Richard Poirier

Richard Poirier: On "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be The Same"

Nothing in Frost more beautifully exemplifies the degree to which "tone of meaning" or sounds of voice create resemblances between birds and Eve, between our first parents and us, between the unfallen and the fallen world. On such resemblances as these Frost would have us imagine a habitable world and a human history. This is a poem which establishes differentiations only that it may then blur them. The delicate hint of a possible but very light sarcasm in the first line blends into but is not wholly dissipated by a concessive "admittedly" in the sixth line. This is one man allowing for another's pride of love but unable to resist the suggestion that perhaps his friend is a bit overindulgent. And the other concessive phrasings, "Be that as may be" and "Moreover," are equally delicate in their effectiveness. For one thing, they tend to take the sting out of the possibly ironic statement that the eloquence of Eve "could only have had an influence on birds"; for another, they lighten the force of "persisted"; and they allow for an almost unnoticeable transition by which the reader is moved from the "garden round" of the second line to "the woods" in line 11.

The tone of the poem is of a speaker who is now here with us and of our time and destiny, while it is at the same time full of a nice camaraderie with our first parents. It is loving and responsible all at once, accepting the parentage of Adam and Eve and the necessary consequences of the Fall, along with the acknowledgment of the possibly good fortunes that also attended it. Eve did come--from Adam and with Adam--in order that the song of birds should, by being changed, mean more than it otherwise would have. The force of the word "aloft" is ever so discreetly crucial here. Her eloquence had power not indiscriminately but only when it was carried to a "loftiness" that belongs to great love and great poetry, neither of which need be separated from the delights of "call or laughter." The "voice upon their voices crossed" became part of Emerson's fossil poetry, awaiting discovery by future readers, and lovers. The ability to hear the "daylong" voice of Eve in bird song teaches us that our own voices, like the voice in this poem, still carry something of our first parents and their difficult history. Mythological identification in this poem consists of voices finding a way to acknowledge and also to transcend historical differences and historical catastrophes. The birds' oversound in relation to words resembles the "sentence sounds" described in the letter, already quoted, which Frost wrote in February 1914 to John Bartlett: "A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung." And a bit later he insists that "the ear is the only true writer and the only true reader . . . remember that the sentence sound often says more than the words" (Thompson, Letters, pp. 111, 113).

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright © 1977 by Oxford University Press.

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

As in "Desert Places" the seasonal phase is winter, the diurnal phase is night, but, . . .the scene, we are reminded four times over, is a wood. Woods, especially when as here they are "lovely, dark and deep," are much more seductive to Frost than is a field, the "blank whiteness of benighted snow" in "Desert Places" or the frozen swamp in "The Wood-Pile." In fact, the woods are not, as the Lathem edition would have it (with its obtuse emendation of a comma after the second adjective in line 13), merely "lovely, dark, and deep." Rather, as Frost in all the editions he supervised intended, they are "lovely, [i.e.] dark and deep"; the loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous. The recognition of the power of nature, especially of snow, to obliterate the limits and boundaries of things and of his own being is, in large part, a function here of some furtive impulse toward extinction, an impulse no more predominate in Frost than it is in nature. It is in him, nonetheless, anxious to be acknowledged, and it significantly qualifies any tendency he might have to become a poet whose descriptive powers, however botanically or otherwise accurate, would be used to deny the mysterious blurrings of time and place which occur whenever he finds himself somehow participating in the inhuman transformations of the natural world. If Wallace Stevens in his poem "The Creations of Sound" has Frost in mind when he remarks that the poems of "X" "do not make the visible a little hard / To see," that is because Stevens failed to catch the characteristic strangeness of performances like "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." And if he has Frost in mind when, in the same poem, he speaks of "X" as "a man / Too exactly himself," it is because he would not see that Frost's emphasis on the dramatic and on the contestation of voices in poetry was a clue more to a need for self-possession than to an arrogant superfluity of it.

That need is in many ways the subject of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." As its opening words suggest--"Whose woods these are I think I know"--it is a poem concerned with ownership and also with someone who cannot be or does not choose to be very emphatic even about owning himself. He does not want or expect to be seen. And his reason, aside from being on someone else's property, is that it would apparently be out of character for him to be there, communing alone with a woods fast filling up with snow. He is, after all, a man of business who has promised his time, his future to other people. It would appear that he is not only a scheduled man but a fairly convivial one. He knows who owns which parcels of land, or thinks he does, and his language has a sort of pleasant neighborliness, as in the phrase "stopping by." It is no wonder that his little horse would think his actions "queer" or that he would let the horse, instead of himself, take responsibility for the judgment. He is in danger of losing himself; and his language by the end of the third stanza begins to carry hints of a seductive luxuriousness unlike anything preceding it--"Easy wind and downy flake . . . lovely, dark and deep." Even before the somnolent repetition of the last two lines, he is ready to drop off. His opening question about who owns the woods becomes, because of the very absence from the poem of any man "too exactly himself," a question of whether the woods are to "own" him. With the drowsy repetitiousness of rhymes in the last stanza, four in a row, it takes some optimism to be sure that (thanks mostly to his little horse, who makes the only assertive sound in the poem) he will be able to keep his promises. At issue, of course, is really whether or not he will be able to "keep" his life.

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright © 1977 by Oxford University Press.

Richard Poirier: On "The Witch of Coös"

Frost's sense of the plight of women who have nothing but a home to keep - with too little work if childless, too much if there are boarders or workers on the farm - is responsible for a series of remarkable poems about the frustrations of imagination and its consequent expression in the distorted forms of obsession, lies, or madness. Very often "home" is the prison of madness, recognized as such by the keepers and so acknowledged by the victims. . . .

A pattern seems to emerge from these poems. In "The Witch of Coös". . .we have a woman imagining a figure of insane, frustrated, and obscene sexuality caged in a house with a married couple. And this married couple, too, is ever so subtly characterized as possibly sexless, possibly frigid, and therefore potentially obscene. On the night of her vision

The bulkhead double doors were double-locked

And swollen tight and buried under snow.

The cellar windows were banked up with sawdust

And swollen tight and buried under snow.

The repetitions give an emotional intensity that might be expected from a woman who wants to interpret the always unsteady movements of a skeleton, reputed to be her former lover, as a "balancing with emotion." This is the same women who, before she offers her images of something "swollen tight and buried under snow," admits that

                The only fault my husband found with me --

I went to sleep before I went to bed,

Especially in winter when the bed

Might just as well be ice and the clothes snow.

