A Short Analysis of Philip Larkin’s ‘The Trees’
A summary of a classic Larkin poem
‘The Trees’ was written by Philip Larkin in June 1967, and published seven years later in his final collection, High Windows. One of Larkin’s most popular lyrics about nature, ‘The Trees’ is at once a celebration of nature and a poem about death. You can read ‘The Trees’ here; read on for our analysis of it.
In summary, first, then: the first stanza observes that the trees are growing their leaves again, yet goes on to remark that the trees’ ‘greenness’ is ‘a kind of grief’. The second stanza then explains why this is so: although the trees appear to be ‘born again’ each year with the flowering of their new leaves, the trees do in fact age just as we do, and, eventually, they die, too. Their age is ‘written down’ in the rings in the trunk of the tree. In the third stanza, Larkin reflects that, despite this fact, the trees – described grandly as ‘unresting castles’ – go on, their leaves growing back full each year. There is a suggestion in this final stanza of starting over ‘afresh’ and not dwelling on the past – assuming we take Larkin’s poem to be about more than just the trees’ cycle of flowering and shedding, and extend his metaphor to encompass our own attitudes to living.
And indeed, we are encouraged to see our lives and the lives of the trees as related. Note the way Larkin uses human activities throughout this poem, to personify the trees: they come into leaf like something ‘almost being said’; their age is ‘written down’ in their rings of grain; the trees ‘seem to say’ that last year is in the past, so begin ‘afresh, afresh, afresh’. The repetition of this word in the poem’s final line suggests the swaying of the trees’ leaves in the wind, a soft sibilant sound. It is as if the very words of this last line are almost like ‘something being said’ – as if Larkin’s poem is emulating the sound the trees make.
The abba stanza structure also echoes the cyclical nature of the trees, coming into leaf every spring only to lose their leaves in the autumn. Yet the elegiac tone that haunts the poem – the trees, like us, are destined to die – is also arguably reflected by this choice of rhyme scheme and metre, both of which echo the abba quatrains of the greatest elegy of the nineteenth century, Tennyson’s In Memoriam. So, through this inspired choice of stanza form, Larkin uses rhyme and metre to reflect both the cyclical world of nature and the awareness that death still exists in this world of renewal and rebirth.
‘The Trees’ is a brief lyric that examines our own mortality, and running counter to that, our determination to carry on despite (or perhaps because of) this knowledge that our time is limited. It is one of Larkin’s finest poems about the natural world, but it is also about us, too.
‘The Trees’ is one of many, many gems to be discovered in Philip Larkin: Collected Poems. We thoroughly recommending getting hold of this volume. Discover more about his poetry with our commentary on ‘Sunny Prestatyn’, our thoughts on Larkin’s short masterpiece ‘Days’, and our summary of Larkin’s great poem about the environment.
Posted on October 4, 2016, in Literature and tagged Analysis, Books, Close Reading, English Literature, Literary Criticism, Philip Larkin, Poetry, Summary, The Trees. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.