand. TO be honest I am not a man of religion. I don’t understand the biblical meaning to the Rooster.But I do understand it’s sybolism to mankind. Having over a dozen roosters I know a thing or too. These birds are very territorial and just like Humans, more like the first americans and all the rest after, drive out those who are not wanted from what they claim to be theirs. Fight to the dealth for what they believe. If a Roster is introduced to a new chicken coop the first this is that the rooster will do is challenge the rival dominant rooster to overthow him. In a natural fight the more than halfe of the time there is a dealth. Violence is all that the rooster knows, he lives by it and dies by it. The rooster takes what he wants to dies trying. Americas true history has been of that exactly. Their pride is that of the Crown of the rooster. Taunt it, peck at it and you’ll have a fight. It seems to be the same story over and over again. Come on over, remove by rce the inhabitants, and spread. Force themselves into argurments overseas that don’t pertain to them with brute force. Invade states that don’t belong to them and claim it as their own. The list can continue. By nature it is the way of the rooster. The morning song is to know of his presence, his dominance, his strenght. Just like a Lions roar. My rooster sing all day.. not just the mornings. Of course I have them in seperate cages… or they will tear themselves up!

  7. I appreciate how very detailed Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Roosters” is. The imagery in it is very colorful and artistic, which enhances the poem’s message. There is more than one theme in this poem, which is quite different to the previous poems we have read. It’s as if this poem is compiled of several poems with a similar subject. At the very beginning of the poem it seems as if the speaker is describing a war zone, which makes me feel on edge and scared. Then, it drifts over to describe male domination which makes me l a little sad and weak since I am a woman. The next theme in the poem is a religious them of betrayal and forgiveness. I feel even deeper sadness as I read how shameful Peter feels after the cock crowed, but then regain hope as I read: “Poor Peter, heart sick, still cannot guess those cock-a-doodles yet might bless, his dreadful rooster come to mean forgiveness.” I can relate to these words. I have also betrayed someone before and felt the awesome power of forgiveness. It is one of the greatest feelings in the world. This poem is awesome because it brings out so many emotions in the reader. I like how it begins by describing waking up as a violent scene, but ends by describing waking up as a peaceful scene. Just as with everything else in life you can choose to see an experience as something negative, or you can take the time to find the positive in it.

  8. In this poem the roosters symbolize waking us up and starting a new day. Everyday we wake up its starts a new day and everything that happen yesterday is gone and washed away. The roosters are symbolizing for us to wake up. This is the biblical meaning that i got out of the poem. This is a good poem even though it is long. It gives a spiritual feeling and message.

  9. Though I have heard and read the story of Jesus and Peter I have never pictured it the way Elizabeth Bishop tells it. The way it is told in the King James Bible is very touching and interesting. In the beginning of the poem “Roosters” is not just not referring to roosters (the way I perceived it) it is speaking more about Christ. It is telling the story of his life in comparison to a rooster until the denying of Jesus by Peter. The meaning of he rooster crowing is the sad part. In the last stanza on the fist page and ends on the second page states “ Very combative…” what right have you to give commands and tell us how to live, well that is what Jesus was doing when he walked this earth. There were many people and priests fighting against him, fighting against his teachings what we should believe and how we should live. This is a very beautiful poem told with truth and meaning. Told in a very artistic way only an artist or writer would think to do. By twos they fight each other I see that as good and evil the Disciples of Christ fighting to protect there savior against the crowd and guards that are to take him into custody. He continued to be a hero even with the sensation of dying. “St.Peter’s sin was worse than that of Magdalene” well Peter walked close with Jesus he was one of his disciples, who would be the last person you would think that would deny Christ. Even though Mary Magdalene’s sin was of the flesh and was forgiven by Christ, Peter’s is felt to be the worse. He was told by Jesus that he would deny him when the cock crowd thrice, and that he did. The question why and how could he deny Christ has went around in my mind several times, but I still can not come up with an answer. As the sun being Christ the Son of God climbs in the followers remained faithful, an enemy or friend. This poem has moved up to my top three being number one. I like reading poems with meanings to life, something to relate to and mediate on and that is what I was able to do with this poem “Rooster.”

