The Testing-Tree Themes
by Stanley Kunitz

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 477 words.)