Elizabeth Oaksmith’s “The Acorn”
by Ann Neilson
Called “one of her most imaginative and faultless productions” by Caroline May in American Female Poets, “The Acorn” stands out as being one of Elizabeth Oaksmith’s* especially significant and enjoyable poems.
Oaksmith’s poem follows the birth, transition, and demise of an acorn—simple. However, what the reader gains from the poem is a rich, omniscient viewpoint of an acorn’s environment, travels, and growth, as well as mystical elements and commentary on religion, a theme that frequently recurs in her works (see “The Sinless Child”).
In the beginning of her poem, we see these mystical elements take hold as “Fay” creatures are introduced: “For the woodland Fays came sweeping past / In the pale autumnal ray,/” (Stanza II, lines 1-2). They are reincorporated throughout the poem, paired beside “spirits” and “sprites” (Stanza 4). The incorporation of these mystical elements are important, as they add ethereal flesh to the story of this acorn. The elements lend realism, and possibly credence, to the slightly relatable, anthropomorphic features of the acorn, allowing the reader to not only believe, but also draw qualities, and therefore morals and themes, from the acorn.
Of these morals and themes, the aforementioned “religious” inclusion is especially dominant and worth discussing. Several phrases immediately jump out, including “holy mystery” and “blessed fate,” which undoubtedly imply a presence and higher workings beyond that of earth. Not only do these keywords give us clues of a Godly/godly presence, but also the following lines imply a higher, unearthly presence, “His [a schoolboy’s] hand was stay’d; he knew not why: / ‘Twas a presence breathed around— / A pleading from the deep-blue sky, / And up from the teeming ground” (stanza 11). Stanza 12 ends this brief interaction with a Higher Being by exclaiming, “There’s a deeper thought on the schoolboy’s brow, / A new love at his heart, / And he ponders much, as with footsteps slow / He turns him to depart.” The unearthly presence is now given a pronoun, “He,” which genders the presence which “breathed around,” pleaded, and teemed. Also, because this omniscient presence knows our acorn’s backstory, as it tells the schoolboy in these two stanzas “of the care that had lavish’d been / In sunshine and in dew— / Of the many things that had wrought a screen / When peril around it grew. / It told of the oak that once had bow’d, / As feeble a thing to see;”, we may infer this is a higher presence that is in accordance with the acorn’s fate, which unravels throughout the story.
As the story unfolds, a final theme, “nature,” makes itself blatantly apparent and quite literally embodies the poem. However, what is worth noting is the stunning and carefully woven imagery that solidifies our hero’s tale. Both forest and sea imagery fill the poem and add atmosphere to the piece. Regarding sea imagery, there is a fascinating article that I had stumbled across while researching “The Acorn,” (of which there is not much to be found) which you can find here. Miss Russell-Christie’s observations are astute and especially relevant. Although, I will quote a stanza that especially resonated with me, strictly regarding the maritime theme:
Thou wert nobly rear’d, O heart of oak!
In the sound of the ocean roar,
Where the surging wave o’er the rough rock broke
And bellow’d along the shore—
And how wilt thou in the storm rejoice,
With the wind through spar and shroud,
To hear a sound like the forest voice,
When the blast was raging loud!
I cannot help but especially hear Oaksmith’s voice echo within the first four lines of this stanza a personal, nostalgic time in her life. Having been born and raised in North Yarmouth, Maine, in its own respects a town significantly close to the ocean, it comes as no surprise that Oaksmith would have experienced this mariner life and heard the “sound of the ocean roar,” or have seen the “surging wave o’er the rough rock [as it] broke.” And, while we’re on the topic of her personal, potentially autobiographical touches in the stanza (and poem in general) is it any wonder that the species of tree used in this poem is none other than the “oak” tree? I digress.
