Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

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Warren was concerned in much of his early poetry with the loss of innocence and with the acquisition of self-knowledge in a world of historical contingency where perfect knowledge and an Edenic sense of unity—of oneness between the self and the world—do not exist but are vaguely recalled. He said in “Knowledge and The Image of Man” (1955) that humankind’s very process of self-definition is “the discovery of separateness” but that it moves beyond this state: “Man eats of the tree of life and falls. But if he takes another bite, he may get at least a sort of redemption.” To “take another bite” is to accept fully humankind’s fallen state and to undertake the process of making meaning and knowledge through the perpetual oscillation between the states that Warren calls “doing” and “seeing.” Each modifies the other; doing changes what a person is and how he or she sees, thus changing what will be seen, what will be done, and other actions and reactions. To be fixed in the state of seeing or of doing is to suffer the extinction of identity—to become either a chain of acts without the form of identity or an outline of identity lacking acts to give it substance.

In “Bearded Oaks,” the poetic self rests in a state of seeing, having withdrawn from the world of light and of making and doing. The suspended state of seeing is not Edenic. The poet, after all, is separate from his love; they are both constructs of history, and neither can ever fully enter the other’s heart and mind. For separateness even to be known, however, requires that one have some experience of unity. The fleeting glimpse of the doe—beautiful and unconscious—stands for the momentary inkling of oneness in a world otherwise echoing human beings’ own footsteps and isolation back to them. If one pursues a reading of “Bearded Oaks” that acknowledges Warren’s views on separateness, identity, and knowledge, then the last stanzas suggest that love is not extinguished in a world that does not allow perfect emotional expression and understanding. Rather than being extinguished, love as human beings know it becomes possible. In “Birches,” Robert Frost, too, states that “Earth’s the right place for love.” Love is identified so strongly with separateness and action in “Bearded Oaks” that the last stanza seems almost an apology for the visionary and reflective state from which the poet writes.

Out of its multiple thematic concerns and its carefully wrought formal tension between objects, metaphor, and intellect, “Bearded Oaks” speaks to the human conviction that the life of the heart and the mind is imperfectly related to the world outside it. The poem urges the reader, nevertheless, to find meaning and redemption in the earthly state.