The Poem

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

“Fear and Trembling” is a poem of twenty-one lines expressing a poet’s questions about his ability to commune with nature in old age when he seeks to understand nature’s lessons and feels a burst of energy for poetic creation.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Fear and Trembling Study Guide

Subscribe Now

As its title implies, “Fear and Trembling” is a dark meditation about the limits of the ability of the human mind and the poetic imagination to bridge the gap between the subjective and objective realms of reality and to apprehend intimations of immortality in nature. The title may also express the awe-filled emotions inspired by the possibility of communing with nature. Emphasizing the poem’s dark side are the many questions posed by the speaker; questions far outnumber declarative statements in the poem.

The first stanza presents the setting, which the rest of the poem explores for meaning. There are no questions here, only a simple description of a completely quiet forest in high summer during sunset. Despite the simple narration, however, phrases such as “that is” (suggesting intensity of being) and “final fulfillment” (suggesting totality of being) hint at a transcendent experience or vision springing from this preternaturally silent scene. The aged speaker will meditate on the meaning of the natural scene in the remaining lines of the poem.

The second stanza inaugurates a series of disturbing questions that cast doubt on the power of words (as in the case of poetry) to create a vital communication of nature. Are words trapped within the poet’s psyche (mere “wind through the tube of the throat”), without a direct and meaningful relationship to the objective reality of nature? Are words merely arbitrary symbols of human fashioning that do not necessarily correspond to the external world of nature? Can words tell the truth of nature, capture its moods rightly, and convey its lessons correctly?

The third stanza seems to provide an answer to these questions and exhorts readers to commune with the silent and sunlit forest and to experience a transcendent early spring in high summer, abstracted from evil. This upbeat stanza, like the first, avoids the questions found everywhere else in the poem.

The rest of the poem resumes the disturbing questioning of the second stanza and expresses doubts about the ability of human beings to plumb nature’s meaning and moods (“is it in joy or pain and madness?”). It would be wonderful for the speaker to know certainly that he could pierce the veil of nature in his old age when creative energy surges from his unconscious in a manner reminiscent of the Socratic illumination of the cave-dwelling souls in Plato’s Republic (fourth century b.c.e.). Ripe for poetic creation, the speaker wants to commune with nature for the wisdom that could further abstract him from the ambitions of youth and the concerns of the world, but in the end he can only pose questions, wait for surer answers, and hope for intimations of immortality from nature.

Forms and Devices

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 290

“Fear and Trembling” is a lyric poem written in free verse that consists of five quatrains (rhyming abab) and an additional final line. Robert Penn Warren’s earlier poetry had been strongly influenced by the formal control and the elegant, well-mannered rationality of John Crowe Ransom’s verse, but beginning with the volume Promises (1957) and revealing itself fully in the major book-length poem Audubon: A Vision (1969), his poetic line became more free-flowing and energetic in the modernist mode. A distinguishing mark of his poetry, including “Fear and Trembling,” is a passion directed toward the physical world and toward a knowledge of truth. He was a writer who yearned for more than life normally discloses yet was full of appreciation of the world that instigated that yearning.

Assonance and consonance abound (“The sun now angles downward, and southward”). Paradox, an apparent contradiction that is somehow true, appears in the affirmation that early spring can coexist with high summer for anyone who is in communion with nature (lines 11-12). The language of the poem veers toward a colloquial informality, but there is an occasional ornate phrase with a shocking suggestiveness of spiritual meaning (for example, “final fulfillment” and “vernal translucence”). Line 20 has a monosyllabic tendency and a generative sound system in the principal vowels that bear comparison with the experimental poetics of Father Gerard Manley Hopkins.

There is an allusion (in lines 17 and 21) to Socrates’ tale of cave-dwelling souls in Plato’s Republic (one of Warren’s novels, published in 1959, was entitled The Cave). The sunset and high summer are symbols, respectively, of the poet’s old age and poetic ripeness for communion with nature (such a communion is symbolized by the merging of “the lost spring” with the “summer, that is”).


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

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

Blotner, Joseph. Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997.

Bohner, Charles. Robert Penn Warren. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Burt, John. Robert Penn Warren and American Idealism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

Clark, William Bedford, ed. Critical Essays on Robert Penn Warren. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.

Grimshaw, James A. Understanding Robert Penn Warren. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

Justus, James H. The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Madden, David, ed. The Legacy of Robert Penn Warren. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

Ruppersburg, Hugh. Robert Penn Warren and the American Imagination. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Szczesiul, Anthony. Racial Politics and Robert Penn Warren’s Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

Watkins, Floyd C., John T. Hiers, and Mary Louise Weaks, eds. Talking with Robert Penn Warren. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial