A Critical Analysis of The Trees, by Phillip Larkin

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The Trees
              by Phillip Larkin
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

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.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
This poem meditates, laments and celebrates the life cycles of trees. It is an evocative mix of emotions, delivered with an economy of words.

The first stanza conveys the poet’s melancholy – instead of deriving joy and hope from the tenacious growth of plants as they sprout new leaves to welcome a season of warmth – the poet see their budding ‘greenness’ as ‘a kind of grief’.

The choice of ‘greenness’ and ‘grief’ is inspired; these two words alliterate and the repetition of the internal vowel ‘e’ in both creates a haunting rhythm. It concludes the first stanza with an impactful and melodic image by associating a colour with an emotion.

The second stanza wonders about the cosmetic youth of trees. It asks rhetorically if the trees are ‘born again’ while humans are destined to ‘grow old’. The poet then decides that no matter how tender the growing leaves are, the trees’ appearances are merely superficial facades. Their true age will forever be inscribed in the ‘rings of grain’ within their trunks.

This middle stanza relates to the preceding one. In the first stanza, budding leaves are compared to sentences that are incomplete, dangling, not heard, ‘like something almost being said’. This startling comparison is a reminder that the seasonal budding of trees is not merely about living; it’s about the many deaths that that have been accumulated, now ‘written down in rings of grain’.

The final stanza is somewhat hopeful, with the vivid image of the trees’ thick thrashing crowns, luxuriant and energetic in the sunshine each May. The rhyming couplet - 'May' and 'say' - along with the repetition of ‘afresh, afresh, afresh’ wraps the poem up, with a succession of succulent sounds, almost as though the leaves themselves are whispering these words.

At a surface level, Larkin is examining the growth of trees, casting his eyes on leaves, trunks and whispering crowns. However, one cannot help but extrapolate this cyclic nature of growing in green plants into the cyclic nature of life itself. This is a lucid and compact poem, composed and calm, that laments how everything is dying, no matter their desperate attempts to stay youthful and hold onto life.

Source credit: Miriadna.com


  1. Replies
    1. Hahahah. On hindsight, this was not very critical. Did this analysis quickly for a creative writing mentorship and that was that.

  2. Good... But don't think the poem "meditates, laments and celebrates the life cycles of trees." The trees are just a symbol, right? I would say it's more an acknowledgement of mortality and the deceptiveness of nature...

    1. Your interpretation is apt too!


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