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Analysis of Poem "The Trees," by Adrienne Rich

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

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

Summary of "The Trees"

"The Trees," by Adrienne Rich, is a short symbolic poem focusing on the movement of trees that are initially indoors but seeking to escape to freedom in the forest. The trees represent nature but also the nature of being—womanhood in particular.

What makes this poem unusual is the speaker's attitude towards the trees. In the first two stanzas there is a definite attachment as the speaker objectively describes the escape of the trees to their new environment.

In the last two stanzas the speaker, now a first-person "I," seems to want to ignore this profound shifting of the trees but paradoxically by mentioning her own aloofness brings the whole situation into sharper focus.

  • The use of simile is clear as the branches of the trees are seen like newly discharged patients heading for the clinic doors. This portrayal of the trees as people in need of medical help means the poem cannot be taken literally.
  • The poem then is an extended metaphor; the trees are indeed people, specifically females, females who are in need of healing or having been healed, are now ready for their true purpose, renewing the empty forest.

Written in 1963 and published in her book Necessities of Life, published in 1966, this poem appeared at an important point in Adrienne Rich's development as a poet and cultural figurehead.

In the same year, she moved to New York with her family and started to teach, as well as throw herself into political activism, particularly anti-war protests. Years later she became an ardent feminist and wrote many poems and essays reflecting her strong political views and ideas.

"The Trees" is influenced by Robert Frost's poem "Birches," yet it has its own distinct, quiet revolution going on.

"The Trees"

The trees inside are moving out into the forest,

the forest that was empty all these days

where no bird could sit

no insect hide

no sun bury its feet in shadow

the forest that was empty all these nights

will be full of trees by morning.

All night the roots work

to disengage themselves from the cracks

in the veranda floor.

The leaves strain toward the glass

small twigs stiff with exertion

long-cramped boughs shuffling under the roof

like newly discharged patients

half-dazed, moving

to the clinic doors.

I sit inside, doors open to the veranda

writing long letters

in which I scarcely mention the departure

of the forest from the house.

The night is fresh, the whole moon shines

in a sky still open

the smell of leaves and lichen

still reaches like a voice into the rooms.

My head is full of whispers

which tomorrow will be silent.

Listen. The glass is breaking.

The trees are stumbling forward

into the night. Winds rush to meet them.

The moon is broken like a mirror,

its pieces flash now in the crown

of the tallest oak.

Poem Analysis

"The Trees" is a curious poem that demands several read-throughs before the reader can fully grasp what is happening with both form and content. The varying line length, unusual syntax and powerful imagery needs careful handling.

Although enjambment is used throughout to convey a sense of flow and maintain sense, there are certain lines that cause hesitation for the reader because of the need for a natural break or pause (caesura). This adds to a feeling of slight unease which enhances the idea that this movement of trees is anything but natural.

Since when have trees moved of their own accord? Only in fairy tales, only in the imagination. But here they are, breaking out of their interior, be it house, conservatory, greenhouse, or covered veranda. They're shifting away from domestic confines and out into the forest. This is a highly significant change.

  • Why so significant? Well, trees normally make up the forest but until now it's been empty - for many days and nights. This is symbolic of certain types of people being left in the dark for too long not knowing their true identities and where they belong.
  • Knowing the poet's feminist leanings and yearnings it is safe to suggest that the forest is the forest of womanhood.
  • The new forest will take shape very quickly, overnight says the speaker, pointing towards a sort of sea change in identity, a collective identity.

All of this action is taking place at night—the change is profound, of roots and all, the whole tree—note the imagery and sense of physical movement in the second stanza:


An extra clue in line 14 gives the reader more clarity, that simile like newly discharged patients surely suggesting that the trees were sick or unhappy, in need of medical help and healing, but now they're healed and free to go and live their lives.

The third stanza introduces the speaker, in the first person. Here is a woman, the reader must presume, writing long letters (to whom?) and remaining aloof from all this tree action. She doesn't bother to mention the quiet revolution, or rather, she scarcely mentions it—which means she does acknowledge it but isn't that surprised by it?

She has seen it coming perhaps, she has known for quite some time that the trees would one day break out. As this exodus takes place she can still smell the remains of the trees—like a voice—that turns into whispers in her own head? The whispers are the last messages of her old life, soon to be renewed.

In the final stanza the speaker exhorts the reader to listen. She wants attention. Glass is breaking, a sure sign that this change is serious and permanent; there may be damage done.

Then the imagery completely takes over, the poem becoming cinematic as the moon, that symbol of femininity, emotion and physical change, breaks like a mirror (another symbol of the reflected former self) the fragmented image lighting up the tallest tree, an oak, the strongest, most durable of trees.

Literary and Poetic Devices

"The Trees" is a free verse poem of four stanzas, making a total of 32 lines. There is no set rhyme scheme and no regular metric beat pattern—each line is different rhythmically—and the lines vary from short to long.

The poem begins with a description of the actions of the trees as they start to move out at night. This is quite an objective view of the scene, the first two stanzas going into lots of objective detail.

  • Repetition (anaphora) occurs in the first stanza (the forest that was empty), reinforcing the idea that previously there was no life outside. Take note also of: where no bird/no insect/no sun.
  • Similes, in the second, third and final stanzas, involve both human and domestic elements: like newly discharged patients/like a voice/like a mirror.
  • Personification is to be found in the first stanza (no sun bury its feet in shadow), the second stanza (small twigs stiff with exertion/long-cramped boughs shuffling) and the fourth stanza (The trees are stumbling forward).


Syntax is the way the sentences, clauses and grammar work together and in this poem there is an uncertainty as the poem progresses.

Some lines end without punctuation, but no true enjambment is in evidence (lines 2, 3, 4 and 5 for example) suggesting the reader is free to carry on regardless or, treat the line ending as a natural caesura (pause).

The first stanza for example is a single sentence with just one comma at the end of the first line and a full stop at the end of the seventh. In between is chaos, a quite deliberate ploy by the poet to instill a free if disturbing flow line to line.

The second stanza is two complete sentences, one short, the other long. The first three lines use enjambment (sense is continued on into the next line) but the next several are a mix and require the reader to affirm a natural caesura (pause) between lines 4/5 and 6/7.

The third stanza is made up of three sentences and is the only stanza with the true personal voice of the speaker.

Finally, the fourth stanza urges the reader to listen as the trees break out of their prison. Five sentences of varying length are contained, which means more pausing for the reader, increasing the drama.


  • The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Andrew Spacey