The night the bones came up the cellar stairs

Toffile had gone to bed alone and left me,

But left an open door to cool the room off

So as to sort of turn me out of it.

A widow now, with a son who seems surprised at her willingness to tell a stranger that the skeleton was of a man who once had his way with her, she at least has the pleasure, having also put her husband in the grave, of a bed to herself and some distraught bones that at night sometimes come down from the attic to "stand perplexed / Behind the door and headboard of the bed / Brushing their chalky skull with chalky fingers."

. . . .

The story is of a skeleton who, in the words of the son,

left the cellar forty years ago

And carried itself like a pile of dishes

Up one flight from the cellar to the kitchen,

Another from the kitchen to the bedroom,

Another from the bedroom to the attic,

Right past both father and mother, and neither stopped it.

Father had gone upstairs; mother was downstairs.

I was a baby: I don't know where I was.

Once more we have an account of something by somebody who did not see it and who, perhaps for that reason, extemporizes in vivid and show-off metaphors, such as the memorable skeleton that, according to the son, "carried itself like a pile of dishes." Understandably, the mother, in her account, chooses a metaphor no less inventive but somewhat more romantic - the bones are put together "like a chandelier":

I had a vision of them put together

Not like a man, but like a chandelier.

So suddenly I flung the door wide on him.

A moment he stood balancing with emotion,

And all but lost himself. (A tongue of fire

Flashed out and licked along his upper teeth.

Smoke rolled inside the sockets of his eyes.)

Then he came at me with one hand outstretched,

The way he did in life once; but this time

I struck the hand off brittle on the floor,

And fell back from him on the floor myself.

The finger-pieces slid in all directions.

The telltale keepsake bone cannot be found in the button box, and even if it could it would not prove that the skeleton was a former lover killed by her husband, Toffile. All Toffile does, even by her account, is act like an unusually indulgent mate, willing to believe his wife's claim that a skeleton has come up from the basement, though he cannot see it or hear it. He is then willing to bolt the attic, never to open it again, as if to support her further claim, never more substantiated than any of the others, that the skeleton has chosen to go there.

. . . .

In a peculiar way, his treatment of women recalls a nineteenth-century novelistic convention in which the repression of women, and the restriction on their active participation in the outdoor world, force them into exercises of free imagination and fancy.

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright © 1977 by Oxford University Press.

Richard Poirier: On "Design"

"Design" is one of the best poems in A Further Range, giving evidence, as we have heard Frost say of himself in 1959, of a "new way to write." And yet the poem was actually first printed American Poetry 1922, A Miscellany. What changed between 1922 and 1936 was not the poem but Frost's feelings about it, his decision, at last, to lay full claim to it. But even in 1950 he can say, with remarkable casualness, that he had forgotten it until "someone turned it up and began to get it said about and I put it in the book" (Cook, p., 126).

But what exactly does he mean by "it"? There are in fact two remarkably different versions of "it," the earlier of which goes back even before 1922 - a poem called "In White," which he sent to Susan Ward with a letter dated January 15, 1912. At the time of composition Frost was teaching William James's Psychology ("Briefer Course") and Talks to Teachers on Psychology to his students at Plymouth Normal School in New Hampshire. He was also reading Pragmatism. Along with the works of Emerson and Thoreau, Pragmatism was a source of metaphors for him and for certain exercises of mind in his poetry. In Lecture Three, "Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered," Frost came upon a passage that is the likely source for the poem we know as "Design" and for the earlier version called "In White." I will quote first the extensive passage from James and then both versions of the poem:

Let me pass to a very cognate philosophic problem, the question of design in nature. God's existence has from time immemorial been held to be proved by certain natural facts. Many facts appear as if expressly designed in view of one another. Thus the woodpecker's bill, tongue, feet, tail, etc., fit him wondrously for a world of trees, with grubs hid in their bark to feed upon. The parts of our eye fit the laws of light to perfection, leading its rays to a sharp picture on our retina. 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 first step in these arguments was to prove that the design existed. Nature was ransacked for results obtained through separate things being co-adapted. Our eyes, for instance, originate in intrauterine darkness, and the light originates in the sun, yet see how they fit each other. They are evidently made for each other. Vision is the end designed, light and eyes the separate means devised for its attainment.

It is strange, considering how unanimously our ancestors felt the force of this argument, to see how little it counts for since the triumph of the Darwinian theory. Darwin opened our minds to the power of chance-happenings to bring forth 'fit' results if only they have time to add themselves together. He showed the enormous waste of nature in producing results that get destroyed because of their unfitness. He also emphasized the number of adaptations which, if designed, would argue an evil rather than a good designer. Here, all depends upon the point of view. To the grub under the bark the exquisite fitness of the woodpecker's organism to extract him would certainly argue a diabolical designer.

Theologians have by this time stretched their minds so as to embrace the darwinian facts, and yet to interpret them as still showing divine purpose. It used to be a question of purpose against mechanism, of one or the other. It was as if one should say "My shoes are evidently designed to fit my feet, hence it is impossible that they should have been produced by machinery." We know that they are both: they are made by a machinery itself designed to fit the feet with shoes. Theology need only stretch similarly the designs of God. As the aim of a football-team is not merely to get the ball to a certain goal (if that were so, they would simply get up on some dark night and place it there), but to get it there by a fixed machinery of conditions -- the game's rules and the opposing players; so the aim of God is not merely, let us say, to make men and to save them, but rather to get this done through the sole agency of nature's vast machinery. Without nature's stupendous laws and counterforces, man's creation and perfection, we might suppose, would be too insipid achievements for God to have proposed them.

This saves the form of the design-argument at the expense of its old easy human content. The designer is no longer the old man-like deity. His designs have grown so vast as to be incomprehensible to us humans. The what of them so overwhelms us that to establish the mere that of a designer for them becomes of very little consequence in comparison. We can with difficulty comprehend the character of a cosmic mind whose purposes are fully revealed by the strange mixture of goods and evils that we find in this actual world's particulars. Or rather we cannot by any possibility comprehend it. The mere word 'design' by itself has no consequences and explains nothing. It is the barrenest of principles. The old question of whether there is design is idle. The real question is what is the world, whether or not it have a designer - and that can be revealed only by the study of all nature's particulars.

