Critical analysis of  the poem "The Poplar Field" by William Cowper

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The structure of this poem is in five stanzas, of four lines each.  The rhyme scheme is A-A-B-B, where each line rhymes with its successive line.  For example, “shade” and “colonnade” (lines 1 and 2) rhyme with one another, while “before” and “more” match (lines 11 and 12) with each other. 

The surface meaning of the poem is about the speaker who notices that a certain set of trees (Poplar, as the title suggests) has shed its leaves.  This triggers a flurry of reflection about the meaning of change, seasonal and personal.  The speaker discusses how the shedding of leaves impacts a “farewell to the shade,” and a lack of song “in the leaves” that are no longer. 

This moves into a personal realm when the speaker realizes that, like the tree, he, too is becoming older: “My fugitive years are all hasting away.”  This culminates in the last stanza when the speaker connects the experience of maturation in the natural world to the personal domain:  “To muse on the perishing pleasures of man.”   The symbolic meaning of the poem is that age and maturation are experiences that cannot be overlooked or evaded.  Just as seasons change, and plants wither, and animals die, so shall we. 

There is a reflective melancholic tone struck in the poem, as the speaker realizes that growing old is a part of both natural and human life:  “With a turn of my breast and a stone at my head/ Ere another such grove shall arise in its stead.”  The theme of the poem is that the speaker, and by extension, we, as human beings, must embrace that natural growth and change of things, while ensuring that the time spent is one worthy of our fleeting condition:  “Short- lived as we are, our enjoyments, I see,/ Have a still shorts date, and die sooner than we.”

If we were to examine this theme in a positive light, it would be akin to ensuring that we make the best of what we have and what we do, for mortality is but a temporary condition.  If we were to examine this theme in an opposite light, it would be that revel as we might in our accomplishments, they are fleeting and temporary.  Simply put, our greatness is fleeting, like the leaves on the poplar tree.  This might be where the appreciation statements of this poem lie, depending on how one chooses to read it.

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