Lynn Keller: On "At the Fishhouses"

"At the Fishhouses" begins, as a poem by Moore might, with a description of a scene that seems eternally suspended. The verbs in the opening section are stative -- "the five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs," "all is silver," "the big fish tubs are completely lined," "on the slope . . . is an ancient wooden capstan," etc. Yet what Bishop chooses

to describe differs from what Moore would present. When Moore tells us, for instance, that "eight green bands are painted on the [plumet basilisk's] tail -- as piano keys are barred by five black stripes across the white," we know that both lizards and pianos have always looked like that and will continue to do so in the future. But Bishop's description insists that the scene she observes is the product of continual changes caused by both people and nature: The man's shuttle is "worn and polished," the ironwork on the capstan "has rusted," the buildings have "an emerald moss growing on their shoreward walls." Such details make us aware that a future visitor would find a different scene in which these processes of erosion, decay, and growth were further advanced.

The fixity of the scene at the fishhouses is further undercut as the speaker becomes an active participant, offering the old man a Lucky Strike and engaging him in conversation. Reminders of historical process now become more overt; "he was a friend of my grandfather" implies her grandfather's death, and "the decline of the population" tells of broader changes. Moreover, Bishop's enchantment with this place emerges as a fascination not so much with the visible world people inhabit as with the unknowable sea it borders. She is attracted to this silvered village because it bears so much evidence of the sea's touch, while her real desire -- like that of her "Riverman" or of Lucy in "The Baptism" is for "total immersion," though she admits that would be "bearable to no mortal." Drawing a message from the scene very different from any Moore would offer, Bishop presents the sea as a symbol of "what we imagine knowledge to be: . . . drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world, derived from the rocky breasts / forever, flowing and drawn, and since / our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown." In suggesting that our knowing anything is itself imaginary, in adhering to a vision of unending process, in believing revelations in this harsh world fleeting and costly, Bishop stands firmly in the mainstream of contemporary art.


From Re-making it new: Contemporary American poetry and the modernist tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by Cambridge University Press.

Frost's "Birches"

The philosophy articulated in "Birches" poses no threat to popular values or beliefs, and it is so appealingly affirmative that many readers have treasured the poem as a masterpiece. Among Frost's most celebrated works, perhaps only "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" ranks ahead of it. Yet to critics like Brooks and Squires, the persona's philosophical stance in "Birches" is a serious weakness.

[. . .]

The didactic and philosophical element that some critics have attacked strikes others as the very core of Frost's virtue.

[. . .]

Perhaps impartial observers can accept the notion that "Birches" is neither as bad as its harshest opponents suggest nor as good as its most adoring advocates claim.

[. . .]

"Birches" . . . contains three fairly lengthy descriptions that do not involve unusual perspectives. In fact, the most original and distinctive vision in the poem--the passage treating the ice on the trees (ll. 5-14)--is undercut both by the self-consciousness of its final line ("You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen") and by the two much more conventionally perceived environments that follow it: the rural boyhood of the swinger of birches (ll. 23-40) and the "pathless wood," which represents life's "considerations" (ll. 44-47). As a result, the poem's ardent concluding lines--its closing pronouncements on life, death, and human aspiration--do not arise from a particular experience. Instead, they are presented as doctrines that we must accept or reject on the basis of our credence in the speaker as a wise countryman whose familiarity with birch trees, ice storms, and pathless woods gives him authority as a philosopher.