Remember that no matter what nature may have produced or may be producing, the means must necessarily have been adequate, must have been fitted to that production. The argument from fitness to design would consequently always apply, whatever were the product's character. The recent Mont-Pelée eruption, for example, required all previous history to produce that exact combination of ruined houses, human and animal corpses, sunken ships, volcanic ashes, etc., in just that one hideous configuration of positions. France had to be a nation and colonize Martinique. Our country had to exist and send our ships there. If God aimed at just that result, the means by which the centuries bent their influences towards it, showed exquisite intelligence. And so of any state of things whatever, either in nature or in history, which we find actually realized. For the parts of things must always make some definite resultant, be it chaotic or harmonious. When we look at what has actually come, the conditions must always appear perfectly designed to ensure it. We can always say, therefore, in any conceivable world, of any conceivable character, that the whole cosmic machinery may have been designed to produce it.

Pragmatically, then, the abstract word 'design' is a blank cartridge. It carries no consequences, it does no execution. What design? and what designer? are the only serious questions, and the study of facts is the only way of getting even approximate answers. Meanwhile, pending the slow answer from facts, any one who insists that there is a designer and who is sure he is a divine one, gets a certain pragmatic benefit from the term - the same, in fact, which we saw that the terms God, Spirit, or the Absolute, yield us. 'Design,' worthless tho it be as a mere rationalistic principle set above or behind things for our admiration, becomes, if our faith concretes it into something theistic, a term of promise. Returning with it into experience, we gain a more confiding outlook on the future. If not a blind force but a seeing force runs things, we may reasonably expect better issues. This vague confidence in the future is the sole pragmatic meaning at present discernible in the terms design and designer. But if cosmic confidence is right not wrong, better not worse, that is a most important meaning. That much at least of possible 'truth' the terms will then have in them.

In White

A dented spider like a snowdrop white On a white Heal-all, holding up a moth Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth-- Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight? Portent in little, assorted death and blight Like the ingredients of a witches' broth? The beady spider, the flower like a froth, And the moth carried like a paper kite. What had that flower to do with being white, The blue Brunella every child's delight? What brought the kindred spider to that height (Make we no thesis of the miller's plight.) What but design of darkness and of night? Design, design! Do I use the word aright?

[Poirier prints "Design" here]

James's extensive influence can be located both in particular images - the statement about eyes, for instance, might have something to do with the last stanza of "All Revelation" ("Eyes seeking the response of eyes") - and in Frost's general disposition. The idea that creation might prove insipid if it did not work against opposition and counterforce (as in getting a ball over a goal line) is similar to Frost's notion of the process of a poem in "The Figure a Poem Makes" or his contention that "Every single poem written regular is a symbol small or great of the way the will has to pitch into commitments deeper and deeper" ("The Constant Symbol"). With respect to "In White" and "Design," the very clumsiness of the first indicates Frost's studious dependency on the passage from James. The line "Saw ever curious eye," for instance (whose? when? where? why?), can escape ridicule only by appeal to some antecedent authority. Such authority lies not, I think, in emblem poems, though "In White" does seem rhetorically to court that form; it lies instead in James's description of the inveterate thrust of investigation and "curiosity." "Nature was ransacked for results," he tells us, adding that "the real question is what is the world, whether or not it have a designer - and that can be revealed only by the study of all nature's particulars." So, too, with the unfortunate word "thesis" in line 12. It carries a nervous reassurance as if to someone checking up on his coverage of the subject, and so does the school-boy display of verbal-philosophical scrupulousness in the last line: "Design, design! Do I use the word aright?"

The later poem is freed of such sophomoric concern about correct usage or responsible modes of perception. By contrast to "In White," "Design" is a rather playful poem, much closer to the charmingly confident willingness in James to allow for alternate or conflicting possibilities. There is less worry about whether the word "design" is used "aright" because the speaker is his own man. If the word is not used "aright," then the responsibility lies in some collusion between reality and the perception of it. As in "The Most of It," reality appears to form itself in shapes that one "finds"; it sends signals that offer, according to how you read them, more than you can cope with and less than you need.

The same is true, of course, for the "design" of a "thing so small" as a poem, particularly a sonnet like this one. Understandably, the poem ends with two questions. The first, while grammatically in the form of a question ("What but design of darkness to appall?"), is more assertive than the second, which is grammatically a conditional clause ("If design govern in a thing so small"). The first question is pronounced by two heavily accented syllables on either end ("What but . . . appall"). And yet the very emphasis on "appall" brings with it a demand for attention which, as alternative meanings begin to emerge, dissolves the fright initially induced by the word. It is related to the word "pale" and suggests therefore that in our fright we might become as white as the horrid little cluster of things we are looking at. "Appall" also suggests "pale" in yet other ways, however. A "pale" can be a spike (is that an image of how the spider is "holding up a moth"?) and, most importantly, a "pale" can be a slat in a fence, as every farmer knows. "Darkness" has fenced in or enclosed these "assorted characters." It has given them a "design." Thus, an extended and potentially self-canceling reading of the line would be "What but design of darkness to" . . . design. This would be an extraordinarily witty way to gather up and transform the meanings being groped for in the clumsy ending of the original: "Design, design! Do I use the word aright?" As a tautology the line would also give a still more problematic and sardonic turn to the last line of the poem. A design whose purpose is only to "design" cannot be said to "govern" much of anything, large or small.

A reading of this kind is assisted by James's observation about the woodpecker and the grub, an observation full of that ingratiating, warm-hearted sarcasm of his (so like Emerson of the later and shorter essay "Nature"), when he is exposing the effrontery of human schematizations:"to the grub under the bark the exquisite fitness of the woodpecker's organism to extract him

would certainly argue a diabolic designer." The word "appall" is therefore marvelously apt not only because it can end up meaning "design" but because in doing so it maintains its connotations of terror. The implications of design are "appalling" in every sense if we try to infer from any assortment of things the presence of something or someone, a Creator who "governs." Melville and the "whiteness" of his whale are a glimmering presence here, much as in "For Once, Then, Something," a poem written in 1917, between "In White" and "Design": "What was that whiteness? / Truth? a pebble of quartz? For once, then, something." In this poem, written in hendecasyllabics -- Frost's affectionate nod to Catullus -- there is, as in "Design," the enticement of significances simultaneously denied by the tone and the terms in which they are offered, as note the comic alliteration of "w" and how an assertive beginning ("For once, then,") gives way to the hesitancy of the word "something."

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright © 1977 by Oxford University Press.

