The Trees - Philip Larkin

General notes

Poem is about the trees, which are being used as an extended metaphor for life, death and renewal.  Philip Larkin was a 20th century poet who often wrote on very depressing subject matters, and particularly wrote about everyday events or sights, using them as metaphors for his view of the world.

Stanza One

Ll 1-2: The poem begins in spring, a time where Larkin believes that things should be renewing.  ‘Something almost being said’ suggests that there is something hidden in this environment, that is euphemistic for something.  A euphemism is where we say something by saying something else, usually because it is unpleasant to say. As though the scene is euphemistic for the natural world renewing - and yet also the ‘grief’ which Larkin sees in it.

L. 3: Larkin focuses in on the tree, looking at the detail of the ‘recent buds’, which ‘relax and spread’ by coming into flower.  Alliteration creates a sense of slowness and smoothness, mirroring the blossoming flowers. Rhyme scheme also mirrors this, more concentrated in the middle and spreading out at the edges.  Might also think of the rhyme in the poem as like a ripple or as the circles inside a tree-trunk.

L. 4: For some reason, Larkin suggests that the green of the tree is instead ‘a kind of grief’, defying the reader’s expectations.  He may be saying that the grief is for the old leaves - in order to have new leaves there must be old leaves preceding it. All life also means death for the thing, so new life is simply another thing waiting for death in Larkin’s eyes.  For Larkin in the poem the nature of seasons as dying and then beginning defies or tries to defy the fact that the individual leaves will die. Tree itself might represent human life, where the leaves are individuals. Alliteration, personification and assonance are all used in these lines, assonance of ‘green’ and ‘grief’ links the new leaves to grief through sound.

 

Stanza Two

Ll. 5-7:  Larkin opens the stanza by questioning whether the trees are immortal creatures which renew, then quickly and bluntly answers himself in ‘No, they die too’.  Instead, he says they have a ‘yearly trick’ of ‘looking new’. The idea of a ‘trick’ creates an atmosphere of disappointment and a sense of having been disillusioned about the nature of the world.  ‘The word ‘looking’ suggests that their renewal is only superficial.

L. 8:  In the final line of the stanza, Larkin notes that the ‘trick’ is proven by the fact that the rings in the trees show a reader that the trees themselves are still aging.  The rings prove the fact that - ironically unlike rings - the trees themselves are not unending. The trees are compared to people, who might put on a face of renewal, but are actually still aging.  

‘Written down’ also compares the trees to wrinkles on a human face, or to Larkin’s own poetry which acknowledges his aging.

 

Stanza Three

Ll. 9-10:  The trees are compared to ‘unresting castles’, so they are great, sleepless creations which seem to symbolize both natural renewal and human creations.  ‘Castles’ are also associated with strength and fortification against attack, suggesting that the trees also are well guarded against the attacks of time.  They are ‘unresting’ (despite their dormancy in the winter) due to their constant need to fight against age. The castles ‘thresh’ and burst into leaf in ‘fullgrown thickness’ in the spring every year, fighting against the oncoming tide of age.  The sound of the lines are very heavy in ‘th’ consonants (fricatives) which here create a sense of fullness and clustering or claustrophobia even in the lines. This perhaps is meant to mirror the fullness and thickness of the leaves.

‘May’ might actually refer to a Shakespeare poem - in Sonnet 18 Shakespeare writes ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May/ And summer’s lease hath all too short a date’.  In these lines, Shakespeare is commenting on the brevity of life, particularly of the beauty of spring which is over quickly.

Ll. 11-12:  Tone seems to change slightly in the last two lines of the poem.  They acknowledge the transience of the year which has died, yet the words of the trees have become slightly more positive, determined to begin again despite the cycle of death in which they caught.  The line communicates Larkin’s attempt to portray the resilience of living beings against the briefness of their lives. Despite death, there is always renewal and the natural world is seen as determined to embrace that renewal, whatever else happens.  There is possibly some irony in the last words, which are repeated rather than beginning afresh, despite the fact that that repetition shows determination.

 

Structure

  • Rhyme scheme (abba) always returns to the past, showing and conveying the cycles of life which occur in the poem.

  • Poem is in iambics, and because the syllables in a line are six it is also in tetrameter.  The effect of the rhythm is to create a steadily moving beat which moves inevitably forwards despite its slowness, showing the inevitable progression of time.  

  • Structure also creates a sense of renewal by mirroring the pattern of each previous stanza in the next one.

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