the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 71-106

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  • For readers who had been waiting for this final post, if any, sorry it took so long. The Let Poetry Die post just about buried me. For those to whom this post is new, this is the third and last entry annotating Robert Frost’s Home Burial. The first post is the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 1-18 .

[71-106]

“And I suppose I am a brute…”

Home Burial isn’t the only poem in which Frost explored grief and bereavement. Another famous poem is Out, out, which closes:

And they, since they
Were not the ones dead, turned to their affairs.

For many readers it’s a chilling close to a boy’s death. And I suspect that there was something like this in Frost himself – the hard pragmatism of the living. In a time when a day wasted could be a day without food, extended bereavement was an indulgence.

The quote which begins this section comes from a letter by Frost, in which he continues:

“And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies.” [Robert Pack, Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost p. 160]

The death of any child is a strain on any marriage; and the death of Frost’s first son was one that the poet took especially hard:

[Frost] blamed himself for not calling the doctor, who might have saved the boy’s life. We see this guilt refracted through the wife’s eyes in the poem, for she blames her husband for his detached self-reliance… [ Karen Kilcup, Robert Frost and Feminine Literary Tradition, p. 68]

Whether or not Elinor (Frost’s wife) blamed Frost for the death isn’t known (at least to me). It might have been enough that Frost blamed himself. The poet’s ability to convincingly portray the wife shows that he was fully aware of how he might be (or have been) perceived. This “hard pragmatism” which Frost both acknowledged and defended can also be found in the brief poem The Lesson for Today. As with the poem For Once, Then, Something, Frost seems to directly respond to his critics, readers and, perhaps, even to his closest friends and family – acquaintances who may have accused Frost, himself, of the hard callousness he portrays in Home Burial:

Major Themes of RFWe are all doomed to broken-off careers,
And so’s the nation, so’s the total race.
The earth itself is liable to that fate
Of meaninglessly being broken off.
(And hence so many literary tears
At which my inclination is to scoff.)
I may have wept that any should have died
Or missed their chance, or not have been their best,
Or been their riches, fame, or love denied;
On me as much as any is the jest.
I take my incompleteness with the rest.
God bless himself can no one else be blessed.

O hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

It’s a recurring theme and, frankly, one with which I’m sympathetic. In certain ways, one could almost insert this poem into Home Burial, rather than the husband’s less considered response. It’s doubtful the wife’s retort would have been changed by it. Frost’s emphasis on individuality, self-reliance and self-determination extended into politics, where he had little sympathy for FDR’s New Deal. In some ways, Home Burial could be read as symbolizing the perennial conflict described by cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics, George Lakoff. He divides the liberal and conservative impulse between the “nurturant parent model” and the “strict father model”. Wikipedia summarizes his relevant views as follows:

Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between liberals and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family. Conservatives would subscribe more strongly and more often to a model that he calls the “strict father model” and has a family structured around a strong, dominant “father” (government), and assumes that the “children” (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible “adults” (morality, self-financing). Once the “children” are “adults”, though, the “father” should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility. In contrast, Lakoff argues that liberals place more support in a model of the family, which he calls the “nurturant parent model“, based on “nurturant values“, where both “mothers” and “fathers” work to keep the essentially good “children” away from “corrupting influences” (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc.). Lakoff says that most people have a blend of both metaphors applied at different times, and that political speech works primarily by invoking these metaphors and urging the subscription of one over the other. [WikipeidaDecember 15, 2009]

The grief of the nurturant mother can hardly be assuaged by the authoritarian, pragmatic father. As Kilcup repeatedly points out, even though the husband seems to make concessions, such as offering to keep “hands off”, the power to make the offer and agreement is assumed to be his (and by implication the authority to revoke it remains his). The husband’s “offer”, according to Kilcup, hardly equalizes the power in their relationship.

“When he begs her not to go, he seems to Poirier “not without gentleness.” Yet the voice of power can afford to be gentle. If language and communication fail the couple in this poem, the poet’s language does not fail to communicate with the reader–not only the threat to masculinity engendered by the wife’s attitude but, as important, the damaging limitations imposed on her by patriarchal culture. [Kilcup p. 70]

Kilcup is insightfully sensitive to the politics of sexual persona in ways that other critics and readers have not been. She writes that “at first the female protagonist occupies a physically superior position, at the top of the stairs, but the husband soon remedies their inverted status, ‘advancing toward her,’ while she ‘sank upon her skirts'” [p. 68]. Reading Kilcup’s response to the poem, when compared to male critics, poets and readers, is to experience the poem’s sexual politics replayed in the writing of its male and female critics.

It is no wonder, rightly or wrongly, that some might have considered Frost “a brute”.

A Note on the Meter

Frost was always very proud of his skill as a traditional poet. While my scansions may not reflect how Frost himself would have imagined his poetry, my scansion is a poet’s scansion. (And I write my own poetry in the same spirit). For example, I disagree with poets and readers who scan “extra feet” into Frost’s lines. My feeling is that Frost took too much pride in his craftsmanship and knew too well how the Iambic Pentameter line could be varied without having to break the pattern. (Though, as a practical matter, an extra syllable is still an extra syllable no matter what it’s called.)

Besides that, the meter of traditional poetry grows out of a long convention – a convention many (if not most) modern poets are unaware of because they lack the training or even curiosity. They didn’t grow up with it the way Frost did. For instance, in the line that follows, many modern poets and readers might scan the line as follows:

I can |repeat |the ver|y words |you were |saying

Such a scansion “accurately” reflects how the line is spoken and where the ictus falls within each foot, but it ignores the tradition (or conventions) in which Frost was writing. The Iambic Pentameter line (Blank Verse) is defined as much by its five foot line as by its iambic feet. I find it much more likely that Frost imagined the line above as a five foot line, rather than as a clumsily written six foot line ending with two trochaic feet. I scanned it as follows:

I can |repeat |the ver|y words |you were saying

This makes the final foot a variant foot – an anapestic feminine ending. The feminine ending (the amphibrachic final foot) was a firmly established variant foot extending back to Shakespeare and Sidney. Until the moderns adopted a more Elizabethan sense of meter, poet’s rarely flirted with an anapestic final foot. Frost’s innovation was to not only deploy the anapest in the final foot, but to do so with a feminine ending (an extra unaccented syllable).


[71-88]

The husband’s angry statement:

And it’s come to this,
[70] A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.”

Is followed quickly by the wife’s first extended response. She answers scornfully:

"you had stood the spade"

[71]“You can’t because you don’t know how to speak.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand—how could you?—his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
[80]To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.”

“You don’t know how to speak…” she answers. But she’s speaking figuratively. What does she mean? Obviously, her husband knows how to “speak”. By what follows, we begin to get some sense of what she means. The speech she refers to is more than just words, but body language, demeanor – all the subtle cues that reveal us without words. The reader may be reminded of the poems beginning, of her sensitivity (perhaps over-sensitivity) to her husband’s body language. How she cowered under him as he “mounted” the stars – her expression of terror. (A feminist might counter that the wife isn’t “overly sensitive”, but that the husband lacks self-awareness. And there’s an argument to made for either.)

It isn’t until line 86 that she first mentions “talk” – speech in the sense that her husband understands. Most of the passage is a description of his actions – his body language. This is the speech that he has gotten all wrong – a language that he doesn’t know how to speak. While the husband gives primacy to words, the wife (in a way that certainly reflects broader gender differences) gives primacy to gestures. “If you had any feelings,” she asks, then stumbles, her words almost incapacitated by her grief and outrage: How could you make “the gravel leap and leap in air, leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly….” Her description is obsessive in its detail and repetitiveness. Her ability to use words, herself, is almost incapacitated by her obsessiveness with signs.

The passage is ripe for the semiotician – one who studies semiotics. The passage is nothing if not a conflict in sign processes, signification and communication.Wikipedia breaks Semiotics into three branches.

  • Semantics: Relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their denotata
  • Syntactics: Relations among signs in formal structures
  • Pragmatics: Relation between signs and their effects on those (people) who use them

I’m not a Semiotician, but I don’t think one has to be to imagine how each of these branches could be applied to the dispute between the husband and wife. The wife, after all, draws a relationship between her husband’s actions and what they denote that is very different than what the husband might imagine or might have intended. Is she right in doing so? There are surely as many different ways to experience grief as there are people.

In describing how he dug the grave, she might as well have been describing the murder of her child – as if each thrust of the spade had been the cut of a knife.

I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.

She asks the question as though symbol and intent were one and the same. As if to draw home the equation of her husband’s perceived thoughtlessness with a kind of murder, she says:

You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.”

I can’t help being reminded of Robert Frost’s poem Out, out and his allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth: Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!” “You could sit there,” she the wife in Frost’s drama, “with the stains on your shoes…” As if the stains were the blood of her murdered child. How could you not want to scrub the stain away, she seems to be asking, as though the stains somehow revealed a presumed guilt. How could he talk of “everyday concerns” and worst of all, how could he stand the spade, as though it were a murder weapon he should hide away, at the entryway for all to see? – and worst of all, where she could see it.

  • And don’t miss the nice metrical touch, the headless lines that parallel the accusatory emotional content(in which the first unstressed syllable is omitted creating a monosyllabic foot):

You | could sit | there with the stains on your shoes
You | had stood | the spade up against the wall

Randall Jarrell also senses the feeling of the judge and the judged (or the criminal):

–all these things give an awful finality to the judge’s summing up… the criminal’s matter-of-fact obliviousness has the perversity of absolute insensitivity: Judas sits under the cross matching pennies with the soldiers. The poem has brought to life an unthought-of literal meaning of its title: this is home burial with a vengeance, burial in the home…

  • Note: I haven’t been reading these other commentaries until I’ve written my own interpretation, so it’s interesting to see how my readings parallel those of other commentators.

Jarrell reads in the wife’s criticism the unstated vision of the husband as Judas. He adds:

That day of the funeral the grieving woman felt only misery and anguish, passive suffering; there was nobody to blame for it all except herself. . . . the woman’s feeling of guilt about other things is displaced onto the child’s death. Now when this woman sees her husband digging the grave (doing what seems to her, consciously, an intolerably insensitive thing; unconsciously, an indecent thing) she does have someone to blame, someone upon whom to shift her own guilt… as she blames the man’s greater guilt and wrongness her own lesser guilt can seem in comparison innocence and rightness…

In his book The Poems of Robert Frost: an explication, Mordecai Marcus focuses on the wife’s own failure to read her husband’s speech (though Marcus doesn’t explicitly express his ideas in these terms). She herself doesn’t “know how to speak”. She misreads the husband’s language of deed and gesture as indifference, even callousness. She cannot comprehend her husband’s grief if only because it’s not like her own. And in this sense, the wife’s accusations could as easily apply to herself. She is as blind to his language as he to hers.

Here she projects her own insistence on his unfeelingness onto images of his burial activities, not seeing that he buried the child himself to maintain his intimacy with it, to make it a part of his past, and to work out his own griefs. The spade and the stains on his shoes, which she took for signs of indifference, show his bond to the processes of life and death, just as his everyday talk after digging the grave was a way of holding back pain. But he is either incapable of an analytic answer or too stubbornly proud to offer one, so instead of protesting that she misunderstands, he can only toss out grimly oblique anger. She revels in the fact that everyone must die alone, and sets herself up as a philosopher, condemning humanity’s supposed insensitivity to everyone else’s grief and proposing the impossible task of changing the world.

Jospeh Brodsky, Homage to Robert Frost explicitly perceives the same connotations that I did:

I am afraid she sees a murder weapon: she sees a blade. The fresh earth stains either on the shoes or on his spade make the spade’s edge shine: make it into a blade. And does earth “stain,” however fresh? Her very choice of noun, denoting liquid, suggests—accuses—blood. What should our man have done? Should he have taken his shoes off before entering the house? Perhaps. Perhaps he should have left his spade outside, too. But he is a farmer, and acts like one—presumably out of fatigue. So he brings in his instrument—in her eyes, the instrument of death. And the same goes for his shoes, and it goes for the rest of the man. A gravedigger is equated here, if you will, with the reaper. And there are only the two of them in this house. [pp. 44-45]

The husband’s reply is one of helplessness. What can he or anyone do against a curse. A curse implies magic and magic implies the irrational.

“I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
[90]I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.”

Notice too, how the meter of the line echoes the wife’s (another headless line this time emphasizing I):

I | shall laugh | the worst laugh I ever laughed

His wife persists:

"in the darkened parlor"

“I can repeat the very words you were saying:
‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor?
You couldn’t care! The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
[100]No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so
If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t!”

