The narrator wonders about trees, particularly the way that people willingly accept the noise of trees in their lives. Trees make constant noise about going away but always end up staying, forced to remain because of their deep roots. Their perpetual discussion about leaving is imprinted on the people around them; even the narrator begins to take on tree-like qualities as he considers the possibility of going away. Yet, unlike the trees that talk loudly and take no action, the narrator asserts that he will talk quietly and never come back.
This poem describes the everyday event of the wind blowing through the trees. The wind forces the trees to sway from side to side and rustles their leaves to create the “sound of the trees.” Frost takes this usual occurrence and, using the method of personification, transforms it into a metaphysical discussion of the trees loudly voicing their plans to leave. The wind is not moving the trees, Frost clarifies, but the trees are moving of their own accord, swaying toward freedom and then returning as they speak of their desire to the other trees.
Because of their roots, the trees are unable to fulfill their desire to leave; they are bound to the earth even as their branches reach toward heaven. Yet, as the narrator points out grumpily, they continue with their endless discussion, and their conversation is nothing more than meaningless noise to the people who hear it.
The noise of the trees is particularly dangerous because it affects the people around them and gives them the same desire to leave. As he listens to the noise of the trees, the narrator emulates their movement, swaying back and forth and pulling on his “roots” on the ground. However, the narrator does not have any roots to force him to stay. He only has the knowledge of his duty and responsibility to his community, and this knowledge is hardly sufficient to quell his desire to go.
This conflict between duty and imagination is one that Frost brings up frequently in other poems, such as “Birches” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” In the rural communities of New England, duty was a primary factor in every action; the call of imagination and personal indulgence was always overshadowed by the realistic needs of the community and family. In “The Sound of Trees,” however, this recognition of duty is obscured by the endless noise and influence of the trees. Even more importantly, if this idea of duty and responsibility is forgotten, the narrator worries, there will be nothing to make people stay and build their community.
The poem does not end with the narrator choosing his imagination over his duty to his community, despite his clear desire to do so. He does, however, outline his plan to leave in the future. Unlike the trees, the narrator promises that his departure would only take place in a way that would not influence other people to make the same selfish choice. Not only will he not speak of his desire to leave, but he will also not stay to remind other people of the possibility.
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Robert Frost was born on March 26, 1874, in San Francisco, where his father, William Prescott Frost Jr., and his mother, Isabelle Moodie, had moved from Pennsylvania shortly after marrying. After the death of his father from tuberculosis when Frost was eleven years old, he moved with his mother and sister, Jeanie, who was two years younger, to Lawrence, Massachusetts. He became interested in reading and writing poetry during his high school years in Lawrence, enrolled at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1892, and later at Harvard University in Boston, though he never earned a formal college degree.
Frost drifted through a string of occupations after leaving school, working as a teacher, cobbler, and editor of the Lawrence Sentinel. His first published poem, "My Butterfly," appeared on November 8, 1894, in the New York newspaper The Independent.
In 1895, Frost married Elinor Miriam White, whom he'd shared valedictorian honors with in high school and who was a major inspiration for his poetry until her death in 1938. The couple moved to England in 1912, after they tried and failed at farming in New Hampshire. It was abroad that Frost met and was influenced by such contemporary British poets as Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, and Robert Graves. While in England, Frost also established a friendship with the poet Ezra Pound, who helped to promote and publish his work.
By the time Frost returned to the United States in 1915, he had published two full-length collections, A Boy's Will (Henry Holt and Company, 1913) and North of Boston (Henry Holt and Company, 1914), and his reputation was established. By the 1920s, he was the most celebrated poet in America, and with each new book—including New Hampshire (Henry Holt and Company, 1923), A Further Range (Henry Holt and Company, 1936), Steeple Bush (Henry Holt and Company, 1947), and In the Clearing (Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1962)—his fame and honors (including four Pulitzer Prizes) increased. Frost served as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress from 1958 to 1959.
Though his work is principally associated with the life and landscape of New England—and though he was a poet of traditional verse forms and metrics who remained steadfastly aloof from the poetic movements and fashions of his time—Frost is anything but merely a regional poet. The author of searching and often dark meditations on universal themes, he is a quintessentially modern poet in his adherence to language as it is actually spoken, in the psychological complexity of his portraits, and in the degree to which his work is infused with layers of ambiguity and irony.
In a 1970 review of The Poetry of Robert Frost, the poet Daniel Hoffman describes Frost's early work as "the Puritan ethic turned astonishingly lyrical and enabled to say out loud the sources of its own delight in the world," and comments on Frost's career as the "American Bard": "He became a national celebrity, our nearly official poet laureate, and a great performer in the tradition of that earlier master of the literary vernacular, Mark Twain."
About Frost, President John F. Kennedy, at whose inauguration the poet delivered a poem, said, "He has bequeathed his nation a body of imperishable verse from which Americans will forever gain joy and understanding."
Robert Frost lived and taught for many years in Massachusetts and Vermont, and died in Boston on January 29, 1963.
In the Clearing (Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1962)
Hard Not to Be King (House of Books, 1951)
Steeple Bush (Henry Holt and Company, 1947)
Masque of Reason (Henry Holt and Company, 1945)
Come In, and Other Poems (Henry Holt and Company, 1943)
A Witness Tree (Henry Holt and Company, 1942)
A Further Range (Henry Holt and Company, 1936)
From Snow to Snow (Henry Holt and Company, 1936)
The Lone Striker (Knopf, 1933)
The Lovely Shall Be Choosers (Random House, 1929)
West-Running Brook (Henry Holt and Company, 1928)
New Hampshire (Henry Holt and Company, 1923)
Mountain Interval (Henry Holt and Company, 1916)
North of Boston (Henry Holt and Company, 1914)
A Boy's Will (Henry Holt and Company, 1913)