The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Ash” is a lyric poem in eleven stanzas of four lines each. It is written in controlled free verse, with two to four stresses per line. The title refers to a tree—the mountain ash—which becomes a central symbol in the poem (and in the sequence with which it was published). As well as designating flowering nature, however, the name of the tree inevitably carries with it connotations of decay and death.

The poem opens with direct quotation—the complaining voice of the poet’s sick friend, whom he is visiting in the hospital. The poem is composed of two interwoven voices, but it is not an actual dialogue. The friend’s voice is present tense, immediate. Until the final stanza, the poet’s response is past tense, reflective. He is narrating this encounter as if after the fact. The reader never learns what, if anything, he said in response to the ill man’s bitterness. Instead, in traditional lyric fashion, the reader overhears the poet’s thoughts. In the second stanza, the poet relates how a nurse gave the ill friend “lithium and thorazine”—medication used to fight depression. The third stanza gives a vivid picture of the friend in the hospital bed. Once again, the reader hears the friend’s voice, which runs into the fourth stanza, denouncing the doctors, hospital, and staff.

Repelled, the poet closes his eyes and thinks of “my mountain ash,” the tree of the title, which is now (in May) “in white bloom.” The...

(The entire section is 504 words.)