The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 769

The title “Bearded Oaks” calls to mind the image of moss-draped stands of trees in the American South. As with many short lyric poems, Robert Penn Warren’s poem uses its title to identify the object with which the poet’s meditation begins and around which his meaning develops. As objects of immediate perception, the oaks serve as a focal element in the complex of imagery and metaphor that Warren develops. As icons of the idealized past specific to the South, the oaks of the title anticipate the poem’s general concern with loss and the claims of history.

The four-line stanzas—quatrains—coupled with a somewhat irregular abab rhyme scheme give the poem a visual signature that alerts the reader that the poem is likely to include such traditional formal poetic devices as metaphor and ambiguity. The poetic voice is characteristically lyric: Observations are related in the first person in a manner that implies immediacy of reflection. A second person is present but is not addressed directly until stanza 9: “I do not love you less.” Either the reader is overhearing the address or has been implicated in the poem’s pronoun “we.”

In stanzas 1 to 4, the poet and his companion lie beneath the oaks and hanging moss, through which filter the day’s last light. The sensuous surroundings—the “languorous” light and swaying grass—encourage the reader to see the two figures as lovers. A second set of images describes the two lying on the bottom of the darkening sea—“the floor of light and time”—silent and still, similar to coral “atolls” created over “ages” by the work of communities of individual “polyps.” Although the lovers are both unmoving and “unmurmuring” and are subjected to a somewhat unflattering comparison with marine invertebrates, there is as yet no reason to see their situation as in any way tragic.

Halfway through the fourth stanza, however, the past ceases to be an orderly unfolding of architectural form. Lines 15 to 24 describe a violent storm at the height of the day, whose effects are still faintly touching the seafloor, where darkness is now spreading. The real objects of the poem’s opening scene become secondary, replaced by the metaphoric images of the sea. The sixth stanza further develops the idea that the light above the trees is a storm raging on the ocean surface and provides human terms into which the metaphor can be translated. Intense emotion (“passion”) and physical extinction (“slaughter”) filter down to the ocean floor, along with their after-effects—“ruth” (regret) and “decay”—where they are somehow responsible for the silent repose of the lovers. The emotional cause and effect described by these images recalls Emily Dickinson’s poem “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—.” Mere quiet has become “voicelessness.”

Stanza 7 has the effect of concluding the previous six stanzas. The literal setting of the poem and its imaginative elaboration in the metaphor of the sea are both replaced by formal logic that struggles against the paradox of “hope is hopeless” and “fearless is fear” and by the somewhat oracular assertion “And history is undone.” The inarticulate and inert state of the poet and his companion has now a larger significance: Quiet bliss seems an absence of vitality uncomfortably akin to death.

Abruptly in stanza 8, the poem restarts itself with another image from the poet’s memory. The lines might almost begin another poem, for the poet does not reveal why the moment springs to mind. The scene is an empty street where footsteps echo among darkened windows after the couple’s car headlights have frightened away a female deer. Both events recall a period prior to the poet’s present impasse and seem somehow connected to it, for the deer, so alive and animate in the flash of light, leaves behind only the “hollow street” with its hints of the “shelf of shade” to come.

In stanza 9, the poet claims love is possible in a state that stills the feelings that normally accompany it. The cryptic final stanza explains how this paradox is possible. There, also, the constellation of silence, stillness, and dark that hints at death is also finally identified explicitly with “eternity.” These difficult lines suggest that humans live in mortal time only briefly and that human knowledge of life, including love, is gained with such effort that the duration of an hour can be given over to the easeful anticipation of eternity, even at the expense of human relations. The lines further imply, however, that it is the value of that scarce earthly time that gives meaning to the hour devoted to experiencing eternity.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 374

Complex and extended metaphor is typical of Warren’s early poetry, as is his use of paradox and fragmented and inverted sentences. These features give his work the flavor of Metaphysical poems such as Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and John Donne’s “The Compass.” In “Bearded Oaks,” the marine metaphor explicitly transforms part of the literal surface of the poem and is then interrupted by the abstract ruminations of the poet on history, love, time, and eternity. These elements work to set up a series of oppositions that describe two states of being.

The literal level of the poem, the physical setting, consists of the poet speaking while gazing toward the light through the oaks and moss above him. The beginning of the translation into metaphor is signaled by “kelp-like” and concludes with the logic and argument of stanza 7. History stops beneath the trees’ limbs, where darkness, stillness, voicelessness, and calcified separateness describe the poet and his companion. Above the oaks are light, animation, sound, and emotional vitality. These two states of illumination are tied to the second literal setting of the poem in stanza 8. The remembered images of the startled doe fleeing the car’s headlights and of the darkened street reprise the contrast between dark and light.

With the philosophical tone of the last two stanzas, the abstract terms “love” and “eternity” reconceive the problem of what the world of light and the world of dark mean. They are now evaluated according to whether the poet’s love is preserved, and the dark, in which light’s qualities are revoked, is redeemed by the proposal that immersion in it may be preparation for eternity.

Meaning develops in the poem through the mutual definition of the literal setting and the metaphor of sea and polyps and through their connection to the street and the doe. Although the literal and the metaphoric can be distinguished, that distinction is blurred as the poem evolves, while the emergent realms of light and dark resist being fully explained and interpreted by the abstract passages in the poem. Image, metaphor, and abstraction, then, are not only making meaning in “Bearded Oaks” but also represent meaning itself and the imperfect relations among objects, vision, and intellect.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 141

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