The title, the author of the poem
Introduction to the poem
Thesis: In the poem, Mary Oliver presents a conflict between sentimental and practical and employs the literary and figurative languages to contribute to the central idea of keeping the family traditions.
The use of the literary language to present the logical and practical reasons
The use of the figurative language to depict the sentimental reasons
The contrasting images in the poem
“The Black Walnut Tree” is a short poem of thirty-five lines by Mary Oliver, written in free verse. The poem is included in the collection called “Twelve Moons” that suggests Oliver’s searches for connections. The author continually strives to demonstrate the ties between people whether ancestors and descendants, mothers and daughters or, finally, people and place. The title of the poem immediately introduces the main symbol and centers on the major emotional conflict. It concerns the mother’s and the speaker’s struggle to come to a decision whether to cut down the black walnut tree and sell it to the lumberman. In this case, they will be able to pay off the mortgage but dilemma arises because the tree means a lot for them and represents their family bonds and the past, in which their ancestors worked in the fields. To remove a symbol of the past would be to betray and ignore the lines of their history and the hard labor of their ancestors. The author uses the first person narrative, which makes no difference between herself and the speaker because, in fact, her family history served as a source of inspiration for the described events. In the poem, Mary Oliver presents a conflict between sentimental and practical and employs the literary and figurative languages to contribute to the central idea of keeping the family traditions.
“The Black Walnut Tree” focuses on the struggle of a woman and daughter who cannot decide the future of the walnut tree, and this is the central theme of the poem – there are situations, in which emotions prevail over logic and reason. The author uses the simple language that is stated casually in simple sentences. At the beginning of the poem, the speaker introduces the topic of the debate between mother and daughter: they want to sell the walnut tree to pay off the mortgage. Oliver splits lines two and three, “we could sell/the black walnut tree” to emphasize that it is not the same as selling a piece of meaningless wood but a fact of selling of souls. The word “mortgage” itself brings depression with it because it symbolizes the lack of money and that people are forced to become debtors. Besides the mortgage, the women offer other arguments in favor of cutting down the walnut tree because the author states, “We talk slowly, two women trying in a difficult time to be wise” (Oliver). First, they think, “Likely some storm anyway will churn down its dark boughs, smashing the house” (Oliver). In this phrase, the words “likely” and “anyway” are speculative and contribute to the whole atmosphere of doubts and hesitation. They also mention the facts that the roots drain in the cellar, leaves are getting heavier, and it is getting harder to gather fruit from the tree. By the way, the roots in the cellar stand for the long family history of that tree and its significance for the women. The uprooting of the tree may also symbolize the modern society, which destroys nature in pursuing personal benefits. The phrase that it is getting harder to gather fruit also represents the difficulty to get money, especially for the women. Indeed, the boughs of the tree are not so dark or heavy to smash the house but these are exaggerated excuses because the women are really in a difficult situation. Thus, the women are trying to justify their plan and present logical reasons employing straightforward words.
The second part of the poem begins after the concluding phrase of the first part and demonstrates how the figurative language helps to reveal the emotional and sentimental in the women’s heads. The concluding sentence of the part of logical reasons for cutting down the tree is the following, “But something brighter than money moves in our blood ” (Oliver). Here the author switches to the figurative language to demonstrate a symbolic view of the walnut tree. In the second part of the poem, the walnut tree symbolizes the family bonds, which are extremely valuable and undeniable. “An edge sharp and quick as a trowel that wants us to dig and sow” (Oliver) extends the metaphor of the walnut tree because their ancestors used to dig and sow but now the mother and her daughter want to uproot and destroy their historical roots. The following lines contribute to the idea of sentimental because the speaker was so impressed and disappointed by the possibility of cutting down the tree that had a dream of her fathers working in the fields of Ohio. The dream implies that the better times are possible and the women can improve their lives. What is also important is the fact that the author does not hint at the opinions of other people about cutting down the tree, and there is no reference where they will support the women or reproach and rebuke them. No, the decision will only affect their conscience and own feelings. Finally, the mother and daughter understand that it is a shame to destroy the symbol of their past, thus, they decide not to take radical actions and leave things as they are to honor the forefathers.
Harvesting fruit from the tree is the agricultural way by which they can connect to their ancestors. The tree is a reminder of the past and indicates that living comfortably but destroying the past is a shame. The author employs this emotional word but not, for example, the neutral ones such as bad idea, confusion, etc. to express her extreme disapproval of forgetting about the ancestors. She focuses on the idea that instead of complaining about the rich harvest of walnuts and the threat of damage, the women should value the things left by their fathers and find another way of improving their situation. For example, why not plant more trees, enjoy a richer harvest and sell the walnuts to improve their difficult situation? Actually, the style of the free verse demonstrates that the debate is not a quarrel or serious misunderstanding. Instead, it contributes to the sad nature of this masterpiece.
The evident contrast in the poem is the two images that appear in both parts of this piece of literature. The first image is realistic but gloomy. The author presents the black walnut tree with dark boughs, the mortgage, cellar, a difficult time, the words “heavy” and “hard”. In the second part, the dream, which is depicted as, “the blue fields of fresh and generous Ohio with leaves and vines and orchards” (Oliver) and the rest of the poem, includes the words such as “sun”, “leaping winds”, and “bounding fruit” that demonstrates the happiness and lightness. Definitely, there is a difference between depicting the dark boughs, which are smashing the house, and the walnut tree, which swings year by years. However, the cheerful image of the second part of the poem is diluted with another sad scene of the empty backyard, which is not only the women’s but also of their fathers. The tree growing in the backyard was created by the ancestors and stands for the power of family. The tree is also a symbol of masculinity because of its hard shell and implies the father and husband who had passed away. Money is not the most important thing on Earth but the presence of a loved person or thing and memory are of a real importance. Employing the second image, the author demonstrates romanticism about the past and the final resolution of the debate that ended without sacrifice. The passing time from sorrow to joy and the falls to the rise of a person’s life should be accompanied by remaining close to the family roots, thus, the author starts the poem with the overwhelming sense of distress and depression but slowly moves to the bright and calm mood. However, in the concluding line, the speaker states, “ and, month after month, the whip-crack of the mortgage” (Oliver). The mortgage here is compared to having a whip-crack, definitely, because it is extremely difficult for the female characters of the poem to pay for it every month.
The figurative language including the strong metaphors and morbid personification as well as emotional symbolism and impressive imagery serve Mary Oliver to depict the emotional and sentimental reasons for allowing the walnut tree grow in the backyard to remind of the ancestors, whereas the literary language and simple sentences indicate the logical and practical reasons for selling the tree to earn money. The walnut tree is a powerful symbol of the family and their father demonstrates the ability to withstand storms and winds because it has strong roots. This symbol implies the power of the family unity, and if the mother and daughter understand and support each other and respect the family traditions, they will be able to solve the problem of the mortgage. Both “dark” and “bright” words used to create imagery connect the reader with the poem and shows not only the struggle of the characters but their love and unity.
Oliver, Mary. New and Selected Poems, Volume 1, Beacon Press, 2005. Web 02. 19. 2016