Mordecai Marcus

Mordecai Marcus: On "Portrait of a Lady"

Although commentators have recognized that the painting alluded to in William Carlos Williams' "Portrait of a Lady" is by Fragonard and not by Watteau, as far as I can determine no one has noted the particular nature and function of the overlapping references to these painters, nor, it seems, has anyone made an exact attribution of the poem's alternating voices. Both these clarifications are essential for interpreting the poem.

The poem presents a dialogue between a man and a woman or an imaginary dialogue within a man's mind reflecting the likely reactions of a woman to his elaborate and somewhat artificial but nevertheless delicate, tender, and mellifluous praise of her loveliness and sexual appeal. Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) and Jean Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) were both French painters of the baroque or rococo style, much of whose work presents aristocratic people in elaborate poses. The painting which portrays a lady's slipper suspended in the air in front of the lady on a swing is incorrectly attributed to Watteau by one of Williams' speakers. The painting is "La Balancoire" ("The Swing") by Fragonard. The reference to Fragonard must, then, be a correction of the statement about Watteau. This makes it very likely that the sentence "The sky / where Watteau hung a lady's / slipper" is spoken not by the woman but by the man and is his answer to the question "Which sky?" The sentence, then, represents a complication of the interacting voices, for the man is capable of satirizing his own viewpoint, or at least of placing it in perspective as rather mannered. If the sentence about Watteau's supposed painting were spoken by the woman, it would almost certainly take a question mark as an implied continuation of "Which sky?"

After speaking this phrase, the man proceeds to call her knees a southern breeze. The immediately following "—or a gust of snow" is her deflating continuation of his description and a playful rebuff of the direction of his sexual advance. The question about Fragonardis asked by the woman as a correction of his remark about Watteau. Surely ''as if that answered anything" cannot be spoken by the same voice. Rather it is the man's acceptance of her factual correction and also an insistence that the mentality or artistry of Fragonard is not relevant to his own sincerity or accuracy, or even to his own right to an elaborate mode of expression. "Ah, yes" represents the man's attempt to recover his composure and his line of thought, and he proceeds to incorporate the woman's cooling of the description by sardonically accepting the fact that attention moves below rather than above the knees, though he recovers the note of praise by assigning delicate summer loveliness to the portion of her body below the knees. With "the sand clings to my lips—" the man accepts a tentative and self-mocking defeat, the sand representing her success at warding off his incipient physical gesture, and the "Agh, petals maybe" shows him trying to recover his stance by suggesting that the shore is made of fallen petals rather than of rebuffing sand. But with the woman's insistence on knowing "Which shore?" his pride in the genuineness of his expression and feeling surges up and he attempts to retrieve his position through assertion that by being made of petals the elevated world of her body does indeed defy the world of logic. This interpretation assigns passages with the exclamation "Agh!" to alternate speakers (though it has the exclamation mark only with the first occurrence), but awareness of how the man almost shares and partly conducts the woman's deflation of him should justify Williams' use of an identical expression of feigned disgust by both speakers.

From "Dialogue and Allusion in William Carlos Williams' 'Portrait of a Lady.'" Concerning Poetry 10:2 (Fall 1997).

Mordecai Marcus: On "The Gift Outright"

Here Frost presents himself as spokesperson for Americans and adopts a tone of grieving and longing desperation that slowly yields to love and triumph. The poem opens by describing the American people's first possession of their land merely as land--before they also belonged to the land--partly because the people were subservient to their English masters. With "Possessing what we still were unpossessed by," a partly sexual metaphor is extensively punned on. We were unpossessed because ownership of the land was denied us by England and because we did not give ourselves to the land in the spiritual and physical union love demands. A variation of this idea is in the next line, "Possessed by what we now no more possessed," which means that as we began a deep involvement, it was denied by the foreigners who still ruled. These limitations were overcome when Americans realized they had to give themselves in an act of passionate surrender, for to give oneself "outright" means to do so immediately and totally, as lovers do. Again Frost puns: "deed of gift" as "deeds of war" refers to certificates of possession and sacrificial acts of possession. The land "vaguely realized itself westward" because the action proceeded spontaneously over a long period but led to a crystallization resembling the nation's birth. This vagueness is shown by the country's being "still unstoried, artless, unenhanced" as its development continued, which echoes the earlier unpossession and creates a sense of unformed spaces that have not yet achieved their myths. John Doyle points out that "artless" means simple and sincere as well as without works of art. In the high sense of convincing story and belief, these myths are projected forward in the last line, with its curious perspective from the past: looking at the present and the still-hoped-for future and asserting that they will become reality.

