Richard Gray

Richard Gray: On "The Young Sycamore"

Williams' purpose remains the same: to emphathise or identify with the thing, not just to describe it but to imitate it in words, to allow it to express itself, to give it verbal shape, a voice. And the immediate consequence of this aim is, not surprisingly, a commitment to free verse: rhythms that follow the shape of the object and that respond to the exigencies of a specific occasion. 'I must tell you', begins Williams in 'Young Sycamore': the address is characteristically urgent and intimate, as if the poet were speaking under the pressure of immediate experience. And, having grabbed our attention, he then directs it to the object, whose contours are caught in the curve, pitch and sway of the free verse lines. . . .

The use of tactile references here is characteristic: in a sense, the poet is trying to 'touch' the tree,and make us touch it - to achieve contact (an important word for Williams) and, for a moment, live the life of another thing. And equally characteristic is the pattern of verbs and verbals: Williams, like Whitman, sees life as process, constant motion. As in a painting by Van Gogh, there is a sense of the tree as animate life, thrusting towards the sky and continuing to grow long after the artist's imitation of it is finished.

Not that it is ever definitively finished: like so many of Williams's poems, 'Young Sycamore' does not end, it simply stops short without a full stop or even any punctuation mark. . . .

Excitedly, our attention has been drawn up the tree, from its base to its topmost twigs, and we are left gazing at what will be: alteration, new growth requiring new poems. The sense of possibility with which the poem leaves us is quietly accentuated by the fact that the sentence with which it begins is never completed. All of the poem from the third line on ('whose round and firm trunk.. .') is a subordinate clause; Williams never returns to the main clause of the first two lines; the reader is consequently left (whether he is consciously aware of the reasons for it or not) with feelings of openness and incompleteness utterly appropriate in a world governed by change.

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 1990 by Longman Group Ltd.

Richard Gray: On "Oread"

Perhaps the first thing that strikes a reader about a poem like this is the absence of certain familiar elements. There are no similes, no symbols, no generalised reflections or didacticism, no rhymes, no regular metre, no narrative. One might well ask what there is, then and the answer would be a great deal. There is a pellucid clarity a diction, and a rhythm that is organic, intrinsic to the mood of the poem; there is a vivid economy of language, in which each word seems to have been carefully chiselled out of other contexts, and there is a subtle technique of intensification by repetition -- no phrase is remarkable in itself, perhaps, but there is a sense of rapt incantation, an enthralled dwelling on particular cadences that gives a hermetic quality, a prophetic power, to the whole. It is the entire poem that is experienced, not a striking line, a felicitous comparison, or an ingenious rhyme; the poem has become the unit of meaning and not the word, so each single word can remain stark, simple, and unpretentious. In 'Oread', the image that constitutes the poem becomes not merely a medium for describing a sensation but the sensation itself. The sea is the pinewood, the pinewood is the sea, the wind surrounds and inhabits both; and the Greek mountain-nymph of the title comprehends and becomes identified with all three elements. There is a dynamic and unified complex, an ecstatic fusion of natural and human energies; and the image represents the point of fusion, 'the precise instant' (to quote that remark of Pound's again) 'when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and, subjective'.

'Oread' is typical of H.D.'s work in many ways. 'I would be lonely', she once admitted, while living at the heart of literary London, 'but for the intensity of my . . . inner life'. And this became the subject of her work, from the early Imagist verse to the later, more oracular poems: the secret existence that cast her, in the midst of company, into permanent but willing exile, the ecstatic sense of inhabiting a borderline between land and ocean, outer world and inner, time and eternity. The earlier work (of which, of course, 'Oread' is an example) is what she is, perhaps, most well known for. Here, greatly influenced by classical Greek poetry, H.D. speaks in a taut and suggestive manner, emitting everything that is inessential, structurally or emotionally unimportant.

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 1990 by Longman Group UK Limited.

Richard Gray: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

The duality of the narrator's response to the woods is caught in the contrast between the relaxed, conversational idiom of the first three lines (note the gentle emphasis given to ‘think', the briskly colloquial ‘though') and the dream-like descriptive detail and hypnotic verbal music ('watch . . . woods', 'his . . . fill . . . with') of the last. Clearing and wilderness, law and freedom, civilisation and nature, fact and dream: these oppositions reverberate throughout American writing. And they are registered here in Frost's own quietly ironic contrast between the road along which the narrator travels, connecting marketplace to marketplace, promoting community and culture - and the white silence of the woods, where none of the ordinary limitations of the world seem to apply. In a minor key, they are caught also in the implicit comparison between the owner of these woods, who apparently regards them as a purely financial investment (he lives in the village) and the narrator who sees them, at least potentially, as a spiritual one.

