Katherine Kearns

Katherine Kearns: On "Two Tramps in Mudtime"

In some essential sense in Frost's poetry, "mud time"--that precarious season between winter and spring, freeze and thaw, control and uncontrol--is always imminent; in that same sense, so too are the "hulking tramps" who begin to wander through the landscape in that season, threatening the equanimity of the socially proprietous speaker and bringing him finally to recognize and reassert his own capacity for control. In "Two Tramps in Mud Time," the strangers materialize out of nowhere, startling the speaker so thoroughly that he mis-hits the wood: this is a dangerous game, axes being what they are in Frost's poetry, capable of striking like a snake, or biting. The strangers are there to take the speaker's job of woodcutting, again a dangerous game, for it is his job to channel his aggressive energy away from others and into the (temporarily inanimate) kindling: "The blows that a life of self-control / Spares to strike for the common good, / That day, giving a loose to my soul, I spent on the unimportant wood." The tramps would deprive him of both his balance and his heat, elements condensed figurally into the dynamic precision of the titanically wrought woodchopper: "The weight of an ax-head poised aloft, / The grip on earth of outspread feet, / The life of muscles rocking soft / And smooth and moist in vernal heat." They would, in short, leave him to less harmless pastimes there in the crux between winter and spring. Warmth, the smooth and moist flow of muscles relaxed by vernal heat, has as its complement in this poem the water that fills every wheel rut and every hoofprint, but water without heat is ice. The speaker, warmed to a task, may be generative, but left to find other outlets becomes sinister: "Be glad of water," the speaker says, "but don't forget / The lurking frost in the earth beneath / That will steal forth after the sun is set / And show on the water its crystal teeth." What these silent strangers would take, then, is all that keeps the speaker from unrestrained appetite, that keeps F/frost from stealing forth in the dark to show his/its teeth.

From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Katherine Kearns: On "The Witch of Coös"

In "The Witch of Coös" only the woman/wife/lover/mother/witch can hear the bones' chalky progress upstairs, while her husband never "seem[s] to hear them," even as he rousts himself reluctantly from bed to help shut the skeleton in the attic. He only humors his wife's hysteria, but just as Frost's own mother funded him with magical stories, the "witch" has, over forty years' time, given her son an intimate knowledge of the night her buried ]over wandered upward. The poem is antiphonal, with mother and son speaking parts labeled with their names. The son has appropriated his mother's tale and tells it with great relish even though he admits that, when it happened, "I was a baby: I don't know where I was." Of the skeleton, he says, "It left the cellar forty years ago / And carried itself like a pile of dishes / Up one flight from the cellar to the kitchen. . . . " His metaphor, domestic and feminine as it is, is probably originally his mother's, although it also represents his own feminized, maternally oriented vision. It supports, too, as do the mother's images of the skeleton as "like a chandelier" and "a chalk-pile," the crucial interdependence of visual and aural components, a macabre sound of sense. This is, clearly, a story he has got by heart, a narrative embued with not only the sight but the sounds of bones that are "like the dry rattling of a shutter" in a house that is otherwise sealed tight, shutters closed and locked.

The pair remain in narrative accord until the astonishing disjunction of line 135:


We think they had a grave down in the cellar.


We know they had a grave down in the cellar.


We never could find out whose bones they were.


Yes, we could too, son. Tell the truth for once.

They were a man's his father killed for me.

The son is willing to tell the story as if it has nothing to do with him, as if the murdered man is not probably his own father, as if his mother is not, the whole time they are telling the story, fishing around in her button box for a finger bone she saved from the night the skeleton rose up. His (nominal) father could never hear the bones; the son can hear them clearly as long as they have nothing to do, finally, with him.

