Over time it has become increasingly evident that this sonnet struck a note which became central to the work of many of the major poets of the first quarter of the twentieth century. Anticipating the sorrowful observation of his younger contemporary LS. Eliot, that in our time the ancient song of the nightingale had degenerated into the "Jug Jug" of dirty ears, Frost focused on the transformation and diminution of Whitman's central symbol for the poet. In the midsummer, midwood song of the ovenbird, Frost hears a parable of the modem poet who, unlike those poets who can burst into song only in the spring, has learned the ovenbird's paradoxical trick. He has learned how to sing an unlyrical song in those times that are not at all conducive to joyous song.
When "The Oven Bird " was published in Mountain Interval (1916), Frost's third collection of poems, its reception among readers displeased the poet. That reception drove him to warn his friend Sidney Cox that "The Oven Bird" was not of "the large things in the book." He cautioned further, obviously worried over the unsubtle impact of the poem's last two lines, "You mustn't be misled by anything that may have been laid down to you in school into exaggerating the importance of a little sententious tag to a not over important poem." What other readers found in the poem is evident from Frost's complaint to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant that the last two lines of his poem had "been used unjustly against New England." Just how they had been misused Frost apparently chose not to explain to Mrs. Sergeant, nor did he wish to explain that his poem was purely in the New England tradition. There is no denying the validity of Mrs. Sergeant's emphasis upon "the tragic background of the poet who writes from the heart of the life that he knows and divines"; but much of the varied, rich life the poet knew, divined, and portrayed, it should be observed, shows the impact of the books he read and chose to love. Fully alert to classical Western literary traditions, Frost was acutely aware of the romantic tradition of New England, whose poets, in the flowering of New England literature, opened the way for Frost's own poetry of embattlement and resistance in addition to blazing a path followed by dozens of lesser writers.
The New England context of Frost's poem has never been fully investigated. In the paragraphs which follow, I shall try to locate some of the immediate sources for Frost's decision to turn the ovenbird into a surrogate for the poet. Clear hints for the ovenbird as symbol, I shall maintain, came from three writers (though there may have been others) whose work varies greatly in intrinsic literary merit—Henry David Thoreau, Bradford Torrey (Thoreau's editor at the turn of the century), and Mildred Rowells (the daughter of William Dean Rowells). The line can be drawn chronologically.
Reimagining his dramatic withdrawal to the Concord woods, Thoreau laments the fate that, in the few years since his removal, has befallen the woods encircling Walden Pond: "the woodchoppers have still further laid them waste, and now for many a year there will be no more rambling through the aisles of the wood, with occasional vistas through which you see the water. My Muse may be excused if she is silent henceforth." As nature's poet, then, Thoreau would fall as silent as the disappointed songbirds, for diminished nature—in this case, nature reduced through man's waste—silences both Muse and mortal song. "How can you expect the birds to sing," entones Thoreau, "when their groves are cut down?"
In Walden Thoreau fails to identify the ovenbird by name, but his journals contain several descriptions of the ovenbird and its sounds, along with several related descriptions of a "night- warbler." At various times Thoreau observes, in notes that were not lost on Frost, that (1) "the oven-bird thrums [a] sawyer-like strain," (2) "the hollow-sounding note of the ovenbird is heard from the depth of the wood," (3) the oven-bird's note is "loud and unmistakable, making the hollow woods ring," (4) its note, a true "woodland" sound, is "fresh emphatic." Thoreau suggests that he was able to distinguish the seasonal songs of the ovenbird, though he makes nothing of that fact.
Thoreau was as receptive to the ovenbird’s spring song, evidently, as he was to its midsummer song. But his puzzlement sometimes led him to ascribe the two songs to different species. Often mistaking the ovenbird for a different bird he chose to call a "night-warbler," he wrote enthusiastically about that "powerful singer": "It launches into the air above the forest, or over some hollow or open space in the woods, and challenges the attention of the woods by its rapid and impetuous warble, and then drops down swiftly into the tree-tops like a performer withdrawing behind the scenes, and he is very lucky who detects where it alights." For all his repute as a naturalist, Thoreau never managed to distinguish the ovenbird satisfactorily from the mysterious "night-warbler," confusing them time and time again. It is now generally conceded by ornithologists and Thoreau scholars alike that Thoreau's "mysterious" night-warbler and the seemingly different ovenbird, whose more characteristic song and daytime appearance were well known to Thoreau, were one and the same.