  • “in the darkened parlor”: Until the invention of the funeral parlor, the Victorian parlor was the room in which the finest furniture was kept, social gatherings were held, and bodies lay in state before they were buried. In the parlor rooms of wealthier Victorian families, musical instruments, like pedal organs or spinets were frequently found. After the advent of the funeral parlor, the Victorian parlor room became the modern living room.

I can repeat the very words you were saying, she says, but she fails to read the language of her husband’s grief. She ridicules his talk of a birch fence concluding that “You couldn’t care!”

Is the husband really that callous? I don’t think Frost means us to think so. If anything, the husband’s talk of the rotting birch fence could have been an oblique reference to his own son. Three foggy mornings and one rainy day. How did his son die? Was it three feverish mornings and one deadly day? A man’s best efforts, the best home that he can build, can’t save his own son’s life. Karen Kilcup, Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradition, also observes the irony in the wife’s accusation that the husband cannot speak:

…his language wounds powerfully, and, however unwittingly, he, not she, is the metaphor maker, the poet who speaks of fences when his heart aches. When the wife accuses, “‘You can’t because you don’t know how to speak,'” she is unable to hear the pain and beauty in his lament… [p. 71]

A farmer’s life is a constant communing with the earth. Perhaps the farmer wanted to bury his own son as a way to subconsciously grieve and acquiesce to the cycle of birth and death from which he makes his living. What good comes from the wife’s persistent denial of the world implicit in her phrase : “the world’s evil”. For the farmer, this is no way out of grief but he hasn’t the words to express himself.

Above all, the wife’s obsessive reading of gesture (the very opposite of a King Lear who fails to comprehend anything beyond words) is revealed in her description of “friends” who “make pretense”. She describes how they “follow to the grave”, but she doesn’t believe their sincerity. She doesn’t trust the world of symbol, sign or gesture. She both distrusts it and trusts it too much – perceiving manner and gesture as literally things. How dare anyone “make the best of their way back to life and living people”? As if her observations taught her that death was an indifference to all but her – that no one but her suffered or grieved and that the only way to grieve was to explicitly renounce the world. “I won’t have grief so,” she cries.

In the same letter alluded to at the beginning of this post, “And I suppose I am a brute,” Frost preceded this comment by describing his sister Jeanie’s reaction to the upheaval’s wrought by WWI:

She has always been antiphysical and a sensibilist. I must say she was pretty broken by the coarseness and brutality of the world before the war was thought of…. I really think she thought in her heart that nothing would do justice to the war but going insane over it. She was willing to go almost too far to show her feeling about it, the more so that she couldn’t find anyone who would go far enough. One half the world seemed unendurably bad and the other half unendurably indifferent. A mistake. I belong to the unendurably bad. ¶ And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies. As I get older, I find it easier to lie awake nights over other people’s troubles. But that’s as far as I go to date. In good time I will join them in death to show our common humanity. [Selected Letters of Robert Frost pp. 247-248]

The similarity between Frost’s portrayal of the wife, and his description of his sister, is hard to miss. Couple this with Lea Newman’s own observations from Robert Frost,The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry (unfortunately OP and ridiculously overpriced by resellers):

In a letter to another friend, J.J. Lankes, he revealed how differently Elinor reacted [to their son Elliot’s death]: “I refused to be bowed down as much as she was by other deaths.” In commenting on “Home Burial,” Frost credited the husband with being “more practical and matter-of-fact about death than the woman.” But the most convincing echo from Frost’s real-tragedy is his use of the phrase “the world’s evil.” The wife in the poem issues this blanket condemnation using exactly the same words Elinor did over and over again after Elliot’s death. [p. 80]

It’s no wonder Frost never, to my knowledge, read this poem in public or recorded it. Too much struck too close to home.

“There, you have said it all and you feel better.
You won’t go now. You’re crying. Close the door.
[110]The heart’s gone out of it: why keep it up?
Amy! There’s someone coming down the road!”

The husband’s attempt at consolation sound wishful – almost desperate. But maybe he was right. Maybe the heart had gone out of it. But then, oblivious to the source of his his wife’s grief, he blurts: “Amy! There’s someone coming down the road!” At once, he betrays himself and recalls the world of gestures that she despises. She doesn’t want to be like those “friends” who “make pretense”. She won’t conceal her grief. She cries:

“You—oh, you think the talk is all. I must go—
Somewhere out of this house. How can I make you——”

And we are back to the beginning of the poem. She won’t be the conduit of her husband’s progeny. The home burial of her son won’t also be her own home burial. Substituting home for bedroom, I could have easily written in the previous post:

The home is a place of necessity where she conceives and raises his progeny and where, in all likelihood, she and some of her progeny will die. The size of the bedroom and graveyard are comparable. The sleep of the bedroom and the graveyard darkly mirror each other. The birthing that happens in the one, is darkly reflected by death in the other. She wants no part of the coldly pragmatic, matter-of-fact world her husband seems to inhabit – a world described by simple necessity.

The end of the poem sheds light on the beginning. The world which the wife inhabits is one of “pretense” and she wants no part of it. She perceives the gesture of procreation in its most literal sense. The bedroom and the home threaten to bury her and her grief as they have buried her child. Procreation would be a pretense, a victory for the world’s evil and she won’t give it another chance. She will conquer the world’s pretenses, evil and indifference with, if nothing else, her grief.

Her husband tries to stop her:

“If—you—do!” She was opening the door wider.
“Where do you mean to go? First tell me that.
[106] I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—”

  • Notice the metrical tour-de-force in line 104 (the spondaic feet couldn’t have the same disruptive effect in a free verse poem where there is no pattern to disrupt) :
Ifyou-| do!She |was o|pening the door wider

Karen L. Kilcup’s decidedly feminist reading of these closing lines is a dark one:

….The husband’s “sentence” that concludes the poem–“I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!”–represents both desperate plea and the final, overt expression of the menace that has underscored his speech throughout the poem. Structurally as well as semantically, the poem enacts the enclosure of the feminine self and feminine speech; to read this last line as merely desperate is seriously to underread the danger that the husband poses. Echoing the voice of cultural authority, he becomes both judge and author of his wife’s fate: house arrest. [Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradition p. 72]

The problem I have with Kilcup’s reading is that while there may be truth to what she writes, her interpretation threatens to too narrowly define the poem (and Frost’s intentions), ironically, in the same way that the wife too narrowly defines her husband’s grief (or lack of grief). Yes, the husband’s gestures may appear threatening, but there is also the risk of seriously overreading “the danger that the husband poses” – of reading his gestures too literally. After all, Frost gives us no reason to think that the husband has ever, in actuality, physically abused his wife. If Kilcup wants to insinuate that the threat is serious and real, then she does so for reasons external to the poem. After all, are we to trust the wife’s interpretation of her husband’s “threatening” gestures while, at the same time, admitting (as Kilcup does) that she might not correctly interpret the language of his grief?

Kilcup’s closing interpretation also implies that the wife is the ultimate victim. I won’t dispute that this may have been true for women in Frost’s day, but this isn’t what Frost’s poem is about and undermines the balance Frost has tried to achieve. There is more than one victim in Home Burial.

By contrast, here is Robert Pack’s closing thoughts on Home Burial:

The failure to allow mourning to be transformed into catharsis leads not only to melancholy and gloom, but also, in Frost’s poem, to misanthropy. Indeed, the wife’s mourning, her faithfulness to death, exacerbates her hostility toward her husband and further perverts the sexual tension between them into a contagious hatred that seems likely to lead to overt aggression. This aggression is implicit in the husband’s final words… [Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost p. 104]

In Pack’s closing thoughts, we have two victims, not one. But even in Pack’s reading, he takes the threat of overt aggression to be a real one. But perhaps the most nuanced reading is Richard Poirier’s:

…her grievances are not and cannot be the equivalent of her grief, and so she necessarily rejects what to her cannot help but sound like condescension. Her movement out of the house, out of discord, and into a literal “extravagancy” on the road leads again to his assertion of masculine threat and will, though this is now so tempered by an evident love and toleration and concern that the threat sounds more like a plea and an admission of helplessness. [Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing p. 134]

If the poem had ended with an exclamation point , I will!, then I might be inclined to doubt Poirier’s reading, but it ends with a dash, I will!—

There is a lack of finality. If the threat of force were real, then why wait? The husband could easily bar his wife from leaving. But he doesn’t. Implicit in his “threat” to find her is the fact that he won’t prevent her from leaving. If he’s not going to use physical force then what does that leave him? Threats? Cajoling? Pleading? The implicit admission of helplessness? She has, as other readers have commented, unmanned him.

All he can do, as Randall Jarrell writes, his throw his weight around.

If anything, the poem ends in a kind of stranglehold in which both are each others’ victim.

❧ Up in Vermont • February 1 2010

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the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 19-70

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One of the many books I have most frequently enjoyed is Lea Newman’s Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry. It looks like it might have gone out of print but is still available used. Higher priced “collectibles” are also being foisted on us. If the background to Frost’s poems interest, there is no better book than Newman’s. Go buy it. In her introduction to Home Burial, Newman considers the question many readers ask: How autobiographical is Frost’ poem? She writes:

It was inspired, he said, by the premature death of another child whose parents separated as a result of the grief that followed. Elinor’s older sister Leona and her husband Nathaniel Harvey lost their first-born child in 1895. Frost spent that summer in Ossipee Mountain Park in New Hampshire because of the domestic dispute that followed the child’s death. Leona left her husband and accepted a commission to paint portraits in the area, Elinor accompanied her, and Frost went along to be with Elinor. (The Harveys later reconciled and subsequently had three more children.) [p.80]

And though the inspiration may have been the Harveys, careful readers have noted autobiographical parallels and for good reason. Frost’s own 3 year old son died of cholera in 1900. And though the Frost’s marriage wasn’t threatened to the same degree, echoes of their own tragedy have been traced in the poem. Newman writes that “the most convincing echo from Frost’s real-life tragedy is his use of the phrase “the world’s evil.” The wife in the poem issues this blanket condemnation using exactly the same words Elinor did over and over again after Elliot’s death.” It’s little wonder Frost counted the poem is cutting a little too near to read it publicly.

[19-70]

Having set the scene in the first 18 lines, the narrative voice is set aside and read the poem as though we were reading a small play.

  • All unmarked feet are Iambic (pr at least that’s how I read them).
  • Pyrrhic feet are Yellow, Trochaic feet are Red, Anapests are Blue, and feminine endings are Green. If you are not familiar with these terms, read my posts on Iambic Pentameter and the Basics.

About the Meter

The meter in Home Burial, as mentioned in the previous post, is blank verse. I have read other interpretations of the poem that imply extra-metrical (if that’s a word) departures from Iambic Pentameter, but Frost’s practice  is actually easily within conventions that any Elizabethan poet would have recognized and, perhaps grudgingly, accepted. The only innovation, and I think this might be unique to Frost, is that of the anapestic feminine ending. A feminine ending is an amphibrach that occurs at the end of a line in an Iambic Meter.

I must be wonted to it — that’s |the reas(on)

The final syllable of reason, in brackets, is unstressed, making the line eleven syllables rather than ten. It’s a standard variant foot. Frost’s innovation was to introduce the anapest feminine ending:

Two that don’t love can’t live togeth|(er) without (them)

The anapest consists of an extra unstressed syllable at the start of the foot, the –er of together. No Elizabethan (and very few  Romantics for that matter) introduced an anapest in the final foot (or at least I can’t think of any examples). Frost took the anapestic final foot a step further, by adding an extra unstressed syllable, them, after the ictus (the stress) – which is typical of a feminine ending – hence the anapestic feminine ending. If you enjoy the ins and outs of meter as much as I do, you will also find this innovative foot in Frost’s Birches (a color-coded scansion of Birches can be found in my post on Mending Wall).

The long and the short of it, for those of you who have in interest in these finer points, as that I’ve color-coded anapestic feminine endings as both blue and green.

[19-30]

“You don’t,” she challenged.  “Tell me what it is.”

[20] “The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it—that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill.  We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
[30] But the child’s mound——”

“What is it—what?” she said. He answers: “Just that I see.” This is the line that preceded the lines above. The wife’s angry question clearly goes beyond the mere fact of what the husband literally sees. And that’s the first hint we have as to the nature of their conflict and of their parts in it.

  • Before going into the content of the lines notice, in the scansion above, the repeated combination of pyrrhics followed by spondees . The variant feet mark Frost’s willingness to use colloquial rhythms that would have been avoided by earlier poets writing meter. Notice also, both by accident of language and choice, how the spondees emphasize the visual cues: three stones, sidehill, child’s mound. The variant feet highlight the poem’s subject matter, a sign of a skillful metrist and poet. Not all traditional poets were or are as careful in how they vary the metrical pattern. Consider Horace Smith’s version of Ozymandias, for example.