This is a familiar dynamic within Frost's poetry but for the son's presence: the women who can see beneath the skin to the grinning memento mori and can hear the disturbing cacophony of bone on bone are juxtaposed with the men, like the witch's husband, who can see and hear nothing. It is not, in "The Hill Wife," the husband who feels the stranger waiting in the woods but the wife; in "The Fear" it is the woman who hears in a stranger's footsteps the specter of an angry, abandoned lover, and who sees a man's face in the bushes, while the man can only say, "I didn't see it"; in "Home Burial" it is the grieving mother who looks out the window at "some fear" that her husband can't see ("She let him look, sure that he wouldn't see, / Blind creature . . ."). This kind of pairing often necessitates a third party who may represent a more balanced view, one that sees more rationally than the feminine and more insightfully than the nonpoetic masculine. In "The Witch of Coös," the brief, dry voice of the "visitor" - "I verified the name next morning," he says - is ostensibly closest to the poet's, as both are meant to be perceived as outsiders to all this madness and violence. But the son's voice may also be seen as the poet's voice as he translates himself out of complicity in this tale of sex and violence by making his "story" about strangers. The son, in his forties, is the very crucial center of this story, just as is the infant son of "Home Burial." He is the probable proof of his mother’s infidelity, a baby when the lover is killed, and whether he is legitimate or not he can no more know the truth than the reader can know it. As living evidence, he becomes the goad for murder, caught forever in the knowledge that one of his "fathers" killed the other to keep from killing his mother. In this Oedipal struggle the son has achieved a pyrrhic victory, for both fathers have died and he lives alone with his mother in a sealed-up house. If the mother in "Home Burial" wants to enter the grave of her son, this son has entombed himself with his mother, whose identity as "witch" is a metonym for her capacity for wanton behavior. And yet he tells the story as if it has nothing to do with him.

Clearly drawn to recapitulate just such stories of lovers, murdered, abandoned, or escaped, Frost nonetheless feels it incumbent upon him to mitigate the appetitive impulses he documents. He disperses the lyric voice - the mother, the son, and the skeleton all bear testament to love and its painful consequences - while he infiltrates the enclosed environment with the stranger's psychoanalytic, listening presence. The son and the mother in "The Witch of Coös" are almost parodic reifications of this instinct for simultaneous revelation and containment: they have locked the doors to the basement, to the attic, and to the outside. They have limited their view and their audience absolutely and, except late in this telling of the story, have purified their narrative of spontaneity so that it becomes spellbinding, lethal in its ability to subvert temporality and, with temporality, rational "meaning. One listening to this tale comprehends the facts of infidelity, madness, and murder aesthetically, induced to a reverie in which the significance of the story is momentarily erased. One reclaims its meanings only in retrospect and only by force of will, for the often repeated story has become litanic, appropriating the individual words to the rhythmic whole. The fact that it is "told" by a witch and her son enhances its trancelike quality; the fact that Frost himself appropriated the tale from an old history of Coös county affords him the safe distance from which to have them tell it. Only at the end of the poem does the narrative chant break momentarily, when the mother says abruptly, "Tell the truth for once." The rattle of the button box, bone buttons and finger bone against metal, is like some primitive rhythm instrument that reinforces the beat. Thus the mother and son have repeated their shared erotic past without its specific horror, making each recounting a ritualistic event rather than a revelation - and recreation - of the actual guilt such a story should invoke. This is not to say that the story is without impact but to suggest that its blank verse cadences and its macabre humor, measurable evidence of a kind of emotional amnesia, contain and therefore qualify the madness as surely as does the sealed-up house.

Such lyric control is essential, for the witch and the mother's boy who reveal their story only within the locked enclosure of the house and for the poet; the "feminine" voice, which may reveal the maddening secrets of desire, must remain insulated for its own safety as well as for others'. Job's wife, another alleged witch, persistently asks in "A Masque of Reason" why "women prophets should be burned as witches, / whereas men prophets are received with honor," why, although "God's had / Aeons of time . . . still it's mostly women / Get burned for prophecy, men mostly never." The answer lies, of course, in what Frost believes that femality knows, for by traditional masculinist terms its knowledge is of anarchic truths whose powers to subvert rationality must be silenced, burned into nothing. Job's wife again reveals this dichotomy between masculine sight and feminine insight, whereby the bones either are simply not there or are tangibly there to be felt, seen, and heard. When the Devil enters the scene in "A Masque of Reason" he is as diaphanous as a sapphire wasp because "Church neglect / And figurative use have pretty well / Reduced him to a shadow of himself." Yet unlike the husband, who takes this wispy figure lightly, the wife says, "He's very real to me / And always will be." It is crucial for the poet to obscure his own prophetic femininity, which, against church doctrine and common poetic use, sees evil as quite real and even as provocative. Job's wife, for example, likes Satan's voice; "That strain again!" she cries. "Give me an excess of it! / As dulcet as a pagan temple gong!" She begs him to stay, she promises to go with him at twilight, and she reaches out and takes his hand. Superficially at least, Frost's must be the voice of the prophet, controlled, virile in its moderation, and relatively safe from attack, to insure against this willingness to court the devil's favor.

