The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

“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.

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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 poet’s reverie of “home” becomes the center of the poem, running through the next four stanzas. The thought of the tree awakens his senses; in a series of intensely physical images, he remembers its “perfume-menstrual smell,” and pictures (and seems to hear) the bees “maddened” for its blossoms. This leads him to thoughts of natural decay.

In stanza 9, the poet awakens from his reverie. His attention returns to his immediate surroundings—the hospital room. For the third time, the reader hears directly the voice of the friend, who is now recognizably seriously ill, in spirit as well as body. The poet refers to his friend’s remarks as “hate-vapors”; they are a litany of things the friend “hates”: books, seasons, children, the dead.

In stanza 11, for the first time, the poet also speaks in present tense (although not aloud—again one “overhears” him). He describes his friend being moved from ward to ward, seemingly without cure, ever closer, it seems, to death. The poem ends neither with the voice of the friend nor with the poet’s past-tense narration. Instead of escaping from the scene before him, the poet asks a question: “Where will this end?” What “this” implies is ambiguous: Does he mean the friend’s illness, the friend’s bitterness, or his own responsibility to confront both of these? The poet’s last, tentative statement is one that again removes him from the hospital and returns him in imagination to the outside world, to nature, to the tree.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 298

“The Ash” depends for its effect on sharp, sensuous imagery that allows the reader to see the contrasting pictures of the sick friend—“eyes glazed,/ but fists clenched”—and the mountain ash, “in white bloom.” There are many images that appeal vividly to the other senses as well: smell, sound, touch, and taste. The sound of the bees is reproduced through the device of onomatopoeia: “humming their hymns of blue flame” actually sounds like bees swarming. This is not an especially “musical” poem in the traditional sense of identifiable rhythmic patterns, but there is a strong controlling voice—the poet’s—which occupies the center of the poem with a single grammatical unit running through seven complete stanzas. This long sentence is richly alive with the sounds of the natural world, the “music” of Nature’s bloom and decay.

Juxtaposition is the main structuring technique. The probably dying man contrasts with the tree’s springtime blooming. The poet’s complex voice is opposed to his friend’s flat declarations of antipathy, expressed in a diction and syntax as simple as a child’s. The poet’s intense reverie is set against the ill man’s half-conscious state; the shrunken perspective of the hospital room, its “sick-room odors” and “twisted smiles,” is balanced by the larger world outside.

The poem works to create the remembered ash as its central symbol, one that somehow combines life and death, flowering and decay, and thereby offers solace to the poet confronted by his friend’s illness and negativity. The repeated final image of the circle echoes the description of the ash as “my oval” and seems to symbolize some larger connection to all things in nature, perhaps the hope of another life beyond the body’s decay—one that will never end.

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Themes