‘The Forest’ by Susan Stewart, well-known for its complexity and compressed meaning, is a thought-provoking poem about memory and existence.
While the poem often reaches deep into metaphors and metaphysics, it concisely introduces a new way of thinking about reality and the importance of memories.
Explore The Forest
‘The Forest’ by Susan Stewart is about how memories can give new life to things that no longer exist.
‘The Forest’ opens as the unnamed speaker suggests that the listener lie down and try remembering what it’s like to be in a forest. The speaker indicates that the forest is actively disappearing from the physical world. However, remembering it will offer it some sort of life.
Even though the memory of the place may make the listener feel like they are standing in a forest, the real forest is already gone. Time has changed it, even if your memories of it create a static image of an unchanging place.
Still, the speaker acknowledges that one’s memories of a place can change over time, shifting like the sea. However, even if the memory changes, that doesn’t make it any less real.
The speaker enters the memory of a forest where light and shadows create tension and conflict. The song of birds, the smell of moss, the appearance of tangled vines, the sight of mushrooms, and the movement of a swinging branch create a very vivid sensory image of the place the speaker remembers.
The speaker states that she grew up in this forest, revealing that she is taking the listener back in time to a very personal place.
As she describes the almost static image of the forest, the speaker highlights the brightness and darkness within the scene.
Eventually, she states that her memory is one of being lost in the forest with another person. Although the actual forest is gone, she still remembers the place and the time she spent there. Additionally, now that this poem exists, the forest gets to “live a life” beyond the speaker’s memory.
The two most prominent themes in ‘The Forest’ by Susan Stewart are nature and memory. Other themes such as death, truth, and reality accompany these main themes as the speaker attempts to indicate that a memory of something can be as real as a physical, tangible place.
Stewart invites the listener to remember a forest — any forest — in this poem, coaching the listener along the path to memory like a guided meditation guru. As the speaker encourages the listener to remember the small details of walking through a forest, she begins to question the reality of memory.
To the speaker, there is no way to half-exist. Something either exists or doesn’t. Thus, a memory is a real place, even if it is not as vibrant or lively as “you had hoped for.” From the speaker’s perspective, memory, no matter how biased or changing it can be, is the only way for things to exist beyond time.
The speaker’s complex and metaphorical investigation into the reality of memory brings up ideas of death, as she proposes that remembering something offers “a life,” even if the life is something you can make up in your head.
So, for example, if you have a piece of paper and burn it, the piece of paper ceases to exist. However, as long as you remember that piece of paper, you have a sort of copy of it stored in your brain. This copy is an alternate reality. Even if it’s just a memorized copy of the real, physical piece of paper, without your memory of it, the piece of paper would never have mattered at all, and it may as well have never existed.
Form and Structure
‘The Forest’ has a very unusual structure. The poem consists of 55 lines organized into cinquains, or stanzas of five lines. While this poem has very little rhyme, repetition is very common.
This poem borrows elements from poetic forms like villanelles and pantoums, but it still breaks the rules of form quite a bit. The poet repeats the first and third lines of the first stanza in the second and fourth lines of the next stanza. This pattern continues as each line cycles from first to second or third to fourth, then disappears.
The fifth line of each stanza is free from this pattern, existing outside the repetition. For this reason, the fifth line of each stanza will essentially ‘break the cycle’ of the themes in the poem and make a pointed inference about them. Pay attention to the meaning of those fifth lines!
Additionally, the poet does not use plain repetition in every case. Sometimes, she changes punctuation, moves around a word or two, or adds words to certain lines when she repeats them. These slight changes will alter the line’s meaning, indicating a natural progression.
The length of each line does not have any pattern or rhyme. However, the listener can see that each stanza gradually grows in size, as if building off the number of words in the previous stanza. This accumulation of more and more words builds tension and complexity, keeping the listener hooked to the page.
‘The Forest’ by Susan Stewart is a poem that demands to be read and reread as the listener searches for hidden meaning.
The meaning of ‘The Forest’ by Susan Stewart is that memories can give life to things that no longer exist. While these memories are static, biased, and hazy compared to reality, in some cases, they are all that we have left of a past experience.
This poem opens as the speaker coaxes the listener into following her into memory. Then, she describes the nature of this recollection using many repetitive statements, almost as if guiding the listener through a mindfulness meditation.