From The Poems of Robert Frost: an explication. Copyright © 1991 by Mordecai Marcus.

Mordecai Marcus: On "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep"

The once-neglected but now much-admired "Neither Out Far nor in Deep" focuses its nature symbolism so sharply on human concerns that its haunting picture tends to dissolve into a contemplation paralleling that of the people described. The initially detached speaker observes people by the sea who make a uniform mass as they gaze away from the commonplace shore toward the depth and mystery of the ocean. Few sights are visible; a ship rising on the horizon and a gull standing on the soaked beach provide contrasting images of hypnotic motion and uneasy stasis. Implied commentary having begun with "They turn their back on the land," the speaker now philosophizes consistently. The people turn from the varying sights of land towards the distances of water, representing mysteries they hope to grasp, though the water may not really possess any more such truth than does the land. But the people continue to prefer this attempt at further vision, just as they do at the poem's opening. Despite their determination and persistence, they cannot achieve a penetrating vision of reality--nature and human nature--or what lies behind it. But they will not stop looking. In the last two lines, the speaker calmly withdraws, balancing admiration and skepticism, glad to see human speculation continuing but confident that it will not achieve much. The poem has been seen as a harsh commentary on human limitations, a charge Laurence Perrine answers by stressing Frost's insistence on the truly impenetrable depths that challenge human knowledge and the demonstrated capacity of the people to see part of the way as they strive to see farther (212). Similarly, Elizabeth Isaacs thinks the poet "joins forces with the rest of the human race when he climaxes the deceptively flat, calm poem with a grandiose, dignified ascent at its end" (34:150). Randall Jarrell takes a middle position, granting the poem a certain unpleasantness but insisting that the conclusion shows "careful suspension between several tones," making "a recognition of the essential limitations of man, without denial or protest or rhetoric or palliation" (98:43). In an elaborate comment on the poem, Daniel Pearlman boldly asserts that it is a covert allegory expressing Frost's anger at the conformism of 1930s American radicals who turned away from the solidity and complexity of their native shores to the monistic simplicities of foreign socialist ideologies. Thus, the people Frost attacks do indeed fear to look out far and in deep. Pearlman supports this view with a close analysis of details and by citing parallels between the poem's message and conservative views evident elsewhere in Frost's writings. 

From The Poems of Robert Frost: An Explication. Copyright © 1991 by Mordecai Marcus.

Mordecai Marcus: On "Desert Places"

The speaker of "Desert Places" also feels lost and tries to orient himself by the stars, but his circumstances and tone are very different. He goes rapidly past a field, awed by the swift descent of snow and night and disheartened by the smooth white cover over the last traces of vegetation, which presents a temptation to yield, as does much else in the scene, for everything seems gathered in. He participates as he yields the snowy field to the woods, envies the animals in their protective burrows, and feels so absent that he does not even count as part of the scene. "Unawares," used as an adverb to modify "includes," shows that the loneliness acts without thought. The speaker generalizes about the scene: its loneliness will intensify long before any relief arrives. The snow cover will thicken and be covered by night, and will lack physical expression and anything to say, "benighted," describing the snow, puns on both the fall of night and spiritual ignorance. In a slyly abrupt transition, the speaker scorns an unspecified "They" who might wish to scare him by pointing to empty spaces even more frightening than this field--the far reaches of the universe, presumably empty of consciousness. This passage may allude to Blaise Pascal's famous description of his fear when contemplating the infinite spaces between the stars, an emotion that helped restore his lagging religious faith. The "They" who would make such efforts to scare people must be scientists and ministers, the latter anxious to demonstrate God's power and potential refuge. The "nearer home," where the speaker has successfully faced such terrors, is the inner self, as in the phrase to strike home; its "desert places" are moral and spiritual wildernesses. As many critics have noted, "scare," usually applied to children's casual distress, is an understatement emphasizing the speaker's deeply experienced stoicism.

From The Poems of Robert Frost: An Explication. Copyright © 1991 by Mordecai Marcus.

