The Trees by Philip Larkin is a three-stanza poem with an ABBA rhyme scheme and a confused tone that shifts through a series of ideas from the poem’s beginning to its end. While it is grounded in the notions of nature and the life of “trees,” reactions to the given observations are numerous, and Larkin does not hesitate to take the reader on his journey through each of those reactions. What the reader can find at the core of that exploration, though, is something deeper than just nature. On that deeper level, this poem is a commentary on life. Specifically, the examination of nature’s details highlights a number of unknowns that mirror the uncertainties in life and the human inability to change the most concrete of natural happenings. You can listen to and read the poem here.
The Trees Analysis
In this first stanza, Larkin immediately grounds the reader in the focal symbols of the work, which are “[t]he trees,” and the stanza remains locked on this subject. Initially, the topic is addressed in a pleasant manner with visions of spring when “trees are coming to leaf,” and the beauty of that scenario is key through Line 3 of this section. Larkin does a wonderful job of detailing some of the most notable sensations of the approach of spring that make the seasonal turn something to revel in and enjoy. After a winter of empty branches, for instance, seeing new “lea[ves]” can spark a sense of eagerness, like awaiting a comment that is being postponed, or “something [that is] almost…said.” Just as you might sit on the edge of your seat, waiting to hear a statement that is delayed but important, you can just as eagerly await the coming of new life in the spring.
The third line continues with this pleasant representation of spring’s approach by referring to the process of plants growing as their “recent buds relax[ing].” This verb choices brings a sense of ease to their development, as if they are carefree and ready to embrace the new life before them.
In the fourth line, however, the tone takes a dark turn by labelling this light, beautiful process as “a kind of grief.” The claim feels like an odd paradox, given how lively and anticipated the process is noted to be in the previous lines, especially since Larkin is referring to their life—“[t]heir greenness”—not as a reason for that “grief,” but as the “grief” itself. This is an effective approach to leave the reader curious as they go into the second stanza, regarding how Larkin could label new life as a noun so connected with death and loss.
Although the first stanza is seemingly constructed to leave the reader curious for an answer concerning the newness of spring being labelled as “grief,” Larkin does not answer this question right away. Rather, he dives into a new question: whether or not these plants get “born again” while “we grow old.” The “we,” though he does not specify, is referring to humans since there is no incentive to believe that he is speaking through any kind of metaphor, linking the overall idea to a human lifespan.
This general question, that plants are revived while we pass on, could feasibly be seen as the reason for the “grief” from the previous stanza. If a human had to witness something that was borderline immortal, after all, their own mortality would feel like a hardship. However, given that Larkin denounces the possibility before the end of the second line—“No, they die too”—the notion is unlikely. There is no reason to feel grief over the scenario if the plants are in no better shape than humans concerning the course of life. With that understanding solidly in mind, the question sparked in the first stanza continues through the second one without a definite answer, and the reader must find purpose in this stanza elsewhere.
Fortunately, once the notion of plants not having too strong of an edge on human life is set in stone, Larkin wastes no time in returning to his explorative notions. In doing so, he notes that despite the ever-reaching feel of a tree’s lifetime, evidence exists within trees to prove that they have, in fact, aged. While saying that their age can be noted in “rings,” though, he takes an accusatory approach of essentially saying trees are behaving in a deceitful way, that their recurring state is a “yearly trick” that is undermined through investigation of the “grain” of the trees.
Without question, a tree’s age can be noted by examining its rings, but Larkin’s method of delivering these details is quite aggressive, as if he is criticizing the tree for hiding its secrets. While one could argue that this frustration with the trees’ misrepresentation—looking youthful year after year—is the reason for the aforementioned “grief,” the notion falls short since Larkin does not seem to mourn the fact that trees can continue to appear healthy and vibrant. Instead, he just seems cynical about their ability to hide the truth of their years.
In the end, this stanza offers little insight about why the “grief” is there, but it adjusts the tone from thoughtful to irritable. This frustration over the unknown can be a mirrored representation of a human frustrated with not being able to understand the deeper meaning and practices of their own life, once more returning to the idea that the poem is using nature as a way to elaborate on life itself.
This final stanza turns the tone from irritation to complimentary when Larkin refers to the trees as “unresting castles.” As “castles” have a connotation of being strongholds and fortresses, the comparison denotes a solidness and strength that comes with little to no condescension, particularly when paired with “unresting.” If the trees do not pause for respite, their ongoing labour speaks of a being that has earned something—perhaps their ongoing status of blossoming from year to year.
From that perspective, there is respect given to those trees that contradicts the previously referenced frustration. This, too, can be a mirror in regard to life’s perception because human reactions to life can vary from moment to moment. One moment, there could be frustration, and the next could bring awe, much like Larkin’s reactions to seasonal changes.
Diving further into this stanza, there is additional evidence that the trees have earned their annual renewing since they are given credit for the process of “thresh[ing],” meaning their seeds are being scattered by their own processes. Since those seeds can lead to new plants, granting the trees the attribution for the process makes their expansion toward new plant life their own accomplishment, like humans leaving their mark through children and outstanding accomplishments.
It is interesting to note as well that the word choice within the first line mimics the redundancy of the seasonal process that bring new leaves “every May” since there is no grammatical reason to use “Yet” and “still” at the beginning of the stanza. Either word would have been sufficient alone, but the decided use to employ both speaks of the repetition of seasonal patterns, that these trees will continue to blossom and expand as the years pass.
Only in the last two lines of the poem does the reader get resolution concerning the “grief” from the first stanza, which could have been a specific choice on Larkin’s part. This way, the answer to the question that has plagued the reader is the last thing encountered. What that answer is, it seems, is that while the trees bloom and nature shines, there is still the memory of the leaves and plants that came in years prior. A leaf cannot bloom where another leaf already is, so its very presence is a declaration that anything there beforehand had to pass on.
This idea is bluntly stated in the line, “Last year is dead, they seem to say,” with no beautified language to cushion the harsh effect of the words, but then Larkin quickly turns to his closing line of “Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” Once more, we see the mimicking of seasonal repetition with the three uses of “afresh,” but beyond that detail, it is another striking contrast from one line to the next. Larkin turns from discussing the “dead” to life that is “afresh” with little middle ground between them. Essentially, the last two lines are a blend of that “grief” and the beauty that is reflected in spite of sadness of loss. This mimics the plight of humans having to move forward against the loss of loved ones. People mourn and feel the loss, but must keep going.
Overall, this poem has an uncertainty about it that contradicts the solidness of the trees being described as Larkin journeys through ideas and reactions to the seasonal process. He goes from appreciative, to negative, to irritated, to complimentary, back to negative, and then to appreciative in an almost resigned concept of things beginning “afresh” after nature’s yearly demise. What this seems to hint is that Larkin does not know what to make of nature, though he simply has to accept it, and perhaps that is the point of the poem in general. Nature—and life—are full of questions and reactions, and in the end, all that those who are involved with either can do is wonder and accept.
About Phillip Larkin
Philip Larkin is an English poet born in 1922 whose poetry grew in relevance and acclaim following his first published work, The North Ship. His poetry was later influenced by Thomas Hardy and dealt primarily with human emotion. In addition, he attended Oxford and would eventually work in a library. Today, he is one of the most notable names of poetry from his time period.