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Frost: ‘The Sound of Trees’ — Poem Analysis

Frost’s ‘The Sound of Trees’ is not just about nature and the beauty of trees, as we might expect from the title. It’s a curious poem that expresses some quite unusual ideas — that the safety of home is not always positive, we shouldn’t always listen to the advice of others older and wiser than us, and that logical decisions aren’t always the best. Despite these controversial opinions, Frost makes a compelling argument about why, in some cases, he is right: travel and change can be more refreshing than repetition, and in life we should be allowed to experiment and make our own mistakes.

This analysis is tailored towards A Level CIE / Cambridge students, but it’s useful for anyone studying the poem at any level or on any exam board (including CCEA, AQA, Edexcel, WJEC / Eduqas, OCR).

Thanks for reading! If you find this resource useful you can take a look at our full Frost Poetry course here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/p/robert-frost-poetry

The Sound of Trees

I wonder about the trees.

Why do we wish to bear

Forever the noise of these

More than another noise

So close to our dwelling place?

We suffer them by the day

Till we lose all measure of pace,

And fixity in our joys,

And acquire a listening air.

They are that that talks of going

But never gets away;

And that talks no less for knowing,

As it grows wiser and older,

That now it means to stay.

My feet tug at the floor

And my head sways to my shoulder

Sometimes when I watch trees sway,

From the window or the door.

I shall set forth for somewhere,

I shall make the reckless choice

Some day when they are in voice

And tossing so as to scare

The white clouds over them on.

I shall have less to say,

But I shall be gone.

VOCABULARY

To bear — to carry or endure through something difficult

Dwelling place — living place / home

Pace — speed

Fixity — stability

Acquire a listening air — to change behaviour into being a listener

Tug — pull

Set forth — start off a journey

Reckless — irresponsible and impulsive

STORY / SUMMARY

The speaker tells us that the trees make him think. Why are humans happy to put up with the constant noise of trees, more than other noises, so close to their homes? We put up with them all day until we have no sense of what joyful task we were doing, and instead we just sit and listen to the noise of the trees. The trees talk of going (leaving), but they never get away themselves. As they grow older, they also grow wiser, and they keep talking — they also wish to stay in the same place once they mature. The speaker then switches back to himself, he says that sometimes when he watches the trees sway from the window or door of his house, his ‘feet tug at the floor’ — he also becomes rooted to the spot. He sways like a tree, his head resting on his shoulder, imitating their posture and movement. He says he will not stay put like them: ‘I shall set forth somewhere’, he won’t stay confined in the comforts of his own home but instead make ‘the reckless choice’ and travel or move to a different place. One day when they are ‘in voice’ and tossing around, as if to scare the white clouds above them to move on, he will have less to say than them, but at least he will be gone.

SPEAKER / VOICE

The speaker has a curious nature, he seems torn between listening to the advice of the trees — he interprets the noise they make as they are buffeted by the wind as saying that he should remain fixed and grow strong in his home, his ‘dwelling place’. At times he seems to listen to and accept the wisdom of the trees, imitating their movement and feeling at peace in his home. However, he is also resistant at other points in the poem — he uses the verbs ‘bear’ and ‘suffer’ to show that he is putting up with their opinion, and that it is difficult or damaging to him to listen to their advice, no matter how wise they may be. He definitively decides towards the end of the poem to ‘set forth for somewhere’ — although the abstract noun ‘somewhere’ somewhat undermines his confident decision, as he doesn’t have a clear plan of action in terms of where he will be travelling. Nevertheless, this seems to refresh him and he is aware that the journey may give him less wisdom, ‘less to say’, but at least he will experience a refreshing change in his environment.

LANGUAGE

Extended metaphor — The trees seem to be an extended metaphor for human nature, or for nature as a whole — and perhaps in their sound the speaker hears his own thoughts. They talk about going away, leaving the place where they’re rooted, when they’re young, but as they grow older they become more comfortable in their ‘dwelling place’ and are happy to stay there. Perhaps the speaker feels similar, he may have wanted to travel when young and become more comfortable in staying put in one place when he was older. Alternatively, we could see the trees as similar to mentors and older people that surround the speaker, giving him advice and wisdom — they have all made the decision to stay where they were born, and so they pass this same message onto him, although he is not sure whether this is the right decision for him personally.

