Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Week 07, Frost

Robert Frost. Selections (1174-1201).

Page-by-Page Notes on Robert Frost (1174-1201).

“The Pasture” and “Mowing” (1175-76). Both poems are about the attitudes a person may adopt towards country work; the first seems full of joy, while the second conveys a sense of the intentness and intensity of labor—there’s no sound but the scythe chopping the grass. The scythe “whispers” something, but doesn’t speak. This kind of human activity generates consequences for other creatures, but we don’t really notice—witness the scared green snake. Sometimes farm life makes a person treat nature in a very use-oriented way—Frost would have understood why that’s necessary, but of course he’s also one of the keenest observers of the natural world, so he senses the conflicting attitudes the same person may adopt, depending on the season and the exigency of the moment (harvest time, for example).

“The Tuft of Flowers” (1176-77). This is another poem about labor, but with a different emphasis—I suppose it’s an unusually “matter-of-fact,” American-style romantic poem. The absent worker’s decision to leave a little tuft of blossoms alone provides food for the butterfly, which in turn leads the speaker to an appreciation of his fellow laborer. The rhymed couplets keep the thought attractively simple, increasing the emphasis for the speaker’s realization at the end: “men work together,” rather than in isolation as at first he had thought. A feeling of human interconnection and connection with nature trumps that initial feeling of isolation.

“Mending Wall” (1177-78). A wall is something material that enforces immaterial notions—private property, rules and conventions, privacy. It even implies a certain view of human nature perhaps. The traditional saying “good fences make good neighbors” means we are fallen—”lead us not into temptation.” Frost begins the poem with a counter-folk observation. He says that nature (something) doesn’t care much about arbitrary human divisions. We have to keep mending and reconceiving them. But that labor isn’t without its value and dignity—the mischief of spring suggests a radical idea: why walls? The old-fashioned neighbor won’t go for it—his folk wisdom takes on the dignity of nature. You live by such ideas; questioning them, as the speaker does, would be impertinent. It’s the kind of thing a city slicker would do. The folk saying itself is a “wall,” and the neighbor would like to keep it intact.

1. What—aside from the obvious—is a “wall” in this poem’s context? How might this poem be explored as a philosophical musing upon the origin and nature of the divides we set between nature and ourselves, between one person and another?

2. What seems to be the speaker’s attitude towards his neighbor—we know they disagree about whether or not their two properties really need a dividing wall, but how does the speaker respond to his neighbor’s insistence on upholding tradition and property rights?

“The Death of the Hired Man” (1178-82). This poem’s form is one at which Frost excels—it’s conversational, a very down-to-earth discussion between two people, in this case Mary and Warren, who employ the occasional laborer Silas. When Silas returns for the last time, what comes out is that while Mary seems to be more sympathetic to Silas’ plight, both husband and wife apparently feel more or less the same way. Both are concerned to protect the sick man’s dignity, and he slips away quietly. So often rural life is idealized, but Frost is generally very blunt about the difficulties it involves—life for a man like Silas is bound to be full of hazards and uncertainties, and it seems he can’t even rely on the kind of family connections that might help a person better circumstanced than he.

“Home Burial” (1183-85). Again, this is one of Frost’s many conversational poems—a very dark one because the exploration is the attitudes people strike up in the presence of death. The husband stands accused of gruffness and insensitivity. He admits his faults, I think, but at the same time he seems to be trying to understand what upsets his wife so much. There’s a quiet accusation in his remarks to her about the loss of her first-born child—one not unlike what King Claudius says to Hamlet when the latter mourns his father’s death so long: “why stands it so particular with thee?” Well, this is a good poem to explore what Frost might tell us about the value of such personal discussions—to what extent does what a person says about life’s most troubling aspects seem to match (or just cover up) genuine feelings and ideas?

“After Apple-Picking” (1185-86). This is a harvest poem with a twist—what comes to mind is a comparison with Keats’ “To Autumn,” which praises the feeling of temporary rest, of stasis barely keeping away those “gathering swallows” that portend the change to winter. Here in Frost’s poem, the speaker seems satiated with harvest-gathering, and he desires nothing more than to sleep. But what kind of sleep will it be? Well, as so often in Frost, what seems like a simple “nature-thought” is probably a thought about the whole course of the speaker’s life. Intense activity in the presence of nature leads to an intensely meditative moment, which leads to a question about the larger pattern and meaning of a person’s life. But what I like about this poem is the way it leaves open the ultimate value of asking ultimate questions about “the meaning of life.” We tend to ask them in such circumstances that the answers we arrive at may be muddied or tainted. Well, I suppose the woodchuck knows….

