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The Ovenbird by Robert Frost

The poem I picked to start out my poetry collection posts is "The Ovenbird" by Robert Frost, first published in his collection Mountain Interval in 1916. Oftentimes the lines that come unbidden to my mind are the final two, but today, it was the third-to-last line: "But that he knows in singing not to sing".

And yes, I've posted this poem here before. Twice, even.

The Oven Bird
by Robert Frost

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.

I've returned to this poem often throughout my life, after studying it in a course in college. It's the question in the last line that sticks with me, that pulls me back: "what to make of a diminished thing." I thought of this line today, as I was casting about thinking what poem I might want to post to mark the passing of Kurt Vonnegut, whose books meant so much to me when I was a young adult reader. Not a teen, mind you -- I came to him when I was in my twenties -- but I loved his vision and his prose. And the world is diminished a little by his passing, I think.

But enough of elegies, let's look at the poem. It's got ten syllables to each line (Frost treated "showers" and "flowers" as single-syllable words here), and it ends decidedly iambic, although it starts a bit shifty, if you must know. It has its own peculiar rhyme scheme (AABCBDCDEEA'FA'F), which makes it a "nonce" form -- a nonce form is a poetic scheme invented for a particular poem. This one has fourteen lines, so it's kinda like a sonnet, but it doesn't fall into a recognized rhyme scheme, not even as a Pushkin, or Eugene Onegin, stanza. Still, I think it likely started as a sonnet, and that Frost decided deliberately to depart from the usual sonnet rules to create something new -- a lovely bit of form meeting function, I believe, if you believe, as I and some others do, that Frost was announcing a new kind of poetry for a changing world.

If you'd like, you can read this as a simple nature poem -- an observation on the call of the oven bird (a loud "Teacher, Teacher", if you didn't know). The oven bird is loud at a time of year when many other birds are not, and Frost tries to decipher what his call means. And if that's how you read the poem, it is an excellent poem.


The poem also works on a deeper level. The oven bird becomes not just the "teacher" implicated in his call, but is a symbol representing the poet. This poem was, in some respects, a war poem.* It was written in 1916, and reflects the sense that it is the world that has diminished, with "dust . . . over all". And the poet is left to ask what is to be done. Can art go on? Can poetry continue in the face of such ruination? (This is not unlike the question implied in Edgar Allen Poe's poem, "Sonnet: To Science", in which Poe explores the effect of science on creativity and myth.) In the early twentieth centuries, with the horrors it brought along with it in the form of trench warfare, mustard gas, and mechanized warfare, and in its greed and vanity (think about the robber barons we studied once upon a time, and the practice of child labor, and the inhuman working conditions faced by so many people), how can one respond to such indignities and horrors?

Another reading of the poem focuses closely on the line "he knows in singing not to sing." Some commentators believe this line is the answer to a question posed in an earlier poem by a Victorian poet named Mildred Howells, "And No Birds Sing", a Keatsian poem in which Miss Howell asks how the bird can sing with winter approaching.

There comes a season when the bird is still
  Save for a broken note, so sad and strange,
Its plaintive cadence makes the woodlands thrill
  With sense of coming change.

Stirred into ecstasy by spring's new birth,
  In throbbing rhapsodies of hope and love,
He shared his transports with the listening earth
  And stormed the heavens above.

But now how should he sing—forlorn, alone—
  Of hopes that withered with the waning year,
An empty nest with mate and fledgelings flown,
  And winter drawing near?

Frost's line, "he knows in singing not to sing," is seen as meaning that silence itself is part of the song. And/or that the oven bird, here representing the poet, is rejecting the old school of thinking and finding a new way to express himself. And this particular bird finds a way to express himself -- loudly, as it turns out.

Finally, others have seen Frost's poem as a criticism of encroaching development -- an environmental poem with a Thoreau-like sensibility, based on the line "the highway dust is over all."

*Perhaps my favorite of the war poems, and one of the best-known, is Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est", which I believe will be a topic for another day. The title comes from a line in the poem Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and seemly to die for one's country).

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( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 1st, 2009 04:53 pm (UTC)
Thanks Colleen!
Apr. 1st, 2009 04:08 pm (UTC)
What to make of a diminished thing.
I love that in an achey, achey way.
Thank you for all the poetry wisdom and beauty you bring us, Kelly, and happy birthday...
Apr. 1st, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC)
Yeah - I love that poem with a really big love. Must ponder what tomorrow's choice will be . . .

Thanks for the birthday wishes.
Apr. 1st, 2009 04:25 pm (UTC)
I love it and your thoughtful remarks about it. I have little knowledge of the "formal workings" of poetry - although I love to write poems. So, I enjoy getting information that makes sense to me about the art form itself.
Apr. 1st, 2009 04:55 pm (UTC)
I try. Too many folks are afraid of poetry, I think, and it's one of the great joys in my life, so I like trying to make it seem more approachable for folks.
Apr. 1st, 2009 05:16 pm (UTC)
I'm not "afraid of" poetry, but I'm usually too impatient to unpack it. Plus, I don't fully appreciate how inspecting rhyme and meter makes a poem more enjoyable/meaningful. But I truly enjoy how you help walk us through the top-level and deeper interpretations.

