Diminished Hope

The Oven Bird

BY ROBERT FROST

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

 

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Oven Bird,” tells of a chirping bird making noises throughout the seasons of the year. The poem digresses by beginning with thoughts on spring and summer and then arriving at fall and winter. The bird serves as a metaphor of the average human being, a person who desires to remain optimistic in the face of death and decay.

The bird’s message is universal, as the poem’s first line indicates; everyone can relate to the sound they hear. The bird’s words are “loud” in that they are inescapable and unmistakable. They define experience. “D” consonants appear at the end of many of the poem’s words, highlighting the sounds the bird makes. In its present state, the bird desires to return to spring: “He says that leaves are old and that for flowers/ Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten” (lines 4-5). The speaker uses a simile to contrast the now hot summer with the past spring: flowers are more prevalent in spring than summer. On a scale from one to ten, summer falls as a one in terms of personal value to the bird. Spring is preferable, being the best season of the year. There is even a time “when pear and sherry blooms went down in showers” (line 7). Spring once ruled the bird’s life, or, should we rather say, the speaker’s life? There was a time where happiness and new life reigned for him, domineering over all his circumstances. On a broader scale, humans want to look back at moments that were more fulfilling as they feel the rush of time carry them towards death.

But a shift in tone occurs in the middle of the poem. The speaker must now face a failing of the vibrant natural life. Lines 9-10 say “And comes that other fall we name the fall/ He says the highway dust is over all.” The speaker is doing much more than merely describing the effects of the fall season. There are several key phrases in the lines. First, there is “dust.” This may allude to the book of Genesis in the Bible, where God created mankind “out of the dust of the earth.” The subject of the poem seems to be about mankind in general. What the bird relates specifically concerns people everywhere in all times and places. The second phrase is “the fall.” This points to the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eve (also in the book of Genesis). Because of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God, mankind inherited the state of being sinful, prone to be and do evil in God’s eyes. People must live in life carrying the burden of their guilt and pain, whether they wish to or not. Life has made sense for the speaker until he discovers the revelation of his own sin. The bird will ask “what to make of a diminished thing” (line 14). How can the speaker explain the demoralization that takes root in his heart, distilling the happiness that he once had? The sadness he experiences has taken over the mood. Winter has arrived.

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