The wife’s challenge to her husband is loaded. Tell me what you see! – she demands, and her husband does just that. He describes the family burial plot visible through the stair or hall window.  And he makes some statements and comparisons  that oughtn’t to be missed. For instance, he calls the little burial plot the place “where all my people are”.

  • The picture at right is a of a little family plot just up the hill from my house. There are all of four little tombstones. It would easily fit within a windows frame if it were seen from a house and would probably look no larger than a bedroom. Such small burial plots are scattered throughout New England.

Jarrell characterizes the passage this way:

“The little graveyard where my people are!” we feel not only the triumph of the slow person at last comprehending, but also the tender, easy accustomedness of habit, of long use, of a kind of cozy social continuance—for him the graves are not the healed scars of old agonies, but are something as comfortable and accustomed as the photographs in the family album(…) “Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?”—an observation that appeals to her for agreement—carries this comfortable acceptance to a point at which it becomes intolerable: the only link between the bedroom and the graveyard is the child conceived in their bedroom and buried in that graveyard. The sentence comfortably establishes a connection which she cannot bear to admit the existence of—she tries to keep the two things permanently separated in her mind.”

Poirier finds that the husband’s descriptions carries undercurrents of sexual dissonance:

One of the husband’s initial mentions of the graveyard does betray a certain tactless predominance and possessiveness (“‘The little graveyard where my people are!”‘), but this is immediately followed by a metaphor of diminishment that somewhat restores a balance (“‘So small the window frames the whole of it”‘). However, this in turn gives way to yet another metaphor of dangerously thoughtless implication: “‘Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?”‘ In its very casualness, really a kind of stupidity, the husband’s comparison of the graveyard to a bedroom is a sign that, having been made so nervous about the inadequacy of his language, he has to double or triple his illustration of anything he wants to communicate. He seems unaware of his tastelessness, which is of course all the more reason to think that his bedroom metaphor reveals some of his deepest feelings about what has happened to their marriage. But if the bedroom is like a graveyard, the reason has as much to do with her excessive (possibly neurotic) sensibility as with the obvious deficiencies of his. [p. 128]

And Katherine Kearns, in her book Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite, makes explicit what is only suggested by Poirier.

The house itself, reduced to a narrow passageway between the bedroom and the threshold and triangulated to the graveyard, is a correlative for the sexual tension generated by the man’s preoccupation with his marital rights and the woman’s rejection of them. He offers to “give up being a man” by binding himself “to keep hands off,” but quite clearly their marriage is already sexually damaged and empty. That he makes this concession suggests that his wife has repulsed his sexual advances in the past: in this refusal she empowers herself, symbolically and literally rejecting the role as servant-wife by refusing to acknowledge the conjugal “rights” of the husband and by refusing to provide him with an heir. Her egress from the house will be symbolic verification of her husband’s impotence, and if she leaves it and does not come back, the house will rot like the best birch fence will rot. Unfilled, without a woman with child, it will fall into itself

The repeated usage of the word “see” in the opening of the poem begins to be understood as the core of the poem’s meaning. What does each mean by see? We soon learn the word can have very different meanings. What the husband sees is both literal and symbolic – but the poem gives the impression that  he is blithely (or cruelly some readers suggest) unaware of the symbolism with which he imbues his language. She is not. She perceives, rightly or wrongly, a world and meaning he does not.

Jarrell writes that “we feel… the triumph of the slow person at last comprehending.”

But I disagree.  My own reading, in fact, is just the opposite. The husband, in fact, does not see and this is what provokes his wife’s outcry:

“Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” she cried.

PBS.org

Consciously, her husband sees the little graveyard, the place where his kin are buried, and describes the three stones and the size of it, but subconsciously the graveyard is the place that holds his ancestors and will, someday, hold his progeny. No larger than a bedroom, he says; but his wife doesn’t miss the underlying symbolism. The bedroom is a place of necessity where she conceives and raises his progeny and where, in all likelihood, she and some of her progeny will die. The size of the bedroom and graveyard are comparable. The sleep of the bedroom and the graveyard darkly mirror each other.  The birthing that happens in the one, is darkly reflected by death in the other. She wants no part of the coldly pragmatic, matter-of-fact  world her husband seems to inhabit – a world described by simple necessity. Don’t! she cries.

[30-43]

[30] “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” she cried.

She withdrew, shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
“Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?”

“Not you!—Oh, where’s my hat?  Oh, I don’t need it!
I must get out of here.  I must get air.—
I don’t know rightly whether any man can.”

“Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.
[40] Listen to me.  I won’t come down the stairs.”
He sat and fixed his chin between his fists.
“There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.”

“You don’t know how to ask it.”

“Help me, then.”

The wife’s reaction is telling. She must escape! Her husband only grasps the most obvious and does so to the exclusion of his wife. “Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?”  he asks, more concerned with himself than with his wife. In the very question itself, though, is the assumption that he understands the source of her grief – her child’s death. But it’s much more than that.

But why doesn’t she tell him? Why instead does she furiously retort that no man, least of all her husband, has the right to speak of his own child’s loss? And at this point we, as readers, are invited to make some deductions. This has been a “long-standing” grievance between the two – or at least from the time their child was buried. And it’s apparent that they have not communicated with each other and, as a result, they may be passed communicating. Their mutual grief has turned to grievances.

And why does she want to leave? Why must she get air? This isn’t the behavior of spouse invested in a relationship, let alone a marriage.  “She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see” She insures her prediction is self-fulfilled. Not only has he not truly seen, but her behavior is that of a person who prefers grief to resolution. She directs the pain of losing her child toward her husband, where it becomes anger and resentment. If she surrenders that anger and resentment, it would be like surrendering the pain of her child’s loss. She perceives pragmatic indifference in her husband, and so she clings to her grief all the more ferociously. One might speculate that she deliberately poisons their communication as a means of catharsis. She wants the relationship to end, though these were not times when couples were easily divorced.

Her husband begs him not to go. He sits with his “chin between his fists”, and there some readers who have attached no small meaning to this detail.

Of this moment Jarrell writes:

The poem’s next sentence, “He sat and fixed his chin between his fists”—period, end of line—with its four short i’s, its “fixed ” and “fists,” fixes him in baffled separateness; the sentence fits into the line as he fits into the isolated perplexity of his existence. Once more he makes a rhetorical announcement of what he is about to do, before he does it: “There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.” The sentence tiptoes in, gentle, almost abjectly mollifying, and ends with a reminding “dear”; it is an indirect rhetorical appeal that expects for an answer at least a grudging…

Karen Kilcup detects a more subconsciously threatening content behind the gesture:

…his words exhibit a wide veering fromhis behavior: “‘Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.’ / He sat and fixed his chin between his fists. / ‘There’s something I should like to ask you, dear”‘ (emphasis added). Throughout the poem a language of endearment masks and conventionalizes the subverbal menace emblematized in his physical gestures(….) If masculinity requires bodily supremacy, it also collides, however unwittingly, with psychological dominance. Yet the consequence of this dominance seems to be only greater alienation, sexual as well is emotional…. [T]he portrait of the husband on the verge of a violent brutishness both reflects and interrogates early-twentieth-century notions of muscular masculinity.

Faggan. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin, also reads Frost’s choice of description as a veiled reference to physical violence:

The narrator’s observation of the husband sitting with his “chin between his fists” calls attention ominously to physical force that might have been used in the past. Amy wants her husband to bend to her demands, but she may also want to be independent of him altogether. The husband feels the strain of meeting his wife’s demands of beauty, and, while he wants to please her, he also wants to remain true to his sense of self and purpose, which is inextricably bound up with his “being a man.”

All these readings may convey an element of truth. However, it’s worth mentioning that many men and women make fists without intending to inflict physical violence. The gesture is a very natural reaction to stress, much like frowning or hunching our shoulders. Once you’ve read the poem in its entirety, your knowledge of the poem is as complete as any critic’s; and you have as much right and authority to make inferences from words and passages. I’m not convinced that critics aren’t reading too much into the this gesture. On the other hand, marital violence has always been with us and the poem certainly serves as a springboard for that discussion. Robert Frost, the only man who could have told us the full significance of these, is gone. Don’t let the fact that someone has written a book on the subject persuade you that your own reading of a poem is necessarily wrong. Critics and close readers disagree with each other.

Here, for instance, is Tyler Hoffman’s response to Poirier’s analysis, quoted above:

To the husband’s plea, “Don’t go./ Don’t carry it to someone else this time,'” Richard Poirier responds, “if he [the husband] is insensitive, he is at least not without gentleness,” and further finds that “he is less peremptory than is she: “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,’ she cried.” As Poirier believes, the husband’s “reasonable beseeching” is pitted against the wife’s “physical and spiritual lack of outgoingness, forthcomingness.” While I would agree with the view of the husband as “beseeching” and the wife as non-forthcoming, I can imagine hearing these words by husband and wife differently. In the two sentences that Poirier defines as “less peremptory” than the wife’s speech, I can also hear peremptoriness, frustration, pique (not again!). In the wife’s concatenation of “don’t”s I can pick up a highly pathetic beseeching; in fact, I am able to hear each “don’t”n a different tone as each registers a different agony. Frost once remarked that  “the  four ‘don’t’s were the supreme thing” in the poem, and they are if by that he means the height of ambiguity of expression. [Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry p. 107]

Hoffman’s response is interesting  because it reminds us to read the text as an actor would read it. An actor might try out a variety of different inflections when reading the repeated ‘don’t’s, each inflection conveying a different emotion. When you read a poem like this, especially written in dialog, imagine  the different voices in which the lines could be expressed. And blank verse adds another dimension. Strictly speaking, an actor trained in the reading of Shakespearean verse (the same verse as Home Burial) might find ways to slightly accent each second ‘don’t’ more than the preceding ‘don’t’.

[44-55]

“There’s something I should like to ask you, dear,” says the husband. His wife sharply retorts, “You don’t know how to ask it.” “Help me, then,” says he.

Home Burial continues:

[44] Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.

“My words are nearly always an offense.
I don’t know how to speak of anything
So as to please you.  But I might be taught,
I should suppose.  I can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man

[50] With womenfolk.  We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.
Though I don’t like such things ‘twixt those that love.
Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.
But two that do can’t live together with them.”

The husband asks for help. His wife moves the latch for all reply, but she stays. She listens. He admits to her that his worlds “nearly always” give offense and offers to keep “hands off” anything she’s a-mind to name”. The meaning of this offer has been debated. Jarrell finds in it an awkward materiality.

He goes on: “We could have some arrangement [it has a hopeful, indefinite, slightly helter-skelter sound] / By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off “—the phrases “bind myself” and “keep hands off” have the primitive, awkward materiality of someone taking an oath in a bad saga; we expect the sentence to end in some awkwardly impressive climax, but get the almost ludicrous anticlimax of “Anything special you’re a-mind to name.”

Katherine Kearns reads something more:

He offers to “give up being a man” by binding himself “to keep hands off,” but quite clearly their marriage is already sexually damaged and empty. That he makes this concession suggests that his wife has repulsed his sexual advances in the past: in this refusal she empowers herself, symbolically and literally rejecting the role as servant-wife by refusing to acknowledge the conjugal “rights” of the husband and by refusing to provide him with an heir. Her egress from the house will be symbolic verification of her husband’s impotence, and if she leaves it and does not come back, the house will rot like the best birch fence will rot.

Kearns’ reading  falls well within the unspoken recesses of the poem and the husband is surely speaking figuratively -if, by “anything special”, he means sex. For modern readers though, it may be worth mentioning that the husband’s use of the word “special” is probably a colloquialism for especially or even a throwback to the older meaning of the word which was used in reference to something particular or peculiar. So, “anything special you’re a-mind to name,” probably should be read as:

I’ll keep hands off anything that especially bothers you

or

I’ll keep hands off anything that particularly bothers you

The husband isn’t referring to her special china plates. And the telling expression that he would “bind his hands” tells us what we need to know. Withholding his conjugal affections won’t be an easy thing for him or their relationship, but it seems this is what has happened or is happening already. And as soon as he’s said it, he almost regrets the offer, reasoning that “…I don’t like such things ‘twixt those that love,” but that “Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.” The reasoning seems to plod through its monosyllables, skirting redundancy. Even as he’s made the offer to abstain, he reasons that he shouldn’t have to and that two who love each other shouldn’t have to. Maybe he wanted her to reassure him that she does still love him, but she doesn’t. Her response is coldly hostile. I can’t help but feel a kind of desperation in his “thinking aloud “.