Throughout his poetry Frost thus exploits the potential of sound to circumvent or supersede stated meaning and to defuse explosive emotions, using complex countervoices that are reified in "The Witch of Coös" in the figures of mother, son, bones, and stranger; thus he walks the boundaries between subjectivity and objectivity. "The Witch of Coös" makes, in fact, a suggestive model for the excavational imperatives Frost's poetry thus imposes. The triad of speakers, the trileveled house, and the mobile skeleton ascending from cellar to attic predict the complex permutations of sound and meaning to be found throughout Frost's poetry. Sound, stated meaning, and subtext coexist, often in apparent contradiction to one another, and there is always a sense in which a given listener may be excluded from hearing the noise that is most crucial to meaning. As in "The Witch of Coös" the subtext (mother-woman-witch), the stated meaning (son), and the virile oversound (adult male stranger) may be paralleled to uncontrol, the pretense of control, and control. Yet if the maternally fixated son is sprung from the poet's mind, so too is the poet a son as well. Product of what he would define both as masculine and as feminine impulses, Frost here displaces his feminine and maternal identities so that they emerge in mediational constructs: the "witch" becomes a speaker whose "otherness" allows her both behaviors and insights that the man of moderation must repudiate in himself; the "son" who may not be a man until he alters his identification with the mother is a virtual hermaphrodite, a closed system whose intimate knowledge of "femaleness" is predicated on his equally intimate Oedipal participation in the sins of the fathers. The lover's skeleton is the memento mori, a noisy, tragicomic rhythm box of failed desire for those who can - or will - hear it. This skeleton is the perfect Frostian emblem for eviscerated lyricism, the animated lover who can neither speak nor otherwise make love. It is impossible to disentangle these elements from one another, of course; voices heard by the poet, they also come from him.

. . . .

Frost's skeleton/sound box in "The Witch of Coös" is at once a most tangible thing, relatively indestructible and immutable as natural parts go, and a most immaterial specter, a projection of buried guilt. Frost employs its dual and oppositional identities as symbol and object to pit meaning against sound, for as a symbol it is noiseless and as a skeleton it grates and rattles, scraping against itself with every step it takes. The skeleton actually appears visually to the woman only on the ground floor between cellar and second story. In this middle zone between the nether part of the house, which signifies desire, and the attic, which signifies madness, the bones make an appearance, but at the other levels they manifest themselves only by sound. Frost thus literalizes the interactive relationship between the aural and the rational - visually verified - apprehension of a given "reality." What the eyes may see - or not see - is only part of the picture, which also incorporates noise from the visceral/appetitive/cellar and the cerebral/inspirative/attic.

Like Paul's wife, who materializes from the merest pith to move briefly in bodily form through time and space before disappearing, the skeleton moves momentarily through the medium of the ground floor, locus of more rational behaviors than those found in either the cellar in which the murder has occurred or in the one finished bedroom upstairs. Its passage gives only a glimpse of the visual, consciously recognized version of its reality. In this it would seem to be one of the multitude of things in Frost's poetry that are, like the leaves that fall or the seeds that sprout, on the way to some other definition of themselves, and yet it is in a most fundamental way different from these other natural artifacts. It can move and lose pieces of itself, but it cannot regenerate or metamorphose: it is a hard, dead thing, and its original definition as a man suggests its obdurate formalism. One of the few mobile things in Frost's poetry that cannot generate through metamorphosis its own series of significances, it is a comically static construct. It becomes at one point, in fact, a "scribble," as if Frost plays on its identity as a poetic device gone dead: the remains of the lyric figure, in fact. Frost masterfully exploits the skeleton's dual nature as a densely tangible object and as a symbol of the woman's guilt - a supernatural/psychic/hysterical manifestation that is sound without substance. He takes this complex totem that is simultaneously so tangible and so nebulous, so symbolic and so real, and shakes it up the stairs, down the central hall, and up into the attic; its sound and his sound effects thus control the poem's effect despite the horrific truth of the story from which the sounds derive.

The bones first manifest themselves by their noise alone, coming haltingly up the cellar steps "The way a man with one leg and a crutch, / Or a little child, comes up": both the metrical pattern of trochaic inversions here and the visual image predict an ironic truth - that this lover divested of appendages, sexual and otherwise, is impotent, more a sound and sight of pathos than of terror. The sound of them on the stairs starts the woman wondering how the bones are "mounted." This is a pun that suggests immediately multiple levels of meaning, as "mounted" has inescapable sexual connotations in keeping with the bones' past as a lover (and in keeping with the use of the term in "The Witch of Grafton"), connotations of a dead thing "mounted" for display, and connotations of one who mounts, or ascends upward, as the skeleton does as it heads atticward. In fact, the woman imagines the skeleton specifically as mounted "like a chandelier," bones hanging like prisms, and this meaning is also to some extent confirmed as the skeleton spits out fire and has smoke in its sockets, like an electrical fixture shorting itself out (so much for enlightenment). When it comes toward the woman with hand outstretched "the way he did in life once," we may imagine it to recapitulate the seduction, which this time the woman repels, breaking off the hand (this time symbolically repudiating the penis and thus proving that the man is in effect "dismounted") and falling backward away from the skeleton. Inescapably, too, and oppositely, we may imagine this imploring stance to have been repelled once before as the woman has allowed her husband to kill her lover. (The ambiguity of her saying that the bones are "a man's his father killed for me. / I mean a man he killed instead of me" is interesting.) The significance of the skeleton is extremely variable, even contradictory: a symbol of past appetite, it sounds like stacked and emptied plates; a symbol of desire, it is metaphorically missing its leg and literally missing its hand, both clear metonymic references to the lost penis. It is an almost comically disintegrative structure whose meanings may be altered even retroactively.

