Duck under the trailing beard of Spanish moss, and you'll catch two lovers lying there, silently, as day shifts into night. It's with that kind of intimacy that Robert Penn Warren leads you into "Bearded Oaks," published first in Poetry magazine in 1937, and anthologized pretty much ever since.
Warren won three Pulitzer Prizes, two for poetry and one for his novel All the King's Men, making him the only author to win for both genres. Warren was also named the first U.S. Poet Laureate in 1986. This guy was big, but not high and mighty. Far from it. He would have you read the poem for itself, and skip the supporting materials. (Don't do it, though. If he were around now, do you think he could resist getting his Shmoop on?) He famously wrote "The world means only itself." And, he'd have you know, the poem was its own kind of world.
Warren teamed up with a bunch of other Southern writers associated with Vanderbilt University (his alma mater and where he later taught) to form "The Fugitives." These Southern renegades were sick of all the sentimental claptrap and the insistence that everything should be read through a biographical lens. They wanted to break out of the theoretical handcuffs that were slapped on poetry back then. They pushed for a "New Criticism," which looked at just the poem and thinking for yourself. So, why not take a page from the Fugitives' book, take a peek under this oak? Maybe you can lie down there too to see the world as it's meant to be seen: as itself.
Why Should I Care?
Although better known for his novels, Robert Penn Warren's poems provide a much more intimate expression for this literary lion. If you've never experienced his poetry, this poem is a great introduction. It's pretty much "brand Warren,, given its subject and the way he approaches it; a natural scene sends this thinking, feeling man into a kind of reverie. Man is dwarfed by nature. What are all these little human trifles next to trees and sun and planetary movement? What can a little guy and his girl do against the dimming light, even if they're really in love? Warren said, "What is a poem but a hazardous attempt at self-understanding?" And here you were thinking poetry was for people who stayed inside, like stamp collectors.
It may seem to you that a poem like this is anything but hazardous. Even if you do venture out to experience it for yourself, where's the danger in lying under a tree and watching the sun go down? But if you let this poem draw you in, you too may be confronted with a vastness of a universe that is, well, pretty unsettling. Starting with a description of the trees and sunlight, this poem makes its way through until it reaches big questions of love, history's undoing, and eternity. If you've ever looked around you and wondered about the "big picture" of life, the universe, and everything, then this poem is for you.