On February 9, 1997, former Academy Chancellor John Hollander
gave a master class for benefactors of the Academy of American Poets. The
class took place at the New York City home of then Academy Chairman Lyn Chase
and her husband, Ned. The topic of the afternoon was the poetry of
Robert Frost, and
Hollander focused on Frost's poem "The Oven-Bird." The following is a transcript of Mr. Hollander's
lecture, which was later published in American Poet.
I'm going to talk this afternoon about Frost as a myth-maker, which
is usually not how we think of him. I'm going to look closely at that
poem of Frost's called "The Oven Bird," which I think very
easy and very difficult at once.
Mythologizing any construction of nature, an animal, plant, a geological
formation, a moment of process—this could be seen both as a desecration
and a celebration of pragmatically considered fact. When this goes on in
poetry—what Frost himself called "the renewal of words forever and
ever"—it is accompanied and invigorated by a reciprocal
mythologizing of the very words used in the poetic process. Literature is
full of mythological, mostly composite creatures: phoenix, unicorn,
basilisk, chimera, hydra, centaur. As nature is even more full of
creatures totally innocent of interpretation: woodchuck, anteater, turbot,
Shetland pony, jellyfish, and quail. But then, there are the fallen
creatures, the intermediate ones: lion, eagle, ant, grasshopper,
barracuda, fox, hyena . . . who have been infected with signification from
Aesop on. It is one of the tasks of poetry to keep renewing the taxonomic
class of such creatures, by luring them unwittingly into a cage of
metaphor, which of course they are not aware of inhabiting. Such new
reconstructions of animals are almost a post-Romantic cottage industry,
even as the rehearsal, again and again, of the traditional ones, used to
characterize pre-Romantic emblematic poetry. I want to look at a
well-known instance of such reconstruction, in the case of Frost's "The
We'll start with the unpoetic ornithology from The Field Guide
to North American Birds: "Sayerus Oricopilus is a
ground-walking warbler. It is common in deciduous woods. It builds a domed
nest on the ground and sings from an exposed perch on the understory of
the trees." That an American poem addressing this thrush-like bird
might consider its ground-built, oven-shaped nest would seem obvious, with
interpretations of some sort of pragmatical sublime, being well-grounded
instead of lofty, immediately offering themselves. But the poem we are to
consider does not.
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
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.
Frost's sonnet was started in New Hampshire around 1906, but
probably finished in England around 1914, far from the shared habitat of
bird and poet. Its ending leaves us with a kind of riddle. The opening
puzzles us also, slightly, but in a different way. It starts out with a
couplet (and sonnets don't start out with a couplet, unless they
intend to continue, as they rarely do, with six more of them). But both
octave and sestet of this one are initiated by couplets. And in the case
of the sestet, or the last six lines, somewhat strangely for other reasons
From the outset, too, we notice at once how casual and how problematic
its rhetoric is. "A singer everyone has heard"? Come now, people
in London have no more heard that singer than a New Englander would hear a
nightingale. There aren't any nightingales in this country. No, this
is the conventional palaver of nature writing, of a newspaper verse of the
sort you might still find in a rural newspaper in England. But the low
literary prosaic tone is modulated with a jolt, as the second line
declares its ulterior agenda with a "Loud, a mid-summer and a
mid-wood bird." Because of the contrast of stress marking the new
coinage, "mid-wood"—we say "mid-summer"; we never say
"mid-wood"—the spatial reciprocal of the ordinary, temporal
mid-summer, the line ends with three stresses. You might call it two
overlapping spondees, confirming the opening, intrusive, almost
self-descriptive, "Loud!" "Loud, a mid-summer and a
mid-wood bird." The bird makes the solid tree trunks sound again, but
in a first reading this always itself sounds strange. It's not just
the densely alliterative pattern, first pointed out by Reuben Brower. "Sound
again"—have they been unsound? No, not Germanicsound as in
the German gesund, but French and Latin sonorous sound.
Still, why do we pause momentarily? Do we mistake this bird for a kind of
woodpecker, hitting the trunks directly and thus making them less gesund
as they make them resound? But it's this purely English and
non-Latin way of putting resound that then allows the matter of an echo of
a prior sounding, that of the earlier, and perhaps in this poem,
ordinary—and despite literary cliché, unpoetic—spring birds since
Then come the first of the three reiterated assertions of his asserting.
It will be apparent later why it's not the seventeenth or eighteenth
century locution, the transitive "he sings" or its version in
the nineteenth century and later, "he sings of [whatever it is]."
What he says first is hardly celebratory, but pragmatically observational,
quite this side of sounding dirge-like. The next thing he says is more
interpretive, at first reminding us of the dropping of spring blossoms and
of how we tend to read these as nothing more dire than the end of a
particularly gorgeous overture or prelude, but then letting the resonance
of the term "petal-fall" linger on, as if to make us think, "Yes,
they do fall too, don't they?"
We half-notice, too, the patterning in which one dactylic foot,
embracing a hyphenated compound, is echoed by another unhyphenated one: "
. . . early [petal-fall] is past, when pear and [cherry bloom]. . ."
