Analysis of Poem "The Oven Bird" by Robert Frost

Updated on March 2, 2019
chef-de-jour profile image

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 | Source

Robert Frost and a 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 with 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 a response to an earlier poem by one 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 (metre in UK) 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.

  • 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 in 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 re 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


Submit a Comment
  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    15 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    A valid interpretation of Frost's Oven Bird lines 12-13, which are never quite as straightforward as some would like.

  • profile image


    15 months ago

    Dear Mr. Spacey:

    Beautiful reading of a beautiful poem, thank you.

    About the crucial lines, lines 12-13:

    The bird would cease and be as other birds

    But that he knows in singing not to sing.

    ... I think also that what the poet is saying is that he himself is a poet despite himself, despite the pain of his own awareness ... of diminishment and mortality and a fallen post-Edenic world, unlike the ordinary person (or bird) who lives on the surface of things and can pretend otherwise. He "sings," he creates, not out of simple bodily joy and feeling (like the earlier sentimental poem you refer to), but out of something more complex ... and so his singing is not quite a song, it is always in part a dirge. -- hii


This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

Show Details
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)