In doing so, she slowly creates a scene from her own childhood, sharing her perspective with the listener. However, this scene is from the speaker’s childhood, and it seems that the forest she describes no longer exists. The only way she can go back to it now is through memory.
You should lie down now and remember the forest,
for it is disappearing–
no, the truth is it is gone now
and so what details you can bring back
might have a kind of life.
‘The Forest’ opens with a brief stanza of five lines, introducing the poem’s subject.
The speaker seems to focus their attention on the listener as they suggest, “You should lie down and remember the forest.” Thus, the speaker, likely the poet, is writing this poem just for us.
In this stanza, the speaker wants us to recall the image of a forest in our minds. Though it is already “disappearing,” this forest has a chance of living on in our memory.
This stanza implies that the poet plans to discuss the themes of nature, memory, mortality, and truth.
Additionally, the word “details” indicates that the meaning of this poem is hidden in the details. So, to extract the most meaning, the listener should pay attention to the most minor changes in punctuation, repetitions, and sounds within each stanza.
Not the one you had hoped for, but a life
starting somewhere near the beginning, that edge,
In stanza two, the speaker uses repetition to describe the forest she wants us to remember.
The first line of this stanza recalls line five of the poem, “might have a kind of life.” This life, once remembered, is “not the one” we would hope for. It is not a real-life, but an imagined one.
The speaker next repeats her suggestion to “lie down now and remember,’ emphasizing its importance. However, in this stanza, the line has two hyphens at the beginning and end, creating an aside, or pause in the poem’s progression.
Still, the poet continues in line three as she probes at the reality of memory. While one can go “in the forest” in their mind, the imaginary woods won’t actually be real. The speaker further states that “no the truth is, it is gone now,” repeating line three from the first stanza.
This stanza makes it clear that the speaker wants to question the reality of an imagined forest. She is diving deep into the subconscious, compelling the listener to imagine a place that no longer exists. However, in doing so, she also wants the listener to question whether the imaginary forest is real just because it’s a memory.
This memory starts “somewhere near the beginning.” This beginning is inside your mind, where creative thought and memory originate. Thus, it seems the speaker believes that a memory is the creation of a new place altogether.
The final line has no end stop as the speaker uses enjambment to transition into stanza three.
Or instead the first layer, the place you remember
which we can never drift above, we were there or we were not,
In stanza three of ‘The Forest,’ the speaker continues from the enjambment in the second stanza, still questioning the reality of the listener’s memory.
Memory seems to make up “the first layer” of the already disappearing forest. This cryptic statement implies that one’s memory of something is its foundation. Essentially, since the forest is already fading away, one’s memory of it may be all that is left of the original woods.
Without memory, it would be as though the original forest, in all its grandeur, never existed. But even then, the speaker wants you to question whether your memory is reliable.
Though your memory may seem “as if it were firm, underfoot,” it is actually as fluid, changing, and unreliable as the “sea.” No matter how real the memory may seem, we “can never drift above” our recollection — or escape from the inherent bias and fading of our memories.
From the listener’s perspective, “we were there or were not,” regardless of how hazy or inaccurate the memory is. We can either remember it, or we were never there.
Thus, if something has died or disappeared and we cannot remember it, we may as well have never been there. That place or thing ceases to exist once we forget it.
No surface, skimming. And blank in life, too,
like a light left hand descending, always on the same keys.
Stanza four of ‘The Forest’ picks upon the enjambment from stanza three as the speaker continues “folding” meaning into the listener’s memory of a generic forest.
This stanza continues the metaphor of the ocean as a symbol of memory. The speaker stresses that there is no way to half-remember something, just as there is “no surface, skimming” on the ocean of our minds. You can’t be half in the water and half out of it when remembering something. You are either fully submerged or never went into the water in the first place.
Here, the speaker denies that there is a liminal space between reality and memory. There’s no transition, mid-point, or barrier. You either remember, or you don’t.
However, the speaker still acknowledges that memories can change over time. Bias, emotions, and forgetfulness accumulate like “black humus” on top of the forest floor. These things add complexity to the memory of the place and bring it back to life, making it seem even more real.
Still, this memory is static, as one is limited by their own memories. Because the memory cannot change in scope, it is like a “left hand descending, always on the same keys.” It is a place where nothing progresses, even if it is real. It is like a single chord on the piano, played over and over again, unable to develop into a full melody.
