Lesa Carnes Corrigan: On "Bearded Oaks"

Love and death, timeless subjects in themselves, were the favorite subjects of the Metaphysicals, and like Eliot, Warren addresses these aspects of human experience with the added urgency of modern alienation. Since time brings loss, the desire to remain fixed and motionless is tempting, like the scene presented in "Bearded Oaks." In what Justus calls "an impeccable updating of Marvell," "Bearded Oaks" portrays two lovers who lie suspended in a state of marine-like velleity "Beneath the languorous tread of light" (CP, 65), retreating into complacency instead of acting upon the awareness of mortality.

Warren's lovers, detached from the world of sense and time, passively lie on the ocean-bottom of existence ("Twin atolls on a shelf of shade"), where the "storm of noon" cannot touch them. "Passion and slaughter, ruth, decay" (CP, 66) sift like sediment through the murk of their inertia:

All our debate is voiceless here,

As all our rage, the rage of stone;

If hope is hopeless, then fearless fear,

And history is thus undone.

But as we know from Warren's continued exploration of the past (especially in Brother to Dragons) history is never "undone," despite any attempts to detach oneself from responsibility and action. The end of the poem reminds us that any retreat can only be temporary:

We live in time so little time

And we learn all so painfully,

That we may spare this hour's term

To practice for eternity.

The assurance of mortality ("The caged heart makes iron stroke") appears to be the only aspect of life worth contemplating, thus any consideration of love becomes merely a matter of sterile sameness. The sense of peace the lovers experience is illusory and transitory. Unlike the "still moments" of Warren's later poetry, this preserved moment of stasis allows no vision beyond a contemplation of death.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Lesa Carnes Corrigan: On "Bearded Oaks" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Lesa Carnes Corrigan Criticism Target Robert Penn Warren
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 21 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Poems of Pure Imagination: Robert Penn Warren and the Romantic Tradition
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