Trees have long stood as powerful symbols in literature, embodying the beauty, resilience, and complexity of nature. They serve as the backdrop for countless narratives, offering solace, inspiration, and wisdom. In poetry, trees are celebrated not just for their aesthetic appeal but for their ability to convey profound truths about the human condition, the passage of time, and our connection to the natural world. This post delves into the importance of trees in literature, their significance as a poetic subject, and introduces some of our favorite poems about trees.
Importance of Trees in Literature
Trees have been central to literature across cultures and eras, from the sacred groves of ancient mythologies to the solitary figures standing in contemporary landscapes. They are more than natural objects; they are laden with meaning, serving as symbols of life, growth, decay, and rebirth. In literature, trees often mirror the human experience, reflecting our joys, sorrows, aspirations, and fears.
Significance of Trees as a Poetic Subject
Trees play a significant role in poetry. Poets embrace the mystique of towering trees to unravel profound themes of self-discovery, connection, and the delicate essence of life itself. Trees provide inspiration for poets with their deep roots, soaring heights, seasonal transformations, and enduring presence. They enable poets to express the inexpressible, to reach for truths that lie beyond the surface of daily life.
The Beauty of Trees: Descriptions in Poetry
Poems about trees often marvel at their beauty, from the delicate blossoms of a cherry tree to the rugged grandeur of an ancient oak. Poems like “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer and “Birches” by Robert Frost celebrate this visual splendor, employing vivid imagery and sensory detail to bring the beauty of trees to life on the page. These poems invite readers to look more closely at the natural world and find joy and wonder in its simple pleasures.
Famous Poets and Their Poems About Trees
From the introspective solitude of “Tree at My Window” to the playful escapism in “Birches,” and the contemplative “The Sound of Trees,” Robert Frost’s trees are more than mere background scenery; they are active participants in the narrative, symbolizing the complex interplay between human experiences and the natural environment. His ability to draw profound insights from the simple act of observing trees showcases a poetic vision that deeply resonates with readers, making Frost a pivotal figure in the canon of arboreal poetry.
One of Robert Frost’s most famous poems about trees, “Birches” meditates on life through the metaphor of swinging on birch trees. Frost intertwines the beauty of nature with human desires for escapism and reflection, capturing the essence of longing to break away from life’s trials, only to embrace the return to reality.
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
This poem beautifully encapsulates the delicate balance between fantasy and the grounding force of nature, making “Birches” a timeless reflection on the human spirit’s interaction with the natural world.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Tree at My Window
Robert Frost’s “Tree at My Window” presents an intimate dialogue between the poet and a tree, symbolizing the connection between humans and nature. This brief yet profound poem explores themes of companionship, reflection, and the mutual understanding that exists between the natural world and human experience. Frost articulates a sense of kinship with the tree, suggesting a shared vulnerability and a silent, comforting communication through the window pane. “Tree at My Window” stands as a testament to the subtle ways in which trees can influence our thoughts and emotions, showcasing their role not just as elements of the landscape but as companions in life’s journey.
Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.
The Sound of Trees
Robert Frost’s “The Sound of Trees” delves into the restlessness of human nature through the constant whispering 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.
This poem reflects on the idea that trees, despite their rootedness, seem to express a longing for movement—a stark contrast to human desires for stability yet an inherent yearning for change. Frost uses the imagery of trees swaying and speaking to capture the essence of this internal conflict, presenting a meditation on the pursuit of purpose and the acceptance of one’s path in life.
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.
Trees — Joyce Kilmer
Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” is a simple yet deeply resonant poem that pays tribute to the natural beauty and spiritual significance of trees. With its famous opening lines, Kilmer captures the ineffable beauty of trees and their embodiment of divine creation:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
The poem emphasizes the tree’s role as a silent observer of life, offering shade and sustenance, and standing as a testament to the wonders of nature. “Trees” has become an iconic piece in the canon of poems about trees, celebrated for its straightforward admiration of nature’s artistry and the humble, yet profound, presence of trees in the human landscape.
Cedars — Grace Hazard Conkling
“Cedars” is a captivating exploration of the majestic presence and enduring strength of cedar trees. Through vivid imagery and thoughtful personification, Conkling paints a picture of these trees as ancient sentinels of the natural world, embodying resilience and timelessness. The poem delves into the spiritual and physical grandeur of cedars, highlighting their role as both protectors and witnesses to history.