The flecked birds of the forest sing behind and before
where wide swatches of light slice between gray trunks,
Stanza five of ‘The Forest’ develops the sensory appeal of the speaker’s memory of a forest. In this stanza, it seems that the speaker is sleeping away into the memory, allowing herself to become folded up into the dark forest floor.
The speaker describes how constrained her remembrance is here, using musical imagery to indicate that her memory of the forest only lasts for a few seconds.
While the “flecked birds of the forest sing” in this memory, their song is limited by what she can recall. Without real-life experience, the memory lacks “order,” as the birds cannot finish their songs.
It also seems that the memory has become darker over time, just as the dark, rich soil folds in “layers.” Only small “swatches of light” seep through the canopy, further stressing that the memory is limited to the speaker’s perspective and her ability to recall what the forest was actually like.
Where the air has a texture of drying moss,
though high in the dry leaves something does fall,
In stanza six of ‘The Forest,’ the speaker begins to describe the smell of the forest, allowing herself to relive her memory through her five senses fully. The birds still echo, just as the speaker repeats herself repeatedly, and the textured mushrooms send a musky smell into the air.
Though the scene becomes more vivid, the speaker states that “high in the dry leaves something does fall,” creating an enjambment that builds anticipation. What falls? Let’s see.
Nothing comes down to us here.
tangled with brambles, soft-starred and moving, ferns
The “something” that falls in stanza six is actually “Nothing,” indicating that the speaker cannot see or remember the object that fell in the forest.
Note that the speaker has switched from using “you” pronouns to “us” pronouns in this stanza. Here, the speaker attempts to illustrate a scene where she and the listener are standing side by side. It’s as if she is pulling us into one of her own memories.
This concept of a shared memory adds further complexity to the poem. By incorporating the listener into one of her own personal recollections, the speaker is giving “a life” to the imaginary forest. She is allowing us to remember this poem, which, in turn, preserves the memory of the speaker’s forest scene.
While this memory is static, hazy, and incomplete, according to the earlier logic of the poem, this memory is becoming a real place thanks to the poem. Without the poem, this place would simply fade away, no longer able to exist if no one remembers it.
And the marred twines of cinquefoil, false strawberry, sumac–
and a cave just the width of shoulder blades.
The speaker recalls some of the plants and natural features of the forest in stanza eight of ‘The Forest.’ Though she recalls the “marred twines of cinquefoil” and other common plants, the speaker cannot reach out and grab these things, as she is simply remembering the scene.
In this, the speaker is limited to reliving the things she did in this forest long ago. She cannot rewrite a memory, even if it’s a recollection of a real place.
While the memory of the forest has been relatively pleasant until now, things take a darker turn as the speaker describes the scene as “stained.” The stain here is likely the foggy haze associated with forgetting some of the details but combined with the marred and tangled stems and vines of the plants, and it becomes more and more of a creepy location.
The speaker next recalls a “low branch swinging above a brook, / in that place where I was raised.” Here, it finally becomes clear where we are. We are in the speaker’s memory of a place, deep in the forest, where she likely spent time as a child.
The scene continues to grow darker as she remembers the entrance of a cave, “just the width of shoulder blades.”
Note here that the speaker uses the term “blades,” which creates a sharp image set against the narrow cleft of the cave. The darkness of this cave feels ominous, almost as if there was something hidden in there.
But — we are only here with the speaker as our ‘tour guide.’ We are denied entrance to the cave, as the speaker did not go in there in her memory.
You can understand what I am doing when I think of the entry–
in a place that is something like a forest.
In stanza nine of ‘The Forest,’ the speaker explains that the landscape of the forest in her memory is tangled and twined, which keeps her out of the cave. One can’t help but feel like the speaker is holding something back — perhaps a past trauma.
Still, the speaker makes two addresses to her audience. In stating, “You can understand what I am doing when I think of the entry–,” the poet intentionally calls attention to the mystery of the cave and the increasingly creepy atmosphere of the forest. She wants us to figure out exactly why the forest memory is becoming so dark.
However, the listener can only guess at this point. It seems plausible that the cave entry is “ just the width of shoulder blades” because it’s so small that only children can enter. Under this assumption, the cave may have been a hiding spot where the speaker would go as a child. There, she could escape from adults.
