The Poem

“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.

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...

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Forms and Devices

“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”).


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