Among the interesting comments on this passage are those that observes the monosyllabic vocabulary of the husband, as though it were a sign of his “plodding banality”. But having compared his passages to the wife’s, I can’t say I see much difference in syllable length.I think that what some critics are responding to is the different ways in which the two characters inform and propel the poem. The husband’s is the voice that must explain the arguments. This is a tall order. He can’t be too persuasive. Frost wants to strike a balance in our sympathies and so he deliberately gives to the husband’s speech a searching, fumbling quality that strikes us as inept. The poet Randal Jarrell, incidentally, incorrectly identifies the line as have an extra foot. He writes:

Frost then makes him express his own feeling in a partially truthful but elephantine aphorism that lumbers through a queerly stressed line a foot too long…

Jarrell is correct in the effect he identifies, the extra-syllabic length does make it feel elephantine, but the effect is produced by a variant feet (an anapestic feminine ending) not an extra foot. As pointed out at the start of the post, it’s a variant foot Frost has used elsewhere (otherwise I might be inclined to agree with him).

[56-66]

My Door Latch

She moved the latch a little.  “Don’t—don’t go.
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.
Let me into your grief.  I’m not so much

[60] Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out.  Give me my chance.
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably—in the face of love.
You’d think his memory might be satisfied——”

  • In the scansion, some may notice that I read lines 58 & 59 as follows:

Tell me|
Rather than: Tell me|

Let me|
Rather than: Let me|

Even though our desire is to stress Tell and Let, the meter wants us to stress me in both lines. Metrical conventions are sometimes overruled by the demands of language (which is what gives meter some of its power) but in this case I felt the context lent support to placing the ictus on me in both lines. After all, the husband is begging his wife not to carry it “somewhere else this time”. Tell me, he pleads. Let me into your grief, not someone else.

When his wife coldly moves the latch the husband echoes his wife’s ‘don’t’s with his own. “Don’t—don’t go.” he cries.

  • The door latch at right is an old New England Latch and lock from my own house. This probably isn’t the kind of doorlatch Frost is referring to, since the wife is heading out the door. The door latch at bottom left (not from my house) is probably nearer to the kind of “dooryard” latch Frost would have been familiar with.

The husband begs his wife not to go somewhere else or to someone else. But most importantly, he appeals to her to let him ‘into her grief‘. Having said that, his exasperation gets the best of him. He denigrates her grief saying “I do think, though, you overdo it a little…” And now we come to the heart of the dispute. He is torn between his desire to understand her grief but also fears its self-destructiveness and its threat to destroy their marriage, their home and future.

Robert Pack, in his book Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost, neatly sums up the crux of this dispute. Her writes:

“[An] extreme example of the refusal to allow one’s grief to be mitigated by any of the ongoing claims of life and the living is to be found in Robert Frost’s “Home Burial.” In this poem a woman, resenting the necessity of her husband’s having to bury their child, castigates him for talking about everyday concerns, as if ongoing life should have no attraction for him. For her, it is as if the only suitable response to the death of a loved one is to die oneself, and her bitterness seems beyond relief or cure…” [ p. 103]

Jarrell detects, again, sexual undertones in the husband’s plea.

“Let me into your grief,” combines an underlying sexual metaphor with a child’s “Let me in! let me in!” This man who is so much a member of the human community feels a helpless bewilderment at being shut out of the little group of two of which he was once an anomalous half; the woman has put in the place of this group a group of herself-and-the-dead-child, and he begs or threatens—reasons with her as best he can—in his attempt to get her to restore the first group, so that there will be a man-and-wife grieving over their dead child.

Karen Kilcup reads darker sexual undertones in the husband’s plea:

In her pain and anger she threatens him with her physical absence (her emotional absence is only too evident), yet, when she makes this threat, his real fears of sexual inadequacy surface: “‘Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.'” What stands out for me at this moment–and elsewhere–is the duplicity of the language in which the husband couches his desire, for this line represents both plea and command. Furthermore, his words exhibit a wide veering from his behavior: “‘Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.’ [ Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradtion. p. 72]

Interestingly, Poirier’s reading is more sympathetic to the husband (and one begins to wonder if gender is at play). The women among the critics certainly (and intentionally) seem more sensitive to the threat of male violence and dominance:

But if the bedroom is like a graveyard, the reason has as much to do with her excessive (possibly neurotic) sensibility as with the obvious deficiencies of his. And if he is insensitive, he is at least not without gentleness. When he asks her ” ‘Don’t – Don’t go./ Don’t carry it to someone else this time”‘ (lines 56-57), he is less peremptory than is she: “‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t’ she cried”… [pp. 128-129]

Joseph Brodsky offers us what is, perhaps, the bleakest reading of these lines and also the most sympathetic to the husband. He writes:

For the more she is explicated, the more remote she gets the higher her pedestal grows (which is perhaps of specific importance to her now that she is downstairs). It’s not grief that drives her out of the house but the dread of being explicated, as well as of the explicator himself. She wants to stay impenetrable and won’t accept anything short of his complete surrender. And he is well on the way to it:

“Don’t—don’t go
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.”

The last is the most stunning, most tragic line, in my view, in the entire poem. It amounts practically to the heroine’s ultimate victory—i.e , to the aforementioned rational surrender on the part of the explicator. For all its colloquial air, it promotes her mental operations to supernatural status, thus acknowledging infinity—ushered into her mind by the child’s death—as his rival. Against this he is powerless, since her access to that infinity, her absorption by and commerce with it… [Homage to Robert Frost by Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcot pp. 37-38]

Worth remembering is the husband’s promise to not come down (line 40) the stairs and his later menacing threat to come down: “You make me angry.  I’ll come down to you./ God, what a woman!” (lines 68 & 69). His inability to communicate verbally wants to find masculine, physical expression, but he restrains himself. As he has said a moment before:   “A man must partly give up being a man / With womenfolk.” Not only does he feel unmanned sexually, but physically as well. Frost gives us no clue as to whether he has ever physically abused his wife, but a women need not be abused to be terrified by a man’s inability to communicate verbally – rightly or wrongly.

You think is memory might be satisfied,” he beings to say, but that is precisely what, in her view, can never be satisfied. Her reaction is visceral.

[67-70]

“There you go sneering now!”

“I’m not, I’m not!

“You make me angry.  I’ll come down to you.
God, what a woman!  And it’s come to this,

[70] A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.”

As Pack wrote ” it is as if the only suitable response to the death of a loved one is to die oneself, and her bitterness seems beyond relief or cure…” But, hearkening back to the beginning of this post, it’s my own view that it’s not just the grief from which she suffers. Frost, in the opening 19 lines, suggests something more. Her suffering arises from a simultaneous understanding of her husband’s pragmatic – matter of fact – reaction to their child’s death and how, she believes, his reaction reveals her place and role in his life. The graveyard has become too closely associated with the bedroom.

The husband thinks it’s come to this, that “A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead”, but his angry assertion brings us to the latter third of the poem and something for the third post – the wife’s response.

❧ Up in Vermont • December 6 2009

the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 1-18

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I’ve noticed a fair amount of interest in Home Burial and so I thought I would finally give it a good read . My technique for examining poems is evolving. If you compare my earliest posts with my later ones, you will hopefully see an improvement in presentation. Because of the length of Home Burial, I’m going to try a sort if annotated discussion and I’m going to split the post into three parts. So… let’s begin with first things first – lines 1-18.

  • If you want to see the original source for any photos included in this post, click on the image.

[1-18]

  • Note: Frost has split the last line (of this first part) between two speakers. In terms of meter, a split line is still considered one line.
  • Pyrrhic feet are Yellow, Trochaic feet are Red, Anapests are Blue, and feminine endings are Green. If you are not familiar with these terms, read my postson Iambic Pentameter and the Basics.

On the Meter

First, all unmarked feet are iambic.

The meter of the poem is Iambic Pentameter, and the genre is Blank Verse – unrhymed Iambic Pentameter, the meter of Shakespeare plays and Milton’s Paradise Lost. But for the Restoration Poets, blank verse has been, by far, the favored meter of narrative poetry prior to the 20th Century. Only a  2oth century poets have favored blank verse and Frost was one of them. After Frost, it’s this poet’s contention that the 20th Century’s best blank verse is to be found in modern translations of Virgil, Homer and Dante – Mandelbaum’s blank verse being some of the best . It’s interesting to note that the first appearance of blank verse occurred as a translation of Virgil by Henry Howard Earl of Surrey.

  • As of this writing, Wikipedia (in its usual referenceless fashion) states that “it would be safe to say that blank verse is as prominent now as it has been any time in the past three hundred years.” Why the past three hundred years? Why not the past 400? And what planet are they on? As a percentage of all the verse forms written,  blank verse represents a tiny fraction. To say that blank verse is as prominent now, as in the 19th century, is ludicrous.

Frost’s use of Blank Verse is freer than that of the 19th Century. The colloquial voice, the sound of sense as he called it, works against the regular iambic beat.  In the very first line the ear might not even detect the iambic beat. The two phyrrhic feet, second and fourth, reflect English as we speak, more than how poets might have written in the preceding century. A poet of the 19th Century might rewritten the line in order to avoid one or the other variant foot. It’s possible that Frost would have emphasized the preposition from, in “from the bottom of the stairs“, but, to my knowledge, no recording of this poem exists. I know from his other readings, that Frost does like to read the meter (putting a little extra emphasis on words that her in the stress position) even while his poetic practice tends to weaken those same stresses.

[1-5]

From "Dover Friends Meeting"

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him.  She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again.

Old New England staircases are steep. There wasn’t room; houses weren’t big enough for the much wider and deper staircases of the modern house. A modern staircase takes a considerable amount of square footage. So, when I imagine Frost’s staircase, something like the staircase at right is what I imagine. It’s steep. The stairs are shallow and there’s a window either next the stairs or at the very top.

Frost places the woman at the top and the man at the bottom. From this placement alone, many closer readers have drawn similar conclusions. The woman, at first, doesn’t so much as notice her husband. Her attention is elsewhere. Why is the husband on the ground floor and why is she upstairs? Frost doesn’t give us any explicit answers. In the next lines he advances toward her. The reader is given the impression that the husband hasn’t been sitting or, probably, waiting for her to come down the stairs.

He has been standing. Maybe he’s just come in from outside. A close reading might say that the first floor of the house is where the living happens. The kitchen is on the first floor; so are the doors in and out of the house The first floor is where the fire is built and is where a family normally gathers. The upstairs is, in some ways, where one retreats from life. In the old New England Capes, as in the picture below, the bedrooms are usually upstairs.

The young wife has been upstairs. She starts to come, back to the living in a sense, then hesitates and steps back up, her gaze drawn away from her husband and life. She can’t bring herself to walk down the stairs.

  • Notice the first trochaic foot of Looking |back o|ver. We’ll never know if this metrical touch (the backward trochaic foot that seems to mimic her backward look) was deliberate or an accident of language. At the very least, Frost wrote it and didn’t revise the variant feet. It’s a lovely touch.

Richard Poirier may sense this facet of the poem’s opening lines, though he doesn’t elaborate. He writes:

The remarkable achievement here is that the husband and wife have become so nearly inarticulate in their animosities that the feelings have been transferred to a vision of household arrangements and to their own bodily movements. They and the house conspire together to create an aura of suffocation. [Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing p. 125]

Randall Jarrell, in his essay, “Robert Frost’s ‘Home Burial'” from the The Third Book of Criticism (1962), presently available in No Other Book: Selected Essays, also makes the following observation:

The poem’s first sentence, “He saw her from the bottom of the stairs / Before she saw him,” implies what the poem very soon states: that, knowing herself seen, she would have acted differently—she has two sorts of behavior, behavior for him to observe and spontaneous immediate behavior…

What Jarrell reads is another separation between the husband and wife. Not only is the woman alone in her grief (the husband is downstairs while she has been upstairs) but Jarrell finds another theme. Not only, as I have pointed out, does the woman not want to be separated from her grief (her step downstairs was doubtful and she undid it) but Jarrell asserts that she doesn’t want her husband to observe her grief.

I’m not sure that I agree with how Jarrell frames his argument. My own reading is not that the wife doesn’t want to be observed by the husband or that she doesn’t want him to comprehend her grief (that she would have acted differently), it’s that  she doesn’t believe her husband is capable of comprehending her grief.

[5-9]

He spoke
Advancing toward her:  “What is it you see
From up there always—for I want to know.”
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.

