Jeffrey Meyers

Jeffrey Meyers: On "Two Tramps in Mudtime"

"Two Tramps in Mudtime" opens in early spring when (as in "The Ax-Helve") the speaker is interrupted while chopping wood. Two intimidating tramps want to "take"--not do--the job for pay. Frost then shifts away from the main subject, as he often does, to a brilliant description of the treacherous New England spring, which suddenly changes from May to March. He returns, three stanzas later, to describe the intense pleasure he takes in physical labor and to consider the demands of the tramps. They are professional lumberjacks, who have left the forest and chosen not to work, and therefore have no pressing claim on his charity. The argument finally comes down to the speaker's love of work against their need of work for gain. He concedes that they have the better right, but the "But" that begins the final stanza suggests that his point of view will prevail. Using a daring Metaphysical conceit (like Donne's "twin compasses" in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"), he says his aim in life is to write poetry and chop wood, just as his two eyes focus into single sight. Though it would be socially beneficial to give employment to the tramps, Frost believes--since the physical pleasure of chopping wood while observing the hesitant coming of spring is absolutely essential to the creation of his poetry--that his personal needs are paramount. The speaker looks after Number One rather than Number Two. As he told Untermeyer, he was brought up to think of self-preservation as a virtue, not an instinct. Just as "The Lone Striker" disappoints Left-wing expectations by advocating an individual's flight from industrial disputes rather than workers' solidarity and communal effort, so "Two Tramps in Mudtime" resists the liberal impulse and sends the tramps back into the mud instead of responding to their urgent but unspoken demand for money. As the speaker cunningly says when describing the spring, the lurking frost will show its crystal teeth.

From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.

Jeffrey Meyers: On "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

Another brilliant, complex and resonant short poem, "Nothing Cold Can Stay," reconsiders (like several lyrics in A Boy's Will) the perennial theme of mutability. The opening line--"Nature's first green is gold"--is extremely ambiguous. It could mean either that nature's first green in the springtime has now turned to autumnal gold or that nature's first growth is golden, or precious, because it lasts such a short time, cannot hold its color and fades as soon as the leaves fall in autumn. The fall of the leaves is connected to the Fall of Man, when "Eden sank to grief." Just as the dawn inevitably "goes down" (like the leaves) to day, so the negative thought in the title--which suggests the transience of all things--is inevitably and tragically repeated in the last line of the poem.

From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.

Jeffrey Meyers: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Like "The Road Not Taken," it suggests vast thematic implications through a lucid narrative. . . .

The most amazing thing about this work is that three of the fifteen lines (the last line repeats the previous one) are transformations from other poems. "He gives his harness bells a shake" comes from Scott's "The Rover" (in Palgrave): "He gave the bridle-reins a shake.: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep" comes from Thomas Lovell Beddoes' "The Phantom Wooer": "Our bed is lovely, dark, and sweet." The concluding "And miles to go before I sleep" comes from Keats' "Keen Fitful Gusts": "And I have many miles on foot to fare." Though these three lines are variations from other poets, Frost, writing in the tradition of English verse, makes them original and new, and integrates them perfectly into his own poem.

The theme of "Stopping by Woods"--despite Frost's disclaimer--is the temptation of death, even suicide, symbolized by the woods that are filling up with snow on the darkest evening of the year. The speaker is powerfully drawn to these woods and--like Hans Castorp in the "Snow' chapter of Mann's Magic Mountain--wants to lie down and let the snow cover and bury him. The third quatrain, with its drowsy, dream-like line: "Of easy wind and downy flake," opposes the horse's instinctive urge for home with the man's subconscious desire for death in the dark, snowy woods. The speaker says, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep," but he resists their morbid attraction.

From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.

Jeffrey Meyers: On "The Witch of Coös"

"The Witch of Coös" (named for a county in northern New Hampshire) is a ghost - or skeleton - story inspired by the heroines in the tales of Edgar Poe who burst the confines of their coffins. The down-to-earth narrator confirms the reality of the supernatural events, which were told to him by the witch and her son (two "old-believers," or old-fashioned mediums) when their desire to confess overcame the need to keep their long-held secret. Forty years ago, they told him, a skeleton locked in the cellar carried itself "like a pile of dishes" up two flights of stairs and into the attic. The bones belonged to the woman's ]over, whom her late French-Canadian husband, Toffile Lajway (Théophile LaJoie), had killed and buried under the house. Punning and quoting Chaucer's "Prioress' Tale," Frost said the theme of the poem was "murder will out - he's murder trying to get out."

From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.

Jeffrey Meyers: On "Fire and Ice"

The concise, laconic, perfect and perfectly savage "Fire and Ice," the antithesis of the long-winded "New Hampshire," belongs with the apocalyptic "Once by the Pacific." The alternatives in the title represent passion and hatred, two ways of destroying the world. The poem was inspired by a passage in Canto 32 of Dante's Inferno, in which the betrayers of their own kind are plunged, while in a fiery hell, up to their necks in ice: "a lake so bound with ice, / It did not took like water, but like a glass ... right clear / I saw, where sinners are preserved in ice." The last, understated word in Frost's poem, "suffice," clinches the meaning (like "difference" in "The Road Not Taken") by rhyming with the two lines that end in "ice" and enclosing that thematic word within itself.