“The Wood-Pile” (1186). There’s an interesting analysis of this poem at http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/frost/woodpile.htm, the Modern American Poetry site. Anyhow, the central object of meditation, the thing that leads to a Wordsworth-like “surmise,” is the wood-pile. This wood-pile is the product of another person’s focused labor—something made with much activity, much energy, and then left out there in the woods to “warm the frozen swamp” in its own good time. And make no mistake—nature’s time is not our time. I think Frost is right to question our way of “making things mean something, occupying our time,” and so forth. What matters more—the labor that fills our lives, that largely gives us our sense of purpose and significance, or these quiet communions with objects like that wood-pile? Which is more true—the purposeful labor, or the profound reflection?

“The Road Not Taken” (1187). Choices always entail consequences; everything you do comes with an opportunity cost. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between the two roads—both of them are inviting, relatively fresh and worn at the same time. Still, it matters because it is the speaker’s choice. Others have already taken these roads—but his choice is no less original and personal. When you see a fork in the road, take it, as Yogi Berra would say. The speaker takes the trouble to explain that neither road is really “better” than the other—from a vantage point in the future, we will come to think of the choices we have made as somehow fated or inevitable, fraught with meaning. But that is an ex post facto construction. The speaker’s original choice embraced randomness—he took a long look down one road, found it very fine, and then went right ahead and took the other. And he muses that as he speaks of this event in the past tense now, so in future he will still be mulling over the choice he made.

3. How different are the two roads (or life-paths, metaphorically)? Why does it matter which road the speaker says he’s chosen?

“An Old Man’s Winter Night” (1188). An old man goes down to the cellar and forgets why. But it’s more than a senior moment—Frost evokes well the sense of emptiness, of shrinking back into the confines of a decaying body and into the past, that comes with age. The poem’s passage of the moon and its effect on icicles reminds me of Coleridge’s conversation poem “Frost at Midnight.” In that poem, the “secret ministry of frost” may refer to the mystical properties of nature, but also to the imagination and to the mind’s communion with itself. I don’t know—the old man’s sleep seems to be dreamless. He is exhausted, and wants nothing more, it seems, than quiescence.

“The Oven Bird” (1188). This poem treats mid-summer as a time between two “fallings” or falls. Mid-summer is an almost silent time, a liminal season. Things are happening in summertime, of course, and artists often treat it as a joyous time (Vivaldi in his composition on the Four Seasons, for example). But Frost’s poem emphasizes the appeal of spring and fall.

“Birches” (1189-90). Birch trees apparently bend during a storm, and sometimes don’t snap back to their former position. They don’t do that, however, when children use them to balance while playing in solitude. The speaker prefers to imagine the trees as having been bent by such children, not by the storms that seem actually to have bent them. Then the climbing and descending action he has described come to serve as a figure for the way things stand between human beings and earth. We must project an “elsewhere” and strive towards it. But the speaker would like to reach for his ideal like the children who climb the beech trees and then are let down gently back to the earth they love. He doesn’t want to abandon the material world for an icy abstraction.

“Out, Out—” (1190). The boy’s accident seems not quite real, and yet all too real and final. He has his moment of recognition, even though it’s only about losing his hand and becoming a semi-invalid. But soon something much more final happens when he slips into shock and dies. The last two lines say everything with respect to those still living—the boy now offers them nothing “to build on,” so they must turn to the future.

“Fire and Ice” and “Nothing Gold can Stay” (1191). As for the second poem, it reminds me that Frost is finely attuned to nature’s little changes—it’s vital to good nature poetry to capture a sense of permanence in the midst of what is perhaps best characterized as a Heraclitean flux.