The husband’s manner feels willful. In response to the husband’s  advance the woman sinks “upon her skirts”. Women wearing pants was exceedingly rare. The woman in his poem might have been expected to wear something like the skirt Frost’s wife wore in the photo at right. But there was another reason for this detail. Frost could easily have written:

She turned and sat upon the steps at that

The observation that she sinks upon her skirts works at two levels. First is the word sank. The verb connotes something very different that what I wrote.  There is a kind of implicit resignation and surrender in the use of the word  sank. Frost’s detail of the skirts serves to emphasize her femininity just at the moment when the husband’s questioning ‘advances’ with the feeling of an implacable and masculine will.

Karen L. Kilcup Karen, in her book, Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradtion, also reads in the husband’s words and actions the threat “of a violent brutishness”. She writes:

Throughout the poem a language of endearment masks and conventionalizes the subverbal menace emblematized in his physical gestures. Echoing an issue that emerges differently in poems like “The Housekeeper” and “The Fear,” Frost understands–only too well, perhaps– the psychic weight carried by the threat physical violence embodied here by the husband, and his is deeply sensitive to the wife’s vulnerability. If masculinity requires bodily supremacy, it also collides, however unwittingly, with psychological dominance. Yet the consequence of this dominance seems to be only greater alienation, sexual as well is emotional. . . . [T]he portrait of the husband on the verge of a violent brutishness both reflects and interrogates early-twentieth-century notions of muscular masculinity. [p. 72]

At his approach and question, the woman’s face changes from terrified to dull. Why? Of what was she initially terrified? And did this expression come before or while she was being questioned by her husband. Frost doesn’t tell us. The line could be interpreted in two ways.

1.) When she looked back over her shoulder, she was terrified by what she saw. When her husband distracted her from whatever he saw, her face changed from terrified to dull – dull because she had no faith in her husband’s ability to recognize the source of her grief.

2.) Her husband’s forceful questions and advance (a militaristic word) toward her, terrified her. When she saw that his aggression wasn’t aimed at her, her face changed from terrified to dull and for the same reasons as above . She had no faith in her husband’s ability to comprehend her grief. She feels futility.

Both meanings, I think, are plausible and may both be implied by the text. However, the finer points of close reading get very interesting because there are two versions of this text floating around. I have used the version from The Library of America. However, the other version is one that you will frequently, if not mostly, find online. First is the Library of America edition (based on Frost’s own and later emendations):

He spoke
Advancing toward her:  “What is it you see
From up there always—for I want to know.”
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time:  “What is it you see,”
Mounting until she cowered under him.
“I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.”
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.

Next is the version you will frequently find in other publications and on-line. The differences are in red.

He spoke
Advancing toward her:  “What is it you see
From up there always?—for I want to know.”
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time:  “What is it you see?
Mounting until she cowered under him.
“I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.”
She, in her place, refused him any help,
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.

Here is what Richard Poirier has to say in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing:

Lathem chose to make two emendations wholly on his own: he added a question mark after “always” in line 7, and he put a comma after “help” in line 13. He also arbitrarily chose to follow early editions by allowing a question mark at the end of line 10, though Frost had deleted it in all the editions he supervised after 1936, including the 1949 Complete Poems. These textual matters are worth considering, because while Lathem’s choices hurt the poem, they make us aware of punctuation in ways that considerably increase our appreciation of nuances which might otherwise go unremarked. We can note, for example, the scrupulous justice with which Frost tries to locate, even through the use of a comma, the sources of conflict in this “home.” There is a marvelously managed shifting in the apportionment of blame. Thus the man’s initial speech, while impatient, is meant to be more gentle than it is in the assertively interrogative form that Lathem’s question mark gives it. Without the question mark, there is the implication that the husband has learned, after many trying experiences, not to expect an answer to his questions. And the strength of her obstinacy with regard to him is then confirmed by the fact that instead, of showing fear at his “advancing on her,” her face, on his near approach, changes from “terrified to dull.” Nonetheless, the choice of “until” and “under” in the phrase “mounting until she cowered under him” suggests that there indeed is a calculated masculine imposition of will in the way he acts, though this possibility is as quickly muffled by his then speaking more gently still (“‘I will find out now – you must tell me, dear”‘) with its allowable lack of stress on the word “now” and the especially strong beat, after a comma, on the word “dear.” Frost did not choose to put a comma after the word “help” (“She, in her place, refused him any help / With the least stiffening of her neck and silence”), and its absence is crucial to our recognition of how perverse and stubbornly uncompliant she can be. With the comma added, the line suggests that her stiffness and silence merely accompanied her refusal to tell him what she had seen out the window; without the comma, we are allowed to infer that she would choose not to stiffen her neck lest she thereby give him any clue at all about what she has been staring at: “Sure that he wouldn’t see / Blind creature . . .” [p. 126]

  • Cheaper editions of Poirier’s book are available at Amazon – other than the link I provided.

In case you skimmed over the paragraph above, the key point to take away is the following:

…the man’s initial speech, while impatient, is meant to be more gentle than it is in the assertively interrogative form that Lathem’s question mark gives it.

So, if you read criticism that emphasizes the potential violence in the husband’s questions and actions, it may be worth considering what text the critic is using. I agree with Poirier’s belief that any physical threat from the husband shouldn’t be over interpreted.

[10-14]

He said to gain time:  “What is it you see,”
Mounting until she cowered under him.
“I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.”
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.

The husband continues his questioning, wanting to know what she sees. Frost tells us that she’s afraid of his manner. She cowers under him. The impression one gets is of a large man and a physically frightened woman. And yet at the very moment the reader begins to wonder, Frost has the husband speak in terms of endearment, dear he says, reassuring the reader that even if there are intimations of physicality, the husband’s intentions spring from affection and a desire to communicate. Jarrell, a little differently, characterizes the husband’s advance and questioning as compulsive. Her writes:

…this heavy-willed compulsion changes into sheer appeal, into reasonable beseeching, in his next phrase: “you must tell me, dear.” The “dear” is affectionate intimacy, the “must” is the “must “of rational necessity; yet the underlying form of the sentence is that of compulsion.

I’m not sure that characterizing the husband’s actions as compulsive tells us much. The question, which the the rest of the poem will answer, is why? Why is the husband’s reaction, at first blush, so insistent? As becomes apparent, this isn’t the first time he has seen his wife’s behavior and there’s something more – she’s not communicating.

[15-18]

She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and awhile he didn’t see.
But at last he murmured, “Oh,” and again, “Oh.”

“What is it—what?” she said.

“Just that I see.”

More questions arise: Why does she refuse him any help? Why does she stiffen when he’s no longer “threatening her”? Why is she so sure that he won’t see? Frost again underscores the sense that this is an ongoing dispute. When, finally, he murmers. “Oh,” and agian, Oh…” her retort sounds more scornful than helpful or hopeful. Notice how the husband’s term of endearment is met with her own contempt. Frost peers into her thoughts where she calls him a “blind creature”. Is this how she describes her husband when she has gone out (as we learn later in the poem) to “someone else”?

She offers him no help and one wonders if it’s not for spite. As Jarrell writes,  “she doesn’t say Yes, doesn’t say No, doesn’t say; her refusal of any answer is worse than almost any answer.” And we are left to wonder at the source of her angry silence – and at her scorn when the husband proclaims “that I see“. What does he see and is it what his wife sees? Frost deftly sets the scene in the first 18 lines.

❧ from up in Vermont December 3 · 2009

Interpreting Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods”

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The Poem

The poem is perfect Iambic Tetrameter. And it’s one of the miracles of Frost’s genius that he could write a poem, without a single variant foot to break the metrical pattern, yet write one of the most memorable and memorized poems in the English language. Frost himself called this small poem “my best bid for remembrance” [Pritchard, A Literary Life Reconsidered, p. 164]. There are, after all, thousands of Victorian poems written in an equally perfect meter, but they are nothing if not forgettable. Since all the feet are iambic, I’ve only marked feet and one elision (which is unnecessary for most), but I’ve noticed many foreign language speakers reading this blog. Evening should be read as a bisylliabic, ev‘ning, rather than the trisyllabic ev-e-ning. Here it is:

Stopping by Woods by Robert Frost: Scansion

  • Frost recites Stopping by Woods:

  • Note: Since I’ve begun paying attention, I notice that many versions of this poem put a period after “deep” on line 13. The edition I use, The Library of America, does not. Frost biographer Richard Poirier in his book “Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing“, also takes time out to comment on this discrepency. He writes:

Work of Knowing…The woods  are not, as the Lathem edition would have it (with its obtuse emendation of a comma after the second adjective in line 13), merely “lovely, dark, and deep.” Rather, as Frost in all the editions he supervised intended, they are “lovely, [i.e.], dark and deep,”; the loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous. The recognition of the power of nature, especially of snow, to obliterate the limits and boundaries of things and of his own being is, in large part, a function here of some furtive impulse toward extinction, and impulse no more predominate in Frost than it is in nature. [p. 181]

I’ll bet this emendation is off the radar for 99 out of a 100 readers, but Poirer’s comment shows just how much, interpretively, can be read into the difference between a comma and period. Imagine what it’s like for editors of Shakespeare – whose texts are anything but authoritative. In the big picture, editors tend to agree on Shakespeare’s punctuation, but the turf wars happen in the details. If you carefully compare different modern texts of Shakespeare, you will notice differences in punctuation and even words.

But… back to Robert Frost…

An Interpretive  Tour

Rather than launch into my own interpretation of the poem, I thought it might be more interesting to sample what’s already out there (since it represents some of what I’d say anyway).

First to Poirer. His comments reflect one of the most common interpretations of this poem. Poirer writes:

The desire (which he openly reveals in certain letters to Louis Untermeyer) for peace and lostness, the desire to throw himself away, gets justified on occasions by his wondering if nature itself does not conspire with him by proposing that, at last, he “come in” to the dark woods. [p. 180]

Unfortunately, Poirer doesn’t reference any of these “certain letters”. Not that I disbelieve him, but if a biographer is going to cite an author’s texts to back up his argument, he ought to offer up a citation or two.

William Pritchard takes a different view. While he acknowledges the darker interpretations of this poem, and he acknowledges Frost’s own intimations from time to time, he also credits Frost’s statements to the contrary, something which Poirer does not do.

Literary Life ReconsideredDiscussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything siginificant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert… [p. 164]

Pritchard then continues:

…he wanted to direct his readers away from solemnly debating them; instead he invited them simply to be pleased with how he had put it. He was to say later on about Edwin Arlington Robinson something which more naturally could have been said about himself – that his life as poet was “a revel in the felicities of language.” “Stopping By Woods…” can be appreciated only by removing it from its pedestal and noting how it is a miature revel in such felicities. [p. 165]

And these comments remind me of my post on John Keats “Ode to Autumn”, and Stillinger’s own comments concerning style. In sum, great poetry isn’t always about (G)reat content, but about common  experience described (G)reatly. Great poetry, before free verse, had almost always been marked by the greatness of its expression. Shakespeare always drew on  everyday proverbs and subject matter. The life he experienced was the same as ours. His observations are the same as ours. (And this is what makes Shakespeare universal.) What makes him great was, in large part, his ability to elevate the common through the transcendance of his language and imagery, in short, through his poetic thought. This, I have to say, has largely been abandoned by the free-versifiers of the 20th Century.

Anyway, it’s a view with which I’m sympathetic. Not everything in poetry has to mean something.

Belief and UncertaintyThat said, Robert Pack in defiance of Frost and, perhaps, Pritchard, manages to “interpret” the shaken harness bells. He writes that “the “little horse” in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” shows an instinct to return home, not to remain in the dangerously enticing woods…” [Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost, p. 147] Interestingly, Pack  finds a metaphorical link between Stopping by Woods and another of Frost’s poems: The Draft Horse. Pack writes of the horse in The Draft Horse, that “if freedom has any reality at all [it] exists only in the attitude [taken] toward their fate.” In this light, the horse in Stopping by Woods, serves as a reminder that one should not be too enticed by the deep, dark woods.