Happy Birthday, Kelly!
Apr. 1st, 2009 05:42 pm (UTC)
Thanks Melodye!
Apr. 1st, 2009 04:42 pm (UTC)
I think I'll stick with it being a nature poem. It makes more sense to me that way. I realize that literalness is my own limitation, but I don't understand it as a war poem.
Apr. 1st, 2009 05:41 pm (UTC)
That's one of the great beauties of Frost's work. It works on a literal level, and on hidden levels as well, and it's best to take what you like and leave the rest. Reminds me of this wonderful poem by Billy Collins
Apr. 1st, 2009 07:27 pm (UTC)
What a gorgeous poem...And a very Happy Birthday to you birthday girl! Hope your day is special doing what you love most to do:)
Apr. 1st, 2009 07:36 pm (UTC)
Thanks Janel! The income tax portion of the day was not so much fun, but now I'm going to read a bit and perhaps catch a nap before dinner - much more to my liking!
Apr. 1st, 2009 07:59 pm (UTC)
I can't hear an ovenbird, as I do with a certain frequency in the summer, without thinking of this poem, and, like you, sometimes it's the last two lines, and sometimes it's the third-to-last, that come to mind. These days, I'm wondering if "he knows in singing not to sing" might not have something to do with negative space, the way silence shapes sound. Or maybe, if this is Frost writing during the war, he wasn't harkening back to Homer's "Of arms I sing, and the man."

Because I do live in Frost country, and have for most of my life, one of the beauties of his works for me has always been his ability to vest the mundane (and there is nothing more mundane than mud season) with metaphor, to give it depth and endurance, while also refusing the sentiment and the easy way.

As for Frost criticizing encroaching development -- all you have to do is drive on a dirt road, one without a farmhouse near, in July or August, as well as September or October, to know the dust fans up and covers everything. For me, that line is more about the transience of life, the passing of the seasons, than it is about development.

Edited at 2009-04-01 08:10 pm (UTC)
Apr. 1st, 2009 09:09 pm (UTC)
It's more about transience and loss for me, really, so I understand the war poem reading of it well. The development reading is a popular one mentioned when the poem is taught, but it doesn't sing as loudly for me. I think it's more about asking questions, like how to continue with poetry - or with life - after so much horror, than it is about protest for me.
Apr. 1st, 2009 09:22 pm (UTC)
Beautiful picture, beautiful poem, Happy Birthday Kelly!
Apr. 1st, 2009 09:56 pm (UTC)
I spent an hour this afternoon pondering my next choice. I've got a list of five from which to pick. Choices, choices . . .
Apr. 1st, 2009 10:34 pm (UTC)
Happy Birthday!

And yes, that is the question. How should we sing -- forlorn, alone
of hopes that withered with the waning year?
Apr. 2nd, 2009 01:36 am (UTC)
Thank you!

And now, brainradio is playing "On the Willow There" from Godspell. "But how shall we sing, sing the Lord's song, in a foreign land?"
Apr. 1st, 2009 11:08 pm (UTC)
Happy Birthday!
Happy Poetry Month and Happy Birthday! I hope you are having a great day and I look forward to reading more poems.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 01:36 am (UTC)
Re: Happy Birthday!
Thanks Linda!
Apr. 2nd, 2009 03:19 am (UTC)
The first time I read this I thought it was a nice nature poem.
Then I read it again and the last three lines really grabbed me.

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

This went right to this writer's heart. Sometimes what we don't say, don't write, is so much more powerful by its absence.

The question that he frames in all but words

This makes me want to just sit and ponder how this might happen...how would you frame it in all but words?

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

But this one....this final line is what makes me gasp.

Thank you, Kelly.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 03:24 am (UTC)
Being a bird, he has voice, but no words, and yet Frost hears a question in the bird's call.

I love this poem, and it's those final three lines that continue to play inside my head, decades after I first read the poem in college. Usually it's the last two lines, sometimes it's the third from last. That's some powerful writing.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 12:54 pm (UTC)
happy belated birthday
I hope you enjoyed your day. Now I feel even worse that the British library did not have a single Jane Austen related postcard; I was so wistful they'd have one of her desk. They seem to think anything after Shakespeare is oh so ho hum or at least not post card worthy, which I suppose is an American standard.

We had a blast. Back late last night. Hope to blog soon, but it's fun catching up on blog reading.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 01:02 pm (UTC)
Re: happy belated birthday
I'm so glad you enjoyed your trip - can't wait to hear more! And hey, Shakespeare is so completely awesome that I can't say I blame them for going with him.
Jan. 17th, 2013 09:48 am (UTC)
Development of Thought.
The birds sing is sad as the lamentation of modern man may be Frost himself.Here reminiscent of spring in the singing is like man's discontentmenr and disillusionment about reality.May be the poet throw a "question" through the bird's singing.
( 25 comments — Leave a comment )

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