Pun — ‘dwelling place’ — this phrase refers literally to the home, the space where the speaker lives, but the verb ‘dwell’ also has a secondary meaning similar to ‘think deeply about something’. If interpreted in this sense, perhaps the speaker is saying he needs to not think so deeply and instead take action — to physically change his situation rather than remaining passive.

Rhetorical question — the poem opens with a question: ‘Why do we wish to bear / Forever the noise of these …[trees]… So close to our dwelling place?’. It seems a little strange at first — why do we put up with the sound of trees? — as many of us may think of trees rustling as a pleasant rather than irritating noise. Yet, once we realise that the question is metaphorical, it makes more sense — Frost is asking us why we would put up with constant noise from those around us, perhaps constant advice and/or criticism from our family, friends and mentors, rather than just leave and start anew somewhere else.

Antithesis — the trees ‘[talk] of going/But never [get] away’, they seem hypocritical to the speaker — they talk about their own travels and experiences, but he never sees them go anywhere. This creates a kind of paradox which makes him less trustful of them. It seems that the reason they give is that as they became ‘wiser and older’, they learned that it was better to ‘stay’. The speaker seems to begrudge the trees and their advice, showing us that it is unfair that they had the opportunity to travel in their youth, yet they are telling him not to do this.

Anaphora — ‘I shall set forth from somewhere / I shall make the reckless choice’ — the speaker uses anaphora to deliver his grand statement about his decision to ignore the advice given. The adjective ‘reckless’ demonstrates that he is aware he’s choosing a deliberately dangerous, impulsive and illogical path — but just the act of defiance in itself, choosing not to listen, already allows him to be more expressive with his own identity and gives him confidence in himself. It seems that the most important thing for the speaker is to be given the freedom to make his own choices and mistakes, as that is the only way he will really feel true to himself and be able to explore the boundaries of his own character.

Personification — the trees are personified as both wise, strong characters, but characters that are also unsympathetic and belligerent — they give advice that is contrary to their own experiences, and expect others to take it. Their constant ‘talk’ is distracting and unhelpful for the speaker, who seems to desire some peace and the freedom to explore his own choices in life.

FORM/STRUCTURE

Single stanza — the poem is a single stanza that progresses one thought as it develops from the moment where the speaker hears the sound of trees and wonders about them. The poem itself looks quite like a tree trunk, or, with its irregular line length it also resembles a sound wave.

Volta — ‘I shall set forth for somewhere,’ — at the beginning of the poem the speaker is irritated by the ‘noise’ of the trees, but also respectfully listens to and tries to copy their advice. The turning point arises in this line, where he decides to embark on a journey away from his home even if it may not be the wisest decision, purely because he feels it is more true to himself and less restrictive than staying put where he is. There is uncertainty, too, in this line: the abstract noun ‘somewhere’ undermines his confident decision to resist the advice of the trees, or perhaps it just reflects the fact that sometimes important decisions we make in life should be based more on gut feelings than advice from others and logical steps to take. The decision is certainly liberating for the speaker, and it will prove refreshing for him to change his environment, even if it means starting again in a new place.

Rhyme scheme — A B A C D E D C B F E F G E etc — the poem has no set rhyme scheme, but certain lines do connect in rhyme with each other, creating a complex and disjointed feeling to the poem which sometimes harmonises and seems regular, and at others becomes chaotic. This is perhaps to express the idea of change and fixity, the fact that the house provides stability but the speaker is trying to find new experiences and move beyond its comfort and regularity.