Mordecai Marcus: On "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

"Nothing Gold Can Stay" combines condensed metaphor and vivid description. "Nature's first green is gold" because the pale green leaves of early spring are goldlike in their light-reflecting tints, as well as in their preciousness and promise. It is the "hardest hue to hold" because its appearance soon changes and its ideal beauty flees the mind. The green-gold leaves darken quickly, a change that symbolizes the brevity of all ideal heights. As John R. Doyle points out, the word "subsides" provides the poem's point of balance. It is a gentle replacement for an expected term of expansion or growth, and suggests a sigh of disappointment as leaf turns out to be not flower but more leaf--that is, as immature leaves are replaced by advancing ones. The fall of humanity in Eden came by such a process. Starting from a height, it plunged the race into knowledge of natural decay. Frost's view resembles Emerson's idea that being born into this world is the fall implying that the suffering and decay brought by natural processes are what we know of evil. Dawn's going "down to day" is another touch of the unexpected, for day should be life at its height, but Frost implies that at the moment when sunrise ushers in day, diminishments begin. The "Nothing" of the last line, repeated from the title, receives special emphasis; the gold that cannot stay comes to represent all perfections. Like W. B. Yeats, Frost thinks that "Man is in love and loves what vanishes."

From The Poems of Robert Frost: An Explication. Copyright © 1991 by Mordecai Marcus.

Mordecai Marcus: On "In a Disused Graveyard"

"In a Disused Graveyard" follows three poems that glance with various degrees of wistfulness at disappointed ideals that end in uncertainty or death. Here the speaker gently mocks people's unwillingness to die and gives stones the ability to see and say that death has ceased. The scene, however, is concrete: a New England graveyard no longer used because its community has faded. But visitors still come to read the tombstones, not out of affectionate attachment but out of curiosity. The attraction of these living by the dead emphasizes the contrast between vitality and arrest. The tombstones’ inscriptions speak of how those reading them must eventually join the dead. The tombstones' personification gently contrasts with their real incapacity, the speaker satirically focuses fear in the word "shrinking." At last he shifts voice and denies the kind of cleverness in which he has been engaging. He speculates that he could lie to the tombstones by expressing the human hope not to die as if that hope had become true, and he makes his strongest personification of the stones as dead people by sadly reflecting on the likelihood of fooling them. The last line radiates meanings: the stones "would believe the lie" because they know what fear is like (except that they know nothing), they would believe it because no one seems to join them anymore, and they would believe it because the speaker has projected his life-haunted feelings into them.

From The Poems of Robert Frost: An Explication. Copyright © 1991 by Mordecai Marcus.

Mordecai Marcus: On "Birches"

The discursive blank-verse meditation "Birches" does not, like "The Wood-Pile" and "An Encounter," center on a continuously encountered and revealing nature scene; rather, it builds a mosaic of thoughts from fragments of memory and fantasy. Its vividness and genial, bittersweet speculation help make it one of Frost's most popular poems, and because its shifts of metaphor and tone invite varying interpretation it has also received much critical discussion, not always admiring. The poem moves back and forth between two visual perspectives: birch trees as bent by boys' playful swinging and by ice storms, the thematic interweaving being somewhat puzzling. The birches bent "across the lines of straighter darker trees" subtly introduce the theme of imagination and will opposing darker realities. Then, almost a third of the poem describes how ice storms bend these trees permanently, unlike the action of boys; this scene combines images of beauty and of distortion. Ice shells suggest radiating light and color, and the trees bowed to the level of the bracken, suggest suffering, which is immediately lightened by the strange image of girls leaning their hair toward the sun as if in happy submission.

The fallen "inner dome of heaven" alludes to Shelley's "dome of many colored glass" (also alluded to in "The Trial By Existence") to suggest the shattering of the ideal into everyday reality. Frost's speaker then self-consciously breaks from his realistic but metaphorically fantasied digression to say he would prefer to have some boy bend the birches, which action becomes a symbol for controlled experience, as contrasted with the genial fatality of ice storms. The boy's fancied playfulness substitutes for unavailable companionship, making for a thoughtful communion with nature, which rather than teach him wisdom allows him to learn it. Despite the insistence on the difference between ice storms' permanent damage to birches and a boy's temporary effects, the boy subdues and conquers the trees. His swinging is practice for maintaining life's difficult and precarious balances.

The third part of the poem begins with a more personal and philosophical tone. The speaker claims to have been such a youthful swinger of birches, an activity he can go back to only by dreaming. The birch trees, probably both ice-bent and boy-swung, stand for the order and control missing from ordinary experience. The "considerations" he is weary of are conflicting claims that leave him disoriented and stung. The desire to "get away from earth," importantly qualified by "awhile," shows a yearning for the ideal or perhaps for the imaginative isolation of the birch swinger. His "I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree ... / Toward heaven" suggests leaving earth, but he reveals by his quick apologetic claim that he doesn't mean that. He wants to be dipped down again toward earth, but the pursuit of the ideal by going sounds like death, as his quick apology acknowledges. Frost does less in this poem than in "After Apple-Picking" to suggest a renewed pursuit of the ideal in life rather than a yielding to death. His main pursuit is continual balance between reality and ideality, but as John F. Sears and Radcliffe Squires point out, his vehicle for transcendence and his desire for nature to reinforce human intuition do not quite work.