Invested with multiple meanings, the skeleton begins immediately to disperse as a visual artifact - its leg has become a "crutch," the "hand" shatters into "finger-pieces." Its St. Vitus dance movement down the hall becomes the verification of its function as an image of ambivalence (the woman is both frightened and pleased to look at "him"; "he" wants outside but settles for the attic); the bones "go every which way in the joints" as they move down the linear hall, becoming a figure of the contradiction between impulse and conscious intent. The poet holds this jangling construct together prosodically, however, playing off its sound with an assertive formal control. The line "And set off briskly for so slow a thing" shows a perfection of controlled sound, as it embodies the "brisk" slowness of a skeleton whose "sk-sk" sounds ("like a chalkpile") are reified in the "s" alliterations of this line, in the one-syllable words grinding against each other and insisting upon the reader's own halting movement among juxtaposed consonants, and, in small, in the very sound of the word "briskly," whose meaning of "quickly" or "energetically" is less valid than its more Joycean aural suggestions of a word made from "bone," "gristle," and "skeleton." Frost, it is implied, may shake this box and make it sound any way he pleases - like a pile of dishes, a chandelier, a chalkpile, a loose shutter.

In yet another inversion of meaning, the skeleton "going every which way in the joints" is said to look like "lightning or a scribble / From the slap I had just now given its hand." Here the skeleton as signification becomes a "scribble," not a word; itself handless, it may not, in either the Marxist or the poetic sense of writing oneself to wisdom, make its own meaning. It in fact becomes not meaning but potentially the thing by which meaning is inscribed, the chalk itself, scribbling in the dark. Again embodied in the "sk" sound, this scribble of random movement is on its way to erasure, for in the full light only the sound confirms its existence as it becomes white lines on a white sheet. If, as William James suggests, an attempt to see "inside" to where the meanings are is "like trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks," this rack of bones "embodies" the paradox of such a pragmatic nihilism. It is a metaphorical construct made of the written word that may be "seen" only in the darkness inside one's head. It is a white scribble of chalk against black like snow-white branches up a black trunk, lightning against a black sky, and as such it is intimately associated with the poet himself, whose own hand holds the pen that must scrawl across the paper when jarred. The bones melt to nothing in the light, but locked behind the attic door they rattle like loose shutters, a reminder of portals once opened and since locked tight. They become that thing which constantly recedes from the vision, visible only peripherally at the edge of the light, but heard inside the head like chalky fingers brushing one's skull despite the "headboard" used to block its reappearance. Whether the skeleton actually exists as a thing or whether it is the cacophonous white noise inside the darkness of a madwoman's head/house, it is a complex figure of the way Frost invokes sound against meaning. His skeleton, daring one to take it seriously, may not by its very nature be made light of. It is simultaneously comical and dreadful, the very sound of nothingness, the mark made by a nonexistent hand.

As the skeleton/symbol would suggest, a paradoxical literalness emerges from Frost's consciously dichotomous use of sound and meaning, as he so frequently chooses language that eschews the abstract for the sensually tangible: the bones, the buttons, and the box, for example, make an alliterative noise as words and an actual noise as things brought together in "The Witch of Coös." One finds, in fact, that when Frost deviates from his own stated preference for the concrete, shapely correlatives by which one "say[s] spirit in terms of matter," he exhibits a spatial confusion that affects even his poetic structures. . . .

The poetic spell, like the narrative spell in "The Witch of Coös," is always on the verge of breaking.

