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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.

But.

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 yesterday's poem, "Sonnet: To Science", in which Edgar Allen 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
&emsp Save for a broken note, so sad and strange,
Its plaintive cadence makes the woodlands thrill
&emsp With sense of coming change.

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

But now how should he sing—forlorn, alone—
&emsp Of hopes that withered with the waning year,
An empty nest with mate and fledgelings flown,
&emsp 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 partria mori" (It is sweet and seemly to die for one's country).





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Comments

( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
kellyrfineman
Apr. 13th, 2007 04:14 pm (UTC)
Never seen Monty in my life. But I chortled when I saw it, and will print it out. Thanks!!
walkwrite
Apr. 13th, 2007 02:27 pm (UTC)
Wonderful choices for today. Frost never disappoints on any level.

I wish "Dulce et Decorum Est" were as accessible to today's youth as the commercials to join the military are. Maybe "accessible" is the wrong word. "In-your face" is more like it.
kellyrfineman
Apr. 13th, 2007 05:05 pm (UTC)
K -- I love Frost, too. And I still remember that punched-in-the-gut feeling I got the first time I read Wilfred Owen's poem.
slatts
Apr. 13th, 2007 03:52 pm (UTC)
I'm gunna put this to music using the chords you supplied....


AABCBDCDEEA'FA'F


I think it'll ROCK!
kellyrfineman
Apr. 13th, 2007 05:06 pm (UTC)
I think it'll be wonky, since that's a really weird-ass chord progression. Will you use A7 instead of Aprime?
slatts
Apr. 13th, 2007 05:21 pm (UTC)
try this.....
A Am B C Bm D ||:C D E:|| E A F Am F
sheela_chari
Apr. 13th, 2007 05:28 pm (UTC)
I loved this post. I printed it out and read it in my room so I wouldn't be distracted by the sounds of the Upside Down Show on tv. I'm not familiar with this poem. I loved the way you enriched our understanding of the poem with so much information concerning its history, time and place. Thanks for doing this.
kellyrfineman
Apr. 13th, 2007 05:52 pm (UTC)
You are most welcome, Sheela. And it's lovely that you appreciate my post! That poem's been one that pops to mind unbidden for me for years (usually a bastardization of the last two lines, although I always get the "what to make of a diminished thing" right). I remember my English professor was the one who tied it to WWI for me, even though I couldn't find any written reference to it as such during my research period today.
dianemdavis
Apr. 13th, 2007 10:25 pm (UTC)
I have to say thanks too. I feel like I'm taking a poetry class here. I think I'll pull out my Frost collection and start rereading them. I love these explain/examine poetry posts.
kellyrfineman
Apr. 13th, 2007 10:26 pm (UTC)
Me too. They are fun to put together, if a bit time-consuming. But mostly fun.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 1st, 2012 10:27 am (UTC)
YOOqrlKuuC
Tis a world full of pain and sorrow,Tears drnwoing the horizon of tomorrow,Till all that’s left is memory of that which has been,Nothing is felt; nothing is seen.What happened to the sun, the day, the light?Why now do we wallow in endless night?Thinking only of that which will come,If no one stands up; if nothing is done.So live for the moment and never forget,What’s done is done so don’t regret.Live, laugh, play, learn,Because it only takes a moment for life to take a turn.
bluemalibu
Apr. 14th, 2007 04:03 pm (UTC)
You are the complete reason I love Poetry Friday
kellyrfineman
Apr. 14th, 2007 08:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Meg.
(Anonymous)
Apr. 16th, 2007 03:35 am (UTC)
hard facts
K-
Robert Frost once wrote that "a poet must lean on hard facts, so hard, sometimes, that they hurt." So I agree with the reading that sees Frost calling for a harder, more muscular (less victorian)language to express the diminishment of the modern age.....and if it is loud, so be it. I mean, we are talking about the guy who set a fire in the auditorium during an Archibald MacLeish poetry reading, right? Here is a person who is not afraid to make a little noise, and who probably disagrees with MacLeish who says "a poem should be palpable and mute as a globed fruit."

It is also interesting that his meter changes in the last line....I'm thinking two iambs and two anapests there (although there could be some alternative scans, I suppose) .....calling for change, he gives us change.

Bill
kellyrfineman
Apr. 16th, 2007 12:32 pm (UTC)
Re: hard facts
I agree with you on that count -- switching up the metre definitely makes is change as well, and was undoubtedly on purpose (he seems to have done precious little by accident in the final drafts of his poems).
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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