“Deep Woods” first appeared in The Salt Garden, Howard Nemerov’s third collection of poetry, published by Little, Brown and Company, in 1955. Most critics agree that this book presented a turning point in the poet’s focus and style, that it showed his poetic talent as unified and less rigid than the previous academic and heavily metered verse. “Deep Woods” is the final poem in the collection, and it aptly concludes a book in which the overall theme centers on Nemerov’s fascination with how the human mind works, especially in comparison to the natural world. In his book, simply titled Howard Nemerov, critic Peter Meinke states that “Deep Woods” expresses the poet’s “feeling about the hugeness and permanence of nature as against small impermanent man.” This is a good description of the poem’s central idea, but it does not address the manner in which Nemerov makes his point, and the manner is key to understanding it.
“Deep Woods” is a journey through history—mankind’s history, as portrayed in literature, mythology, and factual accounts. At least half of the poem relies on allusions to events, both real and legendary, that occurred hundreds and thousands of years ago. Nemerov refers to fairy tales and forests where imaginary creatures live, to French painters and ancient Egyptian gods, even to Walt Disney, all to describe the difference between human activities and the deep woods of a New England forest. Other “characters” that crop up in the poem are minotaurs and unicorns, Jesus Christ, Hannibal, Old Testament folk such as Joseph, Mordecai, and Haman, and the allegorical figures Chaos and Pandemonium from Milton’s Paradise Lost. In essence, “Deep Woods” is a smorgasbord of human history, all played against the backdrop of a quiet, dominating giant—nature in the form of deep woods.
These opening lines set the scene for “Deep Woods.” The speaker is apparently walking through a forest within “hearing-distance” of a highway where trucks roll by with their heavy loads. Notice the clever use of metaphor here, however. At first, it reads as though the trucks are the ones moving on with their loads “Of statues, candelabra, buttons, gold,” and so forth. But “trucks” is plural, and what “staggers onward” with “its” load is singular. The reference here is to “history, / Which slows, shudders, and shifts.” Therefore, the first comparison between mankind’s history and the natural world is that humanity has been volatile and restless and full of tangible objects (statues, candelabra, etc.,) but the deep woods are “too still” for all that.
These lines compare the body’s response to the forest and the mind’s response to it. The speaker’s heart, although “racing strangely,” is able to reach “a kind of rest,” but his mind rests “uneasily.” Recall the poet’s fascination with how the human mind works, for here he claims it is so intimidated by the deep woods that it is like “a beast, / Being hunted down.” The only way the mind can survive is to let its “tiredness and terror” act as a “camouflage” so that it can go to sleep—in essence, play dead.
When the mind goes to sleep, it dreams. Carrying on the hunted beast metaphor, these lines say that while the dogs run past, the mind dreams “of being lost, covered with leaves.” As long as it is unconscious, it is safe in a deep, death-like sleep. The mind’s dormancy is so deep that the “bitter world” that would hunt it down just runs on by, made to “go bay elsewhere after better game.” In general, this metaphor simply means that the human intellect is not capable of understanding the true depth of unspoiled nature, and so, it protects itself by trying to ignore the magnitude of a pure forest.
Like the heart and the mind, the human eye is also “restless” in the deep woods. It attempts to get a grasp on nature by following the pattern of vines entwined with branches. The “branch and vine” are described as “Reticulated,” meaning they form a network throughout the tree, but they appear to “go / Nowhere,” and the eye cannot find a beginning or an end. Giving up, the eye “returns upon itself,” the way the vines do, and comes to a “flickering kind of rest.” Nature’s patterns are impossible to trace, leaving the eye “lost in the insanity of line.”
Line 21 begins with an alliterative phrase (each word beginning with an “L”) that will be referred to again in line 52. “Line, leaf, and light” describe three aspects of the deep woods that may seem simple but that are actually incomprehensible to the human mind. This inability to understand is implied by the word “darkness” placed just after the word “light.” Light is in the natural world, but “darkness invades our day” (italics added) because human intellect is limited in its comprehension of true light. As grand as this sounds on the part of nature, the deep woods are not arrogant about it, nor do they even care. Rather, nature is indifferent toward mankind’s shortcomings and does not inflate the situation “with profundity”—that is, with a pretense of deep meaning or profound feelings.
These four lines compare nature’s nonchalance toward natural occurrences and the human tendency to dramatize things. An oak tree that has been struck by lightning does not make a big to-do of collapsing in some emotional or theatrical fashion, as “heroes should.” Instead, the big oak is content to let its fall be broken by a group of birch trees so that it leans on them, still alive.
Line 28 describes the way human beings would act if they were in the same situation as the “stricken” oak. Like a Hollywood movie, the scene would be “tragic” and there would be a “mighty crash” at the end, for a human hero could not simply fall over and lean against someone else for support. But in the deep woods, such shallow fanfare is “Indefinitely delayed” because there are more important things going on than a hero meeting death in a blaze of glory. Those things are a “Fresh weaving of vines” and the “rooting of outer branches” from the fallen, but still living, oak. The tree’s life is “Beginning again,” even though it does not have as much room as before and even though there is little drama, in human terms, involved.
The second stanza ends with another reference to the lines occurring in nature, and this time they are compared to fine handwriting. The new vines and roots sprouting from the oak form a “wandering calligraphy,” happy to weave this way and that without regard for proper spelling or other such human constraints. Nature’s untraceable patterns are like “magic,” something people cannot fully understand.
The opening of the third stanza is a more detailed version of the opening of the first. The scene is clearer here, as the speaker is specific about place and time. It is October, and he is walking through the woods in New England. The “Dry gold” leaves have changed about as much color and texture as they are going to, and many have already fallen from the trees and begun to decompose into “leafmold.” The compost of dried leaves sometimes “tenses,” or stiffens, when frost covers the ground, and the birch tree branches become brittle in the cold, like dry bones protruding in the air. The human- like...
(The entire section is 2370 words.)