This contrast between what might be termed, rather reductively perhaps, 'realistic' and 'romantic' attitudes is then sustained through the next two stanzas: the commonsensical response is now playfully attributed to the narrator's horse which, like any practical being, wants to get on down the road to food and shelter. The narrator himself, however, continues to be lured by the mysteries of the forest just as the Romantic poets were lured by the mysteries of otherness, sleep and death. And, as before, the contrast is a product of tone and texture as much as dramatic intimation: the poem communicates its debate in how it says things as much as in what it says. So, the harsh gutturals and abrupt movement of lines like, 'He gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake', give verbal shape to the matter-of-fact attitude attributed to the horse, just as the soothing sibilants and gently rocking motion of the lines that follow this ('The only other sound's the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake') offer a tonal equivalent of the strange, seductive world into which the narrator is tempted to move. 'Everything that is written', Frost once said, 'is as good as it is dramatic'; and in a poem like this the words of the poem become actors in the drama.

The final stanza of 'Stopping by Woods' does not resolve its tensions; on the contrary, it rehearses them in particularly memorable language.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

Having paid tribute to the dangerous seductiveness of the woods, the narrator seems to be trying to shake himself back into commonsense reality by invoking his 'promises' or mundane responsibilities. The last line is repeated, however; and while at first it seems little more than a literal reference to the journey he has to complete (and so a way of telling himself to continue on down the road), the repetition gives it particular resonance. This could, after all, be a metaphorical reference to the brief span of human life and the compulsion this puts the narrator under to take risks and explore the truth while he can. Only a few 'miles' to go before 'I sleep' in death: such a chilling memento mori perhaps justifies stopping by the woods in the first place and considering the spiritual quest implicit in the vision they offer. Perhaps: the point is that neither narrator nor reader can be sure. 'The poem is the act of having the thought', Frost insisted; it is process rather than product, it invites us to share in the experiences of seeing, feeling, and thinking, not simply to look at their results. So the most a piece like 'Stopping by Woods' will offer - and it is a great deal - is an imaginative resolution of its tensions: the sense that its conflicts and irresolutions have been given appropriate dramatic expression, revelation and equipoise.

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 1990 by Longman Group UK Limited.

Richard Gray: On "After Apple-Picking"

On the simplest narrative level, the poem describes how, after a strenuous day of apple-picking, the speaker dreams dreams in which his previous activities return to him 'magnified', blurred and distorted by memory and sleep. On a deeper level, however, it presents us with an experience in which the world of normal consciousness and the world that lies beyond it meet and mingle. 'I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight', says the narrator, and this strangeness, the 'essence of winter sleep', is something he shares with the reader. The dreamy confusion of the rhythm, the curiously 'echoing' effect of the irregular, unpredictable rhyme scheme, the mixing of tenses, tones, and senses, the hypnotic repetition of sensory detail: all these things promote a transformation of reality that comes, paradoxically, from a close observation of the real, its shape, weight, and fragrance, rather than any attempt to soar above it:

Magnified apples appear and disappear,  Stem end and blossom end, And every fleck of russet showing clear. My instep arch not only keeps the ache, It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round. I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend. And I keep hearing from the cellar bin The rumbling sound Of load on load of apples coming in.

As usual, in this poem Frost hovers between the daylight world of commonsense reality and the dream world of possibility, the voices of sense and of song, the visions of the pragmatist and the prophet, the compulsions of the road and the seductions of the woods. This time, however, he appears to belong to both realms, rather than hold back from a full commitment to either. Dualism is replaced by an almost religious sense of unity here; and the tone of irony, quizzical reserve, completely disappears in favour of wonder and incantation.


From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 1990 by the Longman Group UK Limited.

Richard Gray : On "Design"

Frost uses the rigidity of the sonnet form to present a formal philosophical problem. We are introduced, in the course of the octave, to 'Assorted characters of death and blight', three things the narrator happened to come across once: 'a dimpled spider, fat and white', a white flower, and, held up by the flower, 'a moth / Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth.' The three are introduced separately, assembled in synthesis to demonstrate the incongruity of their relationship, and then re-described in the last two lines of the octave for emphasis:

A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,  And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

Up to this point, the scientist-poet has only permitted himself the emotional shock of the elements presented for his examination and he accepts them as specimens at random. In the sestet, however, he tries to solve the problems they pose and, as he does so, the tension suddenly breaks, along with the rhyme-scheme. In a series of negatives and outraged rhetorical questions, he demands reasons for the strange combinations of existence. What is the 'design' behind all this, he asks. All he can summon up, by way of an answer, is the following:

What but design of darkness to appal? -- If design govern in a thing so small.

Far from solving the problem, this conclusion only exacerbates it. For the alternatives are either that the 'design' reflects some vast malevolent joke, or that the concept of 'design' is absurdly irrelevant -- in which case, the process of questioning in the sestet is itself called into question. This, in effect, is the irresolution of 'For Once, Then, Something' returned with a vengeance, since on the borders of it now hovers a sense of fear. It is bad enough to believe that we are condemned to abide amidst uncertainties; it is even worse to suspect that those uncertainties harbour danger, that the universe is not only unknowable but treacherous.

However, like so much in Frost's poetry, this remains only a suspicion. Fear lurks beneath the surface of a poem like this, certainly: but, in other poems, Frost's playfulness, his willingness to entertain all kinds of doubts and possibilities leads him in the contrary direction -- not to transcendence of facts, perhaps, but to a wondering, joyful apprehension of their potential, to the sense that nature might after all be whispering secret, sympathetic messages to us.


From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 1990 by Longman Group UK, Limited.