26 August 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/35

As the summer ends:

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.

Robert Frost

The Oven Bird consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter: a sonnet. But though it does rhyme, it doesn't rhyme the way sonnets usually do; there are two main rhyme schemes for sonnets, and one (English or Shakespearean) tends to break into three quatrains and a concluding couplet, and the second (Italian or Petrarchean) tends to break into an octave and a sestet. This poem is all couplets, often broken by intervening lines; it doesn't build the way sonnets usually do. It actually seems to meander a bit, but as the poem sinks in, you can see Frost building his argument.

The oven bird, though undoubtedly attractive enough, is not a particularly special bird; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes it as a small, inconspicuous bird with a loud voice. The first line of the poem insists on the bird's ordinariness ("everyone has heard" it) and the poem goes on from there to emphasize that this particular warbler is nothing particularly special: it's a creature of the middle, of mid-summer and mid-wood. The solidity of the tree trunks makes the forest (not just the leaves) seem old and even stodgy, and the bird's loud song echoes repetitiously. It's not a grand, rapturous bird, like Tennyson's Eagle or Keats's Nightingale. It elicits homespun remarks like "mid-summer is to spring as one to ten" (I take the numbers to be moving backwards, as in a countdown; in any case, the lovely flowers are mostly gone by this time).

The mention of flowers brings back the memory of the glorious springtime evanescence of flowering pear and cherry trees, now present only in their absence: they "went down in showers" during the gentle "early petal-fall" that ends their brief existence. and if you've seen these trees then you've seen the petals shower down at the slightest breeze. But Frost's use of "showers" also brings to mind spring rains. Again, everything is sort of fair to middling: the bird is ordinary and loud, the flowers are gone and the leaves have that tired late-August look; even sunny days have their overcast moments, all leading up to the cold months of the year, when the birds have gone away to someplace warmer and the green things give up, temporarily. "That other fall we name the fall": is it just the strong identification of Frost with a certain type of hard-scrabble New England mind that brings to mind the Fall of Man when we hear this doubled emphasis on "fall"? To top it all off, "the highway dust is over all": this isn't even a virgin forest, it's encroached upon by ordinary traffic and human commotion and pollution.

Frost has conjured up a natural world, but contrary to what many poems tell us, there's nothing healing, serene, sublime, or striking about it. It's all ordinary and a bit tattered and rundown in that late summer way. It's not even far away; it's right off the highway. Then Frost makes this very ordinariness into exactly what makes the bird special: it would "be as other birds" if it were singing just a pretty song – it "knows in singing not to sing"; that is, the bird is insistently telling us something too harsh for the normal loveliness of bird song. "Knows" implies that the bird is very consciously telling us something, something difficult and challenging, and everything about the bird ("he frames [it] in all but words") is asking us this one thing: what to make of a diminished thing. We may have our wishes, and our poetic ideals, and our fantasies of what life should be like, but real life and natural cycles and human society impinge on us in different ways each day, even out in the woods with the birds, and each day is one less day we get to try to make it all work, as our future dwindles away and turns into the lost, confused, ultimately forgotten past: a diminished thing.

So we see that all along Frost has been stealthily but steadily moving towards the final line. The first ten lines create the atmosphere of ordinariness around the oven bird and its song (so different from what we might expect from a poem about a bird), then the next three lines step us back and move us towards wondering why this ordinary bird is yet so distinctive, and why it insists on telling us things both depressing and commonplace; and then the fourteenth and final line caps the poem and flashes backwards through the preceding thirteen lines with an illuminating flash of philosophic lightning. I sometimes wonder if the oven bird's song haunted Frost until he figured out what its late-summer cry connoted to him, or if the last line sprang into his head and he had to build a poem backward that would justify it, because it was too good to lose.

I took this from the Library of America edition of Frost's Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays.


Unknown said...

And I thought this was going to be about Thanksgiving (seriously, I did). I love "that other fall we call the fall."
Midsummer really does depress. Even picking tomatoes, though there are many and they're delicious, just becomes a chore. We long for Fall to make it all stop. The plants grow too fast, it's too hot, the colors are too vivid. And now I'm thinking of all that is diminishing, too.
Thanks for a poem with so many levels.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Funny how tomatoes have become our measure for all Summer things. I always find this time of year dusty, fading, and exhausted. Thanks for your thanks, but they really belong to the aptly named Mr Frost.