By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Published in his collection West Running Brook in 1928, ‘Tree at My Window’ is one of Robert Frost’s finest poems. In just sixteen lines, Frost explores the relationship between man and nature, and provides a slightly different take on this relationship from that seen in the work of earlier, Romantic poets. You can read ‘Tree at My Window’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.
Many of Robert Frost’s greatest poems feature trees and woods – witness, for instance, his ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ – and many of his poems take as their starting-point a simple observation of nature that then prompts a deeper meditation. (We might compare his friend, the English poet Edward Thomas here.)
However, ‘Tree at My Window’ is something of a departure, since it is a nature poem in which nature is observed from indoors; rather than stopping on his horse as he passes the woods, Frost is observing a tree outside his window while he sits inside.
In the first stanza of ‘Tree at My Window’, Frost begins by addressing the tree in tautological terms which almost recall a child’s song: ‘Tree at my window, window tree’. The last two lines add nothing to the meaning of the first four, but they set the blithe, relaxed tone that dominates the whole poem.
The poet (we might talk of the poem’s ‘speaker’, although this poem, an example of the personal lyric, is obviously based on Frost himself to a great extent) tells this ‘window tree’ that he lowers his sash window when night comes, closing it, but he doesn’t like to draw the curtain across the window to block out the tree.
In the second stanza, Frost continues to address the tree at his window as a ‘dream-head’ that rises out of the ground, its branches and leaves as ‘diffuse’, almost, as the wisps of a cloud. But just as we think that the poet might be gearing up to praise the tree’s profundity, or what it can teach him about life, Frost pulls the rug out from under us, announcing that even if all of the ‘light tongues’ (i.e. the branches) of the tree’s ‘head’ could talk, they could not say anything significant.
In the third stanza, we get a ‘turn’ of sorts, announced by that word ‘But’. There is some kinship between man and tree, between poet and nature: just as Frost has seen the tree ‘taken and tossed’ in the wind or in a storm, so the tree has ‘seen’ Frost tossing and turning as he sleeps at night.
The final stanza sees Frost confirming this idea of his ‘window tree’ as a kindred spirit, with the tree concerned with ‘outer’ and Frost with ‘inner, weather’. The tree is buffeted and assaulted by real weather; Frost, as a member of the human race, has to cope with ‘inner’ weather, i.e. turbulent thoughts, feelings, worries, anxieties, and the rest of it.
So, is this a traditional nature poem or not? On the one hand, it is something new: the poet retains the barrier of the window between him and the tree, so this is no Wordsworth out frolicking among the daffodils. (We might consider a slightly later poem, ‘Snow’ by Louis MacNeice, as a point of comparison with ‘Tree at My Window’: in ‘Snow’, MacNeice ponders the snow falling outside the window, with the window an important part of the poet’s experience of nature.)
And another feature which marks out ‘Tree at My Window’ as anything but a traditional Romantic nature poem is Frost’s no-nonsense rejection of the idea that nature can teach us anything: the tree in Frost’s poem is not only dumb, but ‘dumb’, if you will. Even if it could talk, it wouldn’t exactly start holding forth about the works of Euclid or the moral implications of Kant’s categorical imperative.
But despite this, Frost does still follow the Romantics in identifying his own plight with that of the natural world, even if he rejects the didactic notion that nature provides wisdom or profundity.
There’s even a touch of tongue-in-cheekness (as it were) in that final stanza, which seems to go beyond the homespun colloquial style of writing that Frost made his own: the idea of Fate putting their ‘heads together’, like a boss bringing two colleagues together to work on a project, might be considered borderline sacrilege to first-generation Romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge, or, indeed, to the Transcendentalists of the mid-nineteenth century in America.
But this offhand, chatty style only renders the sentiment Frost expresses even more sincere and convincing, because it is, like that tree’s roots, down to earth.
‘Tree at My Window’ is written in quatrains, rhymed abba (this is known as enclosed rhyme or envelope rhyme). However, note how Frost doesn’t rigidly stick to full ‘rhyme’ throughout: in the first stanza, we get pararhyme (on/drawn), in the second we get full rhymes but some overlap between the a and b rhymes (with the repeated ‘ow’ sound in ground/cloud/aloud/profound), and in the final stanza we get rhyme that spans multiple words (‘outer’ is rhymed with ‘about her’).
This gives the impression of a casual, natural approach: although the poem is carefully structured, much as the window (and house) in which Frost sits and writes was built according to a plan, it isn’t too rigid, much as nature, represented by that tree, cannot be reduced to simple formulae (that tree is the ‘most diffuse’ thing after notoriously nebulous clouds).
Given the focus on the poet’s own inner mind in the final line of the poem, Frost probably also wants us to call to mind the idiom about ‘having one’s head in the clouds’, specially as we get ‘dream-head’ followed by ‘cloud’.
About Robert Frost
Robert Frost (1874-1963) is regarded as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century. And yet he didn’t belong to any particular movement: unlike his contemporaries William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens he was not a modernist, preferring more traditional modes and utilising a more direct and less obscure poetic language. He famously observed of free verse, which was favoured by many modernist poets, that it was ‘like playing tennis with the net down’.
Many of his poems are about the natural world, with woods and trees featuring prominently in some of his most famous and widely anthologised poems (‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, ‘Birches’, ‘Tree at My Window’). Elsewhere, he was fond of very short and pithy poetic statements: see ‘Fire and Ice’ and ‘But Outer Space’, for example.