Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird” is a richly metaphorical poem that presents the title’s bird as something much more than what it at first appears. In his subtle commentary of the aging process, Frost writes of a bird that “knows in singing not to sing (12)” and refuses to “be as other birds (11),” and thus the bird sings not only of nature and the changing seasons, but also of death and decay. He notes the inevitable reign of mortality over the beauty and happiness of springtime, while already in the “mid-summer,” left alone to sing this unpopular tune when most other birds, whose voices fill the springtime air, have already left.

The reader of this poem first notices references to spring and summer, leaves and flowers, and the inherent beauty of a bird’s song, and expects the tone of the poem to remain light and uplifting. Upon closer examination, however, these familiar pleasant images are revealed to hold a darker undertone. The speaker of the poem expresses his distaste for the mid-summer season in contrast to the vibrancy of spring, saying that “leaves are old” and “for flowers mid-summer is to spring as one to ten (4-5).” He misses the period of growth and vibrancy lost at the end of spring, which has been replaced by a slower and more mature season. Youth is over, replaced by the unattractive prospect of old age and even death.

The oven bird “is a singer everyone has heard/Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird (1-2),” in that his song offers the undeniable truths of life and death that everyone must face; therefore everyone hears it. His voice is loud, because everyone, no matter their place in life, is affected by the specter of their own death. Thus the bird’s song is a relevant guide for the course of the reader’s path through all stages of life.

At the time of the song, leaves are dying, flowers are wilting, and their petals have fallen, as illustrated when “he says the early petal-fall is past/When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers/On sunny days a moment overcast (6-8).” The image of all those flowers falling to earth while the face of the sun is clouded over is a reminder of how quickly and easily beauty and youth are lost. Frost uses flowers to symbolize beauty and perfection. The fact that blossoms have such a tenuous hold on trees (and therefore on life) is an ominous reminder of our own inevitable fate.

Then “comes that other fall we name the fall (9),” otherwise called autumn, which thus implies the approach of winter. In this way, the oven bird foreshadows death. When the bird “says the highway dust is over all (10),” he may be pointing out that no matter how rich and lovely life may seem at times, in reality it is hard and death is unavoidable.

So why would the bird “cease and be as other birds/But that he knows in singing not to sing (11-12)?” Perhaps he understands the negative affect that his tune has on those who hear it, and though he feels that he must continue to sing and express this common truth of life, he also does not wish to burden others around him with the bad news. Even though the speaker is fully aware of his own mortality, he is also conscious of the fact that many listeners will be unwilling to face this truth themselves, especially in the deceivingly enjoyable season of mid-summer, when the world is still green but slowly decaying and fading into fall.

Rather than depress the reader and dwell on the negatives of death, though, the oven bird offers advice to wake us up and improve our outlook on life. As we continue to live our lives, the days ahead continuously become “a diminished thing (14),” and one must decide how best to spend them. His song may seem out of place amidst the apparent fullness of life during the “mid-summer,” but it is perhaps best sung during this season, for by reminding the reader of the eventual decay of both summer and life, the song inspires us to revel in life’s beauty and to appreciate it while it lasts. Therefore, one can call the bird’s song fatalistic, but certainly not pessimistic. He urges everyone to accept their own mortality, and to make the best of the swiftly passing spring and summer before the unavoidable fall.

This essay was written Jan. 2004 for the NYU class “Literary Interpretation.”

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