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1191). In this poem, the woods are both social in that they are owned by someone and primeval, in that they call us out of our everyday selves, even out of our comfortable notion that everything must be or can be humanized. The poem does not amount to a statement about sublimity because sublimity makes us withdraw inwards to overcome our anxiety over being crushed by nature, and it allows us to assert our power over nature. Here, the speaker rejects the call of the woods, perhaps the call of death, the unconscious desire simply to stop living. He withdraws into a consciousness determined by promises—human obligations and ties. But that is not the same thing as exalting humanity over nature. The assertion this poem makes is dark and depressing, as if promises don’t matter, but we must keep them. It would be worth mentioning also that the quatrain form of the poem and its rhyme scheme reinforce the hypnotic quality Frost wants to achieve.

4. If this poem is in part a “call of the woods,” how would you give voice to it—what do the woods “say” to the speaker? But at the same time, why isn’t it quite right to leave the matter at this primeval level—how are the woods part of the human world as well?

5. What are “promises” in the context of this poem? Why must they be kept? How does the speaker seem to regard these obligations?

“A Boundless Moment” (1192). The speaker’s brief ecstasy brings him a hint of May in March. But as usual in Frost, nature keeps its own time. Our aspirations and projections remain our own—imping one’s wing on the passage and promise of the seasons is an old poetical game, one not to be despised, but also not to be done without awareness that it is a game.

“Spring Pools” (1192). Nature is cast here as impatient, as always becoming something different. The speaker wants more time to admire and contemplate it, as the pool metaphor indicates.

“Once by the Pacific” (1192-93). The separation of the waters from the waters, etc. —as in Genesis. That’s what made the world a livable, comfortable place. Here we get a taste of the apocalyptic strain, the sublime, which temporarily interrupts the genial correspondence between human beings and nature.

“Two Tramps in Mud Time” (1193-94). Two mindsets lean against each other: need/utility, and the pleasure-principle or do-it-yourself autonomy. The woodsmen “you have always with you,” to borrow a line from the Gospels. The speaker’s relation to the wood-chopping is sacramental, extravagant, exuberant. The last stanza implies that we must combine love and need, avocation and vocation, work and play, into one vision.

“Departmental” (1195). Ants are fun to watch, but so many of the things they do resemble the customs and activities of humans. Here they show a decent, if unsentimental, respect for a fellow worker-ant. Probably a lot of our own formal behavior is like that, too.

“Acquainted with the Night” (Not in our anthology, not assigned). Here distance gives perspective, but does not satisfy. The speaker moves beyond the ordinary bounds of the city and of meaning. There is meaning beyond everyday purpose and the bustle of life—but what kind of meaning? The wanderer takes on the cast of a philosopher, asking “why?” when others don’t. In the beyond region where he goes, time is “neither wrong nor right.” But all of his observations still relate to the realm of humanity—the poem does not offer an escape.

6. What kind of meaning lies beyond the everyday purpose and bustle of life referenced in this poem? What does it mean to say that the clock “proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right”? Does this poem offer an escape from the city, withhold an escape, or does it suggest something else? Explain.

“West-Running Brook” (Not in our anthology, not assigned). This is philosophy in simple words, coaxed out of him by her—the couple in the poem. The metaphor that compares life to a stream of water is ancient; Heraclitus used it. This is a dialogical poem that asserts that life consists in a flowing “west” and a simultaneous desire to seek our origins. See also Matthew Arnold’s poem “The Buried Life.” The form captures a meaning as it has been worked out between two people, and memorialized with the title phrase.

7. This poem asks, in dialogic form, one of philosophy’s great questions—what is our source? What perspectives on that question do the poem’s man and woman offer—how much do they hold in common?

“Design” (1196). This poem concentrates on so-called unattractive creatures. The question the speaker poses could be related to William Blake’s question, “did he who made the lamb make thee?” Why is it important to ask about small things as the speaker does?

8. The speaker asks a question after William Blake’s heart—as when he asks of the Tyger, “what immortal hand or eye / dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” What explanation, if any, does the speaker arrive at for the existence of “dimpled spiders” and other such creatures, found so unattractive by so many people?

“Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same” (Not in our anthology, not assigned). Self-consciousness is a track added to the birds’ song. Is Eve’s “overtone” good or bad?

9. Here Frost may refer to an issue that interest the romantic poets—the extent to which human beings, when they relate themselves to nature, imitate it, and so forth, act well or ill. What does the speaker in this poem suggest, and from what specific language in the poem do you draw your explanation?