Forest imagery makes up nearly three-fourths of the poem, and we are blessed with Oaksmith’s descriptions of seasonal variations. For example, in stanza six, she states, “The spring-time came with its fresh, warm air, / And its gush of woodland song; / The dew came down, and the rain was there, / And the sunshine rested long;” In turn,
The autumn came, and it stood alone,
And bow’d as the wind pass’d by—
The wind that utter’d its dirge-like moan
In the old oak sere and dry;
And the hollow branches creak’d and sway’d
But they bent not to the blast,
For the stout oak tree, where centuries play’d
Was sturdy to the last (stanza nine).
Not only do these stanzas paint luscious scenes, but they also brilliantly drive the narrative of the story.**
Although regarded at the beginning of this article as being “imaginative and faultless,” writer and critic Edgar Allan Poe had the following to say about her poem:
“The Acorn” is perfect as regards its construction — although, to be sure, the design is so simple that it could scarcely be marred in its execution. The idea is the old one of detailing the progress of a plant from its germ to its maturity, with the uses and general vicissitudes to which it is subjected. In this case of the acorn the vicissitudes are well imagined, and the execution is more skilfully managed — is more definite, vigorous and pronounced, than in the longer poem. The chief of the minor objections is to the rhythm, which is imperfect, vacillating awkwardly between iambuses and anapæsts…(The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volumes 5 & 6, 211-212).
Editor Rufus Griswold, an associate of Oaksmith’s, exclaimed, “Mrs. Smith’s most popular poem is ‘The Acorn,’ which, though inferior in high inspiration to ‘The Sinless Child,’ is by many preferred for its happy play of fancy and proper finish” (The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volumes 5 & 6, 202).
In regard to Poe’s criticism, I cannot discredit his opinion as his is of the grammatical and poetically mechanic nature, of which I am not an expert (nor do I claim to be regarding any of my opinions in this post, for that matter). I disagree with Griswold’s opinion of the poem lacking in “high inspiration,” at least in comparison with “The Sinless Child,” however, which may be evinced from my ideas presented earlier on in this blog post. The poem clearly contains several “high” qualities, or deeper qualities than Griswold seems to perceive, although I wish he had expanded upon his opinion. If his opinion be just as is, I find myself disappointed by his inequitable statement. Also, to compare Oaksmith’s prose-poem “The Sinless Child” with “The Acorn” is an unfair judgemental call in and of itself, as the two are incomparable in length and subject.
All of this being said, “The Acorn” deserves far greater credit and remembrance than it is given today, particularly because of its deeply rooted themes.
For convenience and the sake of scrolling through my blog page, I have included only a preview of the poem below. The rest of the poem can be found at the link provided at the end of my preview.
AN acorn fell from an old oak tree,
And lay on the frosty ground—
“O, what shall the fate of the acorn be!”
Was whispered all around,
By low-toned voices, chiming sweet,
Like a floweret’s bell when swung—
And grasshopper steeds were gathering fleet,
And the beetl’s hoofs up-rung—
For the woodland Fays came sweeping past
In the pale autumnal ray,
Where the forest leaves were falling fast,
And the acorn quivering lay;
They came to tell what its fate should be,
Though life was unrevealed;
For life is holy mystery,
Where’er it is conceal’d.
They came with gifts that should life bestow:
The dew and the living air—
The bane that should work its deadly wo—
Was found with the Fairies there.
In the gray moss-cup was the mildew brought,
And the worm in the rose-leaf roll’d,
And many things with destruction fraught,
That its fate were quickly told.
But it needed not; for a blessed fate
Was the acorn’s doomed to be—
The spirits of earth should its birth-time wait,
And watch o’er its destiny.
To a little sprite was the task assigned
To bury the acorn deep,
Away from the frost and searching win,
When they through the forest sweep.
[You can read the rest of this poem here.]
*She is more commonly referred to as Elizabeth Oakes Smith.
**I was unsure as to how and where to incorporate this particular stanza in this post; however, because I enjoy this particular stanza greatly, here is an honorable mention from the poem,
The stout old oak—! ‘Twas a worthy tree,
And the builder marked it out;
And he smiled its angled limbs to see,
As he measured the trunk about.
Already to him was a gallant bark
Careering the rolling deep,
And in sunshine, calm, or tempest dark,
Her way she will proudly keep.