Richard Poirier: On "Good-By and Keep Cold"

Again, Frost, or what a purist would call the speaker, is in a familiar stance. He is on "the edge of the dark / And the cold." And again he is aware of "precedents" in the nature of things ("saying goodby . . . Reminds me") which can be either harmful or helpful. More than half the poem is given over to what he "does not want" to happen to his orchard. There are six negative clauses; four begin with "I don't want," and the others with "It wouldn't" and "It mustn't." On the other hand, what he does want is as emphatically stated as what he doesn't -- he wants the reality of winter cold unadulterated by any unseasonal warmth. His call here for the beneficent severities of nature -- "dread fifty above more than fifty below" -- is a piece with his blustering announcement that he is going to busy himself cutting down trees "less fruitful" than those in his orchard. The whole poem develops consistently toward his charming but chilling comparison between a freezing, dying orchard and a freezing, dying friend. Or rather it is a comparison that comes into existence, as often happens in Frost, in the act of disowning it:

I wish I could promise to lie in the night And think of an orchard's arboreal plight When slowly (and nobody comes with a light) Its heart sinks lower under the sod. But something has to be left to God.

A lot is happening in this short passage. His denial to the orchard of a status in his emotions equal to that of a freezing and dying loved one nonetheless suggests that with the latter he would know how to act compassionately. All the more so for not being the kind of man who wastes compassion on an orchard. The rightness of the position is buttressed by the wit of the last line. It pretends to mean that what is left to God is to "think of an orchard's arboreal plight." But since God expresses Himself through the variations and durations of the seasons, and since He knows, therefore, that the orchard is not in a "plight," He would hardly worry when its so-called "heart sinks lower under the sod." That, after all, is exactly what is good for it.

But the sophisticated intentions of the poem can only be grasped along with the evidence in it of Frost's metrical genius and his total absorption of English and American verse form. These are an indispensable part of his functioning voice, his poise of seriousness and wit. The poem is written in anapestic tetrameter, a meter whose history is admirably outlined by Hollander in his essay "Romantic Verse Form and the Metrical Contract" (Vision and Resonance, pp. 187-211). From Palgrave, Frost would have known the serio-comic use of the meter in Cowper's "The Poplar-Field," and its alternate uses both in elegiac and in satirical or comic verse by Wordsworth, Tom Moore, Hunt, and Landor, one of the poets Frost greatly admired. These two modalities are captured and held brilliantly in suspense by the enjambed first line: "This saying good-by on the edge of the dark." It seems at this initial point like a crisis poem about death or departure. But the next line, while continuing to exploit the possibility ("And the cold . . .") gets us into the full jingle of the verse form and then to the revealed object: "good-by . . . to an orchard." Later, near the end, in lines 25-26, the same effect is gained in "I wish I could promise to lie in the night/ And think of an orchard's arboreal plight." The wonderful trickery of this, along with some similarities of phrasing, is evident also in the second stanza of the Cowper poem ("Twelve years have elaps'd since I first took a view / Of my favorite field and the bank where they grew"). Frost's choice of the form with its sing-song movement and rhymes, as in "house," "mouse," "browse," "grouse" of lines 5-8, is an especially vivid example of how he hedges his "seriousness" to serious effect. He hides his poetic allegorizing -- his commentaries on a literary history that goes back, as Hollander shows, to the drinking songs and bawdy of earlier times -- by so outrageously exploiting it as to seem almost disingenuously adroit.

Instead of ending with a cheerfully sentimental affirmation of God's mercy, the poem is a jocular and sly insider's view of God's justness, or at least the justness inherent in what Emerson calls, again, "the life of God." The poem is a joke on the whole idea of divine intercession beyond the provisions, some of them quite harsh, of already functioning arrangements. In fact, the speaker is so cognizant of the way nature works that he, and the poem, really "leave" nothing to God at all. It is the speaker who provides for the human needs in such a climate (wood and food) and who makes every provision (short of ridiculously summoning grouse, rabbit, and deer for a warning lecture) to insure an orchard cold and deserted enough for the sake of future growth.

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright © 1977 by Oxford University Press.

Richard Poirier: On "The Wood-Pile"

"The Wood-Pile" is like a sequel to "Home Burial," with the man in this instance wandering from a "home" that seems little more than an abstraction to him and to us. More a meditation than a dramatic narrative, it offers the soliloquy of a lone figure walking in a winter landscape. It is a desolate scene possessed of the loneliness of "Desert Places." Attention is focused on the activity of consciousness in this isolated wanderer, and nothing characterizes him as a social being or as having any relationships to another person. While the poem has resemblances, again, to Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," or Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode," it is more random in its structuring and has none of the demarcations of the descriptive-reflective mode. A better way to describe the poem is suggested in a talk by A. R. Ammons, "A Poem as a Walk." "A walk involves the whole person; it is not reproducible; its shape occurs, unfolds; it has a motion characteristic of the walker" (Epoch, Fall, 1968, p. 118).

The man in the poem is not, like Stevens' Crispin, "a man come out of luminous traversing," but more like the "listener" in Stevens' "The Snow Man." In each poem is a recognition of a wintry barrenness made more so in Frost by a reductive process by which possibilities of metaphor - of finding some reassuring resemblances - are gradually disposed of. At the end, the speaker in Frost's poem is as "cool" as is the listener in Stevens, and also as peculiarly unanguished by the situation in which he finds himself. It is as if the wintry prospect, the arrival at something like Stevens' First Idea, a cold clarity without redeeming deceptions, has in itself been an achievement of the imagination. It is something won against all such conventional blandishments as the "misery" of what Harold Bloom calls the "Shelleyan wind" in "The Snow Man" or the flirtatious bird in "The Wood-Pile."

The persistent difference between Frost and Stevens applies here, too, however. It resides in the kind of context the reader is asked to supply for each of the poems. Thus, despite the absence of characterizing detail, the speaker in "The Wood-Pile" shapes, from his very opening words, a human presence for us in his sentence sounds, his voice; he makes us imagine him as someone in a human plight "far from home." By comparison, the "voice" in "The Snow Man" belongs not to a person but to a quality of rumination, and Bloom is succinctly generalizing about the poem - he calls it Stevens' "most crucial poem" - when he remarks of its author that "the text he produces is condemned to offer itself for interpretation as being already an interpretation of other interpretations, rather than as what it asserts itself to be, an interpretation of life" (Poetry and Repression, p. 270).

"The Wood-Pile" is about being impoverished, being on the dump - to recall two related states of consciousness in Stevens - with no clues by which to locate yourself in space. All you can assuredly know about "here" is that you are far from "home":

Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day, I paused and said, "I will turn back from here. No, I will go on farther -- and we shall see." The hard snow held me, save where now and then One foot went through. The view was all in lines Straight up and down of tall slim trees Too much alike to mark or name a place by So as to say for certain I was here Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.