From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Katherine Kearns: On "Fire and Ice"

Like ice shrieking across a red-hot griddle, his poetry does, indeed, ride on its own melting. One cannot, and Frost has ensured this absolutely with his unstable irony, make a validated choice between the fire and the ice, or between the language, so insistently mundane, and the potent oversound. Fire and ice are, after all, the inextricable complementarities of one apocalyptic vision: that endlessly regenerative cycle of desire and (self) hatred that necessarily brings the productive poet to scourge his own voice as he mocks both the poetic vocation and the state to which poetry - and if poetry then all language - has come. Frost anticipates modernism's lament and, it may be said, prefigures in his dualism its dubious palliative of self-referential irony. The lyric birds and the weary speakers tell us the genuine Frostian wisdom of achieving a commonsensical accommodation with the fallen world, while inciting at another, and ineffable, level a profound disquiet.

From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Katherine Kearns: On "The Hill Wife"

In "The Hill Wife" the woman "sees" nature as alluring and threatening, and she states her fears so convincingly that the tone subverts any rational, fearless response on the reader's part. The birds, the tree, the window, the stranger - all become portents, as ominous a "design" as nature's compiling of white spider, white moth, and white Heal-all in "Design." The Hill Wife implies that a man and woman who loved each other enough would not have to care so much when the nest-building birds came and went around their house. Their marriage is sexually empty, a deficiency reflected in her own empty "nest." The childless house is a frightening, vacant-seeming place. They dread going inside after an absence, "preferring the out- to the in-door night." Like the birds in "driven nests," they rattle their door to drive out whatever has settled there, and by analogy, they are the intruders. Their bedroom is haunted by a "dark pine that kept / Forever trying the window-latch." The tree has "tireless but ineffectual hands" that in waking hours seem "as a little bird / Before the mystery of glass." The symbols merge and conflate, with the husband and wife like birds, with the tree like a bird but also like a man or a woman with "tireless," dangerous hands, with the threatening stranger in the woods like the dark tree tapping at the bedroom window. The whole tenuous asylum depends on closed doors and unbroken windows, but like the other women for whom nature is an objective correlative, the Hill Wife dreams that the barrier between their bedroom and the outdoors is threatened by the tall pine: "And only one of the two / Was afraid in an oft-repeated dream / Of what the tree might do." The ominous tone suggests sexual violation, the "tireless" and hungry hands of the tree seeking and finding the woman in a nightmarish recapitulation of the beggar whose hands she propitiates with food. Or perhaps she dreams, with the same ambivalent fearfulness, of what the tree might do to her husband. If tireless female hands were to find the man, at least as the wife dreams it, they might seduce him out into the night, where he cannot perform the gestures of control - the furrowing of field and felling of trees - that keep nature at bay. Either way, the woman performs the opposite function to her farmer-husband's, for her internal and external landscapes merge, and the wildness in her nature allows her to see nature as wild and alluring. It is a small step from "preferring the out- to the in-door night" to rejecting the asylum of household completely. She disappears into the ferns and is never seen again, becoming quite literally a "hill wife," subsumed into nature, married to it.

From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Katherine Kearns: On "The Oven Bird"

These seemingly negligible birds, symbols of the lyric voice, have intuited the Oven Bird's lesson and are the signs by which one is meant to divine Frost's acceptance of the linguistic implications of the fall from innocence. The Oven Bird, who watching "That other fall we name the fall" come to cover the world with dust, "Knows in singing not to sing." Instead, "The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing." The fall, in necessitating both birth and death, imposes a continuum of identity that compromises naming. The process toward death, begun with birth, transmutes and gradually diminishes form, thus adding to the equation - words are things before they become words and things again when they do - an element of inevitable, perpetual senescence. The birds of "A Winter Eden" say "which buds are leaf and which are bloom," but the names are always premature or too late: gold goes to green, dawn to day, everything rises and falls and is transformed. Thus the Oven Bird says, "Midsummer is to spring as one to ten," because a season - this or any other - may only be codified analogously. "Fall" takes on a series of identities: petal fall, the fall season, the first and fortunate fall, each of which bears, at the moment of articulation, the burden of a whole complex of moral, aesthetic, and literary valuations. This bird is a "midsummer and a midwood bird" that sees things at the moment of capitulation to the imperatives of fall. Loud, he predicts the inevitable, and his "language" reflects the potential meaninglessness of a world in which one is forced to define a thing by what it departs from or approaches rather than what it "is." To anticipate and recognize in the full-blown flower only its inevitable decay is to miss the mark, but to ignore its ephemerality is an equal failure. The paradox of the Oven Bird's assertive voice completes the suggestion that only a new "language" can accommodate the diminishing of things, for he neither sings nor speaks: he "knows in singing not to sing" and he frames his question "in all but words." He neither sinks nor soars, and he lives in a solid, domed house that typifies his Yankee ingenuity, his forethought, his prudence. In a voice of virile moderation, loud but unhysterical, he sets out to articulate his surroundings.

