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 Oven Bird
There is a singer everyone has heard,
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.
These seemingly negligible birds, symbols of the lyric voice, have intuited the Oven Bird's lesson and are the signs by which one is meant to divine Frost's acceptance of the linguistic implications of the fall from innocence. The Oven Bird, who watching "That other fall we name the fall" come to cover the world with dust, "Knows in singing not to sing." Instead, "The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing." The fall, in necessitating both birth and death, imposes a continuum of identity that compromises naming. The process toward death, begun with birth, transmutes and gradually diminishes form, thus adding to the equation - words are things before they become words and things again when they do - an element of inevitable, perpetual senescence. The birds of "A Winter Eden" say "which buds are leaf and which are bloom," but the names are always premature or too late: gold goes to green, dawn to day, everything rises and falls and is transformed. Thus the Oven Bird says, "Midsummer is to spring as one to ten," because a season - this or any other - may only be codified analogously. "Fall" takes on a series of identities: petal fall, the fall season, the first and fortunate fall, each of which bears, at the moment of articulation, the burden of a whole complex of moral, aesthetic, and literary valuations. This bird is a "midsummer and a midwood bird" that sees things at the moment of capitulation to the imperatives of fall. Loud, he predicts the inevitable, and his "language" reflects the potential meaninglessness of a world in which one is forced to define a thing by what it departs from or approaches rather than what it "is." To anticipate and recognize in the full-blown flower only its inevitable decay is to miss the mark, but to ignore its ephemerality is an equal failure. The paradox of the Oven Bird's assertive voice completes the suggestion that only a new "language" can accommodate the diminishing of things, for he neither sings nor speaks: he "knows in singing not to sing" and he frames his question "in all but words." He neither sinks nor soars, and he lives in a solid, domed house that typifies his Yankee ingenuity, his forethought, his prudence. In a voice of virile moderation, loud but unhysterical, he sets out to articulate his surroundings.
But at the same time, and in a way that refuses to cancel out this message, Frost obliquely mocks his meager lyric birds and the compromised, oven-bird speakers throughout his poetry who are equally pinioned, held by their own voices from transcendence. He is ironically and ambivalently aware of the Palgravian definition of "lyric poetry." (Lentricchia sums it up: "No narrative allowed, no description of local reference, no didacticism, no personal, occasional, or religious material, no humor - the very antithesis of the 'poetical' - no dramatic textures of blank verse because the speaking voice is alien to song lyric," etc.) And Frost is very much dedicated to deconstructing this mode with his own lyricism: he writes to Amy Lowell: "The great thing is that you and some of the rest of us have landed with both feet on all the little chipping poetry of a while ago. We have busted 'em up as with cavalry. We have, we have, we have." Yet paradoxically, Frost holds on to lyric power by seeming to abnegate it: there is in this erotically declined game of loving (an abased and abasing) language an element of what can only be called sadomasochism. If poetry takes "a little rough handling once in a while," Frost is willing to "do it violence" in order to maintain his own poetic potency (Letters 182); yet he is both the abased - with his words - and the abaser - with his prosodically virile sound. Like ice shrieking across a red-hot griddle, his poetry does, indeed, ride on its own melting. One cannot, and Frost has ensured this absolutely with his unstable irony, make a validated choice between the fire and the ice, or between the language, so insistently mundane, and the potent oversound. Fire and ice are, after all, the inextricable complementarities of one apocalyptic vision: that endlessly regenerative cycle of desire and (self) hatred that necessarily brings the productive poet to scourge his own voice as he mocks both the poetic vocation and the state to which poetry - and if poetry then all language - has come. Frost anticipates modernism's lament and, it may be said, prefigures in his dualism its dubious palliative of self-referential irony. The lyric birds and the weary speakers tell us the genuine Frostian wisdom of achieving a commonsensical accommodation with the fallen world, while inciting at another, and ineffable, level a profound disquiet.
From Robert Frost and a Poetic of Appetite. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Mountain Interval also contains "The Oven Bird," one of Frost's unforgettable sonnets. Like "Mowing," it is a poem implicitly about the act of writing, about a bird who "knows in singing not to sing," which is to say that he must abandon the worn-out poetical diction and rhetorical conventions of his predecessors and offer a new kind of song. "The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing." The last two lines resonate with implications. What poet now writing is not faced with this dilemma? The world as we find it, much as the world Frost found, is sadly diminished, and the poet's job in the twentieth century has been what to make of this world, how to respond to its indignities, its savage and vengeful self-absorption, its greed, its abandonment of common decency and justice.