ATTITUDES

Don’t always take the advice of people older and wiser than you — this opinion seems counter to logic and what we are commonly told, but Frost is often a contrary figure who defies logic and reason in his poems. If we interpret the trees as metaphors for wise, stable people around the speaker who are all advising him to stay in his ‘dwelling place’ and grow strong from there, we can see that something in the speaker’s nature defies this idea and is either bored or frustrated by it. He has tried to follow their counsel, but it has caused him to lose ‘all measure of pace/ and fixity in [his] joys’ — he is no longer enjoying life properly. The moral is that what works for one person or one personality type may not necessarily suit others, and so as individuals we must always remain true to our nature and not simply follow the advice of others, no matter how wise they may be, purely because we respect them more than we respect ourselves.

Nature can teach us about ourselves and our place in the world — the trees have a deep knowledge, they have grown strong as they stayed in the same place and became ‘wiser and older’, to a point where they were comfortable and stable in their environment. We can learn from them in this sense, as often the way in which nature behaves as it adapts and grows is also directly relevant to the human experience. Yet there is also something contrary about human nature, and Frost embraces this too in the poem.

Home is comforting, but sometimes it can also be restrictive — the speaker is tied to the house and can only observe the outside world from his ‘door’ or ‘window’. He is safe there and comfortable, but this also makes him passive — he doesn’t get much done. Instead of experiencing ‘joys’ and variety, he sits or stands in his house and ‘acquires a listening air’ — he absorbs the experiences of others, without experiencing anything himself. There is a sense that people must be allowed to make their own mistakes, that too much learning and listening and not enough action or direct experience of the world will leave us very dissatisfied and will prevent true growth and maturity.

Travel can also be a refreshing experience — The conclusion of the poem is that for the speaker, it is better to travel and to leave the comforts of his home. It may not give him as much stability or deep wisdom as staying in a safe environment may do, but he ‘shall be gone’ — a monosyllabic phrase which seems certain that going would be better, or at least more interesting and joyful, than staying put.

CONTEXT

Frost often uses the image of trees — in his poems, trees are often a wise presence that impart deep wisdom, but also they signify restraints and boundaries — especially when set out in rows. In poems such as ‘Stopping by Woods’ and ‘Into my Own’, forests of trees are shown as quite liberating, if dark, spaces, that allow one to explore and experience newness and an altered state of being if we become lost in them. Here, however, there is no forest but just a few trees that surround the house — their noise is constant, and it seems to irritate the speaker. The kind of boundary and fixity that these trees represent is restrictive and oppressive.

Frost led quite a restless life — never staying in one place for too long, Frost was born in California but moved when his father died (when he was 11) to Massachusetts. He also lived in New Hampshire and tried to settle into life as a farmer, but failed and pursued instead a career or writing and teaching literature. He also briefly moved to — and back from — England between 1912–1915 (having to move back because of the First World War). This poem expresses his restless nature, and the psychological mechanisms that compel him to not stay in one place for too long, always moving and searching for a more fulfilling life with a kind of wanderlust.

American Dream — Frost has an iconically American identity, and here he expresses the idea of the American Dream — that all individuals should be free to pursue their own ‘joys’ in life (In the Declaration of Independence it states that each American individual has a right to ‘the pursuit of happyness’, following and doing what makes them happy. Therefore, the speaker resolves that he has a right to not listen to the trees as they disrupt his experience of ‘joys’. This spirit is also similar to the pioneers who first explored new land in America and colonised unknown or dangerous places, they could also have been seen as ‘reckless’ by those who remained at home, and yet they arguably achieved great heights and led exciting, fulfilling lives (albeit to the detriment of indigenous Americans). It is arguable that Frost views his own approach to travel and exploration as similar to the pioneers who first colonised America.

THEMES

  • Home
  • Travel
  • Maturity
  • Nature / The wisdom of nature
  • Change vs Fixity
  • Criticism
  • Thought vs Action
  • Identity / Independence
  • Wanderlust (the desire to travel and experience new places or cultures)

Thanks for reading! If you find this resource useful you can take a look at our full Frost Poetry course here: https://scrbbly.teachable.com/p/robert-frost-poetry

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