Victor Strandberg: On "Bearded Oaks"

The first three poems of Eleven Poems . . . inquire anew whether Time the Destroyer does, as they say, render all things meaningless. In "Bearded Oaks," for example, two lovers "practice for eternity" by lying totally silent and motionless—cadavers under the ocean of eternity. Enveloped in "kelp-like" grasses under oaks "subtle and marine," what else can a thinking man do but contemplate his extinction in submarine "voicelessness," though ever so near his ladylove? The present seems still, emotionless, and dead because the past is so. Time resolves everything—even love—into ocean-bottom sediments at the last:

Passion and slaughter, ruth, decay

Descend, minutely whispering down,

Silted down swaying streams, to lay

Foundation for our voicelessness.

If even lovers can't talk to each other, there is little hope for ordinary friendship. Here is where Warren's religious sense enters: naturalism points towards sin not because it denies orthodox belief but because it renders other people as meaningless as one holds oneself. In fact, even more meaningless. Small as one's image is as reflected in another's eye ("Monologue at Midnight"), that image is even smaller in another's heart:

The match flame sudden in the gloom

Is lensed within each watching eye

Less intricate, less small, than in

One heart the other's image is.

Ultimately, Warren was to heal this sense of isolation by insisting (in Promises) that "we're all one Flesh, at last." But here no communication with others is possible (hence the "monologue") in this naturalistic "midnight." In "Picnic Remembered," too, the exterior darkness of naturalism that ends the picnic ("But darkness on the landscape grew") is accompanied by a growing inner darkness and despair making human communion void and sterile ("As in our bosoms darkness, too").

So the human picnic is soon over, the lovers cannot talk to each other, and one is left talking to oneself in midnight solitude. Time's ocean-bottom in "Bearded Oaks" is the ultimate truth of naturalism: a meaningless, homogeneous murk, without distinction or values. This is the place of "defect of desire," as Warren was later to call absolute and therefore spiritually paralytic despair. Here hope and fear alike are nonsense, as are rage and joy and all the other emanations of "desire":

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.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Victor Strandberg: On "Bearded Oaks" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Victor Strandberg Criticism Target Robert Penn Warren
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 21 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication A Colder Fire: The Poetry of Robert Penn Warren
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