"The Trees are Down" opens with a quote from the Book of Revelation, in which an unnamed figure calls out a command not to hurt the earth, sea, or trees. This passage's broader biblical context is explored in the Vocabulary & References section. But even without background information, the quote provides some insight into the coming poem's themes, namely humankind's destruction of nature and the connectedness of all living things.
The first line of the poem itself makes a very plain statement that an unidentified group of people is cutting down trees in a garden. In contrast to the remainder of the poem, line 1 does not contain an end rhyme. (Even the last word of line 3 rhymes with the poem's title and epigraph.) It also does not contain the caesurae that will come to define the poem's structure. As a result, the poem's opening statement comes across as direct and authoritative, functioning as a brief break from both scripture and verse to establish the speaker's credibility. It also contains three stressed syllables in a row, which fall on "the great plane trees," immediately establishing the poem's subject.
The speaker goes on to list all of the sounds that emanate from the demolition site. These lines heavily feature onomatopoeic language, including “grate,” “crash,” “swish,” and “rustle,” words whose sounds seems to imitate what they describe. The noises that these words imitate resound throughout the stanza due to assonance and consonance:
For days there has been the grate of the saw, the swish of the branches as they fall,
The crash of the trunks, the rustle of trodden leaves,
Sibilant /s/, /z/, and /sh/ sounds clash with cacophonous /t/ and /k/ sounds here and elsewhere throughout the poem. The tension between hard and soft that they create mirrors the workers’ cruel interruption of nature’s beauty. Additionally, the homophone pair “grate” and “great” as well as the men’s “Whoops” and “Whoas” contribute to the chorus of discordant sounds.
The speaker uses ambiguous language such as “a garden” and “the men,” which reflects the commonness of the images that the speaker describes. Plus, the sounds listed above could originate from any number of worksites. Therefore, the dense, layered cluster of sounds adds a sense of dimension to the setting, while allowing the reader’s imagination and memory to fill in the gaps. Sound will continue to play a central role in characterizing the poem’s setting and establishing its mood.
The ongoing activity indicated by phrases like “for days” and “they are cutting” emphasizes the drawn-out nature of the demolition and hints at the trees’ ultimate fate. Repetition in the form of parallelism and anaphora stylistically reflects this idea of continuing action. The parallel sentence structure in lines 2-3 within “grate of the," "swish of the,” etc. creates a repeating metrical pattern. Each phrase features an iamb followed by an anapest (unstressed stressed | unstressed unstressed stressed):
For days | there has been | the grate | of the saw, | the swish | of the bran- | ches as | they fall
The crash | of the trunks, | the rus- | tle of trod- | den leaves,
These repeating stress patterns build momentum and anticipation, driving the poem forward.
Meanwhile, caesurae distinguish each sound and instance of parallelism, while asyndeton strings them together so that they flow into one another without any conjunctions, creating an echoing chorus. The repetition in line 4 also amplifies the workers’ “loud common talk” and makes it more “common” via repetition, ensuring that the workers' presence is felt.