The speaker observes a bird whose call signifies a change in the seasons. By heralding these changes the bird notes the passage of time, so ultimately this poem is about our progression towards death. Through his medium of the bird, the speaker considers his role as a poet, which is to reveal and thus confront the truth, however unpleasant this may be at times. You can read the whole poem and more commentary here. ‘The Oven Bird’ appears in his anthology Mountain Interval which was published in 1916.
Explore The Oven Bird
Structure and Form
The poem is a non-traditional sonnet, fitting neither the Shakespearean or Petrarchan forms. Its rhyme scale follows an unusual pattern, AABC BDDE EAFAF. The rhythm is mostly iambic pentameter but there are occasional trochees and spondees for effect.
The tone of the poem is somber, reflective, and melancholic.
Nature, life and death, and the nature of writing poetry.
Analysis of The Oven Bird
Frost was known for writing in a familiar and conversational style, and this sonnet opens in such a way, as though he is addressing us in person. The speaker makes the assumption that we have all heard the sound of the oven bird, which of course may not be the case, and this thus intrigues us to read on. There is a jolt at the word ‘Loud’, as though he is emphasizing the importance of what the bird has to say. He describes the bird as ‘a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird’; descriptions that get the reader wondering. We know what he means by mid-summer but the second compound adjective is puzzling. The roll of ‘r’ sounds in ‘mid-wood bird’ also makes us read the sentence slowly and think about what it may mean.
There are several unusual elements to this poem. The bird is described as a ‘singer’ in the first line, but later Frost repeats ‘He says…’ three times, almost as if the bird some kind of oracle. It is as though he imbues the bird with a sense of knowledge, a keeper of life’s mysteries. The bird’s call is distinctive and loud since he ‘makes the solid tree trunks sound again.’ The assonance and alliteration employed here give this line a reverberating quality that could perhaps echo the sound of the bird.
Usually, when we think of birdsong we think of a pleasant melodic sound that uplifts and relaxes us. This particular bird call does not elicit this response, insofar as the poet seems to find it disconcerting. Another name for the oven bird is the ‘teacher bird’ since its call resembles the word ‘teacher’ with the emphasis on the first syllable. There is a sense of irony here as it seems as though this bird has been sent to make us think about our lives and the passage of time. There is some debate as to whom the bird is supposed to represent. Some argue that it is Frost himself, urging us to face uncomfortable truths. Others suggest that the bird with its repetitive, hectoring call, is Frost poking fun at other famous poets of his day, for whom he had little respect.
One could draw parallels between Frost and the bird. Frost created new sounds and rhythms in his poetry and broke free of traditional conventions. His use of conversational tone and colloquialisms was modern and daring: so perhaps like the bird, he is willing to say what others will not.
In the fourth line of ‘The Oven Bird’ we see how intimately the bird knows the seasons and here comes the first indication that the best has passed since ‘the leaves are old’. The life and vitality of spring have long since disappeared and by mid-summer decay is now in full-sight. Already the ‘early petal-fall’ has taken place so the demise is inevitable.
The imagery of the falling leaves in line six ‘When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers’ is still very beautiful, and could be the poet trying to inject the otherwise gloomy poem with a little gaiety.
Frost uses the weather as a metaphor for death in line seven when he states: ‘On sunny days a moment overcast;’ which suggests that always, in the back of our minds is the knowledge that one day we will die. And this bird, with its plain-speaking song, knows this and reminds us of this fact.
If Frost was hinting about death before, by line nine he seems to confront it directly:
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
We move away from the fall as a season and on to loftier ruminations on life, namely the fall in the Biblical sense which refers to Adam and Eve’s transgression in the garden of Eden, and their ensuing loss of innocence. This thus refers to sin and death. Another bleak image follows in the next line, with reference to ‘highway dust’ which is ‘over all’. The fact that this is a rhyming couplet seems to me to make the image bleaker still. The dust is everywhere, settling over the beauty of nature, as inescapable as death.
We seem to return to the notion of the bird being omniscient in lines eleven and twelve:
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
This bird stands out from the others; just as Frost is unlike other poets of the day.
The final lines sum up what the poem is leading towards. As we get older, the speaker suggests that we get ‘past our best’. As creative types, is our best work always behind us, or on a purely human level, as our bodies and minds fail us, how will we cope as a ‘diminished thing.’ As I said above, it isn’t the chirpiest of poems (pardon the bird pun).
Essentially, this poem is about dealing with the knowledge that death comes to us all. Life passes quickly and soon we will all be past our prime and be forced to contemplate our mortality. The poem leaves us wondering about our place in the world and how we shall move between these phases.
About Robert Frost
Robert Frost (1874-1963) was one of America’s most loved and most prolific poets and was the recipient of four Pulitzer Prizes. Although he was born on the West Coast of America he moved to Massachusetts in his teens after the death of his father. He drew much of his inspiration for his poetry from the landscape and its people. In his personal life, Frost suffered the loss of two children and his wife Elinor within the space of six years. In his later works, he wrote about the impact of these tragedies in his life.