The Book of Questions, III Summary
Plot-wise, there isn't too much going on in this poem. We meet a speaker, though, and this guy wants some answers. Specifically, he's asking us to answer four questions for him:
1) Are roses naked?
2) Why do trees hide their roots?
3) Who can hear a thieving car's regrets?
4) What could possibly be sadder than a train in the rain?
And with that, he peaces out. Is he looking for actual answers, or is he just leaving passing this out as food for thought? You be the judge, Shmoopers.
Tell me, is the rose naked
or is that her only dress?
- Well, this poem seems short enough, so let's just knock this out in a jif—wait a minute. A rose wearing a dress? On second thought, maybe there's more to this than meets the eye. Let's try to tackle this bit by bit, then.
- First up: the title. We can see that this is… "III," and this is the third poem in the book. Well, that seems to check out, right? We don't get any more info than that (for more, check out "What's Up with the Title?"), so we'll head over to line 1.
- Ah, it seems like we have a speaker on our hands—and a bossy one at that. He's demanding some answers (we're just going to say that our speaker's a "he" at this point, since we have no evidence to the contrary—for more check out our "Speaker" section). More specifically, he's demanding answers from us, giving us a direct command. Sheesh—we're just two words in and already we're getting bossed around.
- Okay then, Mr. Speaker, what do you want to know? The question he lays on us is… well, different.
- The question concerns a rose, which is a pretty common symbol in poetry (we're looking at you Robbie Burns). Our speaker wants to know if the rose is "naked/ or is that her only dress?"
- Hmm. This is a toughie. Can flowers wear clothes? And if they could, would they wear dresses? How about a nice pair of jorts?
- It's likely that our speaker is not being literal here. He doesn't actually think that flowers are nudists, or that they go into their flower-closets and pick out things to wear. Instead, he's using personification to describe the rose in terms of an actual person (a female person, no less). And he's doing that in order to get us to consider something more profound.
- For instance, if we think of a rose's appearance as being "naked," would that be a good thing? We often hear about nature being unspoiled, and the state of being naked means that you aren't concealing anything. So, we could say that a rose is both literally naked (in that it isn't covered up in any way), but it's also not hiding anything. It's a flower, pure and simple—petals, leaves, thorns, that's it. It's not trying to be something it's not.
- But… what if it was? At least, that's the question the speaker is putting to us here. What if the flower was concealing something that we just couldn't see on the surface? What might that be?
- And if there is something more to the rose, why then is it concealing that under its "only" dress? Roses tend to look the same, no matter where you go, so perhaps the speaker is suggesting that what we see when we see a rose is just the "dress" that it wears. In other words, like a thorny Transformer, there is more to the rose than meets the eye.
- Our speaker is definitely in figurative territory here. The question he seems to be asking has more to do with perception than flowers. Is there a reality under the reality of what we can see?
- Well, do you have an answer for him? He's asking you directly, after all.
- Let's get back to him on that, shall we? For now, we'll just direct you to "Symbol: Plants" for more information.
- Oh, and you should also check out "Form and Meter" for all the deets on how this poem is put together.
Why do trees conceal
the splendor of their roots?
- Well, it looks like we're in for some more botany in this stanza. Our speaker has moved on from roses to trees.
- Specifically, he's asking us (remember the "Tell me" command from line 1?) why "trees conceal/ the splendor of their roots." Okay… we're not seeing too many hands up out there, so let's dive deeper to see what we can make of this.
- This question seems to have a few things in common with the first one. In addition to being about a plant, it's also about what gets hidden and what's revealed. In stanza 1 the personified rose was (possibly) hiding herself under a dress. In this case, the trees are also personified as hiding something: their roots.
- Now, any amateur scientist out there knows that most trees get water and nutrients from the soil, and it's pretty hard to get stuff form the soil if you don't have roots that hang out there to collect it all. (You can test this out if you like, Shmoopers. Just go over to your neighbor's house one night and yank that maple right out of their lawn to see how long it survives. Just, you know, don't tell them it was our idea.)
- Once again, though, we don't think this poem is really that fixated on scientific explanation. Just notice the word choice in line 4. Why does the speaker say "splendor of their roots"? We mean, have you ever looked at roots before? They look more like Phyllis Diller's hairdo than anything we'd call a "splendor." So why does the speaker dig roots so much? (No, we don't mean not those Roots—everyone digs them).
