The Bear by Susan Mitchell explores the journey of a bear to hibernation, moving sleepily through the forest. The poem focuses on the beauty of nature, many elements blending together as one. Mitchell creates an endearing tone, the reader following the path of the bear. The Bear explores the need for hibernation, the ‘salmon in the ice’ reflecting the lack of current food sources. Winter is omnipresent in the poem, spanning over the three stanzas with delicate care.
Explore The Bear
Summary of The Bear
Mitchell’s bear interacts with trees, eating apples, while looking for a home. The first stanza focuses on the bear eating apples, collecting them off the orchard trees. The second stanza focuses on the tracks that the lumbering animal has left. Mitchell examines the bear’s tracks, the knocked over ‘trash cans’ showing the direction it stumbled. Finally, the third stanza focuses on the animal finding someone to hibernate. The final line introduces the need for hibernation, the moon trapped reflecting the salmon trapped in ice.
You can read the full poem The Bear here.
Form and Structure
Susan Mitchell splits the poem into three stanzas of unequal lengths. The first and third stanzas measure 12 lines, while the second measures 10. There is no rhyme scheme within the poem. Yet, the poet creates a sense of cohesion through the use of enjambment and caesura. The poem flows gracefully, reflecting the path of the animal.
The unequal stanza lengths could represent the meandering journey of the animal. While the bear’s final direction is certain, heading for hibernation, the journey to get there is not. The bear sways on their journey, represented through the altered central paragraph. The journey is not straightforward, the bear finding the perfect place to rest.
Themes in The Bear
The main theme that Mitchell explores in the poem is the beauty of nature. From the snowy descriptions of the forest, to the bear itself, Mitchell embellishes a sense of natural beauty. Everything in nature is connected, the apples, the bear, the tree, and the moon all blending together. This harmonious connection is something Mitchell admires, using a reverent tone throughout the poem.
Another theme that Mitchell touches upon within The Bear is winter and the seasons. Winter occupies the setting of the poem, providing a snowy backdrop for the journey of the animal. Moreover, the need to hibernate is a direct response to the season. The animal must sleep through winter before it can reemerge for the springtime season.
One technique that Mitchell employs liberally in The Bear is enjambement. Enjambment allows one line to flow quickly into the next. This create a sense of speed and connection. This speed could be emblematic of the bear’s movements, plodding through the poem. The sweeping between lines reflects the lumbering movements of the bear. The sweeping wines also reflect how comfortable the bear is within the orchard, knowing this place well. There is no mistake, the animal simply comes and goes with ease.
Another technique that Mitchell uses is caesura, having the opposite impact of enjambment. Caesura creates a slight pause in the line, placing metrical emphasis on the words that surround the technique. Mitchell uses caesura when discussing how the bear emerges into the human world. It bangs against ‘trash cans’, the use of caesura in the follow line implying a disturbance. Both metrically and in the context of the sentence, the animal bumps against the bins, implied through the slight break in meter due to caesura.
The Bear Analysis
Tonight the bear(…)heavy, lumbering—is clear as wind.
The poem begins with a time, ‘Tonight’ bathing the scene in certain darkness. Yet, as we know by the end of the poem, there is also a large hanging ‘moon’. The scene is therefore glittering in the moonlight, the bear making its way to hibernate. The use of enjambment at the end of the first line instantly allows the poem to flow onward. This directly reflects the movements of the bear, it ‘comes to the orchard’.
The bear’s movements are delicate, ‘balancing’ as it ‘dances’ under the ‘apple trees’. This image is beautiful, the almost comic bear shaking the tree to get at the apples.
Yet, after Mitchell decides to ‘Look again’, she realizes the animal is not actually there. It is only an ‘afterimage of her’, the bear now long gone. The caesura after ‘Look again’ suggests a momentary pause, emblematic of the action of scanning the garden in search of the animal. Mitchell wants to see the animal, but only sees the remnants of its feast.
The bear is long gone.(…)but always coming out again.
As partly discovered in the first stanza, ‘The bear is long gone’. Mitchell suggests that it must have been ‘drunk on apples’, stumbling through the world. As she went, ‘she banged over the trash cans’, the clumsy animal making its long way home. The second verb included to describe the bear’s movements, ‘skidded’, furthers the sense of disorientation. Perhaps the animal is not used to the human world, passing through to reach ‘a forest’.
The use of two short sentences, ‘Unless she is choosy./ I imagine her as very choosy’ shows the poet’s attachment to the bear. She is invested in the bear’s story, wanting it to reach home. From this, the poet has developed a personality for the animal. This is first apparent in the gendering of the bear, the personal pronoun ‘she’ used throughout. Mitchell reaffirms this through the characterization of the bear as ‘choosy’, giving it a personality.
Mitchell uses asyndeton to present the process of finding a perfect log. The animal is ‘choosy’, ‘sniffing…pawing…trying’ to find a place to sleep. Thee asyndetic list creates a sense of endlessness, the animal being careful with her choice of home.
Until tonight.(…)trapped like a salmon in the ice.
The third stanza begins with a short sentence, ‘Until tonight’, signaling a sudden change. The use of caesura places emphasis on this phrase, Mitchell outlining a shift in tone. The animal has found somewhere to sleep, now settling down for her hibernation. Already the animal has grown tired, ‘as she walks she dozes’, falling asleep as she does.
There is a slight reference to deforestation, the animal knowing it must go further than humans will destroy. Indeed, the bear is alert in listening for the ‘sound of axes chopping wood’. Mitchell knows the damage humanity is doing to the natural world.
The final two lines present the reason for the bear’s slumber. Indeed, the ‘moon’ is ‘trapped like a salmon in the ice’. This image is cleverly constructed, both displaying the bear’s primary food source ‘salmon’, and incorporating that into a metaphor. Winter has frozen the streams, meaning there is no food for the bears. This is mirrored in the slumbering moon, the winter having frozen it solid. Winter is at its peak, the animal must rest.
Similar Poetry to The Bear
Rita Reed’s Snow Vision paints a wintery scene, alike Mitchell’s in The Bear. Reed’s poem focuses on a lone tree that is buffeted by winter winds. Both poets focus on an element of nature within a wintery scene, revealing the brilliance of nature.
Rudyard Kipling’s The Power of Dog similarly explores the brilliance of nature. Yet, Kipling focuses on an alternative perspective. While Mitchell ponders over the bear’s journey, Kipling writes from the experience of the dog. Kipling writes how much love dogs hold for their owners. Regardless of dog or bear, both poets write tributes to the beauty of nature.