The Oven Bird
by Robert Frost
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would sing and be as other birds,
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
is what to make of a diminished thing.
Midway in Our Life's Journey
by Tina Blue
September 29, 2001
The central metaphor in Robert Frost's nontraditional sonnet "The Oven Bird" is that life is a journey along a highway, and that progress through life can be compared to the changing of the seasons. The poem also metaphorically equates songbirds with poets and suggests that the poet of this particular poem is a singer of the same sort as the oven bird, one "who knows in singing not to sing" (11).
The oven bird's song comes in "mid-summer," which symbolizes the midpoint of life's journey, the peak of growth and maturity. The "mid-wood" is full of lush vegetation, rich with life, yet the oven bird is not really celebrating all this evidence of life abounding, as the songbirds of spring seem to do. All of spring's joyous birdsong has quieted, and by the time the oven bird "makes the solid tree trunks sound again" (3), the woods have not been full of song for some time.
What the oven bird's song tells us is that we must not be deceived by the apparently lush life of "mid-summer" and "mid-wood," because "leaves are old" (4) and "for flowers / Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten" (4-5), meaning that the promise and beauty of spring flowers are already 90 percent gone by midsummer. Similarly, life is already half over by the time we reach our peak of maturity, so that no matter how full life seems at that point, it is nonetheless "a diminished thing" (14). Once one reaches the top of the hill, everything is downhill from there.
The fact that life, even at its fullest, contains a tragic element, a shadow cast by the inevitability of decline and death, rises the question of why. How did something as glorious as life become a "diminished thing"? Why is life so marred by mortality?
The answer to this question is hinted at in the symbolism of fall, both in the "early petal-fall" (6) and in "that other fall we name the fall" (9). The "early petal-fall" that comes even in the spring "[o]n sunny days a moment overcast" (8) hints at the "other fall we name the fall" that will come later in the year.
Even during spring's brightest days, we cannot escape the knowledge that it won't last. When the sun goes behind a cloud for a moment, the sudden drop in temperature calls up a wind that blows many of the petals from the trees. Then, even when the sun returns, those petals are lost, and the blossom-laden branches, which will be entirely bare come winter, are already diminished.
"That other fall we name the fall," the season of autumn, comes after the rich harvest of late summer's fruit, but it means that the year is decaying and dying into winter. It also suggests the way mortality got into Nature in the first place--through the Fall of Adam and Eve, yet another "fall we name the fall."
In Eden life was perfect and there was no decay or death. But with Adam and Eve's disobedience and Fall, Nature also fell, and just like mankind, Nature is now subject to death. It is ironic that autumn, the season of decay, is also the season of harvest, so that once again the appearance of life's fullness masks the reality that the year is already a "diminished thing," and death, symbolized by winter, is not far away. Even though the poet never directly mentions winter, that season hangs over the poem like an ominous premonition. As all the other seasons are named, the series is completed by implication.
There is no way to escape the inevitability of loss and mortality, the oven bird says, for "the highway dust is over all" (10). By "mid-summer," halfway through the progress of the seasons (or the progress of life itself), the freshness of spring has already been dulled and soiled by the dust one accumulates along one's journey. The image of dust also suggests the funeral prayer that reminds us of our mortality: "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. . . ."
The oven bird is like an Old Testament prophet, voicing difficult truths and issuing warnings against complacency. Three times the poem uses the phrase "He says. . . ." This constant repetition keeps reminding us, as the oven bird himself does, that what we see is illusion, that the beautiful surface of life needs to be understood in a different and far less comforting way.
This bird "knows in singing not to sing" (12), not to engage in the excited but not very thoughtful celebration that marks the songs of the birds of spring. Instead, he sings in a minor key, to prophesy and to ask important, provocative questions. Like the oven bird, the poet's persona in this poem uses his poetry not to sing of love or of life's superficial interests, but rather to complete the job the oven bird has begun. The question that the oven bird "frames in all but words" (13), the poet does frame in words: "what to make of a diminished thing" (14).
Ironically, this poem does not counsel despair. It answers that question by implying that we should make the most we possibly can of the "diminished thing" that life always is, at every point along its way.
If one happens to be a bird, one can also make song out of this diminished thing. And if one is a poet, what one makes of it is poetry.