Skip main navigation

Emeritus Professor Derek Attridge on his favourite poem

Here, Professor Derek Attridge explores his favourite poem, and what it means to him.
To read a poem is to be taken on an adventure into unknown territory; only on reaching the last line can the reader be sure that the adventure is over. The Scottish poet Don Paterson’s poem “Two Trees”,
from his 2009 collection Rain, makes good use of this fact: the last line challenges everything the reader has experienced up to this point.
Here’s the poem: One morning, Don Miguel got out of bed
with one idea rooted in his head: to graft his orange to his lemon tree. It took him the whole day to work them free, lay open their sides, and lash them tight. For twelve months, from the shame or from the fright they put forth nothing; but one day there appeared two lights in the dark leaves. Over the years the limbs would get themselves so tangled up each bough looked like it gave a double crop, and not one kid in the village didn’t know the magic tree in Miguel’s patio.
The man who bought the house had had no dream so who can say what dark malicious whim led him to take his axe and split the bole along its fused seam, and then dig two holes. And no, they did not die from solitude; nor did their branches bear a sterile fruit; nor did their unhealed flanks weep every spring for those four yards that lost them everything as each strained on its shackled root to face the other’s empty, intricate embrace. They were trees, and trees don’t weep or ache or shout. And trees are all this poem is about.
We quickly cotton on to the iambic pentameter rhythm – the traditional rhythm in English poetry for important topics – and the use of rhyming couplets, adding to the formality of the verse.
What we’re reading has a traditional feel to it: the story of a Spanish villager – no doubt in the south of Spain, where citrus fruit grow easily – gripped by the obsessive idea of grafting an orange tree to a lemon tree, creating a period of barrenness and then an extraordinary flowering. Then the nameless new owner of the property, apparently offended by this magical double tree, cruelly divides it to produce two trees once more.
As experienced poetry readers, we know what is going on: this is clearly allegory, illustrating something about human relationships, cruelty, and loss. But then, as we wait to discover the dire effects of the man’s savage actions, and to work out their allegorical significance,
the poem brings us up short: the trees “did not die from solitude; / nor did their branches bear a sterile fruit; / nor did their unhealed flanks weep every spring”. Don’t be silly, it seems to say; “trees don’t weep or ache or shout”. Who said this was an allegory? Poems can be about what they say they are about.
The last line overturns our reading: “Trees are all this poem is about”. But do we have to believe it?

We asked some of our course team about their favourite poems, and how they connect to them. Here, Professor Derek Attridge talks about going on an adventure with Don Paterson’s poem “Two Trees”, from Paterson’s 2009 collection Rain.

You can read Don Paterson’s poem “Two Trees”, here, on the Poetry Foundation website.

Over to you

Consider the prompting question and let us know what you think in the comments section. We look forward to hearing from you!

What do you think about “Two Trees” – is it really just about trees? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

This article is from the free online

Poetry: How to Read a Poem

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now