But at the same time, and in a way that refuses to cancel out this message, Frost obliquely mocks his meager lyric birds and the compromised, oven-bird speakers throughout his poetry who are equally pinioned, held by their own voices from transcendence. He is ironically and ambivalently aware of the Palgravian definition of "lyric poetry." (Lentricchia sums it up: "No narrative allowed, no description of local reference, no didacticism, no personal, occasional, or religious material, no humor - the very antithesis of the 'poetical' - no dramatic textures of blank verse because the speaking voice is alien to song lyric," etc.) And Frost is very much dedicated to deconstructing this mode with his own lyricism: he writes to Amy Lowell: "The great thing is that you and some of the rest of us have landed with both feet on all the little chipping poetry of a while ago. We have busted 'em up as with cavalry. We have, we have, we have." Yet paradoxically, Frost holds on to lyric power by seeming to abnegate it: there is in this erotically declined game of loving (an abased and abasing) language an element of what can only be called sadomasochism. If poetry takes "a little rough handling once in a while," Frost is willing to "do it violence" in order to maintain his own poetic potency (Letters 182); yet he is both the abased - with his words - and the abaser - with his prosodically virile sound. Like ice shrieking across a red-hot griddle, his poetry does, indeed, ride on its own melting. One cannot, and Frost has ensured this absolutely with his unstable irony, make a validated choice between the fire and the ice, or between the language, so insistently mundane, and the potent oversound. Fire and ice are, after all, the inextricable complementarities of one apocalyptic vision: that endlessly regenerative cycle of desire and (self) hatred that necessarily brings the productive poet to scourge his own voice as he mocks both the poetic vocation and the state to which poetry - and if poetry then all language - has come. Frost anticipates modernism's lament and, it may be said, prefigures in his dualism its dubious palliative of self-referential irony. The lyric birds and the weary speakers tell us the genuine Frostian wisdom of achieving a commonsensical accommodation with the fallen world, while inciting at another, and ineffable, level a profound disquiet.

From Robert Frost and a Poetic of Appetite. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Katherine Kearns: On "Home Burial"

If one may use a metrical yardstick to evaluate a given speaker's control, then it becomes profitable to compare the dramatic speeches within, for example, "Home Burial, " where one crucial theme is the perceived failure of language to communicate adequately the bereaved couple's shared dilemma. Does one speaker show more control, and thus by extension for Frost, more good sense than the other? Neither of them, in fact, is said by the other to be able to use language authoritatively, and this, if it is true, condemns them both to ineffectuality. The husband "can't . . . speak of his own child he's lost" because his "words are nearly always an offense" (another pun, perhaps, as his words are barriers), and he can't ask the right question because, the wife says, he doesn't "know how to ask it." The wife is herself inarticulate with despair, and while she asserts that her husband has no right to talk because he doesn't "know how to speak," she herself knows that nothing she says will be sufficient. When her husband says to her, "There, you have said it all and you feel better, " she reacts with contempt: "You - oh, you think the talk is all. I must go -" Both of them use eleven- to twelve-syllable lines, which come in the context of the iambic pentameter base to represent a kind of spillage, a profligacy of language that, for them, is without its desired effect - to communicate their separate griefs. The wife uses about 10 percent more of these extrasyllabic lines, a difference that does not seem conclusive in establishing the husband's authority even as it suggests the direction of Frost's sympathies (of the husband's forty-nine lines, fifteen are extrasyllabic; of the wife's forty-one lines, seventeen are extrasyllabic). Thus the metrical virtuosity of the poet-narrator in lines like the appropriately eleven-syllable "She took a doubtful step and then undid it" is used by Frost within the dialogue to reveal the uncontrol and frustration of both husband and wife. Such uncontrived speech argues for their complete sincerity; neither has an agenda beyond personal need, neither defends an unreasonable position, and neither is capable of the rhetorical control demanded by irony.

. . . .

