The “I,” the voice of the speaker of Adrienne Rich’s poem, “The Trees,” is a voice with a body engaged in activities and sensing intrusions that are not organic to the conventions of a nature poem. This is, in fact, an (un)natural poem that narrates the struggle of a population of trees to escape the confines of a greenhouse. In evoking the trees’ “strain,” the poem demonstrates the unsuitability of language itself as a greenhouse or container of nature. The speaker is a witness to the trees’ exodus, but distances herself from participating in the making of something out of the spectacle. She “sit[s]” and “writ[es]” but not poems, “long letters,” in which she “scarcely mention[s] the departure / of the forest.” Even though the speaker addresses an audience, her own “head is full of whispers”—she’s an audience as well. We, however, the audience to the poem, are compelled by the command: “Listen.” The speaker reaches across the barrier between poem and audience, a transaction that occurs on a page, and says: Listen, you.
Adrienne Rich articulates her consciousness of the many levels of inner and outer and the blurring of the boundaries between them. The trees, “long-cramped… under the roof” are trying to get out while the speaker remains in the space the trees long to escape. An open door makes the “night” and the “whole moon” and the “sky” available to the speaker; at the same time, through this door “the smell of leaves… / still reaches” back in. The speaker’s “head” is another interior, implicitly entered by “whispers.”
The poetess is especially intrigued by her image of the trees “like newly discharged patients / half-dazed”. In addition, the speaker’s sense of her head “full of whispers,” occurring one verse later, links to these “discharged patients.” They’re patients of a mental hospital.
text book questions & answers
Q1:Find, in the first stanza, three things that cannot happen in a treeless forest.
A: The three things that cannot happen in a treeless forest are the sitting of a bird on trees, the hiding of insects and the sun burying its feet in the shadow of the forest.
Q2: What picture do these words create in your mind: “... sun bury its feet in shadow...”? What could the poet mean by the sun’s ‘feet’?
A: The sun radiates heat and the given words create a picture of the hot, radiating sun cooling its feet in the cool shadow of the forest. The sun’s ‘feet’ refers to its rays that reach the earth.
Q3: Where are the trees in the poem? What do their roots, their leaves and their twigs do?
A: In the poem, the trees are in the poet’s house. Their roots work all night to disengage themselves from the cracks in the veranda floor. The leaves make efforts to move towards the glass, while the small twigs get stiff with exertion.
Q4:What does the poet compare their branches to?
A: The poet compares the ‘long-cramped’ branches that have been shuffling under the roof to newly discharged patients who look half-dazed as they move towards the hospital doors after long illnesses and wait to get out of the hospital. The branches also have cramped under the roof and want to get out into the open to spread themselves in fresh air.
Q5: How does the poet describe the moon : (a) at the beginning of the third stanza, and (b) at its end? What causes this change?
A: In the beginning of the third stanza, the poet says that the whole moon is shining in the open sky in the fresh night. However, at the end of the stanza, she describes the moon as broken into many pieces such as a shattered mirror.
This change is caused by the trees that have made their way from her home to outside. Their branches have risen into the sky, blocking the moon, which is why the moon seems to be broken into many pieces. These pieces can be seen flashing at the top of the tallest oak tree.
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