Analysis of the Poem Black Walnut Tree by Mary Oliver
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“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” This is a phrase that has been uttered numerous times to children by their parents. This aphorism has been used to not only apply to books but also people. In The Black Walnut Tree by Mary Oliver, the speaker faces a conflict between the literal and figurative meaning of a tree in her yard. In the beginning of the poem, the mother and daughter “debate” selling the tree to “pay off their mortgage.” But with a shift from literal language to figurative language comes a symbolic representation of the tree, one that represents family heritage and their ancestors’ hard work.
The poem commences with a debate between the mother and daughter about what they should do with the black walnut tree. Lines 1-15 are written in straightforward, easy to comprehend language. In these lines the speaker addresses why they should sell the tree. The two women give reasons by stating that the tree is growing weak, and given the tree’s proximity to the house, a storm will cause it to collapse into their house and pose a threat to their lives. In addition, the speaker claims that “roots in the cellar drains,” meaning the roots of the tree are getting bigger and spreading into the foundation of the house, thereby producing another danger to the well-being of the family. Moreover, the tree is getting older (“the leaves are getting heavier”), and the walnuts produced by the tree are becoming to gather. The tone of the mother and daughter shows their need for money but also a reluctance to selling the tree; they are desperately in need of money, but they don’t seem to be in favor of selling the tree. Although the reasons provided by the family are credible, they are not wholehearted. This is because the women “talk slowly…...
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...ow the tree “will churn down its dark boughs, smashing the house.” But the tree is so significant to their family that accepting the risk of injury is sensible.
The tree “swings through another year of sun and leaping winds, of leaves and bounding fruit.” This sentence evokes images of happiness and serenity; however, it is in stark contrast with “month after month, the whip-crack of the mortgage.” The tone of this phrase is harsh and the onomatopoeia of a “whip crack” stirs up images of oppression. The final lines of the poem show the consequences that the family accepts by preserving the tree—their family heritage. When the speaker judges the tree by its cover she sees monetary value, but when she looks at the content in the book she find that it represents family. Even though times may be tough for the family, they are united by memories of their ancestors.