Robert Bernard Hass,  in his book Going by Contraries: Robert Frost’s Conflict with Science, picks up on the threat of suicide in Frost’s poem:

Going by ContrariesIn a 1931 comment to Elizabeth Sergeant, Frost remarked that when other writers began calling themselves “Imagists or Vorticists,” he started calling himself a “synechdochist”. This term, ripe as it is with religious connotation, is an apt description of the way metaphor actually operates in Frost’s mature poetry. Although he often uses the word to mean comparison or correspondence (e.g. “every though is a feat of association”), Frost also suggests that the forms we carge out of nature ectend beyond simple figures and feats of association and, in some mysterious way, connect the whole of reality. [pp. 152-153]

From this, Hass makes the following assertion concerning “Stopping by Woods”:

Unfortunately, as Frost learned through his own trials by existence, there are moments when an individual becomes lost to large “excruciations,” when the material world reists the will and exerts counterforces that have profound effects on the quality of life. Sometimes these froces have a dangerous, seductive quality to them, and there are moments when Frost’s work reflects a strong desire to surrender to the brute forces of nature as one way of eliminating their threat. The alluring landscape of [“Stopping by Woods”], for example, presents us with a figure of the will confronting alien entanglements so large that they actually invite the poet to unlock their deepest secrets. [p. 153]

Among the most thorough considerations of the poem occurs in The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost. Judith Oster, in her contributory essay calledCambridge Companion “Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor”, summarizes and discusses these conflicting interpretations: “[The poem] has been read as “simply” a beautiful lyric, as a suicide poem, as recording a single autobiographical incident, and everything in between. Our is not to adjudicate, nor to “fix” a meaning, but to allow the poem its openness…” Oster then asks: “Why hasn’t it just been taken literally?”

She continues:

To choose just one of any possible starting points, the word “promises”. In this context the beautiful scene  the word “pulls down” the experience from the merely aesthetic and sensual, but does so without diminishing that beauty or that feeling, without weighing down the poem. What results is a conflict between two undiminished forces: “promises” that would lead the speakers onward, and his desire to give in to his intoxication with the beauty and peacefulness of the woods. The pull between those alternatives can be seen as that between obligation and temptation, or most literally, between stopping and going on. ¶ If we decide to look at the situation literally, we would think about what staying might mean. Most obvious is simply that it’s too cold to stay there safely. The restfulness – the “ease” of “easy wind” and the “down” of “downy flake” begin to suggest an implicit metaphor, especially when combined with the “sleep” which must be postponed until promises are kept… Sleeping before stopping, then, adds to the notion of not-yet-doing the danger of no-longer-being. [pp. 161-162]

And finally, most importantly, she writes:

What can the poem mean? That is another issue: whatever those words in those combinations will allow without distorting their meanings, without introducing elements that cannot fit in the context of the poem as a whole… one could follow Frost’s advice to a graduate student to take his poetry “all the way.” Or one could feel chastised by Frost’s ridicule of those who say this is a “suicide poem.” Or one could ignore Frost altogether. [p. 162]

Another contributor to the Cambridge Companion offers up what is probably the most representative interpretation of the poem (if one accepts that the poem should be interpreted). John Cunningham writes:

Stopping by Woods - DraftThe opposition between humanity (the owner of the woods whose “house is in the” village and who will not see the speaker, the absence of “a farmhouse near”) and the purposeless natural phenomena (descending snow and night, the woods, the frozen lake) Frost establishes early. Even the horse “must think it queer.” Three times the poet uses some form of stop. The setting is becoming blank, undifferentiated whiteness, a desert place on “the darkest evening of the year,” literally an overstatement but metaphorically not so to the speaker. For him movement forward ceases; his choice is between the “woods and frozen lake,” either offering only death to one who stops. In effect the horse asks “if there is some mistake.” To have so stopped could well prove to be such. The “sweep/ of easy wind,” free of the thousand mortal shocks that one is heir to, and the “downy flake,” like warm bedding, entice the speaker to give up his human errands and to sleep in the void of death. The woods are “dark and deep,” not promising words in Frost, deep as the final absence of death, and “lovely” only in the temptation to shuffle off that they offer. With “but I have promises to keep,” the speaker and the poem pivot, rejecting the temptation, affirming his promises, a word with human connotations of duty and presence, and accepting the “miles [that he must] go” before he sleeps this might and before he “sleep[s]” finally in death. [pp. 269-270]

Cunningham then goes on to interpret the repetition of the last two lines as “congruent with the stacked-up accents at the pivot above…” Quoi? This gets opaque. Do you get it? I don’t. However, if he’s going to run with this interpretation (which, as I wrote before, is the standard interpretation) I think he misses a golden, interpretive opportunity in the last two lines.

One could interpret the last two lines as follows:

And miles to go before I sleep
[I have miles to go before I’m home and in bed.]

And then, much more darkly and deeply he writes:

And miles to go before I sleep
[And many more “miles” to go before I go to die.]

However, I’m not convinced by Cunningham’s assertion that the descending snow is a “purposeless natural phenomena“. Frost doesn’t give us any indication, within the confines of the poem, that we should think so. No matter what thematic material you might find elsewhere in Frost’s poems, it doesn’t follow that Frost’s use of certain images and ideas is always one and the same. They aren’t. Bernard Hass, himself, makes this observation:

….[as] inviting [as] those secrets [the alien entanglements of nature] may be to one who has grown “overtired” of his struggle with nature, Frost is equally aware that natural imperatives can also be beneficial. Just  as nature has an intrinsic capacity to increase entropy, it also has synthetic powers of regeneration and self-organization that, when left to their own creative devices, terminate in beautiful structures that are both pleasing and protective. [Going by Contraries, pp. 153-154]

In this light, it’s hard to see an “easy wind” and “downy flake” as mortal threats. They are more a recognition of aesthetic beauty. But of what kind? To this end, Cunningham reasons that the adjectives are to be construed as an act of seduction. That is, the “easy” winds are seductively easy, but deadly to one who tarries too long in their cold.

As far as this goes, I’m sympathetic with Cunningham’s interpretation; but I do not think that Frost is contemplating suicide. That’s over-interpreting the poem, in my view. I do think there is a recognition by Frost, in this poem at least, that there is something lovely in the contemplation of nature’s sleep – a recognition of its necessity and loveliness. But at no time does he actually claim to desire it. After all, he says, he has promises to keep. The last two lines withstand this interpretation. I have miles to go before I sleep tonight; and I have “miles” to go before my final sleep.

The Ordeal of Robert FrostIn reference to Frost’s poem as a suicide poem, Mark Richardson, author of The Ordeal of Robert Frost, observes Frost’s own irritation at the suggestion:

During Frost’s own lifetime… critics sometimes set [Frost’s] teeth on edge with intimations about personal themes in the poem, as if it expressed a wish quite literally for suicide… Louis Mertins quotes him in conversation:

“I suppose people think I lie awake nights worrying about what people like [John] Ciardi of the Saturday Review write and publish about me [ in 1958]… Now Ciardi is a nice fellow–one of those bold, brassy fellows who go ahead and sall sorts of things. He makes me “Stopping By Woods” out a death poem. Well, it would be like this if it were. I’d say, “This is all very lovely, but I must be getting on to heaven.” There’d be no absurdity in that. That’s all right, but it’s hardly a death poem. Just as if I should say here tonight, “This is all very well, but I msut be getting on to Pheonix, Arizona, to lecture there. ” (Mertins 371) [The Ordeal of Robert Frost, p. 190]

Typical of Frost however, he still leaves open the door, saying to Mertins later:

“If you feel it, let’s just exchange glances and not say anything about it. There are a lot of things between best friends that’re never said, and if you — if they’re brought out, right out, too baldly, something’s lost.” [Ibid]

Richardson writes that Frost’s “subtle caveat to Mertins is probably meant equally to validate Ciardi’s suggestion about “Stopping by Woods” and to lay a polite injunction against it.” Richardson then picks up on Pritchard’s observation concerning the “felicities of language”, even alluding to Frost’s comments on E.A. Robinson (later on the same page):

Frost directs our attention not to the poem’s theme or content but to its form: the interlocking rhyme among the stanzas. He once remarked to an audience at Bread Loaf, again discouraging biographical or thematic readings of the poem: “If I were reading it for someone else, I’d begin to wonder what he’s up to. See. Not what he means but what he’s up to” (Cook 81). The emphasis is on the performance of the writer and on the act of writing. [p. 191]

And again, we come back to the idea of expression, rather than content, being (if not the heart of poetry) an equal part. Richardson adds that by “empasizing the lyric’s form Frost really only defers the question of theme and content. It is not that the poem does not have a theme, or one worth a reader’s consideration; the form simply is the theme.” The same could be said for much of Keats’ poetry and his Ode to Autumn. Richardson quotes Poirier, in reference to Frost:

“If [a] poem expresses grief, it also expresses–as an act, as a composition, a performance, a ‘making,’ — the opposite of grief; it shows or expresses ‘what the hell of a good time I had writing it.” [p. 192]

Where does all of this lead? Here’s what I think: I read the poem as both an act and performance, to be enoyed as an act and performance, and as a meaningfully suggestive poem – an acknowledgement of the lovely, dark and deep thoughts that are never far from our every day thoughts and lives. Nature will bring to all of us the same sleep it brings to the dark woods, but first we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.

Frost on Stopping by Woods

Browsing through the used bookstore a couple weeks ago, I stumbled on a little book called Robert Frost an introduction: poems, reviews, criticism. I think it’s been out of print for a good many years, but it has some choice quotes concerning Stopping by Woods. All the quotes are apparently from Reginald L. Cook, “Robert Frost’s Asides on His Poetry”,  “Frost on Frost: The Making of Poems” and “The Dimensions of Robert Frost”. Here they are:

  • …When he reads “Departmental,” which he once referred to as “my iridium poem; its hard and useful,” he says, ironically, that he intends sometime to write thirty pages of notes for the scholiasts. He once remarked that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was the kind of poem he’d like to print on one page, to be followed with “forty pages of footnotes.”
  • “Stopping by Woods” contains “all I ever knew”.
  • …”Stopping by Woods” is, he says, “a series of almost reckless commitments I feel good in having guarded it so. [It is] … my heavy duty poem to be examined for the rime pairs.” [Note how Frost, once again, praises the expression of the poem, it’s form, rather than it’s content.]
  • …”That one I’ve been more bothered with than anybody has ever been with any poem in just pressing it for more than it should be pressed for. It means enough without its being pressed.” And, in a biting tone, he adds, “I don’t say that somebody shouldn’t press it, but I don’t want to be there.” Often he has spoken out against the “pressers” and over-readers. “You don’t want the music outraged.” And of “Stopping by Woods” he says that all it means is “it’s all very nice but I must be getting along, getting home.” Yet no true reader leaves the discussion there. He knows as well as the poet does that what is important is how the poet played with “the constant symbol” implicit in the making of the poem. “Everything is hinting,” Frost reminds us.
  • … “Stopping by Woods” came to him after he had been working all night on his long poem entitled “New Hampshire.” He went outside to look at the sun and it came to him. “I always thought,” he explains, “it was the product of autointoxication coming from tiredness.”
  • The most ascerbic and closest-cropped expressions of his [Frost’s] wit are reserved for the analysts of literature who try to pick a poem clean and miss its intent. When a friendly critic asked if the last two lines in “Stopping by Woods” referred to going to Heaven, and, by implication, death, the poet replied, “No, all that means is to get the hell out of there.”
  • …Frost starts out perfectly free in his poem. “I can have my first line any way I please,” he says, and he is right, “But once I say a line I am committed. The first line is a commitment. Whose woods these are I think I know. Eight syllables, four beats- a line – we call it iambic. I’m not terribly committed there. I can do a great many things. I did choose the meter. What we have in English is mostly iambic anyway. When most of it is iambic, you just fall into that – a rhyme pair – I’d be in for it. I’d have to have couplets all the way. I was dancing still. I was free. Then I committed a stanza:

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.

He will not see me stopping here is uncommitted. For the three rhymes in the next stanza, I picked up the unrhymed line in the first stanza, and rhymed its end-rhyme “here” with “queer’, ‘near’ and ‘year,’ and for the third stanza I picked up ‘lake’ from the unrhymed line in the second stanza and rhymed it with ‘shake,’ ‘mistake’ and ‘flake.’ For the fourth stanza I picked up ‘sweep’ from the unrymed line in the third stanza, to rhyme with ‘deep’ and ‘sleep.’

“Every step you take is further commitment. It is like going to the North Pole. If you go, you have to bring back witnesses – some Eskimos! How was I going to get out of that stanza? It’s going to be like the Arabian Nights -one story after another. By the third stanza you have a sense of how long a poem is going to be. It’s ‘sweep’ I’m committed to:

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.

For my poem is a commitment to convention. That’s what it’s a symbol of . The form of regular verse – Greek, Latin, English – is a symbol of commitment.

“The interest is the quarrel with those commitments. When I read a poem, I ask myself: What is the main point in the argument? Where is the insincerity in the argument? Having comitted ourselves to go to the North Pole or to our love, we have to believe we have been to the North Pole or that we have been in love. The modern poet who uses free verse or new experiments quarrels with the commitment to convention. His revolt is based on that, that all life goes false by its commitments. Consequently, I look at a poem very examiningly, very suspiciously. I don’t want to think that the poem is a compromise with the rhyme.”