Petal-fall and cherry bloom have the same compound effect, though he
hyphenates one and not the other. But woven across this is an alliterative
pattern, in which "petal, past, pear" enact a different kind of
connection, followed by the analogous, but more potently expressive,
assonance of "went down in showers." Yet this line is not
end-stopped here, but flows into the plain "On sunny days a moment
There's another moment of resonance at work, one of word, rather
than of word-sound. The leaves are cast under, in, and for, a moment, even
as the sky is momentarily overcast. The point isn't loudly made nor
brandished triumphantly, but allowed wonderfully, subtly to happen. But
then things get problematic again. Who says, "And comes that other
fall we name the fall"? This line is all the more complex here
because it initiates the sestet, and we want the full stop at the end to
be a comma, as if to say, when fall—that other fall—comes, he says,
[with respect to that], that the highway dust is covering everything. The
normal grammar would be that of "come the fall" as in "come
Sunday," etc. The present, third-person singular verb form here
suggests a counter-thrusting inversion: "And then, comes that other
fall," etc. But a first reading would also reaffirm a linkage that
the couplet-rhyme (again, in an anomalous place for a sonnet) is implying.
Yet the couplet is broken—"And comes that other fall we name the
fall." Period. "He says the highway dust is over all."
Period. We are reminded by the disjunction that the covering of highway
dust—the stasis in between petal-fall which initiates the fullness of
leaf—and leaf-fall, which initiates the bareness of branch—spring-fall
and fall-fall—this is mid-summer stuff, and we can't have the syntax
go the way we'd like to. As for the coming of the real fall—the
early petal-fall is the other—we needed the oven bird to point out to us
that it was a version of the primary one, a shadowy type of the truth of
autumn. And by an almost Milton-like extension, the autumnal fall as type
of the fall from Paradise—the original one we name the fall—which
brought about the remodeling of Paradise into nature, fracturing spring
from fall, promise from conditional fulfillment, because they were both
there in Milton's Paradise. There were no seasons. The world was a
lemon tree, which of course has blossoms and fruit at the same time.
Relations between literal and figurative falling are made even more
interesting by the fact that in the Romance language that's part of
English, "cause" and "case" are based ultimately on
cadere, the Latin word for "fall." As in the Germanic
part we still have residues of the earlier usage: "it fell" or "it
happened." There are all those other falls too. I'm not sure
whether the poem's relative reticence on this question keeps them at
a safe distance or not. Or if there's any safe distance from The
Fall. Richard Poirier remarked once of this poem that any falling of
leaves, of snow, of man can be redeemed by loving. And the sign of this
redemption is, for Frost, the sound of the voice working within the sounds
of poetry. Certainly, the cadential full stop at the end of this line—".
. . that other fall we name the fall"—makes us momentarily more
aware of the working of the poet's voice. But in any case, the
peculiar one-line sentence, which we keep wanting to open out into a
dependent clause and a full couplet with a comma, gives us a meditative
pause. Perhaps it works as something of a springboard, the better to jump
into a final quatrain, which in sonnet form can seem itself to initiate a
moment of renewal.
Some of that last quatrain's complexity emerges in a
straightforward paradox. What does it mean not to sing in singing? Well,
if the singing birds do herald and celebrate spring in the morning, or—
as with swallows—fills the sky with skitterish evening hymns, then the
oven bird's repeated disyllabic utterance is not that. "He says."
"He says." "He says." "He knows." "He
frames." And here another kind of construction is fed to us by the
way in the metaphor of material construction. Here's the question he
frames: "We call the sounds birds make 'singing'; but this
bird demands that we suspend the overtones of the word 'sing.'"
His are not songs but propositions. The very subtle rhythm of the line
makes this clear, for in order for the rhyming syllables to be
sufficiently stretched, it can't go ". . . that he knows in
singing not to sing" because 'sing' has to rhyme with 'thing,'
which means it's got to be more stressed, which, unless you can't
write verse, you know you've got to account for in the syntax. The
relation of syntax to meter is absolutely crucial. And so, it can't
go "in singing not to sing" as the intoning of the paradox seems
to demand, but rather "that he knows in singing not to sing,"
i.e., not to be claimed by allegorizing human intention as music, but
instead as speculative discourse.
By this point in the poem, the casual older fiction of birdsong, like
that of the wind in the trees sighing and the brook babbling, can't
be acknowledged. Those are the stuff of poetry from Hellenistic times on.
So it is that he frames a question in all but words, a formulation which
is quite reticent (birds don't really talk, of course, but . . . ).