If this is a situation that resembles winter visions of Stevens, the sound resists any effort to bring visionary possibilities into being. The voice of this man ("So as to say for certain I was here / Or somewhere else") cannot be expected to test the poetic potentialities of what is seen and heard and can even less be expected to cheer itself up by indulging in the hyperbolic or the sublime vocabularies. There is an informality even in the initial placements - "out walking . . . one gray day" - of the spondaic effect of "gray day," as if it were a scheduled occurrence (like "pay day") and of the possible metaphoric weight in what he says, as in the allusion (but not really) to the lack of adequate support he can expect in this landscape ("The hard snow held me, save where now and then / One foot went through"). Such anxious and innocuous precision about the relative hardness of the snow or the size and contour of the trees is humanly and characterologically right. It expresses the kind of paranoia that goes with any feeling of being lost and of losing thereby a confident sense of self. Paranoia, displaced onto a small bird chancing by, becomes the motive for metaphor: the bird is endowed with the characteristics being displayed by the man observing him:

A small bird flew before me. He was careful To put a tree between us when he lighted, And say no word to tell me who he was Who was so foolish as to think what he thought, He thought that I was after him for a feather -- The white one in his tail; like one who takes Everything said as personal to himself. One flight out sideways would have undeceived him. And then there was a pile of wood for which I forgot him and let his little fear Carry him off the way I might have gone, Without so much as wishing him good-night.

There is a combination here of yearning, competitiveness, and resentment that threatens to become ludicrous, a parody of the romantic search for associations and resemblances. And the parodistic possibility is increased by the syntax of the lines about the bird's tail-feathers. They could mean that the bird was foolish to think that the man had this particular design upon him. But the lines could also be the speaker's rendition or imitation of what he thought the bird was thinking, i.e., "Who does that man think he is to think that he can get hold of my tail-feathers?" In any event, there is more "thinking" proposed than could possibly or profitably be going on. That the paranoia and self-regard confusingly attributed to the bird are really a characterization of the man who is observing the bird is further suggested by the accusation that the bird is "like one who takes/ Everything said as personal to himself" - a jocular simile, given the fact that there is only "one" person around to whom the comparison might apply. If all this is to some degree comic, it is feverishly so, the product of intense loneliness and displacement. From its opening moment the poem becomes a human drama of dispossession, of failed possessiveness, and of the need to structure realities which are not "here," to replace, in the words of Stevens, "nothing that is not there" with "the nothing that is."

The only probable evidence of structure that he does find, already put together, is the "wood-pile," a forgotten remnant of earlier efforts to make a "home" by people who, when they did it, were also away from home. The pile of wood, which lets the speaker promptly forget the bird, once more excites his anxious precisions. He still needs to find some human resemblances, evidences in zones and demarcations for the human capacity to make a claim on an alien landscape. What he discovers is sparse indeed, his reassurance equally so, as we can note in his rather pathetic exactitudes:

It was a cord of maple, cut and split And piled -- and measured, four by four by eight. And not another like it could I see. No runner tracks in this year's snow looped near it. And it was older sure than this year's cutting, Or even last year's or the year's before. The wood was gray and the bark warping off it And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle. What held it, though, on one side was a tree Still growing, and on one a stake and prop, These latter about to fall. I thought that only Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks Could so forget his handiwork on which He spent himself, the labor of his ax, And leave it there far from a useful fireplace To warm the frozen swamp as best it could With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

The poem here could be read as a commentary on the earlier "The Tuft of Flowers" where, instead of a bird, a butterfly acts as a kind of pointer who "led my eye to look / At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook" and where these flowers, in turn, direct his attention to signs of work having been done by another man with "A spirit kindred to my own;/ So that henceforth I worked no more alone." "The Wood-Pile" is obviously a much starker poem. The "tuft of flowers" was left as a kind of signature, a greeting and communication; the pile of wood was simply forgotten by the man who cut and carefully stacked it, as he went on to the distractions of other things. The wood-pile cannot therefore prompt the gregarious aphorisms which bring "The Tuft of Flowers" to a close: "'Men work together,' I told him from the heart,/'Whether they work together or apart.'" Remnants of a human presence in the swamp only remind the walker that he is completely alone in a place that has been deserted. And his aloneness is the more complete because there are no alternatives outside the present circumstances which give him any comfort. Even when he thinks of a fireplace it is not with images of conviviality but only with the observation that it would be "useful." The wood burns of itself, with a warmth that cannot be felt and without giving any evidence whatever that it belongs in the world of men and women. "With the slow smokeless burning of decay" is a line whose sound carries an extraordinary authority and dignity because it has emerged out of the more sauntering vernacular movements at the beginning of the poem. It induces a kind of awe because it is the acknowledgment of nature as a realm wholly independent of human need or even human perception, and it belongs not only in what it says but in its very cadence with Wordsworth's evocation at the end of his sonnet "Mutability" of "the unimaginable touch of Time."

If the speaker "resembles" anything at the end of the poem, it is the wood-pile itself, something without even a semblance of consciousness; it is wholly self-consuming. As in "Desert Places," another poem about a lonely man walking in a landscape of snow, the man in "The Wood-Pile" could say that "The loneliness includes me unawares." This line is a little poem in itself. It has a syntactical ambiguity more common in Stevens than in Frost. It can mean both that the loneliness includes him but is unaware of doing so, and that the loneliness includes him and he is not aware of its doing so by virtue of his near obliteration. In either case he is not so much included as wiped out; he is included as if he were inseparable from, indistinguishable from, the thing that includes him. He is on the point of being obliterated by the landscape, rather than allowed to exist even as an observer of it, much less a mediating or transcending presence.

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright © 1977 by Oxford University Press.

Richard Poirier: On "After Apple-Picking"

The poem has become so familiar and revered that it is difficult to recognize its strangeness. But it would probably seem familiar in any case; it is a prime example of how even the very great poems of Frost can induce a kind of ease about their deeper intensities. It is a proud poem, as if its very life depends upon a refusal to justify itself by any open evidence of what it is up to. The apparent "truth" about the poem is that it is really concerned with the actualities of its announced subject. But is that "truth" even residually enough if, not thinking so, one takes the risk of burdening the poem with "more than the truth"? Brower has written meticulously about its rhythmic form, but he has not let himself feel the deeper pulsations in its metaphors. There are energies in the poem as well as a dream of potential experience that include but are passionately larger than that recorded in his otherwise useful observation that "From the opening lines, apparently matter-of-fact talk falls into curious chain-like sentences, rich in end-rhymes and echoes of many sorts" until "memories of waking fact and their sleepy distortions become impossible to tell apart" (The Poetry of Robert Frost, pp. 24, 25).

