Contradictory Readings of Robert Frost’s “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same”

In many respects, poetry can be considered the highest or most profound written medium. With its attention to word-choice, meter, image, and meaning, the poet creates something that is wholly intentional, beautiful, and meaningful. Yet because of its form and subtly, often the greatest poems present a great level of ambiguity. This ambiguity can imbue certain words and phrases, or often the meaning of the whole can remain fairly inconclusive. Many of Robert Frost’s poems are ambiguous in this way, and his poem “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same” may be one of the foremost. Upon reading the poem, the reader is left wondering if it is a positive poem in praise of birds’ song, or if it is a negative poem bemoaning the human defilement of nature.

He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds’ song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.

The poem begins with the enigmatic word “he,” and the poet never reveals or indicates exactly whom this might be referring to. Given that “Eve” appears in line 3, it is possible that “he” refers to Adam, or maybe even the creator god. Whomever this mysterious person is, the poet states that he “would declare” and even “could himself believe” that the “daylong voice of Eve” had in some way crossed or joined with the birds’ song of the garden, adding to their song an “oversound” in such a way that the “meaning” of her tone resonated in their song, albeit without the actual words (4-5).

These first five lines present an Edenic scene, where Eve’s voice joins with the birds’ own song to create a different melody, one imbued with deep meaning even if words are absent. In this way, the poem seems to be painting a positive picture of Eve’s influence on the birds, particularly because this activity presumably occurred before the Fall of Mankind, given that in the Genesis account Adam and Eve were quickly rushed out of the garden after eating the fruit. Yet the poem is ambiguous, never fully indicating whether Eve’s “oversound” is an appropriate sound to mix with the birds’ song. And so the poem continues.

The next four lines seem to give a more detailed account about what the first five lines might mean, beginning with another enigmatic word: “admittedly” (6). The reader is left to wonder what exactly the poet is “admitting,” and whether this admission contrasts with something positive or negative. The poet continues by explaining that Eve’s voice was so “eloquent” and “soft” that the only manner in which her voice could travel up to the birds and affect their song was through “call” or “laughter” (6-7). In these lines, it seems as if Eve’s voice is a positive influence. Eloquence, softness, and laughter all connote beauty and joy: things appropriate to the Edenic environment. However, the enigmatic “admittedly” returns to the reader’s mind and calls into question why the poet feels that he must “admit” this positive note. Is it because he thinks that Eve’s influence has been negative, even if, admittedly, her voice itself was eloquent and soft and full of laughter? The next line furthers this complication, as he seems to want to swiftly move beyond this touch of positivity: “be that as may be, she was in their song” (9). And with this, the reader is still left wondering if Eve’s influence on the birds’ song has created a beautiful note of paradise, or if it has tarnished what was once pure and undefiled.

The next three lines intensify the ambiguity as Frost brings his Edenic narrative into modern day. According to the poet, even long after Adam and Eve lost paradise, Eve’s voice still persists in the birds’ song, and it has persisted so long that “probably it never would be lost” (12). These lines could bear two very different meanings. If Eve’s voice was a positive addition to the birds’ song, then perhaps the poem expresses the poet’s celebration of the birds’ song, indicating that even though paradise has been “lost,” echoes of Eden remain in the song of the birds.  On the other hand, the poet may be bemoaning the fact that all of the good of paradise has been lost—what was once pure and undefiled—but, unfortunately, what has not been lost is the human tarnish on nature’s innocence and authenticity. While the positive reading seems to carry greater interpretive weight, the last two lines of the poem may support the negative reading.

“Never again would birds’ song be the same,” the poet states. “And to do that to birds was why she came” (13-14). These lines admit two very different interpretations. Without the context of the rest of the poem, the words “never” and “to do that to birds” seem to indicate a sort of negative influence. In this reading, the “he” at the beginning could be Adam, bitter about Eve causing the Fall of Mankind, and declaring that even before the Fall, Eve’s voice was already tarnishing God’s idyllic creation. And moving beyond the Biblical metaphor, the poet may be commenting on how mankind has forever tarnished the purity of nature.

Conversely, the last two lines may be quite positive. In a positive reading, “he,” whether he is Adam, the poet, or perhaps even God, seems to be commenting on how Eve’s eternal influence on the world was not wholly negative, that she didn’t come merely to plunge the world into death. Rather, she came to give the birds their beautiful song, a song that was not lost when paradise was lost. In this reading, “he” may be finding comfort in this fact every time he hears the birds’ song, “declaring” to those who would blame Eve—and even convincing himself in his times of sorrow—that the reason Eve came was not to bring death into the world, but rather to bring the beautiful birds’ song, an echo of Eden in a cacophonous world. Beyond the Biblical images, the poet may be using this as an analogy simply to express that even in a broken and sad world, the birds’ song is a light of hope, an echo of an idyllic world that has not been wholly lost.

In the end, the meaning is not conclusive. However, the reader does have enough hints from the poem to render a strong leaning toward one reading over the other. And if one takes the poem as a whole, it seems that the positive reading is more plausible. If anything, it reflects Frost’s obvious love for the natural world and the hope that he often finds in nature in contrast to the society around him. And it is a challenge for the reader as well: a clarion call to find hope and beauty in the songs of the birds and the melody of nature, an invitation to listen to an idyllic world that has not been fully lost in the midst of pain and sorrow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s