"Home Burial epitomizes Frost's intimate relationships between sex, death, and madness: that "a bedroom" - not, significantly, the bedroom by the husband's terms - and the graveyard are of the same size and shape suggests the geometrical precision by which desire becomes correlated with burial itself. The wife is in the process of leaving the house, crossing the threshold from marital asylum into freedom. The house is suffocating her. Her window view of the graveyard is not enough and is, in fact, a maddening reminder that she could not enter the earth with her son. With its transparent barrier, the window is a mockery of a widened vision throughout Frost's poetry and seems to incite escape rather than quelling it; in "Home Burial" the woman can "see" through the window and into the grave in a way her husband cannot, and the fear is driving her down the steps toward the door - "She was starting down - / Looking back over her shoulder at some fear" - even before she sees her husband. He threatens to follow his wife and bring her back by force, as if he is the cause of her leaving, but his gesture will be futile because it is based on the mistaken assumption that she is escaping him. Pathetically, he is merely an obstacle toward which she reacts at first dully and then with angry impatience; he has lost all authority and all power, a truth manifested most potently in his linguistic failures whereby he is reduced to the stuttering refrain, "A man can't speak...." Without language he is unmanned. He "think[s] the talk is all" and yet he cannot speak. He has become merely an animate part of the embattled household, but her real impetus for movement comes from the grave.

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, an image that recurs throughout Frost's poetry and suggests analogously Frost's sense that the poetic structure must be pushed taut by the erotic energy of its language. Thus the child's grave predicts the dissolution of household, a movement toward the open cellar of "The Generations of Men," almost a literal "home burial." Randall Jarrell explicates the grave-digging scene in "Home Burial" as perceived by the grieving mother: as if in a dream, she climbs the stairs and looks out to see her husband plunging his spade again and again into the earth. Then she walks down to see her husband's shoes stained with fresh earth, his spade standing against the wall in the entryway. Jarrell says, "Such things have a sexual force, a sexual meaning, as much in our waking hours as in our dreams.... When the plowman digs his plow into the earth, Mother Earth, to make her bear, this does not have a sexual appropriateness only in the dreams of neurotic patients - it is something we all understand, whether or not we admit we understand." "Home Burial," in its committing to earth the proof of a couple's sexual love, predicts a pattern of imagery, rich and ambivalent, that throughout Frost's poetry relates earth both to sexuality and to death. The grave, with its natural and domestic correlatives, becomes a remarkably potent conflation of the point at which desire and death merge into inextricable ecstasy and despair.

From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright Ó 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Katherine Kearns: On "After Apple-Picking"

In Frost's poetry any deviation, not only from the iambic foot but from the iambic pentameter line as well, is an important marker of the speaker's state of mind, his control, and his capacity for irony. "After Apple Picking" keeps resolutely returning to pentameter lines, but the speaker is drowsy, and the opening twelve-syllable line - "My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree" - is like the last murmured words before sleep. Of course, it also represents, as does the whole masterful structure of the poem, Frost's own precise control of tone, as he creates a speaker who is precariously "upon [his] way to sleep." This fatigued vulnerability manifests itself in an escalating slippage of control from ten-syllable lines to foreshortened lines like "For all / That struck the earth," or eleven-syllable lines like "No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble." And as the speaker moves toward an increasing intuition of the symbolic underpinnings of his exhaustion, which is the result not just of his picking apples but of other more visceral frustrations and fears, the frequency of these variations increases. (Lines 1, 2, 14, 16, 18, 19, 25, 27, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 39, and 42 vary from the pentameter; only lines 18 and 34 are extra-syllabic.) His awareness and fear of this loss of control are manifested in the final lines:

The woodchuck could say whether it's like his Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, Or just some human sleep.

What he fears is not so much death as the very state the poem has mimicked - that is, a suspension between not-life and not-death where language is narcotized toward incoherence and uncontrol.

. . . .

Matter . . . makes itself felt even as it capitulates to its own variable nature. If the apple will fall in "After Apple Picking," if it, like the speaker on his way to dreaming, is about to go bruised to the cider heap where it will be pressed into an essence of itself, it nonetheless maintains through all its transmutations an identifiable appleness. The apple holds, against the authoritative prosodic erosion of waking reality into dream state, its own sensual place as an essential ingredient in the spell to which the speaker is succumbing. It glows, its russet flecks showing clear and its scent in the air, as potent as Snow White's apple, while the ice mirror has broken and the speaker is moving toward a hibernatory trance. Such things reify the potent opacity of the word, which is invested with an entire history of meanings, incrementally awakened within the volatile substance of the poem.