Once again, "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows." It is a muscular and active knowing, and should not be confused with Santayana's rather too fastidious proposition that "The artist is a person consenting to dream of reality." Consent is not at issue - as if reality were propositioning us. What is required is toil and labor, the exertion of body and mind necessary to bring anything to birth. Labor, again, is both one of the unfortunate consequences of the Fall and a way of overcoming them, of transforming them into fortunate ones. The "dream" that "labor knows" in Frost's poems of work is often "sweet" because it frequently involves images of the birth or rebirth of the self, of redemption offered those who try to harvest reality.

"After Apple-Picking" is a dream vision, and from the outset it proposes that only labor can penetrate to the essential facts of natural life. These include, in this case, the discovery of the precarious balances whenever one season shifts to another, the exhaustions of the body, and the possible consequences of "falling," which are blemish and decay. When the penetration of "facts" or of matter occurs through labor, the laborer, who may also be the poet, becomes vaguely aware that what had before seemed solid and unmalleable is also part of a collective "dream" and partakes of myth. This is in part what is signified by Emerson's paradigm at the beginning of "Language" in Nature: "1. Words are signs of natural facts. 2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. 3. Nature is the symbol of spirit." The penetrating power of labor can be evinced in "apple-picking" or in writing or reading about it, and any one of these activities brings us close to seeing how apples and all that surround them can be symbolic of spirit. The easiness of voice movement and vocabulary in the poem will seem at odds with deeper possibilities only to those who do not share Frost's perception, following Emerson and Thoreau, that the possibilities are simply there to be encountered. When at the very outset the apple-picker remembers "My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree," he is, without any self-consciousness, committed by "natural facts" to a mythological or symbolic statement, as he is immediately thereafter in the further "fact" that the ladder is pointing "toward heaven still." "Heaven" is not the destination awaiting anyone who climbs ladders, but it can become part of his consciousness of destinations.

A version of this image will appear later in "Directive," where "The height of the adventure is the height / Of country where two village cultures faded / Into each other. Both of them are lost. / And if you're lost enough to find yourself/ By now, pull in your ladder road behind you. . . ." But this "ladder" is essentially lateral. The journey is back into time, into geological and cultural debris. Though I would not, with Helen Bacon, think that the two towns refer to the twin cults of Apollo and Dionysus, the poem lets itself be read as an attempted journey to poetic and personal sources where a self can be discovered this side of heaven. By comparison, the ladder in "After Apple-Picking" is quite graphically vertical, and it points to a destination beyond itself. It is, also, a ladder that is not "pulled in"; it is "still" - "still" there, "still" to be climbed again, and "still" pointing as if, despite its being "long," it merely directs us to a place toward which it provides the initial steps. It sticks "through" a tree and not against it.

And yet for all these suggestions, the ladder is very much a real one. The phrase "two-pointed ladder" is itself less directly metaphorical than is "ladder road" of "Directive." In a context where every word seems so much by nature to be metaphorical, "two-pointed" trembles with possibilities of meaning that adhere to its very essence. The phrase could signify metaphor itself and reminds us that for Frost metaphor was the true source and method of all thinking. Not only do we think in metaphors that are contrived for the purpose, like "ladder road"', more than that, we cannot so much as use a word or a phrase without committing ourselves, often unknowingly, to metaphor and therefore to some form of unconscious "thought." Thinking in Frost is metaphoric or "two-pointed," and it directs us at last to what is beyond the metaphor, to things we cannot "know" and whereof, as Wittgenstein suggested, we should not speak.

A "two-pointed ladder" is very much like a metaphor as Frost describes it. Its two terms head in a parallel and mutually supporting direction; ultimately, however, the relationship comes to an end or leaves off; the metaphor necessarily breaks down. The progress or movement of analogy brings us to something beyond it, like faith or a belief. Metaphor, that is, both controls us and propels us into exaggerations, into the idea of God, for instance, with whom we enter into a relationship, as Frost says at the end of "Education by Poetry," in order "to believe the future in - to believe the hereafter in." As in much of Frost's prose the syntax here is aggressively vernacular and irregular, and the effect is to make the word "in" a part of the verb. By a relationship to God, about which we cannot say very much and have little to show, we can, however, try, as in "Carpe Diem," to bring the future and the hereafter "in" close, to bring it "in," as by climbing ladders for the picking of apples, from remoteness or abstraction. In this same talk - it was stereographically recorded and printed first in 1931 - Frost seems to have borrowed the image of the ladder and the sky from "After Apple-Picking" in order to talk about metaphor, about thinking, and about the hereafter or the future, the sky which waits at the end of the ladder. "We still ask boys in college to think, as in the nineties, but we seldom tell them what thinking means; we seldom tell them that it is just putting this and that together; it is just saying one thing in terms of another. To tell them is to set their feet on the first rung of a ladder the top of which sticks through the sky."

In his rambling somnolence, his driftings among the terms of his own obsessive experience, the apple-picker is "thinking" only less consciously than is the poet in his more directly exploratory use of language. From the outset the materials of the poem belong to the apple-picker: it is "my" and not "a" ladder that is sticking through the trees, and in Frost's formula the applepicker's "saying" of one thing in terms of another is "thinking" even though he might not credit himself with doing so. Indeed, the conceptual frame of the poem, if so heavy a phrase is appropriate to it, is held together by the way "dream" gets stated in terms of waking experience, waking experience in terms of "dream." This is an occasion when the precondition of metaphor itself seems to be that the normal distinction between dreaming and waking be suspended. Even the verb tenses of the poem contribute to this suspension: before he begins his last day of apple-picking he "could tell" while awake "What form my dreaming was about to take." It is as if he woke before work into a kind of reality that had all the strangeness of dream, and he looks to sleep after work almost in the hope of dispelling the dream:

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 And held against the world of hoary grass. It melted, and I let it fall and break.