The cave may also be an allegory to Plato’s famous cave, where the speaker could escape from the real world and slip into an imaginary one. This interpretation makes sense considering the poem’s fascination with reality, perspective, and imagination.
Still, things stay dark and “stained,” this time with the blood-colored tint of pokeberries.
In the last line of stanza nine, the speaker reasserts that this forest is a mere memory, not a real forest. Thus, we can understand that the stain she refers to is the bias, judgment, and haze that has accumulated in this memory over the years.
But perhaps the other kind, where the ground is covered
And quickening below lie the sharp brown blades,
In stanza ten, the speaker seems to lose track of her memory, shifting into “the other kind” of memory. She directs us into a different forest, this time an evergreen pine forest. There is far less diversity here, as it just appears to be a sea of “pliant green needles” with no bird song or cave. This time, the “kind of limit” is not brambles or vines but, instead, the “sharp brown blades” on the forest floor.
The speaker repeats herself again, indicating that she imagines walking with her addressee there, just as she imagines walking with them in the much lusher, more diverse forest.
The disfiguring blackness, then the bulbed phosphorescence of the roots.
But perhaps the other kind, where the ground is covered,
so strangely alike and yet singular, too, below
the pliant green needles, the piney fronds.
Once we were lost in the forest, so strangely alike and yet singular, too,
but the truth is, it is, lost to us now.
Stanza eleven turns to complete eeriness as the speaker describes the pine forest. “Disfiguring blackness” makes the scene night-like as strange shapes and forms creep through the shadows. The glowing roots, likely cast over by moonlight, are “bulbed,” and while they all look alike, each one is unique — just as each memory is unique in its details.
The speaker next creates an atmosphere of intimacy with her addressee, explaining that “Once we were lost in the forest.” Like the bulbed roots, they were very alike, but they each had their own perspective of the forest. Each memory, thus, is specific to each person, even if two people remember the same experience.
This implication finally clarifies why the forest memory had so many eerie undertones and bright, beautiful overtones. The poet seems to be suggesting that perception is a choice — one can choose to see the darkness or the brightness of a situation. It ultimately won’t matter. The memory will still be of that one real place, frozen in time.
The final line of the poem recalls line three of stanza one, “no, the truth is it is gone now. “ This use of repetition creates a cycle, just as the repetition has indicated a cyclical return to memory throughout the poem. However, with this final line, it becomes clear that the speaker is obsessed with remembering the forest, often trapped in the thoughts of what happened there.
‘The Forest‘ by Susan Stewart is a free verse poem, but it mimics repetitive-line forms such as pantoums and villanelles. This use of original, inventive form allows Stewart to introduce new lines as she wishes while also emphasizing the recurring, repetitive nature of memory and past experiences.
Susan Stewart published ‘The Forest‘ as the titular poem in her 1995 poetry collection, The Forest. The collection, as a whole, is about the power of the unconscious mind and memories to affect our perception of reality. This poem, then, marks the beginning of Stewart’s exploration into the meaning of the past.
The forest in ‘The Forest‘ by Susan Stewart symbolizes memory and its meaning. The poet’s recollection of a forest from her childhood helps her indicate that memories are, sometimes, the only way for us to revisit places that we have been before. Additionally, it helps stress that, as we get older, we cannot experience the world the same way we did when we were young.
‘The Forest‘ by Susan Stewart is about how memories of the past can affect human beings in their everyday lives. By emphasizing the power of memories from childhood in a wild, natural landscape, Stewart touches on the theme of innocence and how, once we are older, we cannot always reclaim that innocence or truly relive it.
Stewart is a celebrated poet, talented educator, translator, and folklorist. Her works, while inspired by traditional poetic forms and subjects, are wholly original as she plays with form, structure, diction, repetition, and themes.
Some poems similar to ‘The Forest’ include:
- ‘In drear-nighted December’ by John Keats – a Romantic poem that describes the way memories of happier and warmer times impact one’s emotions in the coldest hours of December
- ‘Consolidation’ by Jean Bleakney – a poem about a mother’s memory of gathering cowrie shells from the shore with her children.
- ‘The Waking’ by Theodore Roethke – a villanelle about the blurry boundaries between dreaming and reality