In ‘The Almond Tree’, Jon Stallworthy describes the birth of his son and his subsequent discovery that his son has Down’s Syndrome. The poet himself has called it his most autobiographical work and it is, therefore, an incredibly emotional poem. It is composed of seven sections, each containing within it a separate idea and following its own structural pattern. The prevailing image is that of the eponymous almond tree: a symbol of life and rebirth. You can find a link to the poem The Almond Tree here.
The Almond Tree Analysis
The first section is composed of two stanzas in free verse and describes the poet’s journey to the hospital where his son is being born. It is heavy with excitement and elation and the lights are “green as peppermints”, invoking a sense of luck and, together with the contrast of blood and “bright bone” in the second stanza, painting a colourful picture as he “summons summer”. In this section we see the first mention of trees, images of which will appear throughout the poem. Everything is vibrant with movement here: the “enchanted wood” bursts into life as he passes through, and this idea is continued in the second stanza which opens with the word “Swung”, as if the poem itself is reflecting his hasty journey. This is also reflected in the image of blood coursing through his veins like a river. Here, we are introduced to one of the principal themes: life and birth as Stallworthy is conscious of his blood and that of all of his ancestors, which is soon to be continued in that of his child. In addition, we have the first instance of out-of-body experience in this section, which will recur throughout the poem, as the poet sees himself as an “enchanted prince”.
The sensation of movement and speed intensifies in the second section, which the poet reminds us of in parenthesis. Again, everything is alive with motion, the tower and the bells cheering him on towards the first meeting with his child. He also gives us a location marker with the mention of Magdalen Bridge, found in his hometown of Oxford. This adds another, more personal level and erases any doubts we may have had about the autobiographical aspect of the poem. The pace quickens with the repetition of “Let it be a son” and once more the poet sees himself from the outside, this time in his reflection in the car mirror.
The third section ushers in our first glimpse of the almond tree. Its introduction, isolated in a brief, single-stanza section underlines its later importance. This, together with the repetition of “waving”, surrounds the tree with an air of calmness and stability in the midst of the hectic rush. We find an element of foreshadowing in the branches’ personification as “child’s hands”. At first glance, these could be seen as the hands of his newborn son; however, we will later discover that this reference to youth is actually an allusion to the poet himself, who has some growing up to do.
Stallworthy’s journey through the hospital is mirrored in the form of the beginning of the fourth section with its one-word lines, and the language used is also a reflection of the birthing process. The repeated use of the word “swung” suggests a continuation of the car journey, despite the breaks between the sections. Nevertheless, it is a different type of movement here; “shuddered”, “beat” and “wave after wave” echo the rhythms of labour, then abruptly end with the dash and the question of “whom?”. The position of “New” on a line of a single word highlights the instant changes that happen at the moment of a child’s birth, as man becomes father and two become three. The poet’s pure, unadulterated joy is shown through the sweet and simple comparison of his baby to a penny: such a tiny thing that can “enrich” their lives beyond measure. There is again a personal note in the ambiguous final image of the “white sheet”: a bed sheet at first glance, or maybe a sheet of paper for his “best poem”. The delight and anticipation of the first four sections is neatly sealed with the final exclamation point. However, things are about to change.
The change in tone in the fifth section is marked by the violent, surgical connotations of the words “scissored” and “slicing”. The poetic voice focuses on the doctor’s hand on his arm, and this closing in on his body allows us to receive the news with him: “your son is a mongol”. The bells from the second section have become alarm bells and with them excitement becomes panic and horror. We notice here that the new-born baby is a son – as he had so wished in the second section – however this news, which seemed so important earlier, is swallowed up in our realisation of the child’s disability.
Looking down from a thousand feet
I held four walls in the lens
of an eye; wall, window, the street
Interestingly, in the sixth section the rhyming scheme becomes a regular ABAB, as if Stallworthy is trying to impose some order on a situation over which he has absolutely no control. In the first stanza of this section the poet marvels at how words, so easily spoken and heard, can cause us to feel so much pain. Comparing the news to a bullet, he explains how part of him seems to die, triggering another out-of-body experience. He likens himself to a pilot after his plane explodes and this war imagery reminds us of Stallworthy’s work on the poetry of Wilfred Owen. We ascend with the poet as he feels himself to be incredibly distant from the situation, taking it in from above – until he sees the almond tree, beckoning him back down. The reappearance of the eponymous tree, symbol of rebirth, marks another change in the poet as he ends the sixth section as quite a different person, carrying the body of his former self to the car, under its tree.
my son sailed from me; never to come
ashore into my kingdom
speaking my language.
As if to further emphasise the change in the poet, the rhyming scheme also changes in the seventh section, to ABBA. In the first three stanzas of this section, Stallworthy quietly reflects on life, seen from his now forever-altered perspective. The hospital, earlier an exciting place where life is made, is now a ship where life is also changed, diminished and even lost forever. There is a calm tone at the poem’s end, balancing out the anticipation and horror of the earlier parts. In another nautical image, the poet comes to terms with the loss of the son he had imagined – but who never actually existed anyway.
At the end of the third stanza of the seventh section we have a turning point in the enjambment of “Better not / look that way”. The poet’s acceptance of the situation is personified in the image of the almond tree in bloom. The words “labour” and “blood” emphasise the tree’s connotations of birth, only this time it is the poet who is being born again.
In labor the tree was becoming
itself. I, too, rooted in earth
and ringed by darkness, from the death
of myself saw myself blossoming,
Here, Stallworthy highlights the formative aspect of the situation. The tree, although present throughout the poem, only became itself at the end. This is mirrored in the poet, who did not blossom until after he had been “broken”. He is grounded in the harsh reality of life, but still recognises the beauty within it. In the poem’s final stanza, the expression “fathered by my son” beautifully highlights the lesson he has learned and emphasises how in the end, despite all the pain in the world, love is what always triumphs and sets us free.
About Jon Stallworthy
Jon Stallworthy was born on 18 January 1935 in London to parents from New Zealand. He was a poet, literary critic and professor at the University of Oxford. Stallworthy started writing poetry at the age of seven and produced seven books of poetry, as well as biographies of Wilfred Owen and Louis MacNeice. He is particularly well-known for his work on war poetry and in 2010 he received the Wilfred Owen Poetry Award from the Wilfred Owen Association. He died on 19 November 2014.