Study Guide

Bearded Oaks Speaker

By Robert Penn Warren

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If you've ever heard Robert Penn Warren read any of his work (check out "Best of the Web: Audio"), it's hard to get that thick, slow, consonant-swallowing drawl out of your mind when reading his poems. It's as though his voice lives there in the poem, waiting to sidle up beside you, throw a conspiratorial arm around your shoulder and bring you to face the vastness beyond the moment. Deep, right?

But to be fair to Warren's project in his New Criticism, this isn't about ol' Robbie P.W. We need to look at the poem on its own, without any knowledge of the poet biographically. Throughout this poem, then, this speaker makes declarations in the plural, as "we." You get the feeling he means both the small "we" of the two lovers, and the great big "we" (i.e., everyone) that poets sometimes speak for.

So what, exactly, does this speaker know to say? We can tell that he's pretty smart—he knows that an atoll is made from polyps, and his not afraid to say so, even if, you know, "polyp" is a yucky word. He is sensitive to language's sounds and rhythms, but he's just this side of a tease, not giving readers what he's given them to expect. Though his words are mostly formal—not fancy, but formal—he's happy to invent words, if he needs to, as he does with "Unrocked" and "unrippling."

Finally, though he's got a heart and a sensitivity to nuances in the day and the emotions generated by the shifting evening sun, he's not too sentimental. Remember, this is the speaker who said to the beloved in his arms, "I do not love you now the less, / […] that all that light once gave / The graduate dark should now revoke" (34-36). He'll talk about love, sure, but in such a way that makes you think of death instead.

After all, what good is being sentimental when you're busy trying "To practice for Eternity" (40)? This speaker is taking in the big picture—as in cosmos, universe, entire scope of time (not just human history) big—and he's inviting us along for the contemplative ride. With an eye on a prize of that scope, it's no wonder that the little aspects of human experience (like love) take a backseat. The speaker's a guy who is more about taking it all in, sitting back and tuning into the moment. Try it Shmoopers, you might like it. But, you know, don't get so lost in space and time that you forget to do your homework.

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