That the ovenbird sings two quite different songs was clear enough to Bradford Torrey. In 1900, while editing Thoreau's journals, Torrey wrote and published a Thoreauvian journey piece. Reconstructing the memorable incidents of a day's excursion to New Hampshire's Franconia Mountains (where Frost would later live), Torrey wrote of the ovenbird:
An oven-bird shoots into the air out of the forest below for a burst of aerial afternoon music. I heard the preluding strain, and, glancing up, caught him at once, the sunlight happening to strike him perfectly. All the morning he has been speaking prose; now he is a poet; a division of the day from which the rest of us might take a lesson. But for his afternoon role he needs a name. "Oven-bird" goes somewhat heavily in a lyric:
"Hark! hark! the oven-bird at heaven's gate sings"—you would hardly recognize that for Shakespeare.
Torrey notes with accuracy that the ovenbird can and does sing two distinctly different songs. The distinction between the songs is explained by one of Thoreau's modern editors. The ovenbird's "song is a series of short, ringing, emphatic notes that grow louder and louder as the tempo increases," she observes. "It is often called the teacher-bird because the song sounds like teacher repeated over and over again. The Ovenbird also has a beautiful flight song, most often heard in May and June, late in the afternoon or on moonlight nights."
For his own purposes Frost chose the ovenbird whose song is pedagogical, not lyrical. He reverses Torrey's emphasis, which was on the lyrical beauty of the afternoon song. Surely Torrey's view of the ovenbird was too conventional for Frost's more insistent taste and therefore wholly unsuited to the specific purposes of his parablelike poem. In Frost there is, of course, no indication that the ovenbird sings a beautiful flight song as well as the dry, sharp, rasping song for which it is better known. The existence of its melodious flight song is a fact not at all useful to the poet answering the sentimentalist whose song falters and fails before natural loss.
On one occasion Frost revealed that his poems were largely "a way out of something." He elaborated: "I could probably name twenty or thirty poems that were just answers to somebody that had . . . left me unsatisfied with the last thing he said in an argument." The possibility can be entertained, for its suggestive implications at least, that "The Oven Bird" constitutes just such an answer to the question framed by Mildred Howells in her Keatsian poem, "'And No Birds Sing'":
There comes a season when the bird is still Save for a broken note, so sad and strange, Its plaintive cadence makes the woodlands thrill With sense of coming change.
Stirred into ecstasy by spring's new birth, In throbbing rhapsodies of hope and love, He shared his transports with the listening earth And stormed the heavens above.
But now how should he sing—forlorn, alone— Of hopes that withered with the waning year, An empty nest with mate and fledgelings flown, And winter drawing near?
There can be no doubt, of course, that in quality, no matter what yardstick we use, Miss Howells's autumn poem does not measure up to Frost's. For one thing, it lacks immediate force and overall resonance. Its images too evidently belong to the pale, late Victorian poetry of nature. They remain static and generalized. Still, despite reservations, there is value and purpose in comparing the two poems. Sentimentality and loose structure notwithstanding, Miss Howells's poem does indicate a theme that Frost would find congenial: how, indeed, does one respond to the diminished thing that dry midsummer augurs and which autumn and winter all too surely realize?
The first line of Frost's sonnet seems to echo and answer the first line of "'And No Birds Sing'": "There is a singer everyone has heard" counters the line, "There comes a season when the bird is still." Moreover, if a "broken note . . . of plaintive cadence" predicts "coming change" in the Howells poem, the sterner song of Frost's ovenbird, in describing facts as they are, " makes the solid tree trunks sound again."
The middle stanza of Miss Howells's poem moves back in time to recall the retrospective irony of the bird's ecstasy when it was fostered by "spring's new birth." By contrast, in midpoem Frost's ovenbird reminds us dryly and matter-of-factly that spring's luxuriance of flowers diminishes by midsummer in the ratio of "one to ten." Then in the eleventh line Frost fashions another answer to "'And No Birds Sing.'" The question asked in the Howells poem, "how should he sing" of withered hopes in a "waning year" as winter encroaches upon life, is answered: the ovenbird "knows in singing not to sing." Frost concludes his poem, not by asking Howells's question of whether the ovenbird should sing (he takes it for granted that he must sing) but by defining the question which the bird's songless song frames.
Like his ovenbird of midsummer song, the poet that Frost continued to recognize in himself was one who faced the hardest of facts: seasonally; but above all historically; the world has diminished, and "dust is over all." Still, the difficulty of the situation cannot reduce the durable poet to compliance: he resists the fact, and his resistance becomes the impulse—bone and sinew—for his poem. When Frost decided that "a poet must lean hard on facts, so hard, sometimes, that they hurt," he discovered as well that what "the facts do to you . . . transforms them into poetry."
In seasons of human displacement, the Muse will continue to spite Thoreau (and his less durable followers) by disdaining silence. Transposed to a different key; it will speak but only to that poet whose lyric voice has been stripped of all traditional lyricism.
From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.