They are so dark, the cedars,
They keep so still a house!
Muffled in purple silence
They fold their brooding boughs.
A Poison Tree — William Blake
William Blake’s “A Poison Tree” is a profound exploration of anger, resentment, and the dark consequences of suppressed emotions, using the metaphor of a growing tree. Unlike traditional poems about trees that celebrate their beauty and strength, Blake’s work delves into the psychological and moral implications of harboring ill feelings. The tree, nourished by the speaker’s wrath, ultimately bears a deadly fruit, symbolizing the destructive power of unchecked anger.
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
Pine-Trees and the Sky: Evening — Rupert Brooke
Rupert Brooke’s “Pine-Trees and the Sky: Evening” captures the serene and contemplative interaction between the natural landscape and the vastness of the sky at dusk. Through the imagery of towering pine trees against the backdrop of a fading evening sky, Brooke evokes a sense of peaceful solitude and the timeless beauty of nature. The poem reflects on the quiet majesty of pine trees as they stand guard under the expansive sky, suggesting a harmonious coexistence between earth and the heavens.
Then from the sad west turning wearily,
I saw the pines against the white north sky,
Very beautiful, and still, and bending over
Their sharp black heads against a quiet sky.
And there was peace in them; and I
Was happy, and forgot to play the lover,
And laughed, and did no longer wish to die;
Being glad of you, O pine-trees and the sky!
The Tree of Heaven — Bliss Carman
Bliss Carman’s “The Tree of Heaven” is a poetic tribute to the spiritual and enduring nature of trees, presenting them as symbols of resilience and celestial beauty. Through Carman’s vivid imagery and spiritual undertones, the poem encapsulates the tree’s role as a bridge between the earthly and the divine, highlighting its ability to inspire and provide sanctuary.
Among the ancient monarchs
His airy tent is spread.
His robe of coronation
Is tasseled rosy red.
This is the Tree of Heaven,
Which seems to say to us,
"Behold how rife is beauty,
And how victorious!"
The Trees — Philip Larkin
Philip Larkin’s “The Trees” is a meditation on the cycle of renewal and the passage of time, framed through the annual rebirth of trees. Larkin contrasts the fleeting nature of human life with the seemingly eternal youth of trees. This short, beautiful poem captures the essence of nature’s resilience and the bittersweet reminder of our own mortality.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
An Apple Gathering — Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti’s “An Apple Gathering” weaves a narrative of regret and lost opportunities, using the act of gathering apples as a central metaphor. While not exclusively about trees, the poem subtly captures the emotional resonance tied to the seasonal harvest, reflecting on personal loss and the consequences of actions through the imagery of fruit-bearing trees. Rossetti’s use of the apple tree as a symbol of abundance and its stark contrast with the protagonist’s emptiness enriches the theme.
I plucked pink blossoms from mine apple-tree
And wore them all that evening in my hair:
Then in due season when I went to see
I found no apples there.
The Two Trees — William Butler Yeats
W. B. Yeats’s “The Two Trees” delves into themes of inner beauty and spiritual growth versus materialism and superficiality. Yeats’s rich, symbolic language invites readers to reflect on the often unseen qualities that define beauty and truth. “The Two Trees” mingles human emotions and existential reflections with the natural symbolism of trees, illustrating how they can mirror and influence our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
When Autumn Came — Faiz Ahmed Faiz
“When Autumn Came” by Faiz Ahmed Faiz reflects on the transformative power of autumn, marked by a stark portrayal of trees stripped bare of their leaves. This poem transcends the typical celebration of seasonal change, instead offering a metaphor for loss, decay, and the inevitable cycles of nature that mirror societal and personal upheavals. Faiz’s vivid imagery and emotive language capture the essence of autumn’s impact on the landscape, particularly on trees, as symbols of resilience in the face of desolation.
This is the way that autumn came to the trees:
it stripped them down to the skin,
left their ebony bodies naked.
It shook out their hearts, the yellow leaves,
scattered them over the ground.
Anyone could trample them out of shape
undisturbed by a single moan of protest.
The birds that herald dreams
were exiled from their song,
each voice torn out of its throat.
They dropped into the dust
even before the hunter strung his bow.
The Trees — Adrienne Rich
Adrienne Rich’s “The Trees” is a narrative of liberation and renewal depicted through the metaphor of trees breaking free from their confines. This poem masterfully intertwines themes of personal growth and societal change, presenting trees as emblems of resilience and rebirth. Rich’s vivid imagery of trees moving “out of their places” to “take back” the night speaks to a deeper longing for freedom and transformation, both in nature and in human life.
