“The Oven Bird” is an irregular sonnet that explores in various ways the problem of “what to make of a diminished thing.” The poet does not refer to the bird directly by its other common name of “teacher bird” (based on the resemblance of its reiterated call to the word “teacher”) but attributes to the bird an instructive discourse about diminishment, the downward thrust of things. In the middle of summer, this bird reminds one of the fall (specifically the petal fall) that is already past and of the fall to come.

Like many of Frost’s poems, this one is built on paradox. This bird can be said to sing, but it is not particularly tuneful. Its repeated call in a trochaic, or falling, rhythm does not have the upward lilt that humans generally consider cheerful or merry. The bird is a twentieth century teacher—not the old-fashioned lecturer but the modern one who contrives to induce the students to teach themselves. Like the teacher, the bird “knows,” and in knowing frames the kind of question that is intended to provoke thought, although without any guarantee of easy resolution. Paradoxically, the process of learning becomes one of discovering that some questions must be struggled with unendingly. Like the teacher bird, the poem supplies no answers.

Literally, the “diminished thing” of the poem is the weather and the natural year. The sonnet is full of words and phrases such as “old,” “early petal-fall,” “down...

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