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"The Oven Bird" by Robert Frost: Background and Analysis

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Summary of "The Oven Bird"

"The Oven Bird" is an unusual sonnet containing an extended metaphor, in which a bird, the Oven Bird, becomes the poet, and vice versa. The song of this bird is the work of the poet—shaping language into suitable forms, creating designed sound— changing the relationship between nature and language.

But how come Robert Frost chose this particular common bird to represent himself as a middle-aged poet? Could it be that the male's simple, repetitive song, often described as 'teacher, teacher, teacher', reminded him of what poetry shouldn't be— loud, unchanging and undisguised? There's the paradox.

Frost published the poem in 1916 in the book Mountain Interval. He had not long returned from England with his family following the outbreak of the first world war, began teaching, and wanted to consolidate his position as one of the leading modernist poets.

"The Oven Bird" has caused much controversy over the years. Some think it is a response to an earlier poem by Mildred Howells, who wrote a sentimental poem titled "And No Birds Sing", which Frost knew of. The first line of "The Oven Bird" could be a direct counter to this title: 'There is a singer everyone has heard'.

This association probably holds a grain of truth but Frost then expanded and explored in his own inimitable way, the nature of diminishment through the song of the ground-dwelling woodland warbler, known as the oven bird.

And it should be noted that Frost had read and admired H.D.Thoreau's groundbreaking book Walden, which mentions the song of the oven bird: 'the oven-bird's note is loud and unmistakable, making the hollow woods ring.'

However, Frost denied ever being a poet of fauna and flora: 'I am not a nature poet. There is almost always a person in my poems.'

Putting everything together it is impossible not to read "The Oven Bird" and believe that the poem has a strictly literal theme. It is about poetic creativity and the relationship the poet's words have to nature and to life's processes.

"The Oven Bird"

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.

Analysis of "The Oven Bird"

"The Oven Bird" is a fourteen line sonnet with full end rhymes, a basic iambic meter with anapaests and a tribrach mixed in here and there to vary the speed and rhythm of the lines. For example:

There is / a sin / ger ev / eryone / has heard, (5 iambs=iambic pentameter)

Is what / to make / of a / dimin / ished thing. (2 iambs+pyrrhic+2 iambs)

The rhyme scheme is: aabcbdcdeefgfg and all are full rhymes which help tightly bind the lines and bring a memorable edge to the poem.

Although the sonnet looks traditional on the page—14 lines—it is not your typical Petrarchan sonnet which is split into an octet and sestet, the sestet being the turn or answer to the octet's questions and proposals.

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  • "The Oven Bird" is split more ten and four, the first ten lines focusing on the bird's song and the diminishing signs of the seasons, whilst the last four conclude with the reason for its existence.

More Analysis of "The Oven Bird"

Robert Frost comes over as a bit of a trickster in "The Oven Bird". The opening line is a plain if innocent declaration—this songster is known to all because of the loudness and clarity of its song. Note the altered stress and syntax of the second line—the inclusion of mid-wood bird fits into the syllabics (ten) but slows the reader down.

Such music pours forth from this bird that alliteration is needed in the third line to reinforce the message—solid tree trunks sound—which suggests that this song has more to it than meets the ear.

But what exactly is the message from this bird which builds a dome shaped nest, like an oven? He says, he says, he says . . . this obvious repetition echoes the actual song of the male bird who, in line four, starts to outline the diminishments.

And don't forget that bird=mature male poet, so line four contains the message that time is passing for this versifier, his language is maturing, he is no longer a greenhorn and has changed his approach. He has had to respond to the passage of time by crafting a certain monotony.

The enjambment of line four allows the reader to continue on to line five, the speaker acknowledging that his energy and freshness are ten times less now he's reached middle age and is facing the inevitable fall.

So the cycle of the seasons affecting the bird and the flowers and the trees is likewise experienced by the speaker who is singing the song of the poet.

  • Note the paradox: the bird is not singing but saying which suggests that there is a need for interpretation, but how is it possible to understand bird song when language is forever inadequate?

In line ten, which is pure iambic, the final He says . . . evokes a strong image— everything is covered in dust, dust from the highway. Dust is associated with the ritual of christian burial, as in dust to dust, ashes to ashes, mortality, but this particular dust has come from man-made progress, that all too familiar highway.

Symbolically, the dust is regeneration, both physical and spiritual. It is the end of things and the beginning, silence and the Word. Nature and humanity cannot escape it for they are part of the whole; they come from the same natural history.

Frost must have known that the oven bird's song becomes a plaintive preacher, preacher, preacher according to some, but the poem moves away from any religious associations, preferring a philosophical approach, closer to Darwinian thinking.

The mysterious and anthropomorphic line twelve implies that the oven bird simultaneously sings and does not, that by opening its bill and pouring out its heart it is unemotional but can move a human, especially a poet, and inspire fresh language.

What I think the speaker means is that now the summer has almost passed there is no longer any need to sing, things are diminishing so why waste energy on a full-blown song? The season is changing and with it the song of the bird. I also think there is some subtle admiration for the bird's unique knowledge/instinct.

With Frost we know the bird represents something other than a bird—there is a parallel with the poet himself, having reached a certain stage in his own creativity, and asking the question of his own possible diminishment. And it's possible to take it a stage further and say that this process applies to all creative types?

This sonnet does not have a solid answer, there is no definite conclusion but only a question—what to make of a diminished thing—the bird's song an instinctive expression of being, the poet's words an uncertain and sensitive attempt to frame 'momentary stays against confusion.'


The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997


© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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