The trees inside are moving out into the forest, the forest that was empty all these days where no bird could sit no insect hide no sun bury its feet in shadow the forest that was empty all these nights will be full of trees by morning.
The Poet Tree — Shel Silverstein
Shel Silverstein’s “The Poet Tree” playfully merges the worlds of poetry and nature, celebrating the imaginative possibilities that trees inspire. This whimsical poem transforms a tree into a literal source of poetry, inviting readers to explore the creative and boundless potential of both the natural world and human expression. It stands out for its ability to engage younger audiences with the beauty of poetry and the wonders of nature, reminding us of the intrinsic connection between the environment and artistic creation.
Underneath the poet tree Come and rest awhile with me And watch the way the word web weaves Between the shady story leaves.
Under the Greenwood Tree — William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s “Under the Greenwood Tree,” from As You Like It, is a lyrical celebration of pastoral life and the simple pleasures found in nature, particularly under the sheltering boughs of trees. This song encapsulates the joy and tranquility of retreating into the forest, away from the complexities of court and society. Shakespeare elevates the tree to a place of refuge and contentment, where one can live in harmony with the natural world.
Under the greenwood tree Who loves to lie with me, And turn his merry note Unto the sweet bird's throat, Come hither, come hither, come hither: Here shall he see No enemy But winter and rough weather.
The Haunted Oak — Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Haunted Oak” is a disturbing poem that reveals the dark history of racial injustice from the perspective of a tree. In this piece, Dunbar gives voice to an oak tree that bears witness to a lynching, transforming it into a symbol of sorrow and the painful legacy of racism. Through “The Haunted Oak,” Dunbar invites readers to confront the shadows of history and the role of nature as both witness and bearer of human suffering.
I feel the rope against my bark, And the weight of him in my grain, I feel in the throe of his final woe The touch of my own last pain. And never more shall leaves come forth On the bough that bears the ban; I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead, From the curse of a guiltless man.
John Clare, the celebrated English poet known for his connection to the rural landscape, exhibits an intimate relationship with trees in his poetry. Clare’s detailed observations and heartfelt descriptions of the English countryside often spotlight trees as symbols of beauty, solace, and continuity amidst the changing seasons and the encroachment of agricultural progress.
His work passionately advocates for the preservation of nature, showcasing trees in their myriad forms and stages of life, from the stoic oak to the delicate hawthorn. Clare’s deeply personal and empathetic portrayal of trees reflects his broader concerns with conservation, loss, and the intricate bonds between humans and the natural world.
John Clare’s “Firwood” immerses readers in the dense, serene beauty of a fir forest, capturing the quiet majesty and the intricate details of this particular woodland setting. Through Clare’s eyes, the firwood becomes a place of profound peace and natural splendor, where the whispering sounds of the trees and the soft carpet of needles create a sanctuary away from the world’s bustle.
The fir trees taper into twigs and wear
The rich blue green of summer all the year,
Softening the roughest tempest almost calm
And offering shelter ever still and warm
To the small path that towels underneath,
Where loudest winds—almost as summer’s breath—
Scarce fan the weed that lingers green below
When others out of doors are lost in frost and snow.
The Shepherd’s Tree
John Clare’s “The Shepherd’s Tree” beautifully encapsulates the rustic charm and significance of a solitary tree in the pastoral landscape, serving as a haven for the shepherd and his flock. Through Clare’s detailed and affectionate portrayal, the poem celebrates the tree not just as a physical structure but as a central figure in rural life and work. “The Shepherd’s Tree” is a testament to Clare’s deep connection with the English countryside, offering readers a glimpse into the enduring bond between humans and the natural world, and showcasing the tree as a symbol of continuity and comfort in the pastoral tradition.
Huge elm, with rifted trunk all notched and scarred,
Like to a warrior's destiny! I love
To stretch me often on thy shadowed sward,
And hear the laugh of summer leaves above;
Or on thy buttressed roots to sit, and lean
In careless attitude, and there reflect
On times and deeds and darings that have been—
Old castaways, now swallowed in neglect,—
While thou art towering in thy strength of heart,
Stirring the soul to vain imaginings
In which life's sordid being hath no part.
