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On "Bearded Oaks"


Victor Strandberg

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.

from A Colder Fire: The Poetry of Robert Penn Warren. Copyright 1965 by The University of Kentucky Press.


Victor Strandberg

The image of a body totally given over to the underwater realm recurs as the master metaphor in "Bearded Oaks," where a pair of lovers so intensely imagine the state of being dead as to achieve an hour's "practice for eternity." Although there is no hope in this undersea kingdom, neither is there fear or rage or contention:

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.

For history to be undone is not at all a bad prospect for those to whom history represents merely a passage into a ruined world:

[....]

[T]he speaker in these poems—"Love's Parable," "Picnic Remembered," "Bearded Oaks," and "Monologue at Midnight"—has passed into such dread knowledge of naturalistic reality as to have attained the state James spoke of when "the self that consciously is can do absolutely nothing. It is completely bankrupt and without resource, and no works it can accomplish will avail." . . . "Bearded Oaks" goes still farther as its speaker spends his time intensely imagining what being dead is like, so as "To practice for eternity." In the submarine silence of this imagined state, "Passion and slaughter, ruth, decay / Descend, minutely whispering down," making hash of all human values: "All our debate is voiceless here, / As all our rage, the rage of stone; . . . And history is thus undone."

from The Poetic Vision of Robert Penn Warren. Copyright 1977 by the University Press of Kentucky.


James H. Justus

Arguably, even that most characteristic of Warren's early poems, "Bearded Oaks," is not solely lyric; its peculiar force, like that of similar poems in the metaphysical mode ("Picnic Remembered," "Love's Parable," "Monologue at Midnight," "The Garden") derives from the felt urgencies of narrative situations, situations condensed to scenes in which meditation replaces action. By its very nature, the purely meditative lyric is too static to admit the exercise of a temperament such as Warren's, given as it is to the interplay of excess, the dramatic clash of opposites conceived and drawn in large outline.

[. . . .]

It has occasionally been observed that Warren managed better than any other of his southern contemporaries, perhaps including Ransom, to write the kind of poetry that most of them admired and wrote about. The formal precision of such poems as "Bearded Oaks" and "Love's Parable" no doubt accounts for their popularity two or so decades ago: they illustrate perfectly the well-made poem, a conscious artifact whose careful intricacies of manner wedded to portentous matter invite New Critical analysis. With its "dull astronomers," "wastrel bankrupt," "the estate of man," "beshrewed," and especially its opening stanza beginning "As kingdoms after civil broil, / Long faction-bit and sore unmanned," "Love's Parable" is perhaps as close an imitation of Donne as any non-seventeenth-century poem. And despite a basic conceit suggestive of Donne ("Twin atolls on a shelf of shade"), "Bearded Oaks" is an impeccable updating of Marvell, with its compressed quatrains, sonorousness, gracefully phrased logic, slight syntactical inversions, and delicate adjustment of vowels to suggest an emotion consonant with the situation:

So, waiting, we in the grass now lie
Beneath the languorous head of light:
The grasses, kelp-like, satisfy
The nameless motions of the air

From Ransom, Warren learned very early not only the technical resources of strict forms but also the exciting modulations possible in poetic conventions, especially in forms in which dramatic situation takes precedence over purely lyrical evocation. From Tate, Warren observed how the dissociated modern sensibility, exploited so forcefully by Eliot and Pound, could be accommodated to the southern temperament, already known to an exasperated nation for its ragged paradoxes, its touchy sense of "difference," and its aesthetic responses to the fragmentation of ideals. . . . Warren’s personae, locked in their foresight of the extinction of the self, sink into complacency. Velleity , that lowest level of will, characterizes the recessive marine lovers of "Bearded Oaks" and "Picnic Remembered."

from The Achievement of Robert Penn Warren. Copyright 1981 by Louisiana State UP.


Joseph Blotner

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.

from Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1997. Copyright 1997 by Joseph Blotner.


Lesa Carnes Corrigan

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.

from Poems of Pure Imagination: Robert Penn Warren and the Romantic Tradition. Copyright 1999 by Louisiana State UP


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