A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Oven Bird (4)

If we think our own lives tragic, and I certainly view my own life as often difficult, consider Robert Frost's: his father died when he was 11, leaving the family destitute; his mother was a depressive, dying of cancer 15 years later; and both Frost and his wife, Elinor, suffered from depression. Of their six children one died of cholera at a very young age; one was committed to a mental hospital; one died just three days after being born; one died of fever after giving birth; and one committed suicide. Elinor herself developed cancer in 1937 and died the following year.

I love Robert Frost's poetry. One of his great English friends, who encouraged Frost in his own work, was Edward Thomas, probably my favourite English nature poet after Wordsworth and John Clare. Indeed, it was in England where Frost's poems were first published.

The Oven Bird 

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.


This sonnet is, I think, quite a well known one of Frost's, and among my favourite poems of his. It's open to various interpretations (just consider the different meanings of the word 'fall'). If you're interested, this link will take you to some critical analysis. However, it's probably best simply to enjoy the poem, and ponder yourself what Frost means when he writes '. . . he knows in singing not to sing.'

Myself, I think the poem is ultimately about how all of us are capable somehow of framing — in inadequate, less-than-pretty, ordinary words or songs or in other ways — a voice, an utterance, a protest, a lament, a celebration even. Even if time is running out, if we have fallen from grace and innocence, if things are 'diminished', there is still that sort-of song. And, of course, Frost the poet frames these subtle thoughts in this wonderful sonnet, which is almost conversational in tone, yet beautifully modulated: a song, indeed — though a 'new' kind of song in the canon, repudiating the high-flown and rhetorical language of the poetic past.


Susan Scheid said...

I'm glad to be reminded of this poem. What courage and resilience of spirit it takes to find a "sort-of song" out of diminishment. I've recently been reading Helen Vendler on Wallace Stevens' Last Looks, Last Books, and she makes this point about a number of the poems in Stevens's The Rock.

Here is one of the poems in that volume that the Frost's poem puts in mind (please forgive the probable issues with formatting). The last lines, Vendler believes, and I think it's likely, relate to the ducks on Elizabeth Pond, part of a route Stevens often walked. He had to know that, at some point not too far off, as he was terminally ill, he would be taking his last look at the place he describes.

The Hermitage at the Center

The leaves on the macadam make a noise --
How soft the grass on which the desired
Reclines in the temperature of heaven --

Like tales that were told the day before yesterday --
Sleek in a natural nakedness,
She attends the tintinnabula --

And the wind sways like a great thing tottering --
Of birds called up by more than the sun,
Birds of more wit, that substitute --

Which suddenly is all dissolved and gone --
Their intelligible twittering
For unintelligible thought.

And yet this end and this beginning are one,
And one last look at the ducks is a look
At lucent children round her in a ring.

George said...

I agree with your interpretation of this fine poem, Robert, the notion that most human beings are capable in some creative way of dealing with "diminished things." I, too, love the poetry of Frost, and one of the things I most admire about his work is that he always seems to plant a profound question in the reader's mind, a question that, in my case at least, tends to persist rather pleasantly through the years. "What to make of a diminished thing?" I'm inclined to think that this is one of the great challenges of daily life itself.

Anonymous said...

There seems to be bird theme bouncing round the world of blog, exploring the mystery of birdsong. A good thing, I think.

am said...

Yep. Robert Frost.


"The question that he frames in all but words Is what to make of a diminished thing."

The Pasture

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf 5
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for sharing Stevens's poem here, Susan. Eliot, of course, did this par excellence: create a new kind of syncrenistic poetry out of the ruins of culture.

The Solitary Walker said...

George, as long as we manage, in our own individual ways, to rap out the oven bird's repetitious, unexciting, yet clear and ringing song, all is not lost. Diminishment is a fact and a challenge.

The Solitary Walker said...

More bird song in the next post, Dominic! I can't resist a good meme.

The Solitary Walker said...

That poem is quite lovely, Am. Thanks for sharing it here. Frost says so much in such plain and simple language.

John Pendrey said...

Thank you all for sharing your thoughts and poems. They bring the poems back to life and the Wallace Stevens one is refreshingly new.