Robert Frost's "The Oven Bird"
Introduction: The Theme of Decay
Robert Frost's bird/speaker in his poem, "The Oven Bird," is heard musing on the vast mystery not at all unlike that mystery explored in the Frostian eight-line, "Nothing Gold Can Stay."
Frost speaker in "The Oven Bird" is musing on the fact that the things of this world decay and die. He wonders why and although he is not confident he can glean any answer, he goes on asking anyway. That is his nature.
In this poem the speaker flicks a sleight of hand and removes the onus of such brazen questioning from himself and places it onto a bird, an oven bird that has learned not to sing by singing.
Frost demonstrates his prowess in using poetic form as he fashions this inquiry into an Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet. It displays the rime scheme of AABCBDCD in the octave and EEFGFG in the sestet.
As is the tradition with Petrarchan sonnets, Frost's "The Oven Bird" features the problem in the octave and the problem's consequence in the sestet.
If the topic of an Italian sonnet sets up a problem that can be solved, then the sestet solves it. In this case the speaker cannot solve the problem, thus the sestet merely reiterates the problem dramatically.
The Octave: "There is a singer everyone has heard"
The speaker reports that the song of the oven bird in at the middle of summer is ubiquitous in the woods. The bird's warbling is so strong and loud that the singing makes the trees trunks echo with his music.
It is likely that not everyone has, in fact, experienced this bird's tune, but such an exaggeration, the speaker hopes, will glide right over the listerner/reader's head.
Likely the over-general, everyone, is employed solely for the meter of the line. The sad fact is that even the great Robert Frost is guilty of committing this verbal sin to gain a poetic device that does not add to meaning but merely form.
The bird's singing seems to bounce from tree to tree, as if announcing some important event. And in a sense he is. He is telling the flowers, the grass, the trees, and all of nature that by the middle of summer even the leaves have become old.
The bird's announcement is, of course, by leaf standards of longevity, all too true. It does seem that humanity has throughout the aeons taken notice that summer is so short. Even though it lasts as long as any of the other seasons, the love of summer seems to cut it short.
Springtime saw the young flowers and leaves in their youth. But by the middle of summer, they have matured into elderly adults. Old flowers, like old people, possess less value than spring flowers: as a matter of fact, spring flowers are ten times more important the old summer flowers who have become less valuable because so near death.
Those that bloomed early such as the cherry or the pear have already spread their blooms onto the cold earth as they showered down over the ground. In their fall, they seemed like clouds that hide the bright sun on an otherwise sunny day.
The Sestet: "And comes that other fall we name the fall"
The speaker now reports that after the early spring leaves have spread themselves on the ground, a genuine fall season will soon arrive across the landscape, and certainly the middle of summer is, in fact, very close to the beginning the season of autumn.
The bird now is reporting that we are all covered with the dust of decay. The road to perdition is covered with dust, and it lands on all the travelers. The dry mid-summer condition scatters its dust over the leaves, flowers, grass—even over people.
This summer dryness is reminiscent of the spiritual dryness which T. S. Eliot lamented in many of his poems, especially The Waste Land.
Although Eliot is a younger contemporary of Frost, it is unlikely that Eliot was influenced by Frost's work. The point is that the same truth has been observed by two very different minds.
The speaker believes that the bird thinks it knows about the facts it is reporting; that is why it continues to sing even as other birds have become quiet. The speaker then gleans that the profound problem of diminishment and the reporting of it is all that is necessary—at least for the bird—wink, wink.
Neither the bird nor the speaker has any insight to impart regarding the issue of decay, diminishment, and eventual death. But just the notion that things look so promising with beauty early on and yet they go poof—that situation blows the mind.
All the speaker can do is state the question without the possibility of an answer. So that is exactly what he does. He then walks away, the bird then flies away, and all is quiet, at last.
Robert Frost reading his poem, "The Oven Bird"
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes