Personal Poetry: “The Trees” by Philip Larkin

Spring is blooming belatedly in New England this year. After a series of false starts, the warmth of the sun in the longer daylight hours is a cause of celebration. Yet counting the daffodils sprouting in my yard fills me with despondence. With the reawakening of nature, my mind wanders to thoughts of loss. These feelings have only heightened with age. However, I am not alone. Many poets have used the imagery of spring to express their discontent. One standout is Philip Larkin’s “The Trees”, in which the English poet delves into the inherent pessimism of the season.

Larkin begins “The Trees” with an unassuming observation: “The trees are coming into leaf/Like something almost being said.” The trees are almost trying to speak to Larkin. In the next line, he reveals his interpretation, “The recent buds relax and spread,/Their greenness is a kind of grief.” These trees are not joyously celebrating new life. They welcome the fresh buds with grief. These new buds are not the symbol of rebirth. Instead, the leaves are another year of growth.

In the second stanza, the mourning for the passage of time becomes more apparent. “Is it that they are born again/And we grow old? No, they die too,/Their yearly trick of looking new/Is written down in rings of grain.” The trunks and branches of the trees survived the winter but these are new buds blossoming. The leaves Larkin observed in springs of the past, withered from the trees in autumn. It is a mere illusion of rejuvenation. The rings inside tell the truth. These trees are aging just as humans do.

However, in the final stanza, Larkin writes, “Yet still the unresting castles thresh/In fullgrown thickness every May./Last year is dead, they seem to say,/Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” There is cautious optimism in his words. Even as the trees age, they are planted in the present. They no longer live in the past. Even if they will die one day, they must live today.

Commonly framed as the season of burgeoning new life, spring is, conversely, a season of endings. Even as we delight in the blossoming of flowers or the chirps of hatchlings, there is the ever-present knowledge that those are merely the most recent blooms and birds. The sprouts we nurtured and admired last spring have aged or faded. Nothing is truly “afresh, afresh, afresh,” instead it is only our yearning to believe that such renewal exists. The fountain of youth, even illusionary, is a mere myth for humanity.

Further Reading

The Complete Poems by Philip Larkin

Similar Poets to Discover

Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems 1927-1979
W. H. Auden, Collected Shorter Poems 1927–1957
Robert Frost, The Poetry of Robert Frost

Katelyn Varley writes poetry and prose. When not engaging in wordplay, she teaches swimming to all ages. She graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA with a degree in History. She lives in Ayer, MA with her partner, two dogs, and a cat. Find her on Twitter @HistKB.


Personal Poetry

Emily Dickinson, “I Am Nobody”

Approaching poetry can be intimidating. It is a form layered in symbolism and metaphor. Reading a poem can feel like putting together a puzzle, with readers asking themselves questions about the poet’s meaning throughout. But poetry is a profound literary experience that can shine a light and reveal truth and beauty about a subject. This is why each month here at Mill Pages I will exploring poetry. I’ll explore ways to read it, recommend poets, and discuss what draws me into a specific poem. There are many ways to interpret a poem and I look forward to hearing what each poem means to you as well.

For this first installment, I am choosing the first and only poem I’ve memorized, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” by Massachusetts poet, Emily Dickinson. I am drawn to Dickinson’s lyric poetry because her style is simple and direct. Even when she is concerned with dark topics such as death and mortality, her style remains accessible. She entices readers with confessions and often reveals her vulnerability within her writing.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?

When I read those opening lines I feel as if Dickinson is whispering directly to me. She introduces herself and immediately attempts to identify kinship and develop a confidence with the reader. She wants to trust the reader.

There there is a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

This is my favorite line of the poem, Dickinson has established her relationship with the reader and cautions for safety. She doesn’t want to have her confidence betrayed nor does she want to lose her newfound companion. This is also the first indication that there is a separate group of people from who Dickinson and, presumably the reader, feel alienated from.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

The second quatrain concerns the second group, the Somebodies. Along with her fear of this group, Dickinson also pities and chaffs at them. For Dickinson, famously recluse, this is often interpreted to be referring to shying away from publication or fame. On a larger level, however,  Somebodies can be interpreted to be celebrities, authorities, bullies, attention-seekers, or even just the local gossips, croaking their name or accomplishments to the murky, potentially empty bog of an audience. It conveys a universal feeling of being left out of a group.

For Dickinson and the other Nobodies, the preferance is to be left alone to work quietly and form kinships with other like-minded individuals. I hope every Nobody reading this finds another Nobody to whipser to.

Further Reading

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Similar Poets to Discover

Katelyn Varley writes poetry and prose. When not engaging in wordplay, she teaches swimming to all ages. She graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA with a degree in History. She lives in Ayer, MA with her partner, two dogs, and a cat. Find her on Twitter @HistKB.