From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.

Jeffrey Meyers: On "Birches"

"Birches" connects poetic aspiration and physical love. It begins with a fanciful image("I like to think") of a boy swinging on and bending birches. It then shifts to a brilliant description of ice-laden branches blown by the wind that "cracks and crazes [suggesting cracked glazes] their enamel." Inspired by medieval cosmology and by a famous passage from Shelley's "Adonais" (an elegy for Keats, about poetic power cut off in mid-career by death), Frost writes of all the broken ice-glass: "You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen." He then returns to the swinger-of-birches theme as the boy, like the future poet, launches out at the proper time, keeps his poise and climbs carefully. Swinging himself on the branches "Toward heaven," he'd

like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over....

Earth's the right place for love:

I don't know where it's likely to go better.

Opposing the Platonic view of idealized love, Frost believes Earth, not Heaven, is the right place because love should be physical and tested against the realities of life.

From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.

Jeffrey Meyers: On "After Apple-Picking"

"After Apple-Picking" has often been compared to Keats’ "Ode to Autumn," as if it were primarily a celebration of harvest. But its elevated diction (quite distinct from anything else in the book) as well as its images, mood and theme, all suggest a greater affinity with Keats' :Ode to a Nightingale." In that weary, drowsy poem the speaker longs to escape through art, symbolized by the nightingale, from the pain of the real world and wants to melt into the welcome oblivion of death:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains     My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains     One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk,

Frost's narrator, standing on the earth but looking upward, is also suspended between the real and the dream world:

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree Toward heaven still And there's a barrel that I didn't fill.

The long and short lines, the irregular rhyme scheme, the recurrent participles (indicating work), the slow tempo and incantatory rhythm all suggest that repetitive labor has drained away his energy. The perfume of the apples - equated through "essence" with profound rest - has the narcotic, almost sensual effect of ether. Frost's speaker, like Keats', is suffused with drowsy numbness, yet enters the visionary state necessary to artistic creation:

Essence of winter sleep is on the night, The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight I got from looking through a pane of glass I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough.

The glassy piece of ice - which distorts, transforms and makes the familiar seem strange - is, like Keats' nightingale, a symbol of art. In his dream state (the word "sleep" occurs six times in the poem),

Magnified apples appear and disappear, Stem end and blossom end, And every fleck of russet showing clear,

and he rhythmically sways on the ladder when the boughs bend with his weight. As the apples are gathered - and the poem written - he becomes both physically and mentally exhausted:

For I have had too much Of apple-picking: I am overtired Of the great harvest I myself desired.

He needs to regenerate himself, like the hibernating woodchuck, by a long, deathlike winter sleep, so he will be ready to reenter the poet's dream world and achieve another spurt of creativity. In "After Apple-Picking" Frost achieves a perfect fusion of pastoral and poetic labor.

From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.

Jeffrey Meyers: on "Design"

"Design," a perfectly executed sonnet, is Frost's greatest poem. The title refers to the idea, as William James writes in Pragmatism (1907), that "God's existence has from time immemorial been held to be proved by certain natural facts.... Such mutual fitting of things diverse in origin argued design, it was held; and the designer was always treated as a man-loving deity." The idea of a benign deity is mentioned, for example, in Matthew 10: 29, which teaches that God oversees every aspect of the world, even unto the fate of the most common bird: "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father" knowing it. The idea of a perfectly created world also appears in Genesis 1: 31, where "God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good." In "The Tyger" (1794) Blake admired the power of a God who could create, in his divine order, the most fierce and gentle hearts, and rhetorically asked: 'Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?"

To poets, the spider could represent different purposes in God's design. Whitman's "A Noiseless Patient Spider" is benign; but the Black Widow in Robert Lowell's "Mr. Edwards and the Spider" is a symbol of the damned soul. Frost, like Hardy in "An August Midnight," uses the spider to emphasize the evil aspect of God's design and offers, as Randall Jarrell notes, an "Argument from Design with a vengeance.... If a diabolical machine, then a diabolical mechanic ... in this little Albino catastrophe."

In "Design" the normally black spider and blue heal-all (the ironic name of the medicinal flower) are both wickedly white -- a play on Elinor's maiden name. The spider, fattened by a previous victim, holds a dead white moth like a rigid piece of satin cloth (or a rigid waxy corpse) in a coffin. These three characters of death and blight, like the elements of a witches' broth, are ready to begin the morning right -- or evil rite. Frost asks what evil force made the blue flower white and what malign power brought the spider into deadly conjunction with the moth. His dark answer suggests that this awful albino death-scene refutes Genesis, St. Matthew and the comforting belief recounted by Blake and William James: "What but design of darkness to appall? -- / If design govern in a thing so small." In the horrible but inevitable logic of "Design" Frost replaces God's design with the artist's.

 

From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.