Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

“The Testing-Tree” is a poem about humanity as a paradox, dwelling in the mortal reality of time and space yet cognizant of the infinite and “eternal life.” A child’s innocent games and flights of imagination and a mature man’s quest and his fight to hold on to memories portray the narrator’s effort to combat the ephemeral nature of humankind. He is both flesh and spirit, and the journey of this poem seeks to transcend the limitations imposed on the spirit by the flesh through receiving prophetic power at the base of the proverbial oak of wisdom. This search bears a resemblance to William Wordsworth’s search in his epic poem The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1850) for a way in which the mutable consciousness of humanity can imprint itself into the immutable realms of nature. The “inexhaustible oak” contains the blessings and secret wisdom that are the object of the quest in all the various paths, trails, and highways within the poem.

Another central tension in the poem is that between society and the individual. In the opening section, the narrator feels the pull of society as he imagines himself a baseball hero or a world-class runner, yet all this disappears as the boy crosses the “nettled field” and enters the “long teeth of the woods.” The mossy, dark woods offer solitude broken only by signs of “rabbit life.” The narrator must undergo a test of solitude and face the forces of legend contained within the oak. Again, the road is a significant image in this drama between self and other. It is straight and confined, and it implies the presence of a purpose or a final destination. Once the narrator has reached his “tyrant and target” in the clearing, he must return to family and society as evidenced by the figure of his mother in the opening of section 4. He realizes that “It is necessary to go/ through dark and deeper dark/ and not to turn.” His escape from time, exemplified by his crossing of the field of wild nettles on no given path, is brief. The narrator rises up out of time and out of societal space when entering the clearing, but he can do nothing else except fall back into them in section 4. As a human being, he is limited by the circumstances of family and history. The tragedy of this reality is expressed in the words “dark” and “deeper dark” and the chilling term “necessary.” In desperation, the narrator asks, “where is my testing-tree?” Finally, in the closing lines, the self of the poet reiterates a hopeless demand to return his stones. The self longs to return to the tree and hurl its oracles against the tree of wisdom in an anguished attempt to transcend mere matter and to play a game of keeps with eternity.

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