  • “What it [the repeat of the final line] does is save me from a third line promising another stanza …. I considered for a moment four of a kind in the last stanza but that would have made five including the third in the stanza before it. I considered for a moment winding up with a three line stanza. The repetend was the only logical way to end such a poem.”

And finally, here is Frost himself:

The Poem’s Form

Lawrence Buell, in The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, calls the poem a Rondeau [p. 111]. Every definition I’ve read of Rondeau, including The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, offers up a definition that has nothing, whatsoever, to do with “Stopping by Woods”. It’s likely that Buell is being very liberal in his use of the word Rondeau. That is, Frost’s poem is a rondeau in the sense that there is a recurring rhyme scheme that takes as its rhyme the one unrhymed word of the stanza before. Most critics would probably call this a nonce poem – meaning that the rhyme scheme is unique to the poem.

  • Note: [May 29] I just received a comment from Gemma who points out the Frost’s Rhyme Scheme is the same as that found in Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Kyayy’ám’s Rubaiyat. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics calls it the Omar Kyayy’ám Quatrain. Since Fitzgerald’s translation was published in 1859 and quite famous in its day, it’s possible (if not likely) that Frost saw it at one time or another. I myself grew up with a copy in my grandmother’s house – the only book of poetry she owned! I still have it but haven’t looked at it in a long time. That said, Frost himself (from his own comments above) seems to imply that the rhyme scheme developed organically (was of his own making).  For more details on the Rubaiyat, check out the link in Gemma’s comment.

At the beginning of the post, I asked how a poem so metrically regular could, nonetheless, feel so dynamic. Returning to The Cambridge Introduction to Robert Frost, Timothy Steele, in his essay entitled “Across Spaces of the Footed Line”: the Meter and Versification of Robert Frost, offers the most insightful analysis I have come across. He writes:

Because iambic structure often is compounded of non-iambic elements of English word-shape and phraseology, a poet like Frost can initiate, within the basic iambic rise-and-fall movement, all sorts of counter-currents to the prevailing rhythm. An exemplary instance of these modulatory West-Running Brooks occurs in stanza three of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’:

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.

In the first two lines, Frost uses mainly monosyllabic words, and of the two two-syllable words, one is rear-stressed. As a result, divisions between feet and those between words largely coincide, and this in turn produces a strong sense of rising, iambic rhythm:

He gives || his har || ness bells || a shake
To ask || if there || is some || mistake.

In contrast, the remaining two lines feature four fore-stressed disyllabic words. Consequently, words more often cross foot divisions than end at them. Even as the iambic fluctuation continues, the lines have a falling, trochaic character, which in turn suggests the sweeping movement of wind and snow:

The on|| ly oth || er sound’s || the sweep
Of eas || y wind || and down || y flake.

Frost’s first version of the line about the wind and flake read, “Of easy wind and fall of flake.” He may have made the change not only because he wanted a more descriptive word for the snow, but also because he intuited that the rhythm would benefit from a more descending flow than “and fall of flake” could give. [pp. 133-134]

On to my own comments…

The other facet to consider is line length versus phrase length. Notice how the first two lines are also two succinct syntactic phrases. They are essentially each a complete sentence. Frost eases this confluence of line and phrase in the next two lines through enjambment – Stopping by Woods: Manuscriptboth lines comprise a single sentence. The first stanza’s confluence of line and thought mimic the poet’s own deliberation. He stops. He considers the land owner. He decides the land owner won’t know he’s “tresspassed”.

The next stanza then relaxes just as the poet himself relaxes. The form and sensibility of the poem are in prefect congruity. All four lines of the stanza comprise a single sentence. The reader will, perhaps without explicitly observing this trick, subconsciously register the effect and the poet’s relaxation.

The third stanza doesn’t repeat the first two. (Each stanza is different.) The first two lines comprise one sentence while the closing two lines comprise another. The poet is divided, just as the stanza is divided between two sentences. The horse reminds the driver that their travel isn’t through, but the poet remains distracted by the easy wind and downy flake.

The syntax of the final stanza breaks each line into discreet phrases. The poet is matter of fact. First, and yes, the woods are love, dark and deep; but more importantly, I have promises to keep. The spell of the woods are broken. The speaker of the poem returns to miles he must travel before he sleeps.

The point in all this is to demonstrate that there are more ways to vary a metrical poem than through the varying of meter. Line lengh, phrase and syntactic sense, if well-played against and with each other, can have a powerful and dynamic effect on a poem.

Frost’s small poem is a masterpiece.

Anyway… if you enjoyed this post and have questions or suggestoins, please comment!

Further sources of information:

  • A new & recommended post that examines the poem as aesthetic statement. Fascinating.

  • Modern American Poetry • This is a collection of essays culled from various authors and critics, possibly the most helpful offering on the web – similar to my own approach but without the multimedia.

Poetry Everywhere

  • Clicking on the Image will take you to PBS.ORG where you can watch Frost read Stopping by Woods.
  • Answers.Com offers two interesting essays by authors who are not among the “big guns” of Frost criticism.
  • Sparknotes offers a brief  little overview of the poem and a possible interpretation. These are followed by study notes if you’re in need of a kick start.

Robert Frost, Iambic Pentameter & Mending Wall

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  • September 25, 2011. Further thoughts on interpreting Mending Wall.
  • June 26, 2009Major revision. Expansion of post with interpretive passage.
  • April 25th, 2009 –  Added audio of Robert Frost reciting Mending Wall.

About the Poem

Having noticed several searches on Frost’s Mending Wall (probably one of the most famous poems he wrote) I thought I would take a look at the poem.the-work-of-knowing1 I’ve looked at several of my books on Frost and none of them extensively analyze the poem. The archetypal meaning of the wall is straightfoward and expounded on by the speaker of the poem. Perhaps the most insightful comment was Richard Poirier’s in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Poirier makes the observation Frost’s “genius as a narrative poet is in part his capacity to sustain debates between people about the nature of the ‘homes’ which they very often occupy together.” Mending Wall is an ideal manifestation of that genius, just as Home Burial is.

As an aside, it is also worth noting how few poets take an interest in writing narratively or even in voices other than their own. In the most recent issue of Measure, a biannual journal that publishes “formal” poetry, I could only find one poem indisputably  written in a voice other than the poet’s – “Moliere’s Housekeeper”. The overwhelming majority were first person with the remaining few being second and third person. Not a single poem was written in the manner of a debate between two separate voices. Robert Frost is truly unique in this respect.

Having just analyzed Frost’s Birches, I was struck by the difference, in metrical style, between Birches and Mending Wall. My first thought was that Birches must have been written later (if not much later) than Mending Wall. Where Mending Wall is extremely conservative in its use of variant feet, Birches shows a much greater freedom and flexibility. As is the habit with most poets , when young they will try to master the game strictly by the rules – both to learn the rules and to prove to themselves and to others that they have the right stuff. Frost himself bragged that his first book, “A Boy’s Will”, proved that he could write  by the numbers. That done, he quickly learned how to bend the rules.

I still think that Birches must have come later but William Pritchard, Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, pritchard_frostrecounts that when Frost wrote to Bartlett (a publisher) in August of 1913 “about a book to be called, tentatively, New England Eclogues, made up of ‘stories’ form between one to two hundred lines, he sent along a list of eleven poems, one of which bore the title “Swinging Birches.” Pritchard, echoing another biographer (John Kemp) speculates that Frost didn’t include Birches in the first book because the tone, more philosophical “and sage”, would have set it (too much) apart from the other poems “rooted in the realism of experience”. Page 103.

So… I’ m left clinging to my theory on the basis of meter alone. Which isn’t a wholly reliable way to date poetry. But there you have it. One last interesting note. Lea Newman, who I mentioned in a previous post, writes in her book Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry,  of a children’s story Frost wrote for Carol and Lesley. In reference to elves and a spell, she quotes the following passage from the story:

Their backs were to the wall so that when a stone fell off it they were taken by surprise. They hardly turned in time to see two little heads pop out of sight on the pasture side. Carol saw them better than Lesley. “Faries!” he cried. Lesley said, “I can’t believe it.” “Fairies sure,” said Carol.

What Newman doesn’t observe is that even here, two voices (Frost’s children) are in debate. One sees fairies, the other doesn’t. Not only were the seeds of magic and elves present in this children’s story, but also the presence of two distinct voices in debate. It’s easy to imagine how, rightly or wrongly, these first thoughts gradually evolved into the famous poem. Newman mentions, additionally, that Frost himself never firmly identified himself with one speaker or the other. There was a little of both speakers in himself – and the poem could in some ways be taken as an internal debate.

Here is what Frost himself said, 1955, at Bread Loaf:

It’s about a spring occupation in my day. When I was farming seriously we had to set the wall up every year. You don’t do that any more. You run a strand of barbed wire along it and let it go at that. We used to set the wall up. If you see a wall well set up you know it’s owned by a lawyer in New York — not a real farmer. This is just about that spring occupation, but of course all sorts of things have been done with it and I’ve done something with it myself in self defense. I’ve gone it one better — more than once in different ways for the Ned of it — just for the foolishness of it. [The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost p. 231]

To show just how divergent the metrical usages are between the two poems, I’ve color coded the scansion of Mending Wall and Birches. Trochaic feet are in red, Spondees are purple, Anapests are blue, and Feminine Endings are green, Phyrric feet are yellowish.

Frost reciting Mending Wall:

Mending Wall

Mending Wall - Color Coded Scansion

The meter does little in terms of acting as counterpoint to the line. (The scansion, by the way, is based on Frost’s own reading of the poem.) One might conjecture that the regularity of the meter, if it wasn’t simply for the sake of writing Iambic Pentameter, was meant to echo the stepwise, regular, stone by stone mending of the wall.  After all, there is no flinging of feet from the topmost spindle of a birch. There is no avalanching or crazed ice. There are no girls on hands and knees throwing their hair before them over their heads to dry them. The work of mending wall is slow, methodical, hand roughening work. This, of itself, may explain the careful regularity of the meter.

There are some nice touches worth mentioning, touches that might  escape a reader unaccustomed to reading blank verse (Iambic Pentameter). First:

but-at1

The temptation, including my own, is to read the first foot as Trochaic |But at|, but Frost clearly reads it Iambically. He reads the first foot quickly. It’s a craft that many “professional” metrists don’t take seriously enough – perhaps because they’re not poets themselves. The meter of poets who write metrically shouldn’t be taken for granted. All too often, it seems, metrists insist that the English language, as it is spoken on the street, trumps any given metrical pattern. Don’t believe them. A poet who writes metrically does so for a reason.

The sweetest metrical touch comes in the following line:

i-could-say-elves

Most of us would read the third foot as |I could|, putting the emphasis on I, but Frost reads the foot Iambically and the pattern reinforces the reading. Putting the emphasis on could gives the line a much different feel, then if one emphasized I. To me, Frost’s reading sounds more mischeivious. Frost specialized in this sort of metrical subtletly, emphasizing words that might not normally recieve the ictus. It’s also a specially nice touch because just several lines before Frost used the word could as an unstressed syllable.

could-put-a-notion

One could conceivably stress could in the line above, but that would be subverting the Iambic pattern.

Lastly, another effect of the regular iambic pattern is to  especially contrast the first trochaic foot in the poem’s seminal line:

Some-thing | there is | that does | n’t love | a wall

It’s an effect that subliminally draws attention to the eye, catching the ear. It’s a line that disrupts the normal “foot on foot”, “stone on stone” pattern of the poem. And it is doubly effective because the line occurs twice. If the effect wasn’t noticed the first time, it will be the second time.

The author Mark Richardson, in one of my favorite books on Frost, The Ordeal of Robert Frost, finds that the two trochees in this first line and in the four lines “contribute subtly to the theme of these lines”.

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 ev|en two can pass abreast.

“How much better”, he asks, “to describe a disordered wall than in lines themselves disordered.” To me, given that only 2 out of the 20 feet are variant metrical feet (and the spondee is really only marginal) I’m not persuaded that they’re all that disordered.  I’m more apt to apply that observation to the following lines:

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones |under |his pines, |I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make |good neighbors’.
Spring is |the mischief in me, and |I wonder

In these lines, 5 out of the feet are variant. Two trochaic feet and three feminine endings.  I think these lines make a stronger case for the juncture of meter and meaning. There is a sort of excitement and mischievousness in the tone of the speaker reflected, one could argue, in the disruption of the meter. As Frost reads it, these are the most irregular lines in the poems – the moment when the two men exchange words.

