The Habersham School is a PK3 – 12 private Classical Christian school in Savannah, GA.
by Toph Beach
Last Friday, the Habersham 11th graders and I read one of my favorite Robert Frost poems, “The Oven Bird.” It’s not a particularly famous piece, but I think it’s crowded out by other famous Frost poems—it’s hard to compete for the limelight with “Birches” and “After Apple-Picking,” let alone “The Road Not Taken,” the most anthologized poem in American Literature. I chose this poem instead, because I think it has a particular insight for our juniors, some of whom are learning virtually for a time.
“The Oven Bird” places its title figure in his natural setting, the heat of a New England summer, as the springtime radiance has faded and “the highway dust is over all.” Here is the poem in full:
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 cease 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.
Not having encountered the ovenbird myself, I played a few clips for the students. Listen to this sample; is it possible Frost’s iambic meter alludes to the ovenbird’s two-beat song?
Frost first identifies two prosaic qualities of the song: its universal reception and its volume. “Everyone has heard” it, and it is “Loud,” the latter word standing out for breaking the metrical pattern by stressing the first syllable of the line. Listeners will realize that the ovenbird is not the most beautiful singer; he doesn’t have the pleasing variety of the nightingale or the haunting call of the loon. But the bluntness of the ovenbird is appropriate to his season, when “comes that other fall we name the fall.” The bird speaks plainly about the lessened beauty of the time: “for flowers / Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.”
If the ovenbird has nothing to celebrate, why sing? “The bird would cease and be as other birds,” presumably the ones who keep silent in summer, who reserve their melodies for more dazzling moments, “But that he knows in singing not to sing.” The paradox plays on two meanings of “to sing.” The first is the bird’s literal song, its chirping, and the second is a metaphor, meaning to praise or glorify. By its music the ovenbird does not exalt the natural decay, but he speaks about it honestly. “He says that leaves are old,” and “He says the early petal-fall is past.” Other birds may sing or serenade; the ovenbird says.
The ovenbird also “frames” a deeper question: “what to make of a diminished thing”? Frost hints at an answer in saying that the ovenbird does not cease to sing. He is honest about the reduced natural beauty, speaks of it plainly, but he still persists, and not in lament. The ovenbird continues to sing, however plainly and bluntly, continues to make something of the diminished world, such that “the solid tree trunks sound again.” The implication is that, without the ovenbird, the forest would be silent, as the other birds have ceased, and it is left to the resilient singer to make the tree trunks, through reverberation, announce their presence.
I raised this question to the juniors because their lives are diminished in a period of online learning. While they understand that it is necessary and temporary, it’s still not fun to be separated from friends and staring at a laptop screen. I think the ovenbird gives them the freedom to acknowledge that their situations are not ideal, not what they’d like for themselves. It is right and good to be honest about frustrations. But as the ovenbird’s faithfulness to the diminished forest enhances the lives of the trees, so our students’ faithfulness to a diminished class works for the good of others around them. We may long for the time when “pear and cherry bloom went down in flowers,” but we can be honest about the season we’re in, acknowledge its difficulties, and make something, especially now, of a diminished thing.