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Analysis of Poem "The Trees" by Philip Larkin

Updated on October 3, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Philip Larkin
Philip Larkin | Source

Philip Larkin and The Trees

The Trees is a short poem that focuses on renewal, specifically the new growth of leaves on trees that comes round annually, part of the seasonal cycle in Nature.

In essence, it is an observational poem with a kind of folk philosophy behind it, the speaker keenly aware of the profound changes going on and relating them to human mortality.

  • With heightened sensitivity to the natural world at springtime, the speaker's empathy also comes through. There is a need to understand and put into context the processes at work deep inside the tree. This adds an edge of mystery to the poem, essential to the working of the whole piece.

Philip Larkin is still highly regarded today as one of the most popular of British poets, technically astute in his portrayals of British life, the bespectacled explorer of events both urban and pastoral.

He was however a reluctant poet, never fully at ease with his popularity, shunning the limelight and presenting himself as a somewhat pessimistiic purveyor of poetics. He could be cynical, gloomy, perverse, yet his mastery of form and language and his acute perceptive powers shine through the depressions.

The Trees was written in 1967 and published in his book High Windows in 1974. It is one of several poems he wrote about spring and contains elements of sadness and happiness, grief and joy, despondency and hope. So typical of Larkin.

In the poem, the speaker acknowledges the unfathomable yet is resigned to the fact that both tree and human will eventually succumb to the natural processes constantly at work, impossible to avoid.

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf


Like something almost being said;

The recent buds relax and spread,

Their greenness is a kind of grief.


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.


Yet still the unresting castles thresh


In fullgrown thickness every May.

Last year is dead, they seem to say,

Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Analysis of The Trees

The Trees begins with a simple observation made by a speaker who is deeply aware of the changes going on in the life of trees. Although no mention is made of spring throughout the poem, the reader can quickly ascertain that it is that time of year when renewal occurs.

Use of the present participle, coming, brings immediacy and presence. These opening words invite the reader into the poem and into the re-awakened trees.

A simile is used to add a touch of mystery...Like something almost being said...as if the leaves were capable of communication, or articulating just what it means to be bursting out into fresh air.

You can picture the speaker standing by the tree, listening for the first vernal utterance as the soft, new leaf buds appear and start to slowly open. Is he listening for a hesitant whisper or trying to decode the budding essence.

The leaves are perhaps an expression of the tree's relief and release from the grip of winter; each leaf is a mini-rebirth, green energy waiting to offer itself to warmth and rain and hidden processes.

Relating colour to emotion, greenness to grief in this case, is a kind of projection, peculiar to the speaker - for how can one see or feel sadness in the green of spring, with all that latent hope and potential waiting for a warming, welcoming world?

Perhaps the second stanza gives a clue. The speaker questions and compares the renewal of the tree to the aging process in humans and concludes that the tree's bursting out in fresh foliage is merely a trick, a pretence. They may bring forth a show of regeneration but inside they're growing old too, and will eventually die, like we humans. Nature can be deceptive; why can't humans put on a face and accept decay, death and probable rebirth?

Is this the reason for greenness and grief? That the buds come out each spring means another ring indelibly formed in the grain. You could say this grief is experienced only by the speaker.

A ring may be a symbol of eternity but the reality is that trees are subject to death, like all humans.

More keen observation opens the third stanza, a powerful, stirring image of tall trees being blown around in the wind, metaphorical castles, brings the reader almost full circle.

Yet still....despite the pain of growth and the annual competition for survival, life can be lived to the full.

The trees are communicating again, only this time the language is different, more optimistic, declaring a repeated renewal, assonance rich, like a mantra - a new beginning is possible.

Further Analysis of The Trees

The Trees is a 3 stanza poem, with full end rhymes and a regular metre (meter in USA).

Rhyme

The rhyme scheme is abba cddc effe and all are full rhymes, sounding the same: leaf/grief. This helps enclose the sense and echoes the naturally occurring cycles in life.

Metre

Iambic tetrameter dominates this short poem. Each line has four stresses, producing a steady, paced rhythm. For example:

The trees / are com / ing in / to leaf

Like some / thing al / most be / ing said;

So, four beats/stresses per line giving a da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM feel to the reading. Naturally, when read, each reader will add their own unique voice and texture to the lines.

  • Line 9 is an exception, containing nine syllables, an extra beat:

Yet still / the un / resting / castles / thresh

This extra beat is sometimes given the name hyperbeat (masculine in this case), which changes the iambic to the trochaic - note the two trochees (DUM-da DUM-da)in the middle of the line - altering the rhythm, reflecting the unrest in the tall trees. And note the pyrrhic foot (da-da), neither syllable stressed.

  • Line 11 is different too:

Last year / is dead, / they seem / to say,

An inverted iamb, a trochee (DUM-da), starts this line. The other three feet are iambs.

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  • chef-de-jour profile image
    Author

    Andrew Spacey 2 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Yes, Larkin can be gloomy and grumpy but he's a true wordsmith. Appreciate the comment Ann.

  • annart profile image

    Ann Carr 2 months ago from SW England

    Great analysis, Andrew. I've always loved Philip Larkin's poetry. I studied some of it at school. He speaks to me and I can understand the depths, even though he's often pessimistic which I'm definitely not!

    You've made me want to go back to read some more of his work.

    Hope all's well with you.

    Ann