Interpreting Mending Wall: (June 19 2009)

I’m adding this section because I should have written it from the beginning. But what prompted me to write it is the fascinating reading from an acquaintance of mine. He is the Director of a New England private school and in his most recent newsletter, he wrote the following about the poem:

The more I read and teach this poem. the more I find the speaker to be a condescending jerk. After inviting the neighbor to repair the wall, a tradition that clearly brings the speaker pleasure, he then makes fun of him for caring about the wall. First he assures his neighbor that his apples trees will not cross the wall to eat his pine cones. Then he imagines making an even more preposterous suggestion — that it is “elves” and not frost heaves that have toppled the wall — but decides not to mention it since his neighbor is not clever enough to come up with such an idea on his own… He ends the poem with an insult, confiding to us that the neighbor is “an old stone savage armed”.

The point being made is that the speaker’s humor comes at the expense of his neighbor. “Wall mending becomes an opportunity not to talk with his neighbor, but to sneer at him.” This is prejudice, he adds.

My own take is that there is certainly some humor at the neighbor’s expense, but the speaker of the poem gives the neighbor the final word. In other words, the poem doesn’t end with these words:

He moves in darkness as it seems to me
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

It ends with the aphorism – Good fences make good neighbors. This is what the reader of the poem walks away with. There is a weight and seriousness in this last line, like the stones being placed back onto the wall, that undercuts the speaker’s glib humor.

Politics and Poetry - Robert FrostTyler Hoffman, in his book, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry (another one of my very favorite books on Robert Frost and dirt cheap at Amazon), actually acknowledges some of my acquaintances reservations concerning Mending Wall’s speaker. Hoffman’s observes that Frost’s own conception of the poem initially confirms the impression of the speaker’s dismissiveness. Hoffman writes:

In 1915, when the tone [of the neighbor’s aphorism] is fresher in his mind, Frost advses that this instance should be heard as expressing ‘Incredulity of the other’s dictum’ (CPPP 689). But how much sarcasm is entangled in the in the speaker’s quotation of his neighbor’s statement? The tone is held in suspension, allowing us to imagine it is said with either a shrug or a sneer.

Hoffman continues:

(…) none of the imaginable tones is flattering to the neighbor: when we hear it one way, we condemn him as smug and self-congratulatory; when we hear it another way, we write him off as a blockhead (“an old-stone savage armed”).

According to Hoffman, Frost’s acquaintance, Reginald Cook reported that Frost used to stress “I’d rather he said it for himself” in the lines:

I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself
.

There were evidently tonalities and “sentence sounds” that Frost lost track of as a result of repeated readings. Hoffman relates that Frost himself said (in reference to the poem’s central aphorism): “You know, I’ve read that so often I’ve sort of lost the right way to say, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ See. There’s a special way to say [it] I used to have in my imagination, and it seems to have gone down. You say it in two different ways there.”

What’s interesting about Frost’s statement is that it confirms what many readers probably sense (or may not), that there is a shift in tone from the start of the poem to the finish. The speaker’s own attitude toward his neighbor changes. Does the poem end sarcastically or does it only begin sarcastically and end with a different sort of respect. It seems that the speaker of the Mending Wall wants his neighbor to be more playful or more open to a kind of intentionality in the world’s workings. Human beings do more than build barriers. We cannot separate ourselves from the vagaries of life that, sometimes, seem almost mischievous, tearing down our most ingeniously devised walls.  The speaker wants his neighbor to say it for himself. But if one reads the poem in this sense, then it seems as though the neighbor really does move in a kind of darkness. He comes to represent that part in us that refuses to give ourselves up to a world we cannot, ultimately, control. It’s not exactly elves, but maybe something like elves. Call it impishness, perhaps.

But there’s another aspect to this poem, and that’s in knowing which character is really Robert Frost, if either. In the Road Not Taken, Frost describes the following experience:

I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home.

This sort of experience characterizes much of Frost’s poetry – Frost in conversation with himself, divided in his own beliefs and assertions. The Ordeal of Robert FrostMany of his poems are like argumentative engagements with himself. Frost himself said as much:

“I make it a rule not to take any ‘character’s side in anything I write” [RF & The Politics of Poetry p. 108]

It’s a theme that Mark Richardson recognizes in his book The Ordeal of Robert Frost. Mending Wall, he writes: “perfectly exhibits the balance he sought between dispositions  of conformity and formity. The speaker… allies himself with the insubordinate energies of spring…” Then Richardson adds:

…the association of the speaker with insubordinate natural forces should not be permitted to obscure an important fact, which has been often enough noticed: he, not the neighbor, initiates the yearly spring repair of the wall; moreover, it is again he, not the neighbor, who goes behind hunters who destroy the wall in other seasons and makes repairs. So, if the speaker is allied with the vernal mischief of spring and its insubordinations, he is nevertheless set against them in his efforts to make the stones of the wall balance and remain in place… [p. 141]

Driving the point home, Richardson closes his argument with the following:

The speaker of “Mending Wall” is obviously of two minds: at once wall-builder and wall-destroyer, at once abettor and antagonist of seasonal entropies…. The difference is that, unlike his benighted neighbor, the speaker of the poem does indeed go behind his own favored aphorism [Something there is that doesn’t love a wall] to play both sides of the fence. In short, the two opposed men in the poem fairly shape up into one, and his name is Robert Frost.

Here from The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, is Frost himself. Frost was responding to the president of Rollins College.

He took both my hands to tell me I had written a true international poem. And just to tease him I said: “How do you get that?” You know. I said I thought I’d been fair to both sides — both national [and international]. “Oh, no,” he said, “I could see what side you were on.” And I said: “The more I say I the more I always mean somebody else.” That’s objectivity, I told him. That’s the way we talked about it, kidding. That’s where the great fooling comes in. But my latest way out of it is to say: “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries. That’s man. [pp. 231-232]

George Monteiro, the essayists from whose article these quotes are taken, adds that Frost took Mending Wall “very much… as a fable.”

The Poet and his Poetry (September 25 2011)

Just as we change, the best poems change with us. When I return to Mending Wall, I read the poem in ways I didn’t before. I won’t claim that what follows represents Frost’s intentions,  just that it’s another possible way to understand it.

One of Frost’s most engaging traits, to me, was his way of putting the overly inquisitive off his trail. His metaphorical gifts were such that he could talk about himself and no listener would be the wiser. In many of his poems he slyly (and not so slyly) discusses himself, his poetry, his readers, his critics and the pushy. He merrily described this facility in his poem Woodchuck.

The Woodchuck

My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.
With those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.
All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.
We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.
And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),
If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,
It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.

It’s hard not to read Woodchuck as Frost’s sly confession regarding his attitude toward his poetry and the interpreting of it. All of his poems are like a two door borrow. He can pretend he and the world — his readers and critics — are friends, but get too close he’ll “dive down under the farm”. Don’t forget that Frost was at odds with a ‘world’ in which Free Verse was fast becoming the dominant verse form. Frost warily dodges the double-barreled blast of critics who suffer from “the loss of common sense”. Finally, we can read “crevice and burrow” as a sly reference to his poetry. He’s been instinctively thorough in his concealment and self-preservation.

Woodchuck isn’t the only poem to fit into this Frostian trick. If there was ever are more searing critique of modern verse than Etherealizing (and by extension Free Verse) then I don’t know it.

Etherealizing
By Robert Frost

A theory if you hold it hard enough
And long enough gets rated as a creed:
Such as that flesh is something we can slough
So that the mind can be entirely freed.
Then when the arms and legs have atrophied,
And brain is all that’s left of mortal stuff,
We can lie on the beach with the seaweed
And take our daily tide baths smooth and rough.
There once we lay as blobs of jellyfish
At evolution’s opposite extreme.
But now as blobs of brain we’ll lie and dream,
With only one vestigial creature wish:
Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.

If you read theory as a sly reference to Pound’s preface to the anthology, “Some Imagist Poets” (as I do) then the entirety of the poem effortlessly falls in place. If modern poets hold a theory hard enough, such as the Pound’s dictums concerning poetry, then they’ll be rated a creed, in the sense of a  written body of teachings of a religious group generally accepted by that group — in a word: Dogma.

Continuing this interpretation, flesh, for Frost, is synonymous with meter and rhyme — the techniques of traditional poetry. Naturally our arms and legs will atrophy (our ability to write traditionally) and all that will be left of our poetry is “brain”. Frost’s prediction, in this respect, has proven true. Modern free verse poetry is seldom appraised for it’s skill in rhyme, meter or imagery, but largely its subject matter — in a word, brain. Two hundred years ago, a poorly written poem was readily dismissed no matter how elevated its content. Today, when the only thing that separates Free Verse from prose is ego, the poems of award winning poets are almost solely praised for their elevated and socially relevant content.

Frost compares such stuff to seaweed. With nothing left to the poetry but content (or brain) the daily tide (the vicissitudes of readers and critics) will hardly affect it whether the baths are smooth or rough. Frost is comparing free verse, and the subject matter of free free verse poets, to the amorphous jelly fish that moves whichever way the tide moves it. The jellyfish takes no stand, and can’t.

With one final kick in the rear, Frost compares the free verse poem to the blobs of brain who “lie and dream” with only “one vestigial creature wish”:

Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.

What other poems follow this pattern? Read A Considerable Speck, where the pursuit  of a mite is a droll reference to the creative process. It ends:

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

Similarly, the poem For Once Then Something is Frost’s response to criticism (still made today) that his poetry is all shine and no depth. Click on the link of you want to read my interpretation. Frost’s poem Birches can also be read as an introspective consideration of the poet’s place in the modern world.  In short, there is good precedent for reading Frost’s poems as sly and subtle revelations, commentary almost, on his sense of self as poet, artist and critic. The poem Mending Wall can be read in that tradition.

To start with, remember Frost’s statement that “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries.” Read the poem as Frost in two guises, as wall builder and wall toppler.  Read the wall, perhaps, as a poem, not Mending Wall necessarily, but any poem.

Two sides of Frost, the poet, appear. There is the playful Frost, the one that wants to tease and reveal, and there is the coy Frost, the Woodchuck, who is instinctively thorough about his crevice and burrow. This is the Frost who wants to keep something out. He doesn’t know what, but something. Some kinds of poems, like walls, keep things out and keeps things in reserve and that is all the explanation needed. Nevertheless, there are readers who won’t be satisfied. They want Frost to tell them what his poems are really about. They want to take down the wall. They make “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 hunter and critic, says the cagey Frost, leaves not one stone on a stone, but would have the rabbit, the poem’s meaning, out of hiding to please the yelping dogs — the too inquisitive public. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says the cagey Frost, but some things are better untold or hidden. He says, good fences make good neighbors and we could just as easily take that to mean that a good poem, if the poet doesn’t give too much away, makes good readers.

But Frost is of two minds and the poem stands between them. The best poem, like the best wall, is made by both Frosts (though the alliance isn’t easy). One Frost, in a sense, is all apple orchard (the brighter wood with its associations of food, family and public) and the other Frost is pine (a darker, pitchier wood that is reticent and unrevealing).

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.

The Frost that teases and revels in suggestion and misdirection will have his say — the Frost of the Apple Orchard.

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? 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.

The public Frost, the mischievous trickster, suggests Elves. He wants to know what the other Frost is walling in or out. What is he afraid of? What is he hiding? What is he afraid to let out? But no answer comes. The cagey, darker Frost will keep his secrets. Revelation isn’t in his nature. As if commenting on the meaning of the poem itself, he answers simply but also evasively, “Good fences make good neighbors.

Read the poem this way and and we read a philosophy of poetry.

Read it like this and Frost is revealing something about himself. There are two sides and it’s in their uneasy truce that his poetry finds greatness. I don’t know if Frost was thinking along these lines when he wrote the poem, but he was a shrewd poet. This way of writing is something that shows up in his other poems.

A Comparison to Birches

In terms of the degree to which the meter differs between Mending Wall and Birches, I thought I’d post my scansion of Birches for comparison:

Birches

Birches - Color coded scansion

Something I mentioned in my previous post on Birches, is how the variant feet emphasize and reinforce the narrative of the poem. Having color coded the variant feet, Frost’s skillful use of meter is all the more visible.  The most concentrated metrical variation occurs where the narrative describes motion – movement and spectacle. This is no mistake. Poets learning to write metrically (and there must be a few of them in the world) would do well to study Frost carefully.

If you enjoyed this post or have further questions, please let me know.

It makes writing them worthwhile.