Because I am disorganized, I did not notice that Hozier released an EP in September 2018 featuring a song titled “Shrike,” and it took me until the middle of March to realize that his second album (Wasteland, Baby!, released March 1st) was out. Once I finally caught up with 2018 (which is to say, three weeks ago), I was intrigued. “Shrike” is the name of a small carnivorous songbird that, as the Irish singer has been happily explaining to audiences, impales its prey on thorns before eating it. It’s also known as a butcherbird for this reason. (Come for the soaring vocals, stay for the ornithology lesson.) It also happens to be one of the 20th century’s nastier and more enduring metaphorical tropes for a vicious woman. Why, I wondered, would a musician known for marching to repeal Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, hiring a ton of lady backup musicians, and in possession of a huge and rabid female fan base, title one of his songs that?
The association is fairly obvious, if dripping with misogyny. A “bird” was a somewhat antiquated general term for a woman; shrikes are pretty little songbirds with wickedly hooked beaks and eating habits that border on the Wallachian. The word “shrike” itself is from the Old English scrīc, which means “to shriek,” a verb that has been implicitly gendered for centuries (e.g., “shrieking harridan”). The connection between shrikes and unpleasant women was already firmly within the English public consciousness by 1936, when the Royal Air Force considered “Shrike” and “Shrew” as names for its new single-seat fighter aircraft and finally settled on “Spitfire.” (The U.S. Army, while flying a ton of Curtiss Shrikes, never used their manufacturer’s name; point to the Americans.)
What I discovered while delving around in the literary and cinematic references to shrikes, though, is that this metaphor took on a new dimension halfway through the last century. Authors began to link shrikes with married women, especially those who treated their husbands badly. Near as I can tell, Joseph Kramm was the first author to do so in his 1952 play “The Shrike.” Notably, the title word does not appear once in the dialogue. Audiences had to make the connection with Ann Downs and her manipulative and cruel actions towards her husband Jim, who she has managed to get committed to a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt in the wake of his affair with another woman. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama that year and José Ferrer won a pair of Tonys for acting and directing, so we know that it was at least well-made and well-received sexist bullcrap. Ferrer then directed the 1955 film adaptation, which includes this notable bit of dialogue not found in the play’s script:
Nurse: What’s this last–”wife a shrike”–question mark? What’s a shrike?
Doctor: Well, an innocent-looking little bird with a sharp beak that likes to impale her victim on a thorn.
Nurse: Who’s the victim?
Doctor: Well, in this case, it could be her mate.
Ferrer and Ketti Frings, the film’s screenwriter, may have felt the need to explain things to the audience due to Ann becoming a somewhat more sympathetic (and layered) character through flashbacks. They may have also thought that audiences would need things spelled out after June Allyson was cast in the role, given how Hollywood had her mired in cute lil’ thing roles. They needn’t have bothered, as Allyson tucked into the role as if it were a still-beating mouse heart stuck on a stick. She later said, “I was fed to the teeth being sweet.”
Regardless, it is both really clunky exposition and wildly unfair to actual shrikes, who are excellent mates. They don’t pair for life, but instead court in each breeding season; the males spear gifts of prey or shiny objects onto thorns for females to admire. Many of the little dead critters Hozier saw in hedgerows were probably presents from hopeful males. Reports of shrikes cannibalizing each other are rare, Hannibal aside, and I could not find a single example of a female shrike killing her mate anywhere in the scientific record. Nevertheless, the identification of “shrike” with “bad wife” clearly stuck.
Between the play and the film, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story titled “Shopping for Death,” featuring a an angry and constantly complaining Mrs. Shrike, and published it in MacLean’s in 1954. He then adapted it for television in Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1956, starring Jo Van Fleet as a seething, rage-filled squall of a woman with one volume setting: cacophonous. Bradbury jettisoned innocence and faux sweetness from the trope in favor of anger directed outward at absolutely everyone and everything in her vicinity. He even gave Van Fleet a fantastic, Friedan-esque monologue to explain why she was so mad, but then subverted it by having another character state outright that female rage is equivalent to mental illness and an invitation for a husband to justifiably murder his wife.
Bradbury also expanded the metaphor to both the husband and wife—they are Mr. and Mrs. Shrike together, and he’s as murderous as she is vicious. (Bradbury introduced them to the TV audience with an additional line about shrikes being butcherbirds, just in case anyone missed the symbolism.) The episode ends with Mr. Shrike stumbling home from a bar clearly bent on using his longshoreman’s hook on Mrs. Shrike, and the arrival of a police car moments later confirms it.
In 1956, Sylvia Plath married Ted Hughes, watched Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and typed the manuscript for her husband’s poetry collection The Hawk in the Rain. She also submitted the manuscript (which features three poems that reference birds directly in their titles, including the titular poem, and another seven that reference birds directly in their text) to the Poetry Center of the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association of New York City for their First Publication Award. The judges, including W. H. Auden and Marianne Moore, gave it first prize, which was a publication contract from Harper and Row. By the standards of the ‘50s, Plath should have been enormously proud at doing so much to help her husband in his career.
Instead, she wrote “The Shrike.” The trope remains about a man and a woman in a marriage, but now it’s from the woman’s perspective, borrowing from jealous Ann Downs and furious Mrs. Shrike equally. However, it’s not clear how human either the husband or wife are. They sound more like some sort of hybrid bird-monsters, between his “sleep-feathered” wings and her “taloned fingers.” By the end of the poem, the dehumanization is complete, as the narrator refers to him as “her male.” The implication is that they share their state, which the poem emphasizes with the final two lines of the poem ( “spike and suck out / Last blood-drop of that truant heart.”) that echo the last line of “The Hawk in the Rain” : “Smashed, mix his heart’s blood with the mire of the land.”
