‘The Hawthorn Tree’ by Willa Cather is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets all follow different rhyme schemes. For example the first rhymes, ABCCDB. Within the other two stanzas the “B” rhyme, which corresponds to the long “e” sound, is repeated in the second and sixth lines. Additionally, within each stanza, there is a single rhyming couplet that is different from the other two.
One of the most prominent techniques in this poem is anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. Cather uses anaphora in all three stanzas, in lines three through five. In the first, each of those lines begins with “In the,” in the second and third they all start with “To my”. By using this technique, Cather is able to layer details on details. Together, these little lists of information about her surroundings or experiences present the reader with a simple way but impactful way of understanding what went on around her. Read more poetry from Willa Cather.
There are also other kinds of repetition, such as in the structure of the lines themselves. This is elaborated on in greater detail in the body of the analysis, but the first and second sestets follow a very similar pattern when it comes to punctuation and arrangement of the lines. By making the stanzas similar to one another Cather is able to imbue them with a unity they would not otherwise have. It was clearly important to her that they feel related, and part of the same story. This choice also provides the poem with a structure in place of what a more consistent rhyme scheme would’ve done.
Summary of The Hawthorn Tree
The poem begins with the speaker describing that setting. It was “spring-time” and “night-time” when he came to her. She was under the hawthorn tree and beneath a sky of stars. The speaker continues her description in the second stanza. Together they were in her bower, and joined together in rest. There was an obvious closeness between the two as he was set against her “warm breast”. The poem concludes with the speaker telling the intended listener not to ask her what he told her in these moments. They are welcome instead to inquire about the birds, breeze, stars, and roses.
Analysis of The Hawthorn Tree
Across the shimmering meadows–
Ah, when he came to me!
In the spring-time,
In the night-time,
In the starlight,
Beneath the hawthorn tree.
In the first stanza of ‘The Hawthorn Tree,’ the speaker outlines a memory. She describes how a male character, who is never elaborated on, comes to her “Across the shimmering meadows”. This line alludes to distance, as well as introducing an element of wonder. If the meadows are “shimmering” then perhaps there is something otherworldly about them. Or, Cather is simply taking the reality of the world, such as dew that gathers on the grass, and enhancing it in order to speak to the other more important, more emotional elements of the poem.
The setting is further illuminated in lines three through six. She exclaims over her memory of this mysterious person, recalling that when he came to her it was in the spring, at night, and amongst the “starlight”. She was also, “Beneath the hawthorn tree”.
The hawthorn tree is deeply symbolic. It is associated with protection, beauty, and fertility, but most prominently with love. This is perhaps what Cather was considering when she chose the tree as the most important image of ‘The Hawthorn Tree’. But, there is also the aspect of fertility to consider. With the additional reference to spring, a time traditionally associated with rebirth, new life, and growth, a reader might want to think about the implications.
Up from the misty marsh-land–
Ah, when he climbed to me!
To my white bower,
To my sweet rest,
To my warm breast,
Beneath the hawthorn tree.
The second stanza is structured similarly to the first with the first line ending with a dash, the second with an exclamation. The third, fourth and fifth again utilize anaphora and create a list of details. Then finally, the stanza ends with the phrase “Beneath the hawthorn tree”.
In this stanza, the speaker describes how when “he” got to where the speaker was, he “climbed” to her. Together, they end up in her “bower,” a word meaning a cool, calm, shady place under a tree. He joined her in “sweet rest” at her “warm breast”. Then again, she tells the reader that all this happens underneath the tree.
Now is a good time to consider who “he” might be. There are a number of possible interpretations, and anyone seems as likely as the others without further background details on what Cather was considering when writing the poem. The male character could simply be a man, someone the speaker loves. Or, “he” could refer to something more ephemeral and poetic such as God or the embodiment of death.
Ask of me what the birds sang,
High in the hawthorn tree;
What the breeze tells,
What the rose smells,
What the stars shine–
Not what he said to me!
The final stanza is slightly different than those that came before it as the punctuation does not follow the same rules. But, anaphora still plays a prominent role, and there is still a couplet in the center of the stanza.
From where the speaker is, she has learned something about the world. Her time underneath the tree has brought her closer to nature, and to the secret workings of the natural world. She tells the reader they are welcome to “Ask…what the birds sang” way up “High in the hawthorn tree”. The speaker knows the answer and is happy to share it, as there are more important things she needs to keep for herself. She goes on, telling the reader they can know what “the breeze tells,” “the rose smells” and what “the stars shine”.
The magical quality that was present at the beginning of the poem is center stage once more like the speaker outlines all the information she has gained from the world around her. She is happy to share with the listener all the wonders of nature, but she won’t tell them anything about “what he said to” her. This information is just for her to know and cherish. There was something about her experiences with this person, force or another being, that she knows needs to stay within her mind and heart.