H. A. Maxon: On "The Oven Bird"

In his biography of Frost, William Pritchard tells the story of Sidney Cox, a student of Frost's, perusing Mountain Interval then writing to Frost addressing him as "Dear Oven Bird," rather than "Mr. Frost." Cox believed that he had discovered a "key" to understanding Frost. However, Frost insisted that Cox made too much of the poem and dismissed his praise and his insight. But Pritchard suggests that Cox was indeed on to something, that perhaps this was one of the doors in the poems that Frost spoke of but one not secured fast enough, leaving the student the opportunity to view the master unguarded where it was left ajar.

And such an interpretation seems fair enough. "What he frames in all but words" is certainly tantalizingly close to "the sound of sense" theory Frost developed. On any number of levels, according to the biographies, Frost felt himself to be a "diminished thing." As Cox rightly pointed out, Frost's voice was not loud, but it had been heard—if not by "everyone" then at least by a significant number of important listeners. And Frost the popularizer was certainly at work making sure his poems and books were read—if not at the time the poems were written, then when they were published ten or more years later.

In that regard it is worth suggesting that this poem, written in the same period as the sonnets of A Boy’s Will, perhaps takes up an image introduced in "Into My Own," that of the trees, metaphorically the solid poetic giants of the nineteenth century whom Frost admired and boasted/threatened/promised to move among in that poem. If that is the case, then the speaker in "The Oven Bird" has achieved that distinction, at least in his own mind, when he says, "Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again."

I don't think it is much of a stretch to say that a number of Frost's poems were prophetic. His Swedenborgian mother was convinced she was gifted with second sight, and she believed the same about her son. Hence, if this is a poem that projects itself into the future, then the poet had again predicted where he would be several years after the poem was written—a widely read, popular poet whose publisher pushed him to get Mountain Interval ready for publication very shortly after the American publication of A Boy’s Will and North of Boston. Yes, he was a singer people had heard, and yes he was middle-aged, and yes in singing he knew not to sing (just as the "sound of sense" and "sentence sense" demanded).

But more importantly, and what early critics chronically passed over, is the inherent social criticism and the spiritual angst suggested by the line, "He says the highway dust is over all." There is in that line a complaint that not only the highway, a construction of man's, but the machines those highways were designed for, diminish our contact with nature, with the world. And there is a question: Have our inventions improved our place in the world, or more likely, what are we to make of our reduced station?

What we have then are two distinct poems or two very different readings of one poem—two ways of saying one thing in terms of another. Ostensibly the sonnet is about a bird, a teacher bird (another name for it), and its song that is no song at all but a jumble of notes concluding with teacher teacher, which makes it distinct from other birds. The diminished thing is himself or the world immediately around him, the season, what have you.

A personal reading of the poem says it is about the poet, as Cox saw it, the singer who has craftily, modernistically, learned to avoid the obvious eccentricities and pomposities of the nineteenth century and to use the sound of everyday speech; hence he has learned "in singing not to sing." The poet views the world around him, his own arrival at middle age, the diminution of the beauty of youth that comes during the blink of an eye, "a moment overcast." He has, finally, achieved the escape that played so heavily in A Boys Will, and in a sense has avoided some of the "highway dust" that coats the world—but not completely, for it "is over all." The diminished thing is himself, his own life. At about the time of the publication of Mountain Interval he confided in Louis Untermeyer, perhaps only half teasingly, that the poet in him had died ten years before. This was an exaggeration, to be sure, but it does give credence to the reading of the final line as being a reference to himself, as well as his own beliefs about himself and perhaps his poetic powers.

Finally, it is a poem that is huge with philosophical despair and doubt. It is a poem that compresses all of his "obsessive themes" into fourteen lines—isolation, extinction, and human limitations. The bird almost blusters in the face of these concerns. It is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's moth kicking at death, hopeless and helpless but not giving up. There is a sense, despite the bravado of the opening lines (a bravado like that exhibited in "Into My Own"), that all has gone to smash, for every image that follows is a negative one—the "petal-fall," the "moment overcast," the "highway dust," the nonsinging, and the "diminished thing." This is grief so deep and absolute that we have to wonder at the strength it took to write the poem at all.

