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Tennessee Williams' "How calmly does the orange branch"

Updated on December 26, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Tennessee Williams

Source

Introduction and Text of "How calmly does the orange branch"

The theme of Tennessee Williams' "How calmly does the orange branch," from his play, The Night of the Iguana, is a common one of connecting love lost, aging and dying, and courage.

The speaker compares his own situation to that of an orange tree, and in doing so commits the pathetic fallacy in an especially distracting way that gives the poem an unappealing comic effect.

How calmly does the orange branch

How calmly does the orange branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer
With no betrayal of despair.

Sometime while night obscures the tree
The zenith of its life will be
Gone past forever, and from thence
A second history will commence.

A chronicle no longer gold,
A bargaining with mist and mould
And finally the broken stem
The plummeting to earth; and then

An intercourse not well designed
For beings of a golden kind
Whose native green must arch above
The earth's obscene, corrupting love.

And still the ripe fruit and the branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer
With no betrayal of despair.

O courage, could you not as well
Select a second place to dwell,
Not only in that golden tree
But in the frightened heart of me?

Reading of "How calmly does the orange branch"

Commentary

First Stanza: The Orange Tree Observes the Sky

How calmly does the orange branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer
With no betrayal of despair.

The speaker remarks on how the "orange branch" can "observe the sky" as it ages, yet it simply observes without complaint and without prayer for a different circumstance. The tree does not experience feelings of "betrayal of despair."

The pathetic fallacy here makes even the most immature reader giggle and think that, of course, a tree does not weep, pray, or suffer despair—at least not as a human being does.

Yet on the other hand, might other species beside the human experience some form of these emotions?

Second Stanza: A Second History

Sometime while night obscures the tree
The zenith of its life will be
Gone past forever, and from thence
A second history will commence.

The speaker then reports that after the highpoint of the tree's life is gone, it will undergo a "second history." He again waxes quite poetic by metaphorically employing "night" in its capacity to "obscure[ ] the tree," a situation which heralds the "second history."

Third Stanza: A Tree Past Its Prime

A chronicle no longer gold,
A bargaining with mist and mould
And finally the broken stem
The plummeting to earth; and then

The tree past its prime is "no longer gold," reminding the reader of Robert Frost's little ditty, "Nothing Gold Can Stay." The dying tree then begins "bargaining with mist and mould," as it suffers "the broken stem," while "plummeting to earth."

The peculiar little drama, however, is only one of many which could befall the tree in its existence and demise. There is no particular reason even for this tree to be "plummeting to earth."

Fourth Stanza: Arching Above Corruption

An intercourse not well designed
For beings of a golden kind
Whose native green must arch above
The earth's obscene, corrupting love.

The speaker becomes especially befuddled in this stanza's scene; he insists that "beings of a golden kind" are not "well designed" to experience interaction with the "earth's obscene, corrupting love." The tree's colors are meant to "arch above" such corruption.

The speaker's shift from a dying tree perhaps destroyed in a storm and/by lightning to the earth's venal love results in a disengagement within the speaker's theme set. His metaphoric logic breaks down comically and unfortunately because he has attempted to liken a tree's aging process to a human being's and that comparison does not transcend the divide of the species.

Fifth Stanza: A Refrain

And still the ripe fruit and the branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer
With no betrayal of despair.

The fifth stanza reveals a desperate attempt to provide a refrain that has not become habituated to the rest of the poem. So the claims that the "ripe fruit and the branch" continue to "observe the sky" in the same manner as in the opening cause two problems: (1) the speaker seems to have forgotten that he has felled the tree, so (2) he simply repeats his fancied refrain instead of addressing the issue.

Sixth Stanza: Addressing Courage

O courage, could you not as well
Select a second place to dwell,
Not only in that golden tree
But in the frightened heart of me?

With much confusion, the reader confronts the final stanza, which addresses "Courage"; the speaker implores "Courage" to dwell in him as well as in the "golden tree." Thus, he again commits the pathetic fallacy giving the tree courage as well as the calmness he bestowed on it in the beginning.

The Vacuity of the Pathetic Fallacy

It can become a daunting task to try to dramatize human emotions in such a way as to communicate the true depth and breadth of those feelings. That difficulty sometimes leads unskilled poets and flaming poetasters to rely on the pathetic fallacy.

John Ruskin, the Victorian literary critic, coined the term, and he insisted that its use reflected a false vision. And of course, it is certainly a false vision to assert that plants, animals, and inanimate objects think and feel as human beings do. The poet who employs the pathetic fallacy is nearly always merely projecting his/her own feelings on to the chosen object.

In the hands of the unskilled poet, the pathetic fallacy usually comes off just sounding silly as it distracts from the message. However, skilled poets like William Wordsworth have employed the pathetic fallacy with such finesse that the reader knows immediately that the speaker is merely expressing his own emotions through enhancement with dramatic means.

Recitation from the Movie

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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