The wind of that eternal ditty sings,
Humming of future things, that burn the mind
To leave some fragment of itself behind.
[Nature – sometimes sears a Sapling –] — Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson’s “[Nature – sometimes sears a Sapling –]” delves into the theme of resilience amidst adversity, using the imagery of a young tree facing the harsh realities of nature. This poem reflects on the sapling’s struggle and endurance, drawing a parallel to human experiences of growth through hardship. Dickinson’s concise yet profound language captures the essence of nature’s dual role as both a nurturer and a challenger.
Nature — sometimes sears a Sapling —
Sometimes — scalps a Tree —
Her Green People recollect it
When they do not die —
Fainter Leaves — to Further Seasons —
Dumbly testify —
We — who have the Souls —
Die oftener — Not so vitally —
Loveliest of Trees — A. E. Housman
A. E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees” is a reflective ode to the beauty of the cherry tree in bloom, marking the passage of time and the fleeting nature of life. Through the simple yet profound appreciation of the cherry blossoms, Housman contemplates youth, the inevitability of aging, and the importance of savoring the moment. This piece stands out among the many poems about trees for its poignant brevity and its ability to evoke a deep sense of urgency and beauty in the natural cycle of life.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
City Trees — Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “City Trees” considers the presence of trees in urban environments, highlighting their resilience and the contrast they provide to the harshness of city life. This poem eloquently captures the struggle and beauty of trees growing in confined spaces, serving as a metaphor for human endurance and the search for nature amidst concrete.
The trees along this city street
Save for the traffic and the trains,
Would make a sound as thin and sweet
As trees in country lanes.
And people standing in their shade
Out of a shower, undoubtedly
Would hear such music as is made
Upon a country tree.
Poems about Trees from Arboreal Literary Magazine
There is a tree in a museum — Daisy Edwards
Daisy Edwards’s “There is a tree in a museum” from Issue No. 02: Perseverance explores themes of nature, preservation, and human interaction with the environment. Through the metaphor of a tree displayed in a museum, Edwards delves into the relationship between the natural world and cultural institutions designed to protect and showcase it. The poem evokes a sense of both reverence and melancholy for the ways in which we attempt to preserve nature’s beauty, even as it is removed from its natural context.
The bark, long waxed and stained by sun light and sticky fingers,
stops the minute hands in their predictable dance. Stops
the ocean of footsteps, stops the tired parents,
the even more exhausted toddlers. Stops them all. Stops everything.
Matsu (松) — Nora Kirkham
Nora Kirkham’s “Matsu (松)” from Issue No. 03: Illusion intertwines the imagery of pine trees with themes of heritage, patience, and spiritual longing. The title not only refers to the pine but also resonates with the concept of waiting, creating a dual meaning that permeates the poem. Kirkham delicately crafts a narrative that spans cultures and landscapes, from the sacred pines tied with hemp ropes at a shrine, aching for divine presence, to a personal act of planting a pinecone by the poet’s father, marked with kanji as a symbol of connection and hope.
This word for pine sounds like waiting,
the way trees rise around a shrine, tied
with hemp ropes, their resin aching
for a god to descend.
Ghost Apples — Emilee Kinney
Emilee Kinney’s “Ghost Apples” from Issue No. 04: Fresh Hell weaves a haunting narrative that intertwines the natural phenomenon of “ghost apples” with themes of personal struggle and identity. Through the evocative image of apples encased in ice, the poem explores the fragility of the self and the idea of being trapped within an unsustainable exterior. Kinney skillfully uses the metaphor of the orchard and the seasonal cycle to reflect on the process of internal decay and the quest for survival amidst emotional hardship.
Winter sneaks into the orchard before
rotten apples fall, creeps up trunk and bough,
encases the blackened fruit with ice, mirrors
its form. My therapist tells me, I become
overripe remains, the gala-mush that slips
its ice-shell like a hand freed from a glove.
Or I’m the empty glove, vacant icicle.
* * *
These poems about trees, some well-known and others less so, offer a glimpse into the myriad ways that trees inspire, comfort, and teach. They remind us of the deep bond between humanity and nature, urging us to appreciate and protect the natural world that sustains us.
In conclusion, trees in poetry are not just subjects of beauty but vessels of meaning and wisdom. Through the artful use of language, poets across the ages have turned to trees to express the inexpressible, to explore the depths of human emotion, and to celebrate the profound connections between the human spirit and the natural world.