The Poem

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“The Testing-Tree” is a poetic sequence divided into four sections, each written in supple free verse with no stanza breaks. The lines themselves are prepositional phrases or noun clauses and are generally enjambed, giving the reader a sense of flowing, forward movement. The title, the same as that for the entire volume of poetry in which it was originally published, is mythic, suggesting the biblical Tree of Knowledge where Adam and Eve are tested and Ygdrassil, the tree of wisdom from Norse mythology. The title is also specific, being emblematic of the tree where the narrator played games and in which he carved his name. Each sequence within the poem operates on both levels—the mythic and the local.

In section 1, the narrative “I” recalls the imaginary games and challenges of childhood in which reality, “the Academy ballpark/ where I could never hope to play,” is juxtaposed against the imaginative life in which “magic Keds” bring “the prize of the mastery” and the speaker is the “world’s fastest human.” The speaker recalls these imaginative visions with concrete nouns (“flying skin,” “crouching start”) and makes these experiences vivid for the reader, while the quotidian events of daily life are only hinted at in the first three lines of the section before being abandoned in favor of the imaginary, which offers more potential and fulfillment. It is the “magic” that is able to project the speaker beyond a rather banal present into a realm of imagination; the speaker is master over the “given course.”

Section 2 opens with a renewed search for this magic that takes the narrator away from home. Instead of leading toward the ballpark and imaginary fame, the magic in this section leads the narrator down a secret path leading to the woods. The path leads away from the “drainage ditch” of society and civilization of the first section to nature and solitary sojourn reminiscent of American Indians and legend. The trail is a “right of passage” and the narrator practices his “Indian walk.” The magic conjures up in the narrator a sense of communion with nature, and the “umbrageous trail” leads away from the pressures of school and home.

In section 3, the trail leads the narrator, who walks with “deliberate” steps, through an abandoned quarry into a clearing where the “testing-tree” of the title stands. The narrator has inscribed his name in the tree as if to claim ownership. Yet despite this “ownership,” the boy is “in the shadow” and prays for a blessing. The boy imaginatively plays a symbolic game of life in which he seeks to hit the tree “for love, for poetry,/ and for eternal life.” Taking stones from his pocket, the narrator hurls them at the tree, his “tyrant and target,” hoping to hit it and secure for himself the illusory joys unavailable to him in sections 1 or 4.

A mythic reading of the poem gains more resonance as, in section 4, a “recurring dream” haunts the narrator in which the family life of childhood metamorphoses into natural images: The mother appears “wearing an owl’s face.” The sacred space amid the vegetation of section 3 is invaded again by a presence from society. These figures of his family make him feel guilty, and he asks, “why should I be blamed?” when he notices the dirt sifting slowly down into a well “where an albino walrus huffs.” The mother figure points with a “minatory” finger, and the narrator seems to attempt to avoid this finger of blame by escaping back into his sacred world of the “umbrageous trail” and his “testing-tree”; the dream,...

(This entire section contains 621 words.)

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however, keeps recurring and will not let him return. The figures of family and society relentlessly pull the boy away from his solitude in nature.

Forms and Devices

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References to mythic symbols abound in Stanley Kunitz’s poem. The primary recurring image is that of various types of paths: a “stretch of road” in section 1 and an “umbrageous trail” in section 2; though there is no direct naming of a path in section 3, its presence is implied as the narrator winds by the stone quarry into a clearing. This clearing is the end of the trail, and “the inexhaustible oak” stands as the final test for the narrator. For the moment, the metaphor of paths is suspended as the narrator enters the shadow of the great tree and throws his stones of destiny in an attempt to wrest a blessing from it. The relapse is momentary, however: In section 4, the poet returns to the metaphor of paths. This time it is in the form of a highway unfurled, and the narrator instead wishes for the trail. The highway is associated with a mechanistic element of society that has so far been absent in the poem: A Model A car and a military tank with turrets dominate this path. Combat and industrialism intrude into the haven of consciousness offered by nature in section 3. The repetition of the road imagery indicates its centrality to the meaning of the poem, and it becomes a metaphor for the journey, the heroic quest, on which the narrator embarks.

The poem’s imagery, however, is not limited to that of a journey. In section 3, the “target,” or the end of the trail, is reached. This section abounds in rich symbols: an oak, stones, acorns, and a watchtower. Some of the symbols are made explicit (the stones “changing to oracles,” for example), but many are left implicit, to be decoded by the reader. Traditionally in Celtic mythology, acorns were seen as seeds of prophecy: If a seer ate them, he could be given the voice of prophecy. Such a reading, with both biblical and Celtic overtones, is underscored by the presence of the name Jehovah, the highest name that can be invoked for prophecy and wisdom within the Hebraic tradition of prophets. “Bless my good right arm” the narrator asks of an absent figure who represents both a physical father and God the Father, Jehovah. The poem functions on a literal level with a boy, stones, and a tree, and on a symbolic level with a narrator, oracles, and the tree of wisdom.


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