It is not at all unusual to find this kind of "confusion" addressed and "arrested" in Frost, fixed to the page and hence to the mind like pins through a butterfly's wings. But what is so striking is how very long it takes for the depth of the pain to make itself known. The true sense of pain and desperation is elusive because the very form on the page, the very act of creating that form, is often enough to "stay" or "arrest" the confusion sufficiently to make it appear as if there is no confusion at all—and never was. It is only when we realize that what "He says" is the persona translating what he wants the bird to say that we realize that the speaker is externalizing his own dark mood through the bird as certainly as Hardy does through his "Darkling Thrush" or Whitman through his widowed "he-bird."

Yet here is another stumbling block: in choosing to write the poem, in other words "to sing," in a very strict form, he has done precisely what he says he knows not to do, and hasn't done. Again, the very subtlety, the illusion and the reality demand absolute attention to every word on the page, and a healthy skepticism when we are told anything. To take anything we are told in the poem at face value is no way to approach Frost, who believed absolutely that the poem was a way "to say one thing in terms of another." From the very first line we should be on guard. No absolutes can be trusted—not "everyone" has heard the oven bird. From there on it is nip and tuck as the poet gains his wisdom as the poem builds. And it is one hell of a ride, one that insists that we climb back to the top and do it again, for in reriding the poem down we see what we missed each time before.

It is not surprising that Frost is again "not artless" in his prosody. A cursory look at the rhyme scheme of "The Oven Bird" seems to reveal patternless rhyming to rival that of "Mowing"—which would make this too a great poem but not a sonnet. But a closer look shows us indeed an intricate pattern: He opens with a couplet aa, followed by bcb which he links, via the medial rhyme, with the next three lines dcd. While rhyme links these two line groupings, the couplet is locked to the bcb syntactically; the first b rhyme is the last line of the first sentence. The cb lines that follow are a sentence themselves. The next lines, dcd, are, as I said, linked to the previous lines via rhyme. They are also linked to the couplet ff by yet another syntactical connection. The second couplet's function, like the aa couplet, is to introduce us to something: aa introduces us to the bird, ff introduces us to two great human failures—the biblical "Fall" in the first line and the failure of the human technological experiment in the second. This is the place in the poem where the human persona is most obvious, and human concerns are spoken of in human terms, not through the bird's interpreted speech. The turn, such as it is, appears to occur after line ten when we return to the bird being spoken about as it was in the opening lines. In what turns out to be another tour de force, Frost insists that we return to the beginning of the poem, that we see the interconnectedness of things by using a rhyme pair that strongly echoes the introductory couplet. I doubt that one could find another sonnet as intricately and subtly designed as this one.

Of course, for most poets, such a display of technical brilliance would be enough. But Frost is not content to stop here, nor is he undesigning in putting one final, subtle demonstration of the diminution he talks openly about in the closing two lines: according to at least one scansion both of those lines are, themselves, diminished, at least in terms of the form. Both lines contain only four stresses, not the requisite five. In line thirteen only the first syllable of "question," "frames," "all," and "words" can possibly call for stresses. "That," which by its placement would seem to take stress is passed over, in any reading, much too quickly. At best it might take a light secondary stress. Thus, there is a very loose iambic, but it gives the impression of being a four-stress line.

The final line deserves its own space for discussion. Although the line is pentameter, and it begins with two iambic feet, it is the cause of an illusion. "Of a," medially, may be another pyrrhic. However, the line can also be scanned as two iambs followed by two anapests. Either way, two iambs followed by two anapests, or two iambs followed by a pyrrhic and two more iambs, there is a four stress line, a final technical burst after most of the crowd has turned away, another masterful stroke that once more demonstrates the need to pay absolute attention to every aspect of every poem, for none goes unmanipulated and uncontrolled down to the merest minim.

From On The Sonnets of Robert Frost. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1997. Copyright © 1997.

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Criticism Overview
Title H. A. Maxon: On "The Oven Bird" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author H. A. Maxon Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication On The Sonnets of Robert Frost
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