They didn’t start out as monsters, though; he’s been changed by his “royal dreams” and her by jealousy and anger, which the odd rhyme scheme obliquely supports. She starts off at his side as his bride and then “With her blank brown eyes starved wide” starts to fantasize in her “skull’s cage” about turning their marriage bed and its “tangled sheet” into a place “to eat” while “she must wait in rage.” None of the lines about the husband rhyme; we don’t get any insight into the inner workings of his transformation. Hers is thoroughly negative and corrosive, a concise demonstration of what emotional detachment, jealousy, and swallowed anger will do to a marriage and the people in it.
One may be tempted to ask: so what? What does any of this have to do with a song released in 2018? It is entirely possible that Hozier is unaware of any of these works, all written more than thirty years before he was born. It would be no surprise if he didn’t know anything about the 1952 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama, a 1956 film that has gone out of print and is only available streaming on YouTube, a random Ray Bradbury short story from 1954, an even more random half-hour TV episode from 1956, or one of Sylvia Plath’s lesser-known poems. Only 60 or so RAF Spitfires remain airworthy, and the origin of their name is so obscure as to barely qualify as trivia. Even during the Golden Era of this metaphor, Frings and Bradbury both felt the need to explain it as bluntly as possible to the broader public. It is entirely possible that the poetic connection between shrikes, thorns, and destructive relationships was simply too good to ignore, and that Hozier came up with it completely independently.
And yet: some interesting things popped out immediately when I compared the lyrics of “Shrike” to the previous Laniidaen works. To start, there’s nothing explicit about binary gender anywhere. The pronouns consist of “I” and “you”; any tropes normally associated with men and women (shrikes and hunters) are flipped. Given the overt and hyper-negative associations between butcherbirds and women over the last century, this is a pleasant change, but it goes a bit further than simply stripping away the toxic elements of the metaphor. Instead, it ceases to compare shrikes with women at all.
Since Hozier’s the one who’s singing the song that we hear, though, there’s an implicit association of the narrator with a man and a better-than-even chance that the lover is a woman. (All of my celebrity speculation in this regard is currently tied up by Richard Madden; there’s none left over for anyone else.) Like Plath’s bird-husband, the narrator failed miserably as a partner; from the very first line, he “couldn’t utter my love when it counted,” and “couldn’t whisper when you needed it shouted.” Unlike Mr. Shrike, his detachment hasn’t devolved into being murderous, but there’s a clear association between his inability to express how he felt and death, all the same: “Words hung above, but never would form / Like a cry at the final breath that is drawn.”
It goes both ways, too. The narrator has been “transformed / By your grounded and giving and darkening scorn,” which honestly sounds like a pretty reasonable reaction to someone who doesn’t communicate affection. It is at least better than pecking his heart out like Plath’s shrike-wife. The lover, meanwhile, has gone from being described as a human hunter who had worn her prey’s pelt to being reincarnated as a thorn bush.1
Since the narrator will be “reborn / As a shrike”, this introduces a new element to the shrike/thorn metaphor Kramm and Ferrer gave us more than sixty years prior. In their works, the thorn is the psychiatric ward where Jim Downs has been committed after his wife Ann oh-so-innocently calls the police when his suicide attempt fails, and on another level, the social structure that allows an angry and vindictive wife to keep her husband locked up. Here, thorns represent something else entirely.
Shrikes need thorns, not the other way around. The whole reason why they impale their food on something sharp is that they don’t have talons like most other birds of prey. (Read Sylvia Plath for the amazing imagery, not the anatomical precision.) They don’t crucify their meals to be cruel, but because they don’t have many other options. There is a species of shrike that has learned how to lure other birds within killing distance by singing modified versions of their songs, but that is song analysis for another singer. Ryan Adams, perhaps. Most shrikes are stuck with the limitations that evolution has provided and instead have become tool users to compensate. Homo sapiens doesn’t have much room to criticize.
So: in “Shrike,” the thorn-as-love-interest represents someone who the narrator needed very much but couldn’t express it, resulting in the disintegration of their relationship and the narrator transforming into someone whose “goodness is gone with you now.” This isn’t to say that the narrator has become a cruel and awful person—he has, after all, also turned into someone who understands how he failed and is now full of regret, and also comprehends a great deal more “on what ground I was founded.” This is more about the effect other people have on us, when we love them and especially when they stop loving us in return.
If we are very lucky, we figure out how to grow and transform into better people, to treat other people with more respect and affection. If we are less lucky, the effects of those damaging relationships are to change us into different sorts of people, broken in small ways that aren’t necessarily apparent to ourselves. This process is not necessarily as overt as the “open hand or closed fist” from “Cherry Wine,” one of Hozier’s previous songs that bears more than a passing resemblance in melody and structure to “Shrike”, but it’s destructive all the same. In its most insidious form, it makes us mistake the familiar for the safe, and it keeps us returning, “flying like a bird to you now.” In “Shrike,” the narrator wants it to extend past death and into a new pair of lives. It is honestly creepier than anything Ray Bradbury ever imagined.
There is another, kinder interpretation, which is that we are all human (yes, even Ted Hughes), and what makes us so is not tool use but how much we love one another, however imperfectly. The net result of one instance of that not-perfect love may be that someday, somewhere in the Irish countryside, long after human language has ceased to exist, a shrike will make a nest in a sheltering hedgerow. It will be a real, non-metaphorical shrike with none of the baggage that Kramm et al have loaded onto its slight little frame; the thorns around it would not be affected in any way by the meals hung on them. They would simply exist together as part of the natural world, unencumbered by any social systems or sexism or suffocating relationships. That might be the most any of us could ask for.