A Servant to Servants, Fire and Ice, Henry James, I have been acquainted in the night, Mending Wall, poems, Poetry, Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, T S Eliot, The Death of the Hired Man, Tree at my Window, White Landscape
Robert Frost is for me the most appealing of American writers, always excepting the two who got away, as it were, Henry James and T S Eliot. I should note though, in fairness to the Americans, or perhaps to avoid any charges of prejudice, that I find their modern dramatists, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, as good as any British playwrights of the same period.
Frost however stands out, for the range of his poetry, for a simplicity of language that conveys extremely subtle and complex ideas, for deep understanding of some key human relationships, and for a plethora of memorable phrases that expand our understanding of the world in which we live. ‘Good fences make good neighbours’ and ‘Home is where, when you have nowhere else to go, they have to take you in’ are a couple that will serve to introduce two very different but equally striking poems.
The first line is taken from Mending Wall, which describes a supposedly common New England habit, the rebuilding of fences between properties after the depradations caused by winter. But the narrator thinks there are other reasons for walls being broken down, perhaps because nature abhors barriers between people. His neighbor however comes out with the blunt aphorism I cited, and often this is taken to indicate that Frost himself subscribes to this orthodoxy.
But that is to miss the thoughtful questioning of barriers, and the characterization of the neighbor as primitive in his outlook. Though he gets the most memorable line in the poem, I rather suspect Frost himself took the opposite view.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
The other line I cited is taken from The Death of the Hired Man, a fairly lengthy monologue from the wife of a farm owner, telling her husband why she has taken in a former employee who had left in a huff. She explains his irascible character with sympathy, dealing in the process with modernization that had left such workers feeling unwanted. She is understanding too about both his pride and his helplessness, recognizing that he has come back to them to die.
The poem is too long to cite in full, but a few extracts will make clear Frost’s command of his subject and the narrative voice.
He ran on Harold Wilson—you remember—
The boy you had in haying four years since.
He’s finished school, and teaching in his college.
Silas declares you’ll have to get him back.
He says they two will make a team for work:
Between them they will lay this farm as smooth!
The way he mixed that in with other things.
He thinks young Wilson a likely lad, though daft
On education—you know how they fought
All through July under the blazing sun,
Silas up on the cart to build the load,
Harold along beside to pitch it on.’
‘Yes, I took care to keep well out of earshot.’
‘Well, those days trouble Silas like a dream.
You wouldn’t think they would. How some things linger!
Harold’s young college boy’s assurance piqued him.
After so many years he still keeps finding
Good arguments he sees he might have used.
I sympathize. I know just how it feels
To think of the right thing to say too late……..
Part of a moon was falling down the west,
Dragging the whole sky with it to the hills.
Its light poured softly in her lap. She saw it
And spread her apron to it. She put out her hand
Among the harp-like morning-glory strings,
Taut with the dew from garden bed to eaves,
As if she played unheard some tenderness
That wrought on him beside her in the night.
‘Warren,’ she said, ‘he has come home to die:
You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.’
‘Home,’ he mocked gently.
‘Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.’
‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’
Some of Frost’s other longer narrations are also remarkable, and tell much more than they say, as with A Servant to Servants, his account of an effort to run holiday homes, in a distant landscape. The evocation of unrelenting effort that produces such poor results is deeply moving.
I didn’t make you know how glad I was
To have you come and camp here on our land.
I promised myself to get down some day
And see the way you lived, but I don’t know!
With a houseful of hungry men to feed
I guess you’d find…. It seems to me
I can’t express my feelings any more
Than I can raise my voice or want to lift
My hand (oh, I can lift it when I have to).
Did ever you feel so? I hope you never.
It’s got so I don’t even know for sure
Whether I am glad, sorry, or anything.
There’s nothing but a voice-like left inside
That seems to tell me how I ought to feel,
The same poem deals forcefully with an extraordinary situation, lunacy dealt with privately, as used to be so common in rural societies. Some of the images Frost conjures up are horrifying, perhaps doubly so because of the calm air of the language he uses
My father’s brother, he went mad quite young.
Some thought he had been bitten by a dog,
Because his violence took on the form
Of carrying his pillow in his teeth;
But it’s more likely he was crossed in love,
Or so the story goes. It was some girl.
Anyway all he talked about was love.
They soon saw he would do someone a mischief
If he wa’n’t kept strict watch of, and it ended
In father’s building him a sort of cage,
Or room within a room, of hickory poles,
Like stanchions in the barn, from floor to ceiling,–
A narrow passage all the way around.
Anything they put in for furniture
He’d tear to pieces, even a bed to lie on.
So they made the place comfortable with straw,
Like a beast’s stall, to ease their consciences.
Of course they had to feed him without dishes.
They tried to keep him clothed, but he paraded
With his clothes on his arm–all of his clothes.
Cruel–it sounds. I ‘spose they did the best
They knew. And just when he was at the height,
Father and mother married, and mother came,
A bride, to help take care of such a creature,
And accommodate her young life to his.
That was what marrying father meant to her.
She had to lie and hear love things made dreadful
By his shouts in the night. He’d shout and shout
Until the strength was shouted out of him,
And his voice died down slowly from exhaustion.
He’d pull his bars apart like bow and bow-string,
And let them go and make them twang until
His hands had worn them smooth as any ox-bow.
And then he’d crow as if he thought that child’s play–
The only fun he had. I’ve heard them say, though,
They found a way to put a stop to it.
He was before my time–I never saw him;
But the pen stayed exactly as it was
There in the upper chamber in the ell,
A sort of catch-all full of attic clutter.
I often think of the smooth hickory bars.
It got so I would say–you know, half fooling–
“It’s time I took my turn upstairs in jail”–
Just as you will till it becomes a habit.
No wonder I was glad to get away.
Frost is sometimes described as a Nature Poet, but his subject when he deals with nature is not what he describes but rather his own responses. This may seem similar to what Wordsworth does, but where Wordsworth celebrates life, Frost is full of melancholia. His perspective is summed up best perhaps in his invocation of the Tree at my Window
Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.
Vague dream head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.
But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.
That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.
Those last two lines succinctly present Frost’s relationship to the world and to himself. This is further elaborated on in poems such as I have been acquainted in the night or White Landscape. Here too I will have to content myself with quoting just a few telling lines
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
Most famous of all Frost’s reflective nature poems is Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, which is more positive perhaps than most, with its indication of acquiescence in life’s forward movement. The regular rhythmic flow is countered by the last line of each stanza rhyming with the first two, which seems to slow us down. Each subsequent verse rhymes with what had been the solitary third line of the preceding verse, which takes us forward, only to slow us down again with the last line. And then, in the last verse, after the acquiescence in the reminder of the pony to move, the last line repeats the third, which seems to bring closure, and confirms withdrawal, despite the decision to resume travel.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
More whimsical, unusually cheerful for Frost, but bringing to mind similar experiences we have all had, is his account of a happenstance that changes his mood and his day
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued
I could go on and on, detailing Frost’s extensive virtuosity, but let me end with a most extraordinary lyric entitled Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Using what for him are unusually lively rhythms, Frost makes us think about the extremes of nature as well as the destructive effects of passion and its absence.