A summary of a classic Larkin poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘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; or you can hear Larkin himself reading it here; read on for our analysis of it.
In summary, first, then: the first stanza observes that the trees are growing their leaves again, almost as if the trees are saying something. This hopeful, even celebratory start is then undercut by the fourth line of the first stanza, where the speaker remarks that the trees’ ‘greenness’ is itself ‘a kind of grief’, as if the trees are in mourning for something. This unusual assessment of springtime and new life as an indicator of grief is typical of Larkin’s outlook. The second stanza then explains this assessment: 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 (this is how we can tell the age of a tree: the number of rings its trunk bears). In the third stanza, Larkin reflects that, despite this fact that the trees are as mortal as we are, 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. It is as if the trees are telling us to leave the past behind and to begin afresh each year.
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 the trees 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 like the wind rustling through the leaves. 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.
And yet, of course, the trees only seem to say something: Larkin knows (he is, as the title of one of his earlier poetry volumes has it, the Less Deceived) that he is projecting human attributes onto the non-human trees, and that he sees in them a symbol for human attitudes to dying, mortality, and perseverance despite the knowledge that we are all ageing, one year at a time, with death as ‘the only end of age’ (as he puts it in another poem).
Nevertheless, for Larkin the trees are roughly like us: not nature ‘over there’, as is sometimes the case in nature poetry, although it’s true Larkin remains a detached observer. He’s not Wordsworth, frolicking among the woods and telling us about his deep kinship with the local birches. But despite this, there is a subtle kinship between Larkin the man (and, by extension, all humanity) and the trees: not only because the trees ‘die, too’ (i.e. like us mortal humans) and not just because their act of shedding and then re-growing their leaves each year is almost like the trees saying something, but because they are ‘castles’ – the natural becomes man-made in Larkin’s metaphor.
The abba stanza structure also echoes the cyclical nature of the trees’ existence, 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. It’s a cyclical form because it ends back where it started – ‘grief’ returns us to ‘leaf’, ‘grain’ to ‘again’, ‘afresh’ to ‘thresh’ – but it’s an elegiac form because, implied by such movement is a sense of restraint and limitation: the trees can no more transcend or cheat death than we can.
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. Note also the use of the violent word ‘thresh’ (associated with farming and agriculture) to describe the action of the trees: their ‘coming into leaf’ sounds like an act of struggle, rather than something that comes (as it were) naturally. Getting older takes its toll on us all, we might say – although ‘thresh’ can also be analysed as a defiant verb, showing the trees’ insistence on raging against the dying of the light (to borrow from Dylan Thomas). Yet for all this, ‘The Trees’ ends on a more hopeful and defiant note than many of Larkin’s other poems, which often conclude on a note of futility, despair, or disappointment. Not so with ‘The Trees’: here, Larkin seems to admire these castles of nature for keeping on, continuing to exist. It is last year which is dead, not the trees: time, and life, march on.
Such a reading of ‘The Trees’ is in keeping with Christopher Ricks’s analysis of Larkin’s poetry (in his The Force of Poetry), which he sees as poised between romanticism (hopeful and sometimes overly idealistic) and classicism (altogether more grounded and down-to-earth, sometimes to the point of being bluff and narrow-minded). These two forces are in tension in Larkin’s poetry, but many of his poems, while looking the realities of the world – such as the reality of death – square in the face, also contain a more celebratory side. This isn’t true of all of his poems, it’s true, but ‘romantic’ need not mean just ‘celebratory’: it might also mean overly sentimental, or self-pitying. The directness of the question-and-answer in lines 5-6 of ‘The Trees’ prevents the poem from an overly romantic strain, while the note of admiration in ‘unresting castles thresh’ and the upward joy of ‘afresh, afresh, afresh’ is held in check by the (verging-on-snide) tutting suggested in the idea that the trees are pulling a ‘trick’ in losing and then recovering their leaves each spring (which is then ‘written down’, like a police officer logging a petty crime).
The metre of ‘The Trees’ is remarkably regular: iambic tetrameter throughout, with strong, stressed line endings: leaf, said, spread, grief, and so on. This reflects the sturdiness of nature’s cycles: life goes on, even though individual trees, like us, are destined to die. Trees remain, even though a particular tree may die. The only variations are in line 5 (where ‘Is it’, which begins the line, is more naturally rendered as a trochaic substitution: ‘Is it’ rather than ‘Is it’) and line 9 (arguably, an elision in ‘the unresting’, which should be pronounced almost as ‘th’ unresting’, i.e. as three syllables rather than four, to maintain the regular metre).
‘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.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.