The Poem

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....

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Forms and Devices

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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