From "Robert Frost" in The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Copyright © 1993 by the Columbia University Press.
Over time it has become increasingly evident that this sonnet struck a note which became central to the work of many of the major poets of the first quarter of the twentieth century. Anticipating the sorrowful observation of his younger contemporary LS. Eliot, that in our time the ancient song of the nightingale had degenerated into the "Jug Jug" of dirty ears, Frost focused on the transformation and diminution of Whitman's central symbol for the poet. In the midsummer, midwood song of the ovenbird, Frost hears a parable of the modem poet who, unlike those poets who can burst into song only in the spring, has learned the ovenbird's paradoxical trick. He has learned how to sing an unlyrical song in those times that are not at all conducive to joyous song.
When "The Oven Bird " was published in Mountain Interval (1916), Frost's third collection of poems, its reception among readers displeased the poet. That reception drove him to warn his friend Sidney Cox that "The Oven Bird" was not of "the large things in the book." He cautioned further, obviously worried over the unsubtle impact of the poem's last two lines, "You mustn't be misled by anything that may have been laid down to you in school into exaggerating the importance of a little sententious tag to a not over important poem." What other readers found in the poem is evident from Frost's complaint to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant that the last two lines of his poem had "been used unjustly against New England." Just how they had been misused Frost apparently chose not to explain to Mrs. Sergeant, nor did he wish to explain that his poem was purely in the New England tradition. There is no denying the validity of Mrs. Sergeant's emphasis upon "the tragic background of the poet who writes from the heart of the life that he knows and divines"; but much of the varied, rich life the poet knew, divined, and portrayed, it should be observed, shows the impact of the books he read and chose to love. Fully alert to classical Western literary traditions, Frost was acutely aware of the romantic tradition of New England, whose poets, in the flowering of New England literature, opened the way for Frost's own poetry of embattlement and resistance in addition to blazing a path followed by dozens of lesser writers.
The New England context of Frost's poem has never been fully investigated. In the paragraphs which follow, I shall try to locate some of the immediate sources for Frost's decision to turn the ovenbird into a surrogate for the poet. Clear hints for the ovenbird as symbol, I shall maintain, came from three writers (though there may have been others) whose work varies greatly in intrinsic literary merit—Henry David Thoreau, Bradford Torrey (Thoreau's editor at the turn of the century), and Mildred Rowells (the daughter of William Dean Rowells). The line can be drawn chronologically.
Reimagining his dramatic withdrawal to the Concord woods, Thoreau laments the fate that, in the few years since his removal, has befallen the woods encircling Walden Pond: "the woodchoppers have still further laid them waste, and now for many a year there will be no more rambling through the aisles of the wood, with occasional vistas through which you see the water. My Muse may be excused if she is silent henceforth." As nature's poet, then, Thoreau would fall as silent as the disappointed songbirds, for diminished nature—in this case, nature reduced through man's waste—silences both Muse and mortal song. "How can you expect the birds to sing," entones Thoreau, "when their groves are cut down?"
In Walden Thoreau fails to identify the ovenbird by name, but his journals contain several descriptions of the ovenbird and its sounds, along with several related descriptions of a "night- warbler." At various times Thoreau observes, in notes that were not lost on Frost, that (1) "the oven-bird thrums [a] sawyer-like strain," (2) "the hollow-sounding note of the ovenbird is heard from the depth of the wood," (3) the oven-bird's note is "loud and unmistakable, making the hollow woods ring," (4) its note, a true "woodland" sound, is "fresh emphatic." Thoreau suggests that he was able to distinguish the seasonal songs of the ovenbird, though he makes nothing of that fact.
Thoreau was as receptive to the ovenbird’s spring song, evidently, as he was to its midsummer song. But his puzzlement sometimes led him to ascribe the two songs to different species. Often mistaking the ovenbird for a different bird he chose to call a "night-warbler," he wrote enthusiastically about that "powerful singer": "It launches into the air above the forest, or over some hollow or open space in the woods, and challenges the attention of the woods by its rapid and impetuous warble, and then drops down swiftly into the tree-tops like a performer withdrawing behind the scenes, and he is very lucky who detects where it alights." For all his repute as a naturalist, Thoreau never managed to distinguish the ovenbird satisfactorily from the mysterious "night-warbler," confusing them time and time again. It is now generally conceded by ornithologists and Thoreau scholars alike that Thoreau's "mysterious" night-warbler and the seemingly different ovenbird, whose more characteristic song and daytime appearance were well known to Thoreau, were one and the same.
