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Dana Gioia’s “Planting a Sequoia” is about a father who has lost his first son and in memory of him he plants a sequoia tree. The poem is separated into five stanzas each having five lines. The speaker writes in the first person point of view to the sequoia tree, but on a deeper level he is speaking to his dead son. The speaker expresses through apostrophe, diction, and tone that his son will live on and will never be forgotten.
The title and first stanza of the poem creates the setting and produces a gloomy mood. The title sheds light upon the main action of this poem. The beginning of the first stanza sets the scene. We learn that the speaker and his brothers are in an orchard, and have been “all afternoon”, planting the sequoia tree. Without the context of the title, however, line 2 can be interpreted as a burial for a person. We learn that there is a deep connection with the speaker and the sequoia by the use of apostrophe. The speaker also uses some kindhearted words when describing the process of planting the tree. Words like “laying” and “carefully” in line 2 convey a sense of deep compassion. Lines 3-5 are very vivid and the tone compliments the first two lines of the poem. Here we learn that something disheartening surrounds this event. Even when gloominess surrounds the speaker, “Rain blackened the horizon”, there is still a sense that there is a glimmer of hope, “cold winds kept it over the Pacific”, and that hope lies within the longevity of “our native giant.” In line 4 the words “stayed” and “dull” further enforce the gloomy mood. In line 5 the speaker creates the sense that the previous year was much like the mood of this day “cold”, “blackened”, and “dull gray”.
The dark and gloomy tone of the previous stanza changes to a colorful and warm atmosphere when the speaker describes a Sicilian tradition of planting a fruit bearing tree when ones first son is born. The first line of this stanza illustrates the importance of the first born son in Sicily, in which we can assume the speaker’s family is from. By planting a fruit bearing tree after the birth of a child that creates a balance on earth. It is no mistake that people and fruit bearing trees live relatively short lives in comparison to sequoias. In the third line of the second stanza we learn that “[the speaker] would have done the same”, because of the words “would have” in this line it is not a far-fetched conclusion that the speaker has lost his first born son. In retrospect, the “old year” from the last line of the first stanza can now be seen with clarity. There are few things harder in a person’s life than losing and having to bury his or her child, and this can create a distorted sense of time in the mind of the parent. Suddenly, the planting of this tree becomes a tragic situation. By the telling of the Sicilian tradition the situation becomes all the more tragic. Looking back, this entire stanza is the speaker’s way of reflecting on things that would have been. The change of tone from gloomy to colorful is evidence of this.
To starkly contrast the previous stanza’s setting and tone, stanza three begins with the words “But today [â€¦]”. This stanza is about the speaker burying “All that remains above earth of [his] first-born son,” with the roots of the sequoia tree. The first line serves to abruptly disrupt the previous stanza’s happy, cheery mood. This is evident by the words “but” and “cold”. This is also evident in line two of stanza three when the speaker “def[ies] the practical custom of our fathers” by planting a sequoia tree, an enormous tree that lives for thousands of years but does not produce useful fruits, such as “an olive or a fig tree”. Also in lines three and four of the third stanza the narrator seems to distance himself from the child by using the words “[â€¦] of an infant’s [â€¦]” and “[â€¦] of a first-born son”. By planting the sequoia and instilling “a few stray atoms brought back to the elements” into the tree, the narrator is allowing his son to live on through the ginormous tree and giving him a means of surviving after death. Like the sequoia, his son will not bear fruit throughout his life because he has perished. In this sense, the sequoia serves as both a symbol for the death of the child, and as a beacon of hope that he will in some way be able to live forever.
In contrast to stanza three, stanza four takes on a warmer tone speaking not of the present, but of the future. Stanza four is all about the speaker telling his sequoia tree that he will do everything he can to nurture it. The speaker tells how he and his family will care for the tree, “giv[ing] you what we can-our labor and our soil, / Water drawn from the earth when the skies fail,” further reinforcing the notion that the tree has become and will continue to act as a surrogate for his deceased child. The use of consonance by means of repetition of the ‘s’ sound in lines three and five, “nights scented with the ocean fog, days softened by the circuit of bees [â€¦] / A slender shoot against the sunset” sounds smooth and easy to the reader’s ears. This consonance shows the smooth transition the speaker has made to help the tree grow. He will “give [it] what [he] can” and do all that is in his power to make sure the tree grows and flourishes. Also evident in line three of the fourth stanza is that the speaker is hopeful that the tree will live to see more hopeful days. Further reinforcing this is the fact that they plant the tree in a place “bathed in western light, / [â€¦] against the sunset.” This diction is also much warmer and light than the telling of the present because the speaker has a great sense of hope that his son will love through this new tree and will be able to have some sort of life beyond his own death.
Stanza five continues with the warm tone and continues to make references to the future. This warm tone is expounded upon throughout the last stanza of the poem as well as more references to the future. The speaker hopes that the tree will live until after “our family is no more, all of [the child’s] unborn brothers dead,” and will someday be able to “stand among strangers, all young and ephemeral to you, / silently keeping the secret of your birth.” Since his son cannot have a long, fruitful life in the regular sense of the word, he hopes that by planting this enormous, giant tree and infusing his son into the tree, the boy will be able to live long after the speaker and his immediate family is dead and the rest of the family is “scattered,” and the child’s “mother’s beauty ashes in the air,” because he thinks that this will fulfill what could not have been fulfilled due to the boy’s death.
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