  10. I’ve heard the story of peter denying Christ many times and i have never really paid attention to the rooster. Or saw any importance or any symbolism of the rooster that was important. I did a little poking around to see what roosters meant to different cultures in some the rooster symbolizes pride,honesty,arrogance etc. The ancient Greeks saw the rooster as a symbol of victory over night. The Chinese sees it as a sign of honesty. As for this story in Christianity it is a symbol of Christ’s passion. And how the rooster crowed three times was interesting ( deny, deny, deny) and how on the third hour Christ was crucified, three hours darkness covered the land, and on the third day He rose from the dead where He brought forgiveness and hope. It was a long poem but didn’t notice too much because it was a great poem. I like how she set down a foundation of explaining roosters and then gradually gave an example of different meanings behind roosters in cultures.

  11. I wasn’t a huge fan of having to read this poem out loud in class, but I did really enjoy the poem overall. The visual imagery in this poem hops around in a way that you wouldn’t think would make sense, but it all somehow fits together. With the way the poem starts, it sounds more like it’s going to be about the town rather than the roosters themselves. But as the poem shifts into the description of the roosters and eventually to the cockfight, it is clear that this poem is probably going somewhere unexpected. When the poem ultimately gets to the story of Peter, the betrayal and the redemption, it starts to get difficult to determine where the poem is going to go. I don’t know that I was completely sold on the use of roosters as imagery at first, but once she got to the story of Peter, all of the images in the beginning of the story began to make sense. Overall I think that the style of the poem and the imagery that it uses makes it one of the best poems we have read so far. I’m curious to see what’s next on the countdown.

  12. Coming from Robert Frost’s poem “Directive”, “Rooster” by Elizabeth Bishop is refreshing I guess you could say. The rooster fight really means to me the violence in humanity, shown with Bishop’s choice of words at the beginning, using gun-metal to describe the setting in which the roosters will fight. The way the setting is described really reminds me of how quickly our violence can spread out and the ripples it has, the match struck on the broccoli patch that spreads the flame all over town. These are really brought to life by Bishop’s words. The thing that really brings this poem to life for me though is when Bishop talks about Peter. As a Christian to deny Christ after accepting him is a grave sin by itself, but none of us can imagine actually not denying Christ as we see him today, but denying him as Peter denied him, rejecting not only his savior, but his mentor and friend. Still the most wonderful thing about that story is the fact that Christ forgave him. It makes me think that after all the violence we commit in the dark of the night; the light of the day brings a new beginning and forgiveness for us.

  13. “Roosters” was a very interesting poem that had deep meaning other than just talking about roosters. I really liked this poem because it can relate to many things and it also gives insight information about certain subjects. Elizabeth showed several different meanings that we can associate with roosters and she also goes into depth about what the rooster itself symbolizes. It was very interesting to see how the poem correlated with the bible story because while we were reading it I kept thinking that I had already read this before, and it was because I am familiar with the story in the bible. What I really liked about this poem is that not only does it talk about roosters and the bible, but the roosters themselves can also be related to humans according to Elizabeth’s description of them. Humans do seem to fight over nothing sometimes and some try to be perceived powerful and stronger than others. This poem if it is read and analyzed can be found to have many different meanings.

  14. “Roosters” by Elizabeth Bishop was very long, but the rising and falling of the stanzas was my favorite characteristic of the poem. The poem began at the start of a beautiful morning when the rooster alerts the world of the arrival of a brand new day. In the middle verses, the energy of the poem begins to swell as Bishop describes where these metal roosters are found and as she questions the reason for their “traditional cries”. It seems almost as if Bishop was looking at a rooster from her bedroom window and it reminded her of the story of Peter denying Jesus three times. The poem begins to approach a state of calm as Bishop starts to think about what the crying of the rooster meant to Peter. It seems that the rooster was transformed from a natural disturbance of peace and rest to a symbol of peace and forgiveness.

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