The very grammar of the phrase "knows in singing" is unusually
resonant:  (as has been suggested) the bird knows—while singing not "sing,"
but rather discursively to raise questions;  the bird knows not to sing
(literally) in-and-by singing (figuratively);  knowing-in-singing: like
Sidney's "loving in truth," a kind of knowing in singing?
or as if singing were itself a kind of mental process here? In any event,
this song is a matter of knowledge, not of charm, of sense making a claim
on tra-la-la. I think here, regarding the issue, always crucial for Frost,
of the sound of making sense (what he talks about very often—he has a
marvelous phrase when he talks about the "sentence sound"). It's
the kind of thing which may be being undermined today by one technological
habit. You notice how the air-headed cutter-out of sound bites on
television news and that sort of thing will invariably cut at the end of a
dependent clause, thus giving generations of poor wretched schoolchildren
and others the sense that the end of a declarative sentence ends up in the
air like this . . . ? I think that's the reason that so many young
women produce all declarative sentences as if they were questions. This
may have to do with a lack of sense of authenticity about themselves. "I
work for J. C. Penney?" ("Well, do you?") We have amazing
resources of the sound of syntax in English by enunciating properly, and
that's one of the things that Frost talks about when he says "the
sentence sound." It isn't just the way this falls into a line of
This matter, as I said, is of the sound of making sense. How great jazz
musicians would often play their purely instrumental solos to the words,
singing the texts with a complex system of rhythms all intoned internally
in order properly to inform the inventions of the melody. Charlie Parker
always used to have the words of the tune he was improvising on in his
head. This was crucial.
It could also be observed that this sonnet, itself, like so many other
poems in Mountain Interval, which is the book it comes from, knows
in singing not to sing. This is not in the way of Yeats's "words
for music perhaps," a phrase which he used to designate a lot of his
lyrical poems that, in its way, defines all lyric poetry in English from
Wyatt and Surrey on. This is more of an implicit, revisionary take on the
lyrical mode of high modernism, and may in some ways anticipate the
rejection in another poem of his, called "Come In," with the
sound of a thrush singing in the middle of a wood asking him to come into
the dark, etc. Frost answered the thrush by saying, "But no, I was
out for stars." So the dark wood is tragedy, or it's a whole
other construction of what poetry is; for somebody who's not a poet,
it better be about more than just poetry; otherwise it wouldn't be
about much. It's about intellectual and moral seductions into a whole
mode of experience which are probably inappropriate. Which some weird
sense of oneself might demand that one confront. And his wonderful last
lines of that poem say
I would not come in.
I meant not even if
And I hadn't been.
And of course a lot of the times that we make a fuss about an invitation
and decide we probably have to reject it, we have to remember that we
probably really haven't been invited: we've been inviting
ourselves. Be that as may be, we come to the oven bird's question
itself, which indeed may be two questions. Our colloquial phrase, "to
make something of x" can mean to reshape it, use it as
material for some new y, etc. But to ask, "What do you make
of x?" means "How do you explain, analyze, interpret
x?" "What's with x?" "What do you
make of it?" These strangely paired meanings are those of "to
construct" and "to construe." They both come from the same
Latin verb, and are, indeed, with unfortunate consequences for serious
academic discourse in the study of literature, starting about fifteen or
twenty years ago, both designated by the same French word, construire.
And we still use this in English—to "put a false construction on
something" doesn't mean to make something sort of jerry-built
and place it on top of something else. "To put a false construction
on" means to lay a false interpretation over it. And that's the
reason we get that unfortunate word, "deconstruction," which
also simply means "interpretation." But through not paying
attention, the French-speaking promulgators of that term didn't
realize what they were doing with the fabric of English when they did
that. Anyway, "what to make of"—those meanings are both
present, complicatedly, for Frost in relation to each other.
This poem—this bird—talks neither of beginnings nor of endings, but a
time that is both, in a Janus-like July, looking backward and forward at
once, from an original, and to a final, fall. Midpoints are strange. They
tend not to generate the ceremonies that beginnings and endings do.
Midsummer in England tends to mean the solstice, June 21st or thereabouts.
But this is not what the bird celebrates. We tend to think of our
northeastern, American midsummer as somewhere around July 30th or so, and
this is the Oven Bird's time: the somewhat indiscernible middle
rather than a clearly marked center.
And thus, the bird's other possible question points toward and away
from this matter. "What to make of"—how to construe,
understand, interpret—the residual. Is the bottle of summer half-full or
half-empty? The invitation to consider the question is not that of the
ordinary, crack-pot realist, cynical put-down of epistemology. I think the
invited discourse on the question, and what it would mean about you and
summer to answer it either way, would lie along the pragmatic approaches
to questioning in modern philosophy, is somewhere between William James
and the later Wittgenstein. But another way of putting this suggests that
one of these diminishings might be thought of as that of the whole
tradition of talking about birds having something to say. Richard Wilbur
uses the phrase "Winged words going round a stable." And in that
kind of subsequent allegorizing that strong poems tend to exude, one thing
to make of that diminished thing is, by means of newly animated words, the
poem "The Oven Bird" itself. And then, as is the case with very
powerful and deep poetic ambiguities, the invitation extends to consider
the relation between the two kinds of "making of": between
constructing and construing, in which representation is creation, and
understandings are imagined. This relation is poetry's realm, as it
may not be philosophy's.
And, as The Field Guide to North American Birds reminds us, the
Oven Bird's call is characterized as "a loud and clear tea-cher."
Note: Parts of this talk were later
published in an essay entitled "Robert Frost and the Renewal of Birds"
that appeared in Reading in an Age of Theory (Rutgers University Press, 1997), edited by Bridget