- Well, you could argue that—as the things that keep trees, you know, alive—roots are pretty swell. The fact that they can turn dirt and water into stuff that gives us something as majestic as a tree is pretty special. So maybe they should have their moment in the sun—literally.
- Of course, if you pulled roots out of the ground, then they wouldn't be able to do their work, so they would cease be as special as they are. In fact, they can only work if they stay hidden.
- Is that the trees' fault, though? The speaker sure seems to think so. If we follow his logic then (and you have to just go with him for now), trees are all show and no substance. The work that the roots produce—the trees themselves—are what we get to see above the ground. But the means of how those trees exist in the first place—the lowly root—stays hidden below the surface.
- Again, our speaker is wondering about what goes on at the unseen level, beyond the reality that we recognize. He seems to think what goes on there is pretty special.
- What's more, he's asking us to explain this whole visible-invisible dynamic to him. Any takers out there?
Who hears the regrets
of the thieving automobile?
- As we move into the poem's third stanza we see that this has… yeah, absolutely nothing in common with stanzas 1 or 2. Sure, it's a question. It's even a question in the same poem. But there are no plants here whatsoever.
- In fact, we get something that's totally unnatural: a car. And apparently this is a criminal car (Christine?) that likes to steal stuff. But hey, at least it's a car with a conscience. This car apparently has "regrets" about all its bad behavior.
- Let's back up and try to see just what this third question is driving at (see what we did there?). What, if anything, might a car be capable of stealing? Well, in a way we could say that cars—because they rely on gasoline to run—might "steal" fossil fuels from the Earth. After all, we're not digging for oil because it's a fun way to pass the time.
- And yet, the poem hands us another helping of personification when it tells us that this car—whatever it's been stealing—feels bad about what it's done.
- Of course, cars can't really feel one way or another—about anything (sorry Herbie. And yet, our speaker is sure that they can.
- More than that, the speaker is convinced that some people out there can actually hear these cars expressing their guilty consciences. He just wants to know who those folks are.
- The poem is presenting us with another layer cake here. This time, it's not a question of reality (what's on the surface and what lies beneath). It's a question of sympathy. To think of cars as thieves, we have to first think of oil (let's say) as something that can be stolen. So we have to sympathize with Earth and value her resources.
- We also have to sympathize with cars, since they're just doing what they're designed to do. They don't run on gas because they especially hate our planet, right?
- Finally, you have to imagine that there are people out there who can sympathize with the cars who, in turn, are sympathizing with Earth. As a result, there's a whole chain of connection here that is totally beyond the realm of our normal realities when we fill up at the pump.
- At yet, the speaker wants us to point out those people who can make such connections. Any nominees?
Is there anything in the world sadder
than a train standing in the rain?
- At last—here we are at the last stanza. Finally, we're in for some answers to all those tricky questions our speaker's been peppering us with these past six lines… or not.
- Nope, our speaker has time for one last question before he moves off—presumably to ask more questions.
- In this case, our speaker's question is slightly more straightforward. At least, it's a yes-no question, so we're feeling good about our chances here.
- So, is a train in the rain the saddest thing ever? We wouldn't have thought so. Just like those guilty cars in stanza 3, trains can't really feel anything, right?
- Perhaps they can, according to our speaker. Why else would he ask this question?
- We'd guess that anything standing in the rain would be sad, though. Heck, just look at John Cusack. That is one sad dude.
- So, sure, if you want to suspend belief and go with the speaker's personification here again, we could see that a train in the rain could be feeling plenty of pain. But that's not the question, is it? The speaker seems to assume that this is of course a sad thing (duh), but is it the saddest thing ever?
- We don't have a good scale to measure this, really. The saddest thing to you might not be the saddest thing to us (it has to do with our senior prom, and no we don't want to talk about it). So what else might make this image extra-super-duper sad?
- Up to now, we've been focusing on the rain as the cause of the sadness here. That's natural, of course. Rain is a pretty handy symbol of sadness after all.
- But what else do we have here? We have a train, but more specifically it's a standing train. Think about it: a train's purpose is to move—freight, people, circus animals, whatever. The one thing that a train was not built to do was to stand around.
- If you take away a train's sole reason for existence, then, and toss in some rain for some extra sappy sauce, then we could totally see how this image might bum our speaker out.
- We still don't have a good answer for him, but maybe that's not the point here.
- Once again, our speaker's question has got us to dig a bit deeper than the surface of things. At that, Shmoopers, is what all good poetry aims to do.