From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Katherine Kearns: On "Mending Wall"

It is arguable that the self-righteous speaker of "Mending Wall" is himself obsessively committed to wall building, far more intractably and instinctively committed than his cliché-bound neighbor. While the speaker of "Mending Wall" justifiably castigates his unthinking neighbor and is himself far more aware of the powers of language for good and for ill, he is nonetheless caught up, ironically perhaps, in the same actual task, wall building, which will have the same results and look no different from his neighbor's contribution despite the narrative he brings to it. There are several possibilities for irony here, depending on the level of Frost's self-awareness. Wall imagery pervades his poetry, as a conscious poetic image and as a psychosexual marker of control and limitation. That the speaker is the one who calls the neighbor to mend the wall is vitally important, then, but it is not clear that Frost meant for the speaker to be ironically perceived as a hypocrite. The simple explanation, that the speaker acts out of a sense of inevitability, knowing his neighbor's habits, seems hardly enough given the contextual symbolism of the wall in Frost's poetry; the psychological explanation attendant upon this version might suggest that Frost's conscious intent was subverted by his own unconscious need for walls. So while Frost might not mean the speaker to be self-parodic, the reader might judge that there is an ironic discrepancy between what is said and what is meant, both by the speaker and by the poet. On a deeper level even than this is the possibility that Frost was aware of, had taken account of and justified, his own need for barriers. One does, after all, need something against which to push. In this case, the poem might be completely unironic, for while both men are engaged in the same task, each brings a different narrative to it, the one limited to a thoughtless clichJ , the other enriched philosophically. It could be that Frost is illustrating what it means to move from delight to wisdom: the road less traveled may not look any different, but it is made different by the inner progress of the traveler. The one wall becomes, in this reading, two walls, the speaker's wall a philosophically differentiated structure, the neighbor's wall a mere landmark of past cliches.

From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright Ó 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Katherine Kearns: On "The Road Not Taken"

"The Road Not Taken," perhaps the most famous example of Frost’s own claims to conscious irony and "the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep's clothing." Thompson documents the ironic impulse that produced the poem as Frost's "gently teasing" response to his good friend, Edward Thomas, who would in their walks together take Frost down one path and then regret not having taken a better direction. According to Thompson, Frost assumes the mask of his friend, taking his voice and his posture, including the un-Frostian sounding line, "I shall be telling this with a sigh," to poke fun at Thomas's vacillations; Frost ever after, according to Thompson, tried to bring audiences to the ironic point, warning one group, "You have to be careful of that one; it's a tricky poem - very tricky" (Letters xiv-xv). Thompson's critical evaluation is simply that Frost had, in that particular poem, "carried himself and his ironies too subtly," so that the poem is, in effect, a failure (Letters xv). Yet is it simply that - a too exact parody of a mediocre poetic voice, which becomes among the sentimental masses, ironically, one of the most popularly beloved of Frost's "wise" poems? This is the easiest way to come to terms critically with the popularity of "The Road Not Taken" but it is not, perhaps, the only or best way: in this critical case, the road less traveled may indeed be more productive.

For Frost by all accounts was genuinely fond of Thomas. He wrote his only elegy to Thomas and he gives him, in that poem, the highest praise of all from one who would, himself, hope to be a "good Greek": he elegizes Thomas as "First soldier, and then poet, and then both, / Who died a soldier-poet of your race." He recalls Thomas to Amy Lowell, saying "the closest I ever came in friendship to anyone in England or anywhere else in the world I think was with Edward Thomas" (Letters 220). Frost's protean ability to assume dramatic masks never elsewhere included such a friend as Thomas, whom he loved and admired, tellingly, more than "anyone in England or anywhere else in the world" (Letters 220). It might be argued that in becoming Thomas in "The Road Not Taken," Frost momentarily loses his defensive preoccupation with disguising lyric involvement to the extent that ironic weapons fail him. A rare instance in Frost's poetry in which there is a loved and reciprocal figure, the poem is divested of the need to keep the intended reader at bay. Here Frost is not writing about that contentiously erotic love which is predicated on the sexual battles between a man and a woman, but about a higher love, by the terms of the good Greek, between two men. As Plato says in the Symposium (181, b-c), "But the heavenly love springs from a goddess [Aphrodite] whose attributes have nothing of the female, but are altogether male, and who is also the elder of the two, and innocent of any hint of lewdness. And so those who are inspired by this other Love turn rather to the male, preferring the more vigorous and intellectual bent." If the poem is indeed informed by such love, it becomes the most consummate irony of all, as it shows, despite one level of Frost's intentions, how fraternal love can transmute swords to plowshares, how, indeed, two roads can look about the same, be traveled about the same, and be utterly transformed by the traveler. Frost sent this poem as a letter, as a communication in the most basic sense, to a man to whom he says, in "To E. T.," "I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain / Unsaid between us, brother . . . " When nothing is meant to remain unsaid, and when the poet's best hope is to see his friend "pleased once more with words of mine," all simple ironies are made complex. "The Road Not Taken," far from being merely a failure of ironic intent, may be seen as a touchstone for the complexities of analyzing Frost's ironic voices.


From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.