Jay Parini

Jay Parini: On "The Gift Outright"

One can hardly imagine a better brief description of our national history than Frost's image of "the land vaguely realizing westward." Both "vaguely" and "realizing" are unexpected, and perfect. The poet gets the haphazard, unplanned quality of the process in the former term and underscores the seeming historic inevitability of it in the latter; in Frost's version of social Darwinism, morality is stripped to the bare essentials: there were millions of strong transplanted Europeans in the East, and they would eventually need room to expand; they had greater numbers and better weapons than the native people, so they overcame them; indeed, they nearly wiped them out altogether! That they remained "unstoried, artless, unenhanced" is also part of the story, and Frost does not (as a lesser, merely patriotic poet might have done) overly praise these conquerors, who even seem more like a virus than a nation.

From Robert Frost: A Life. Copyright © 1999 by Jay Parini.

Jay Parini: On "An Old Man's Winter Night"

Perhaps the most haunting poem in Mountain Interval is "An Old Man’s Winter Night," a poem about an old man dying in the wintry climate of New England and alone: "All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him / Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars." The poem meditates implicitly on the human condition as a whole, though it remains neatly, even maniacally, focused on the single old man here who "stood with barrels round him -- at a loss." The old man is somehow made to bear the weight of all human loneliness, even though "a light he was to no one but himself / Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what, / A quiet light, and then not even that." The man’s inner light, as it were, goes out as he sleeps; there is nothing left but the glimmer in the woodstove and the pale moonlight. The poem ends with a handful of deeply haunting lines:

One aged man -- one man -- can't keep a house, A farm, a countryside, or if he can, It’s thus he does it of a winter's night.

The word "keep" is central here, as elsewhere in Frost, carrying a freight of ambiguous meanings. The word's original denotation, in the Anglo-Saxon, is "to hold, to seize." By implication, a person’s duty in life is to bear witness (as in the title of a late volume by Frost, A Witness Tree ), to maintain a vigil. Frost's poet is a hermit who nonetheless lets his light shine, keeps the faith, holds steady against the chaos of the universe.

From "Robert Frost" in The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Copyright © 1993 by The Columbia University Press. 

Jay Parini: On "The Oven Bird"

Mountain Interval also contains "The Oven Bird," one of Frost's unforgettable sonnets. Like "Mowing," it is a poem implicitly about the act of writing, about a bird who "knows in singing not to sing," which is to say that he must abandon the worn-out poetical diction and rhetorical conventions of his predecessors and offer a new kind of song. "The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing." The last two lines resonate with implications. What poet now writing is not faced with this dilemma? The world as we find it, much as the world Frost found, is sadly diminished, and the poet's job in the twentieth century has been what to make of this world, how to respond to its indignities, its savage and vengeful self-absorption, its greed, its abandonment of common decency and justice.

From "Robert Frost" in The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Copyright © 1993 by the Columbia University Press.

About W.S. Merwin

Merwin was born in New York City and grew up in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. His father was a Presbyterian minister. 'I started writing hymns for my father as soon as I could write at all', Merwin has said. He attended Princeton University, where he studied writing with John Berryman and R. P. Blackmur, to whom his fifth book, The Moving Target (1963), was dedicated. Merwin spent a postgraduate year at Princeton studying Romance languages, an interest that would lead, eventually, to his much-admired work as a translator of Latin, Spanish, and French poetry.

Jay Parini: On "Design"

A Furtber Range contains "Design," arguably one of the best sonnets ever written by an American poet. It is a frightening poem, one that confronts the dire possibility that the universe is not only godless but that God is evil. In keeping with the Imagest tendencies in modern poetry, Frost centers the poem on a picture . . . .

The white spider — already a freak of nature - has landed on a white flower with a white moth in its grip. None of these three elements is normally white, which gives each of them an abstract eeriness. The fact that these elements are "mixed ready to begin the morning right, / Like the ingredients of a witches' broth --" is deeply ironic: indeed, the language parodies the language of breakfast cereal ads. What we get here is an image that combines death and blight. There is nothing life-enhancing about anything in this piece of nature.

In the sestet of the sonnet, where issues raised in the octet are traditionally resolved, Frost simply offers three haunting and unanswerable questions:

What had that flower to do with being white, The wayside blue and innocent heal-all? What brought the kindred spider to that height, Then steered the white moth thither in the night? What but design of darkness to appall? -- If design govern in a thing so small.

The poem is in many ways the key to Frost's universe, a poem so perfect in its execution that one cannot imagine a word placed otherwise. Frost's tone is deftly controlled throughout, with the poet's serious point balanced nicely by the parodic language of the first stanza. Ever aware of the linguistic roots of words, Frost is inwardly winking when he uses the word "rigid" to modify "satin cloth." Likewise, at the end, he is certainly aware (as a former Latin teacher) that the word "appall" means "to make white" in its root sense. And Frost is delighting in the way he can wring an unexpected turn of meaning from the Classical argument from design.

 

From "Robert Frost" in The Columbia History of American poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.

Jay Parini: On "The Road Not Taken"

A close look at the poem reveals that Frost's walker encounters two nearlv identical paths: so he insists, repeatedly. The walker looks down one, first, then the other, "as just as fair." Indeed, "the passing there / Had worn them reallv about the same." As if the reader hasn't gotten the message, Frost says for a third time. "And both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black." What, then, can we make of the final stanza? My guess is that Frost, the wily ironist, is saying something like this: "When I am old, like all old men, I shall make a myth of my life. I shall pretend, as we all do, that I took the less traveled road. But I shall be lying." Frost signals the mockingly self-inflated tone of the last stanza by repeating the word "I," which rhymes - several times - with the inflated word "sigh." Frost wants the reader to know that what he will be saying, that he took the road less traveled, is a fraudulent position, hence the sigh.

 

From "Frost" in Columbia Literary History of the United States. Ed. Emory Elliott. Copyright © 1988 by the Columbia University Press.