From The Poems of Robert Frost: an explication. Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Mordecai Marcus.

Mordecai Marcus: On "Home Burial"

"Home Burial" may not be as popular as "Mending Wall" and "The Death of the Hired Man," but it is Frost's most critically acclaimed and intensively analyzed narrative. Again, Frost deals with barriers between people—in this case a husband and wife who have recently lost their first child and who handle their grief in strikingly different ways—according to their characters and expressive capacities. The locale is a New England farm with a family burial plot in the yard, illustrating familiarity with death, which partly accounts for the husband's taciturn handling of his grief. The poem opens with intense looking and severe gestures between the man and woman, as she gazes from a stairway window at the backyard grave of her recently dead child, defensively and accusatorially, both calling attention to herself and refusing her husband's concern for her grief. He seems not to have noticed the view from the window, but his tender description of the gravestones and the child's mound—not yet marked with a stone—show that he is not unfeeling but that such family deaths have become an everyday part of his life. In the initial action the wife moves away from the husband and he pursues her with hesitating dominance, but her continued withdrawal is partly a provocation, which helps account for his protest that he's not allowed to grieve in his own way. Her desire for air and her explanation that perhaps his reaction is just masculine show that her criticism may not be strictly personal.

Struggling to restrain himself, the husband sits down, speaking and reflecting on the fact that his wife goes to other people with her troubles instead of discussing them with him. He is attempting reconciliation, but she continues to taunt him with words and actions, insisting that he can't say the right thing. He musingly half-apologizes for his ways and tries to account for their communication barrier by the difference between male and female. Tentatively offering to consider certain subjects off limits for them, he cleverly notes that such a tactic is necessary for strangers living together but not good for lovers. Again she makes a taunting gesture, and again he asks her not to take her grief to someone else but rather to share it with him. Still, he shows that he is reconciled to the child's death in a way she can't be, and she regards his view that their love casts a blessing on the lost child, and expresses a promise for the future, as a sneer at the reality of their loss. His repeated protest that he's not allowed to grieve in his own way leads her to a full-scale attack on what she takes to have been his grossly unfeeling burial of the child.

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.

His assumption that she has talked out her grief and his concern with the possibility of being spied by a neighbor suggest either a stronger sense of privacy than his wife's or a superficial concern about the judgments of others. The wife's obsession suggests an inflated pride in something that distinguishes her from others. Her repeated assertion that she must get away shows that she doesn't really want a break with her husband, that she can see her way to internal change. His apparently irrational insistence that she tell where she's going so he can bring her back by force suggests that he knows she wants to be subdued or at least to have her irrationality brought back to earth. Each character evinces more sympathy than the other from some readers; Amy is sometimes seen as being over the edge of madness, and her husband is sometimes seen as self-righteously callous. The poem has some relationship to Elinor and Robert Frost's loss of their first child, and although the characters do not seem much like the poet and his wife, Frost may have put into them some of her tendency toward exaggeration and his own almost willful and defensive pretense that he does not understand things that he thinks are improper. A balanced view might be that the poem shows compassion for two different human types in view of not only their loss but also their covert insistence on and exaggeration of their differences.

From The Poems of Robert Frost: an explication. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Mordecai Marcus

Mordeicai Marcus: On "Gathering Leaves"

In "Gathering Leaves" Frost makes a lighthearted return to a season of decline, which the speaker tries to bring to an end by struggling--endlessly, it seems--to fill bags of autumn leaves. Concise, homey similes show the difficulty of the task. Spades are spoonlike in their slight ability to gather the overflow of leaves; the airiness of the leaves makes full bags resemble balloons; the noise of rustling leaves, "like rabbit and deer / Running away," seems out of proportion to his progress. Gathered leaves make mountains, yet these are small. Once-colorful leaves, separated from their trees, have turned dull. But the task is joyous as well as frustrating in its playful physical engagements, and the elusive leaves become an amusing burden. The task seems endless and the gathered leaves slight and valueless. Still, the speaker celebrates what feels like a triumph with no end in sight--a matter of pure exuberance. This endless and elusive gathering may symbolize the persistent pursuit of unseen ends or the difficulty of artistic triumphs, but more likely Frost playfully treats the combined frustration and joy of a necessary cleansing whose chief goal is preparation for seasonal renewals though his baffled exertions create a pure ritual of activity enjoyed for its own sake.

From The Poems of Robert Frost: an explication. Copyright © 1991 by Mordecai Marcus.