That the ovenbird sings two quite different songs was clear enough to Bradford Torrey. In 1900, while editing Thoreau's journals, Torrey wrote and published a Thoreauvian journey piece. Reconstructing the memorable incidents of a day's excursion to New Hampshire's Franconia Mountains (where Frost would later live), Torrey wrote of the ovenbird:
An oven-bird shoots into the air out of the forest below for a burst of aerial afternoon music. I heard the preluding strain, and, glancing up, caught him at once, the sunlight happening to strike him perfectly. All the morning he has been speaking prose; now he is a poet; a division of the day from which the rest of us might take a lesson. But for his afternoon role he needs a name. "Oven-bird" goes somewhat heavily in a lyric:
"Hark! hark! the oven-bird at heaven's gate sings"—you would hardly recognize that for Shakespeare.
Torrey notes with accuracy that the ovenbird can and does sing two distinctly different songs. The distinction between the songs is explained by one of Thoreau's modern editors. The ovenbird's "song is a series of short, ringing, emphatic notes that grow louder and louder as the tempo increases," she observes. "It is often called the teacher-bird because the song sounds like teacher repeated over and over again. The Ovenbird also has a beautiful flight song, most often heard in May and June, late in the afternoon or on moonlight nights."
For his own purposes Frost chose the ovenbird whose song is pedagogical, not lyrical. He reverses Torrey's emphasis, which was on the lyrical beauty of the afternoon song. Surely Torrey's view of the ovenbird was too conventional for Frost's more insistent taste and therefore wholly unsuited to the specific purposes of his parablelike poem. In Frost there is, of course, no indication that the ovenbird sings a beautiful flight song as well as the dry, sharp, rasping song for which it is better known. The existence of its melodious flight song is a fact not at all useful to the poet answering the sentimentalist whose song falters and fails before natural loss.
On one occasion Frost revealed that his poems were largely "a way out of something." He elaborated: "I could probably name twenty or thirty poems that were just answers to somebody that had . . . left me unsatisfied with the last thing he said in an argument." The possibility can be entertained, for its suggestive implications at least, that "The Oven Bird" constitutes just such an answer to the question framed by Mildred Howells in her Keatsian poem, "'And No Birds Sing'":
There comes a season when the bird is still Save for a broken note, so sad and strange, Its plaintive cadence makes the woodlands thrill With sense of coming change.
Stirred into ecstasy by spring's new birth, In throbbing rhapsodies of hope and love, He shared his transports with the listening earth And stormed the heavens above.
But now how should he sing—forlorn, alone— Of hopes that withered with the waning year, An empty nest with mate and fledgelings flown, And winter drawing near?
There can be no doubt, of course, that in quality, no matter what yardstick we use, Miss Howells's autumn poem does not measure up to Frost's. For one thing, it lacks immediate force and overall resonance. Its images too evidently belong to the pale, late Victorian poetry of nature. They remain static and generalized. Still, despite reservations, there is value and purpose in comparing the two poems. Sentimentality and loose structure notwithstanding, Miss Howells's poem does indicate a theme that Frost would find congenial: how, indeed, does one respond to the diminished thing that dry midsummer augurs and which autumn and winter all too surely realize?
The first line of Frost's sonnet seems to echo and answer the first line of "'And No Birds Sing'": "There is a singer everyone has heard" counters the line, "There comes a season when the bird is still." Moreover, if a "broken note . . . of plaintive cadence" predicts "coming change" in the Howells poem, the sterner song of Frost's ovenbird, in describing facts as they are, " makes the solid tree trunks sound again."
The middle stanza of Miss Howells's poem moves back in time to recall the retrospective irony of the bird's ecstasy when it was fostered by "spring's new birth." By contrast, in midpoem Frost's ovenbird reminds us dryly and matter-of-factly that spring's luxuriance of flowers diminishes by midsummer in the ratio of "one to ten." Then in the eleventh line Frost fashions another answer to "'And No Birds Sing.'" The question asked in the Howells poem, "how should he sing" of withered hopes in a "waning year" as winter encroaches upon life, is answered: the ovenbird "knows in singing not to sing." Frost concludes his poem, not by asking Howells's question of whether the ovenbird should sing (he takes it for granted that he must sing) but by defining the question which the bird's songless song frames.
