The War Against the Trees Summary
by Stanley Kunitz

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(Poetry for Students)

“The War Against the Trees” is included in Stanley Kunitz’s third volume of poetry Selected Poems, 1928–1958. Though Selected Poems was rejected by eight publishers—three of whom did not read the manuscript—the collection won the 1959 Pulitzer Prize. In the Author’s Note to Selected Poems, Kunitz writes that the poems are not arranged chronologically but “in groups that bear some relevance to the themes, the arguments, that have preoccupied me since I began to write.” The grouping that contains “The War Against the Trees,” entitled “The Terrible Threshold,” is likely so-named because the poems in it describe various ways in which humanity and the earth are on the brink of catastrophic change. It is the last poem in the section. Perhaps the reason “The War Against the Trees” appears in many anthologies is partially due to its obvious sympathies with environmental causes.

“The War Against the Trees” describes bulldozers toppling and digging out plants and large trees on a parcel of lawn recently purchased by an oil company. The poet mourns the loss of the past, of nature, and the absence of human concern for the “war’s” victims, the plants and animals. Before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped inspire the environmental movement, “The War Against the Trees” recognized the local attack on a plot of land as part of a larger, undeclared war on nature. In an interview with Kunitz, critic Selden Rodman asserts that “The War Against the Trees” was an early ecological statement. Kunitz agreed, quipping that “one of the measures of art is the amount of wilderness it contains.”


(Poetry for Students)

Stanza 1: The poem opens with a man and his neighbors watching bulldozers tear up the man’s lawn. The man is joking with the neighbors, and the event is referred to as a “show.” The man’s upbeat behavior suggests that he has sold the land for a good price. “Branchy sky” indicates that this parcel of “lawn” has quite a few trees on it, as the branches seem as much a part of the sky as of the tree. Contributing to the carnival-like atmosphere is the personification of the bulldozers as sloppy males on a date, who, “drunk with gasoline,” force themselves on the woman, as they test the “virtue of the soil.” This last phrase is also ironic since the bulldozers are not concerned with the soil’s quality, as farmers are, but with what lies beneath the soil.

Stanza 2: Stanza two begins full mobilization of the language of war (“forays” and “raids”). The bulldozers- as-tanks, having taken out what would be the first line of defense, the privet-row, now take out the second line—forsythias and hydrangeas. But the real “enemy” lies ahead. Bulldozers head for the hard-to-root-out trees, analogous to a nest of machine guns protected by lines of surrounding troops. The trees themselves are monuments of a civilization, and every time an elm fell “a century went down.” In a familiar metaphor the trees are also likened to human bodies, as they are described as having been “lopped and maimed.” This is akin to the trees’ beheading, or the hacking of limbs from their torsos (trunk), an occurrence in humanto- human war. The offensiveness of the acts is heightened because the trees are humanized, referred to as the “great-grandfathers of the town.”

Stanza 3 : The war continues as bulldozers and Caterpillars (“hireling engines”) dig up tree after tree. The limbs and tops have already been hacked away and the roots are the last to go. The speaker remarks that undermining the trees also destroys the habitat of soil grubs and moles, a destruction of beings and ecology. Then, as in the previous stanza, trees are again linked to humans: they are kings when standing (they have “crowns”), and subservient subjects when felled (on their “knees,” as if begging). The final personification is the death throes or tremblings the trees suffer before dying, their “seizures.” That is, their leafy...

(The entire section is 1,072 words.)