Since in "Birches" the natural object--tree, ice crystal, pathless wood, etc.--functions as proof of the speaker's rusticity, Frost has no need for extraordinary perspectives, and therefore the poem does little to convince us that an "experience," to use [Robert] Langbaum's wording, "is really taking place, that the object is seen and not merely remembered from a public or abstract view of it." This is not to deny that the poem contains some brilliant descriptive passages (especially memorable are the clicking, cracking, shattering ice crystals in lines 7-11 and the boy's painstaking climb and sudden, exhilarating descent in lines 35-40), and without doubt, the closing lines offer an engaging exegesis of swinging birches as a way of life. But though we learn a great deal about this speaker's beliefs and preferences, we find at last that he has not revealed himself as profoundly as does the speaker in "After Apple-Picking." It is remarkable that the verb "to like," which does not appear in Frost's non-dramatic poetry prior to "Birches," is used three times in this poem: "I like to think" (l. 3); "I'd like to get away" (l. 48); and "I'd like to go" (l. 54). The speaker also tells us what he would "prefer" (l. 23), "dream of" (l. 42), and "wish" (l. 51). But while his preferences are generally appealing, and while they seem intellectually justified, they are not poetically justified in the sense that Langbaum suggests when he discusses the "extraordinary perspective" as a "sign that the experience is really taking place": "The experience has validity just because it is dramatized as an event which we must accept as having taken place, rather than formulated as an idea with which we must agree or disagree" (p. 43).

"Mending Wall," "After Apple-Picking," and "The Wood-Pile" are centered on specific events that involve the speaker in dramatic conflicts and lead him to extraordinary perspectives. The act of repairing the wall and trying to reason with the crusty farmer, the termination of the harvest and the preparation for a winter's rest, the vagrant woodland ramble and the discovery of the perplexing woodpile--all these are events that we indeed "accept as having taken place."

Unlike the meditative lyrics Frost selected for North of Boston, however, "Birches" does not present a central dramatized event as a stimulus for the speaker's utterance. Although the conclusion seems sincere, and although Frost created a persuasive metaphorical context for it, the final sentiments do not grow dramatically out of the experiences alluded to. Yes, the speaker has observed ice storms that bend the birches "down to stay" (l. 4); he has "learned all there is / To learn" about swinging birches (ll. 32-33); and he has struggled through the "considerations" of life's "pathless wood" (ll. 43-44). But the relationship of these experiences to his present utterance--the poem--is left unclear. We would be more willing to accept what Squires calls a "contradictory jumble" of images and ideas if we were convinced (as Eliot and Pound often convince us) that the diverse materials had coalesced in the speaker's mind. Frost's confession that the poem was "two fragments soldered together" is revealing; the overt, affected capriciousness of the transitions between major sections of the poem (ll. 4-5, 21-22, and 41-42) indicates that instead of striving to establish the dynamics of dramatized experience, he felt he could rely on the force of his speaker's personality and rural background. In early editions, a parenthetical question, "(Now am I free to be poetical?)," followed line 22, making the transition between the ice storm and the country youth even more arbitrary.

[. . .]

It may seem arbitrary to press too hard the issue of honesty in this poem. Art, after all, relies on fantasy and deception. Yet there are different types of fantasy and many motives for deception. If we are confident that an artist has kept faith with some personal vision or inner self, we can accept falsification of many things. When Frost presents himself as a farm worker, for instance a mower wielding his scythe or apple picker resting his weary body--the fantasy seems sincere and convincing. When we consider Frost's career and personal history, however, we may wonder about his motives in falsifying the character of his childhood. The resulting images lack originality and inspiration. Surely "Birches" contains some vivid and forceful passages, but when a line or phrase gives us too strong a sense of the poet's calculated effort to validate his speaker's rusticity, the spell of the poem, its incantatory charm and imaginative vision, is threatened. Fortunately, in "Birches" this threat is hardly noticeable, certainly not overwhelming or repellent, unless we want it to be.

[Excerpted from a longer analysis]

from Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist. Copyright © 1979 by Princeton UP.

Hayden Carruth: On "Two Tramps in Mudtime"

"Two Tramps in Mud Time" opens with the poet as wood-splitter in the thawing time of late winter, suffering the interruption of two unemployed loggers; this is good localized description, the kind Frost was master of. But then he appears not to know what to do with his opening. The poem wanders into further unnecessary description: the April day, the bluebird, the snow and water; and then it ends in four stanzas of virtually straight editorial matter. The two tramps and the mud-time are left utterly stranded. When one thinks how Frost would have used these figures at the time when he was writing his earlier dramatic and narrative poems, one can see clearly, I believe, how he had deserted his own imagination and how he tried to make up the deficiency through conscious manipulation and force

From "Robert Frost" in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Spring-Summer, 1975.