The title “Bearded Oaks” calls to mind the image of moss-draped stands of trees in the American South. As with many short lyric poems, Robert Penn Warren’s poem uses its title to identify the object with which the poet’s meditation begins and around which his meaning develops. As objects of immediate perception, the oaks serve as a focal element in the complex of imagery and metaphor that Warren develops. As icons of the idealized past specific to the South, the oaks of the title anticipate the poem’s general concern with loss and the claims of history.
The four-line stanzas—quatrains—coupled with a somewhat irregular abab rhyme scheme give the poem a visual signature that alerts the reader that the poem is likely to include such traditional formal poetic devices as metaphor and ambiguity. The poetic voice is characteristically lyric: Observations are related in the first person in a manner that implies immediacy of reflection. A second person is present but is not addressed directly until stanza 9: “I do not love you less.” Either the reader is overhearing the address or has been implicated in the poem’s pronoun “we.”
In stanzas 1 to 4, the poet and his companion lie beneath the oaks and hanging moss, through which filter the day’s last light. The sensuous surroundings—the “languorous” light and swaying grass—encourage the reader to see the two figures as lovers. A second set of images describes the two lying on the bottom of the darkening sea—“the floor of light and time”—silent and still, similar to coral “atolls” created over “ages” by the work of communities of individual “polyps.” Although the lovers are both unmoving and “unmurmuring” and are subjected to a somewhat unflattering comparison with marine invertebrates, there is as yet no reason to see their situation as in any way tragic....
(The entire section is 769 words.)