There is both daring and genius in the lines that follow: "But I was well/ Upon my way to sleep before it fell." So confused are states of consciousness here that perhaps we are to think that he slept all through the day of work, perhaps he dreamed the day itself, with its "hoary grass." This grass could be real, "hoary" in the sense that it is coated white with morning frost; or it could be other-worldly grass, "hoary" in the sense of "ancient," part of a mythic world derived from the Bible and Milton. We are not to decide which is which; we are instead meant to equivocate. The larger possibilities are made inextricable in our, and in his, experience from smaller, more detailed ones. Thus, "essence" can mean something abstract, like an attribute, or even a spirit that is fundamental to winter nights, and it is also something very specific to apple-picking, the perfume of a harvest. So wonderfully does the language of the poem subvert any easy regulation that some readers might want to think of the "perfume" in Herbert's "life" or in King's "Contemplation upon Flowers" or in Frost's own "Unharvested" which emanates from a soul that has sanctified itself. So, too, with "harvest." It is called a "great harvest," and while "great" can refer to numbers - "There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch" - it soon begins to accumulate other than quantitative implications in its linkage to the word "cherish," the phrase "not let fall," and the reminder, in the suddenly exalted phrasing of "struck the earth" (when the word "ground" might have been used), that the ladder was pointed not at the "sky" but "toward heaven." The phrasing has a Marvellian reticence, only a bit less pronounced than in "The Silken Tent" where the "central cedar pole" is "its pinnacle to heavenward."

The apple-picker (and Frost) seems almost reluctantly involved in these implications. Perhaps that is one reason why he is "overtired" of a harvest "I myself desired." The intensity of labor has brought him in touch with a vocabulary of "apples," "trees," "scent," "ladders," "harvests," of ascents and descents that make it impossible for him not to say one thing in terms of another. To speak of apples is to speak of the Fall and the discovery of the benefits from it that both require and repay human toil. The only explicitly metaphorical statement in the entire, highly metaphoric poem - the only time the apple-picker tries directly to generalize his experience ("One can see . . ."), and the only spot where he admits to a sense of audience ("As I describe . . . ) - occurs at the end:

One can see what will trouble This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. Were he not gone, The woodchuck could say whether it's like his Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, Or just some human sleep.

It is appropriate to the whole intention of the poem that where the apple-picker sets out wakefully to accomplish what he has all along been doing in a daze, unconsciously - to make metaphors and to generalize on his experience - the result is a tangle of confusions. He is a successful "poet" only when he does not try to be. Obviously, the "woodchuck" could not "say" anything, and its capacity to make a metaphoric discrimination between its own and human sleep is rendered comic by the speaker's ascription to himself of the power only to "describe" the coming on of sleep. "Just some human sleep" sounds at first like an unfortunate infusion of the coy Frost - one of those calls for a trivially self-deprecating irony that reveal at times his peculiar embarrassment with the power of his own sincerities. But the line is saved from disingenuousness, just barely, by the "fact" that in his overtired state the apple-picker might indeed want a sleep equivalent to the hibernation of a woodchuck rather than a "human sleep." His sleep will be human precisely because it will be a disturbed, dream- and myth-ridden sleep. Human sleep is more than animal sleep for the very reason that it is bothered by memories of what it means to pick apples. After that famous picking in the Garden, human life, awake or sleeping, has been a dream, and words are compacted of the myths we have dreamt of the fall and redemption of souls.

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright © 1977 by Oxford University Press.

Richard Poirier: On "Home Burial"

In "Home Burial," the couple are trapped inside the house, which is described as a kind of prison, or perhaps more aptly, a mental hospital. Even the wife's glance out the window can suggest to the husband the desperation she feels within the confines of what has always been his family's "home"; it looks directly on the family graveyard which now holds the body of their recently dead child:

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs Before she saw him. She was starting down, Looking back over her shoulder at some fear. She took a doubtful step and then undid it To raise herself and look again. He spoke Advancing toward her: "What is it you see From up there always -- for I want to know."     [always?] She turned and sank upon her skirts at that, And her face changed from terrified to dull. He said to gain time: "What is it you see,"              [see?] Mounting until she cowered under him. "I will find out now -- you must tell me, dear."

The remarkable achievement here is that the husband and wife have become so nearly inarticulate in their animosities that the feelings have been transferred to a vision of household arrangements and to their own bodily movements. They and the house conspire together to create an aura of suffocation. For a comparable sense of divorcement communicated mostly by silent uses of space in a "home," a supposedly shared area, perhaps the best analogy is not to be found in literature but in film, such as the opening of Antonioni's La Notte. But of course Frost's special genius is in the placement of words. The first line poses the husband as a kind of spy; the opening of the second line suggests a habituated wariness on her part, but from that point to line 5 we are shifted back to his glimpse of her as she moves obsessively again, as yet unaware of being watched, to the window. Suggestions of alienation, secretiveness, male intimidation ("advancing toward her") within a situation of mutual distrust, a miasmic fear inside as well as outside the house - we are made to sense this before anyone speaks. Initially the fault seems to lie mostly with the husband. But as soon as she catches him watching her, and as soon as he begins to talk, it is the grim mutuality of their dilemma and the shared responsibilities for it that sustain the dramatic intelligence and power of the poem.

I have indicated in the margin a number of the emendations made by Lathem in his edition - which is assumed to be "authoritative" - because his version substantially loses the poignant delicacy with which Frost treats the estrangement between husband and wife.

Lathem chose to make two emendations wholly on his own: he added a question mark after "always" in line 7, and he put a comma after "help" in line 13. He also arbitrarily chose to follow early editions by allowing a question mark at the end of line 10, though Frost had deleted it in all the editions he supervised after 1936, including the 1949 Complete Poems. These textual matters are worth considering, because while Lathem's choices hurt the poem, they make us aware of punctuation in ways that considerably increase our appreciation of nuances which might otherwise go unremarked. We can note, for example, the scrupulous justice with which Frost tries to locate, even through the use of a comma, the sources of conflict in this "home." There is a marvelously managed shifting in the apportionment of blame. Thus the man's initial speech, while impatient, is meant to be more gentle than it is in the assertively interrogative form that Lathem's question mark gives it. Without the question mark, there is the implication that the husband has learned, after many trying experiences, not to expect an answer to his questions. And the strength of her obstinacy with regard to him is then confirmed by the fact that instead, of showing fear at his "advancing on her," her face, on his near approach, changes from "terrified to dull." Nonetheless, the choice of "until" and "under" in the phrase "mounting until she cowered under him" suggests that there indeed is a calculated masculine imposition of will in the way he acts, though this possibility is as quickly muffled by his then speaking more gently still ("'I will find out now - you must tell me, dear"') with its allowable lack of stress on the word "now" and the especially strong beat, after a comma, on the word "dear." Frost did not choose to put a comma after the word "help" ("She, in her place, refused him any help / With the least stiffening of her neck and silence"), and its absence is crucial to our recognition of how perverse and stubbornly uncompliant she can be. With the comma added, the line suggests that her stiffness and silence merely accompanied her refusal to tell him what she had seen out the window; without the comma, we are allowed to infer that she would choose not to stiffen her neck lest she thereby give him any clue at all about what she has been staring at: "Sure that he wouldn't see / Blind creature . . ." These surges of surreptitious feeling between the two of them obviously result not from their immediate juxtaposition on the stairs but from a customary incapacity to share any feelings with one another.

