By Corey Latta
The ovenbird’s universal song, the natural revelation everyone has heard, is an augury of seasonal diminishment. Having a masterful knowledge of the Old Testament, Frost constantly drew from its imagery and themes. Frost’s use of biblical imagery—particularly images of the Fall—in “The Trial by Existence,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and “The Onset” (to list only a few) underscore his reliance on the theological here in “The Over Bird.” As both are certainly present in the first three chapters of the Genesis narrative, it is fitting that Frost would marry these two themes of natural revelation and the Fall. The biblical account of the Fall describes a naturally perfect realm in complete harmony with itself and man (Gen. 2:8-19). Upon the entrance of sin into the created order, not only mankind but nature is said to have fallen: “cursed is the ground because of you. . . both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you [mankind]. . .” (Gen. 3:17-18). The Fall is the most cataclysmic theological and ecological occurrence in all of scripture: the entire natural world fell from an ideal form to a perpetual state of aftermath. Likewise, “The Oven Bird” depicts a natural realm where life once existed in an ideal state of spring, but in which now organisms are in a fallen condition, degraded by the passing of spring into summer. Echoing the narrative voice in Genesis, the ovenbird declares a state of natural decadence; the message that everyone hears exclaims a state of fallenness.
The poetic speaker shifts slightly from what the ovenbird proclaims to a larger theological context:
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.
“And comes that other fall we name the fall,” Frost declares with a definitive tone. The poem shifts to a more distinct doctrinal voice here. The octave presents a naturalistic mode of revelation: the poet can assert the theological implications of mid-summer’s diminishments. The double occurrence of “fall” in the first line of the sestet foregrounds the theme of the Fall that will run throughout the remainder of the poem. In this line Frost deploys his most foundational, and perhaps most important, poetic device—the previously explicated use of metaphor, Frost’s theology in poetic practice. At this point Frost begins to make his strongest metaphorical-theological connections.
When the poet says “and comes that other fall we name the fall,” the reader can certainly trace the seasonal meaning, which the poem endorses on its most basic level (spring to mid-summer to fall). However, the poem’s subtle theological undertones along with Frost’s insistence on metaphor should alert any interpreter that “fall” is a loaded term, one that draws on both natural and theological spheres. The ovenbird’s message of seasonal decay—the end of the flowers’ bloom at the peak of summer—culminates in the topos of the Fall of the natural order. The movement from natural occurrence to theological abstraction is a common gesture for Frost. The “fall,” both seasonal and lapsarian, is Frost’s entrance into both the natural and theological world in order to stretch the borders of each, interrogating the implications of one with the other, and perhaps rewriting the boundaries of both—all to create a highly charged poetics.
The speaker moves from his pun on the “fall” by returning once more to the message of the ovenbird: “He says the highway dust is over all.” The winged prophet describes a desolate condition in a sweeping statement. This fall, the Fall, has covered everything in the natural world. Going back to the role of human agency, it is the dust of the highway that has covered all. The poem seems to associate the origins of this desolation to a manmade object, perhaps as an indication of human agency in keeping with the Genesis narrative. Though the fallen world of the poem is purely natural, man—as the originator of sin in Genesis—is implicated as well.
After providing an aphorism on the Fall, the poem’s narrator then addresses the ovenbird’s condition: “The bird would cease and be as other birds/ But that he knows in singing not to sing.” These first two lines of the poem’s final quatrain provide a fascinating element to Frost’s use of the doctrine of the Fall. By postulating that the ovenbird “would cease and be as other birds,” the poet speaks to the bird’s role by reverting back to the biblical theme of functioning animals. Numerous times in the Old Testament animals were assigned specific functions, at times in an evil capacity (i.e. the serpent in the Garden of Eden—Gen. 3:1-4) but more often as agents for God (e.g. the dove sent from the ark by Noah—Gen. 8:8-9; the donkey who spoke to the prophet Balaam—Num. 22:28). Though there is no explicit divinity in the poem, the speaker makes a clear distinction between this ovenbird and other birds who merely sing without substance, “but that he knows in singing not to sing.”
The poem’s last two lines are by far the most powerful and poignant: “The question that he frames in all but words/ Is what to make of a diminished thing.” The theological elements of the poem necessarily culminate in the ovenbird’s inquiry. The speaker writes the last line as the sine qua non, the inevitable question from all the bird has said before. It is difficult to nail down what exactly this “thing” may be, but I think there are two likely options.
So profoundly diminished is this “thing” that the bird’s revelatory message primarily serves to frame the question of “what to make of a diminished thing.” Given the mid-summer state of immediate and approaching death, given the fallout and the degraded state of the natural world, what does one make of such faded and diminished objects? It is fitting that Frost ends with a question rather than a conclusion as he rarely seems interested—even in his exploration of biblical and theological tropes—in declaring answers. Instead, he interweaves the natural world of the poem with the theological and experiments with poetic meaning by metaphorizing the natural with the theological. Frost is more interested in writing catechistic verse than providing moral platitudes, and as a result, the poem concludes with inconclusiveness. The fallen condition of this “thing” bewilders the ovenbird, leaving the bird, the poetic speaker, and the readers in a state of contemplation over the poem’s two most prominent themes: the natural order and the assertion that it is fallen. Both themes, indeed Frost’s entire creative schema, argue for the presence of the theological as necessary for poeticizing the natural.
Photo: “Sunset” by Kamil Porembiński. CC License.