Joseph Blotner: On "Bearded Oaks"

The ten quatrains in iambic tetrameter had not only the Metaphysical echoes of "The Garden" but an even greater facility. Forty-five years later he would gloss the poem at one woman's request. It was written about 1935, he said. "The scene is a broad meadow with a number of the enormous live oaks of Louisiana strung with grey Spanish moss. The people involved are two lovers who have been lying in the shade of one of these trees after the sun goes down. The shadows of the trees now tend to level out as though they were water, as though the lovers were submerged in the water. They compare themselves to a coral growth that has been submerged for thousands of years, as they feel submerged by the human history before them. Though all of us are trapped in time, and live in time, so little time, there are moments, say in love, that seem outside of time—moments in which 'we practice for eternity.' I can't do more to explain it."

If he had tried to do more, it would have taken more than one short paragraph, for the poem sounded many echoes and worked on several levels. As Andrew Marvell's lover in "To His Coy Mistress" tells his beloved that they do not have "world enough and time" as its flight rushes them toward "deserts of vast eternity," so Warren's lover, aware that "we live in time so little time," sees ahead "eternity" in the image of dark and silent sea depths, one of the most powerful images in Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." But whatever the influences, Warren assimilated them smoothly in this complex poem, which works on three time levels: the day that progresses from the bright "storm of noon" to the encroaching "graduate dark," the lovers' life span, and finally history, in which they are caught.

At the end of the "Paradiso" in Dante's Divine Comedy, a lifelong favorite of Warren's, the poet learns through his beloved Beatrice that "in His will is our peace." There is no such belief or assurance in Warren's thoroughly naturalistic poem. The lovers are simply another order of creation, higher than the polyp and the kelp and the deer but destined nonetheless for decay, death, and dissolution. As the Elizabethan poets often used the words "to die" to signify not just death but also sexual climax, so there is here the linkage of the two ideas. Lying in the grass, the lovers are like the scene of which they are a part as it "awaits the positive night." Experiencing something like postcoital tristesse, he silently tells her not that he loves her more but rather that he does not love her less, now that "the caged heart makes iron stroke." And so this death-laden image leads him to see this silent hour's term as practice for eternity. This is hardly the familiar carpe diem theme. If the lovers have seized this day for pleasure, it is with the awareness that such pleasure is rigidly limited in duration and ultimately subject to oblivion.

If one were to speculate on personal revelation here, what might one hazard? Almost a dozen years had passed since Warren had met Emma Brescia and seven years since they had married. They had gone from flirtation to infatuation, to passion and love. After separation, illness, and increasing conflict they were still together, though at increasing emotional and physical cost. If Allen Tate was right, she still held him with strong bonds of sexual passion, but her demands upon him and her possessiveness and jealousy had been encroaching ever more strongly, not just upon their own relationship but also upon his relationships with most of his friends. A short consideration of this poem—with its entwined images of light and grass and water, the wavering motions of descent downward to darkness, the dying of the day and the inevitable victory of death over love—can only suggest its richness. One indication of its centrality is the fact that the poet would include it in each of his volumes of collected poems.

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Criticism Overview
Title Joseph Blotner: On "Bearded Oaks" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Joseph Blotner Criticism Target Robert Penn Warren
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 21 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Penn Warren: A Biography
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