“The Gift Outright” (1198). The idea here is that America was and is all potential. Of course, running against this is a modern conception of American history that tries to include what was formerly banished from consideration by the “Manifest Destiny” doctrine.

“Directive” (1198-99). The poem recasts the grail quest and the legend of the Fisher King. But it seems to connect to Keats’ “Grecian Urn” ode as well, in which the speaker contemplates the urn’s painted “cold pastoral.” In Frost’s poem, the object of contemplation is a real “ghost-town”—a ghost-town in which you can lose yourself seeking, and then find yourself again, re-imagining in this deserted scene all the old human activities that make life worthwhile and meaningful. The aesthetic moment—the part corresponding with Keats’ meditation on life in connection with an art object, is the introduction of the Arthurian goblet.

“The Figure a Poem Makes” (1200-01). Frost’s main claim here is that poetry’s value is realized only in the actual experience of writing it and reading it—it isn’t like science or academic study, which yields knowledge as “results.” There’s a sense in this essay that the poetic process itself—not the artist—is in charge, at least at the deepest level. Frost’s description of poetry is not entirely unlike that of Wordsworth, who describes it as a species of meditation. But Frost emphasizes not so much an unbreakable organic connection between the poet and nature (though nature surely is important to him, too) as a sense of near-constant surprise: “The artist must value himself as he snatches a thing from some previous order in time and space into a new order with not so much as a ligature clinging to it of the old place where it was organic” (1201). To me, that sounds more like literary modernism than romantic organicism. I suppose Frost would agree somewhat with Archibald Macleish that “A poem should not mean but be.” This is basic formalist doctrine of the sort you can find in, say, Cleanth Brooks: poetic language establishes its own connotations and contexts; it is not primarily referential if by that we mean it points insistently to the world beyond the poem. But then, I don’t know—Frost probably wouldn’t want to be classified as a straightforward formalist, either. When I read his poems, I feel that they are not trying to isolate themselves from the life around them and become a world unto themselves. Instead, they seem to open out onto all sorts of life-experience, literary and otherwise. Then, too, Frost emphasizes the power of the human voice in his poetry. And above all, Frost just doesn’t bill himself as a theorist, and doesn’t come across that way in his interviews, like the fine one he did for The Paris Review in 1960. (http://www.theparisreview.org/media/4678_FROST.pdf) He writes in the present piece that poetry makes a “figure”: “It begins in delight and ends in wisdom” (1200). I like that quotation; to me, it aligns Frost generally with a long tradition of wisdom writing from the Bible onwards. His variation on the theme is to suggest that one of the things we learn from writing or reading a poem is that language has a power to lead us on of its own accord—we listen to what we have “said” and are impelled to respond, and so forth. Language has many tricks and deep wells of resource; it is not a blunt instrument for the delivery of edifying content. Any good poet ought to know that, of course. In that way, I suppose a person can play the formalist and demand close attention to words, but also insist that “poetic language” isn’t something we must keep hermetically sealed off from every other kind of language, or from the flow of life. Auden says in his poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” that “poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making . . . .” True enough, but another true saying (this time that of critic Kenneth Burke) is that “literature is equipment for living.” That is, it teaches us a certain way of thinking, of coping with things, etc.

Frost makes a few political remarks in this brief essay as well: “I have given up my democratic prejudices and now willingly set the lower classes free to be completely taken care of by the upper classes. Political freedom is nothing to me” (1201). Taken as high-serious commentary, that wouldn’t sound very attractive—especially in 1939, the year in which Hitler started WWII—but I don’t believe Frost is operating in “high-serious” mode here. Most likely he’s just eschewing abstract political rhetoric. After all, he later interceded with the State Department to help spring Ezra Pound from incarceration not because the two poets shared some common commitment to right-wing lunacy or to an “aesthetic ideology” that might accord with such craziness, but simply because he used to know Pound and felt that the man had suffered enough for his pro-Mussolini rants during WWII. Frost’s comments elsewhere on FDR’s New Deal are measured, not condemnatory, and he was apparently a democrat by party affiliation.

Edition: Baym, Nina et al. (eds.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vols. C, D, E. 6th ed. New York: Norton, 2002. ISBN 0393977943.


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