Like his ovenbird of midsummer song, the poet that Frost continued to recognize in himself was one who faced the hardest of facts: seasonally; but above all historically; the world has diminished, and "dust is over all." Still, the difficulty of the situation cannot reduce the durable poet to compliance: he resists the fact, and his resistance becomes the impulse—bone and sinew—for his poem. When Frost decided that "a poet must lean hard on facts, so hard, sometimes, that they hurt," he discovered as well that what "the facts do to you . . . transforms them into poetry."
In seasons of human displacement, the Muse will continue to spite Thoreau (and his less durable followers) by disdaining silence. Transposed to a different key; it will speak but only to that poet whose lyric voice has been stripped of all traditional lyricism.
From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.
. . . The poem opens with what first sounds like flat prosaic statement,
There is a singer everyone has heard . . .
but the line rides on the expected thrust of later lines, and before it ends, it melts imperceptibly into iambics. But—we must always be saying 'but' of this poem—as we are lapsing into a regular beat, the meter flutters slightly in 'everyone' before settling down. The next line begins unexpectedly
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird . . .
The opening monosyllable is stressed doubly for sense and meter, the comma further lengthening the pause; the word is out of the familiar metrical and grammatical order, and very casual, almost rude in tone. But 'Loud' is followed by two echoing poetic compounds, and the third line is back in the swing of iambic verse, though a bit roughed up by alliteration and t-d-s sounds—almost a tongue-twister:
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
This odd talking-song, so deftly rude, is central to the growing form and to the attitude reaching a climax in the final line—the troubling sense of diminishedness, of things being less than they were. The poetry is not in this idea alone, but in the metaphor of loss-and-song expressed 'in all but words' through many sorts of indirection. The song in the poem is not just any oven bird's song, but the singing made by the poet's words. It is very common—'everyone has heard' it—and not charming or poetic, but 'Loud.' It renews the spring song of 'other birds' ('Tree trunks sound again') only to remind us that summer is a tenth as good as spring, that the 'petal-fall' anticipated the approaching 'other fall.' More conventional birds, like the orioles and thrushes, do not sing in mid-summer. But the oven bird's song really isn't a song, as the language keeps insisting: he 'makes . . . trunks sound' (he hammers and drums ), 'he says that . . . he says . . . he says . . . he knows . . . he frames . . . '—a most explanatory bird. (As Frost says of prose without rhythm, it is 'declare, declare, declare.') If we are familiar with the 'teacher-teacher' call of the oven bird, we get the point sooner; but even without knowing the bird we hear its teaching in the paradox of song-not-song renewed in many fine poetic stresses. The metaphor is always there underground and implicit, the quality of the poem depending on the unobtrusiveness of this half-apprehended but surely heard meaning. Anyone who has walked in dry July woods will remember how the metallic refrain of the oven bird bores into ears and mind.
The metaphor is also active in the dramatic voice, which is very much in harmony with 'all-but-ness' and which resists easy reduction of the poem to 'Ah, summer!—spring's faded!' The poet's rhythm is always being steadied by prose statement, and his grammar is of the plainest. In the wager of 'one to ten,' where we might expect 'ten to one' in summer's bounty, and in the playing with various 'falls' his subtly amused tone comes out clearly enough. The restraining quality of his speech goes finely with the language he has used of the bird's song and with the question he frames in the end. But the poet outdoes the bird: he manages in not singing to sing. Tempo and feeling increase as the rhythm rides with surprising force through full stops and with what Edward Thomas beautifully called 'a quiet eagerness of emotion.' Readers who see in the poem a symbol of Frost as poet or a veiled ars poetica, should note that the symbol is not the bird but the poetic art, the 'feat of words' as a whole. But that further metaphor is only touched on: as in the best of Frost, lightness is all.
The figure implied in 'The Oven Bird'—of talking song and of unobtrusive metaphor embodied in rhythm and tone as much as in statement and image, of a growth from observation (Frost's moment of 'delight') to felt truth—is not only a formal pattern, but also the forming of a revelation of which the meaning is the unfolding poetic event.
From The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention. New York: Oxford UP, 1963. Copyright © 1963 by Reuben A. Brower