Of course he does see what is out there, the child's grave. And her challenge then to "'Tell me what it is"' is merely the first of many instances in which differences are defined, as they so often are in Frost, as differences in the use of words, in the way one speaks or hears things, in the uses to which a metaphor is put, be it sane or crazy, brutal or insensitive: "'You don't know how to ask it"' (line 43), she complains, and he - "'My words are nearly always an offense. / I don't know how to speak of anything' " (lines 45-46); or, again (line 70), "'A man can't speak of his own child that's dead,'" to which in the next line she replies, "'You can't because you don't know how to speak."' Her lengthy indictment of him near the end of the poem begins with her claim, "'I can repeat the very words that you were saying . . . think of it, talk like that at such a time!'" (lines 91, 94). One of the husband's initial mentions of the graveyard does betray a certain tactless predominance and possessiveness ("'The little graveyard where my people are!"'), but this is immediately followed by a metaphor of diminishment that somewhat restores a balance ("'So small the window frames the whole of it"'). However, this in turn gives way to yet another metaphor of dangerously thoughtless implication: "'Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?"' In its very casualness, really a kind of stupidity, the husband's comparison of the graveyard to a bedroom is a sign that, having been made so nervous about the inadequacy of his language, he has to double or triple his illustration of anything he wants to communicate. He seems unaware of his tastelessness, which is of course all the more reason to think that his bedroom metaphor reveals some of his deepest feelings about what has happened to their marriage. But if the bedroom is like a graveyard, the reason has as much to do with her excessive (possibly neurotic) sensibility as with the obvious deficiencies of his. And if he is insensitive, he is at least not without gentleness. When he asks her " 'Don't - Don't go./ Don't carry it to someone else this time"' (lines 56-57), he is less peremptory than is she: "'Don't, don't, don't, don't' she cried" (line 29), a line that is as remarkably powerful in its effect as a similar one in Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants": "Will you Please please please please please please please stop talking?" She is asking him not to speak; he is asking her not to leave him.

Out of some terrible fastidiousness she seems to want to abridge even what is left of their relationship, while he, because of love, and some incipient pride of place in the community, is doing his best to maintain some sort of contact. . . .

Sexuality in Frost has been noted, when at all, with a kind of surprise. And yet in a very great number of his poems it figures, as it does here, as a submerged metaphor for his all-consuming interest in the relational and transitional nature of poetry, of thinking, of talking itself. The husband and wife here cannot "ask" anything of one another or "tell" anything without giving offense partly because they both are flawed in their sense of time and of timing. With her desire to stop everything in the interest of mourning the death of an infant, she cannot understand his apparent incapacity to mourn at all and his choosing to talk, instead, of everyday concerns. She does not see that this is his only way of managing grief, of not letting it consume his or her life. And the words she accuses him of using as he sat there talking on the day he buried his child - "'Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build"' - form hemselves without his knowing it, but with complete appropriateness, into a metaphor for the way nature, if only by some accident of weather, will erode whatever human beings might make to protect themselves from the reality of change and death. The wife sees and then describes her husband's actions on that day with an angry exactitude, a kind of novelistic passion for detail, characteristic of country women in the poems we have been looking at:

If you had any feelings, you that dug With your own hand -- how could you? -- his little grave; I saw you from that very window there, Making the gravel leap and leap in air, Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly And roll back down the mound beside the hole. I thought, Who is that man? I didn't know you. And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs To look again, and still your spade kept lifting. Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice Out in the kitchen, and I don't know why, But I went near to see with my own eyes. You could sit there with the stains on your shoes Of the fresh earth from your own baby's grave And talk about your everyday concerns. You had stood the spade up against the wall Outside there in the entry, for I saw it."

There is a genius here of a sort found in the brilliantly right sentence in Joyce's "The Dead" when Gretta remembers how her dead lover of long ago stood under her window in a cold that was to chill him to his death: "'I can see his eyes as well as well!"' she says to Gabriel. "'He was standing at the end of the wall where there was a tree."' Allen Tate remarks on how a vision of the past is framed with startling immediacy by the mention of that "tree," how it lets us share a reality vividly present to the person speaking. The same peculiar convergence of past and present occurs here, thanks to Frost's keen sense of the power of variation and repetition: "'Making the gravel leap and leap in air, / Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly.'" Her charge continues, and with the same haunted exactness of recollection:

"I can repeat the very words you were saying: 'Three foggy mornings and one rainy day Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.' Think of it, talk like that at such a time! What had how long it takes a birch to rot To do with what was in the darkened parlor?"

It is important here to notice the comparative bareness of the attendant language when she quotes the metaphor of the "birch fence." His inability to respond effectively to her charges is understandable: an indictment cannot be answered when it is only more or less a description, as if certain words and acts are inherently contemptible. " 'I'm cursed. God, if I don't believe I'm cursed,' " he says, and indeed he is being "cursed": there is no word more apt for what she says to him. It is worth recollecting here something that Frost wrote in a letter to Wilbert Snow, a poet and professor of English at Wesleyan University, in 1933:

My mind goes back to how true Turgeneff holds the balance between protagonists and antagonists in the death of Bayarov in Fathers and Sons. He is perfect in his non-partizanship. I never quite like to hear a wife turned on against her husband or vice versa. They know too much about each other and they are not disinterested. They lack, what they should lack, detachment. Maybe it bothers me as a breach of manners (Thompson, Letters, p. 393).

On the chance that the wife's accusations might prove more persuasive than they should, Frost corrects the flow of our sympathies by allowing for a curious imbalance in that part of the poem (lines 97-107) given to her complaints about the brevity of all human sorrow. It is as if even the proportions of the poem - its form and decorum - much less those of mourning, must be swelled out of proper shape by the wife's obsession with her grievances. The catalogue of her complaints is a symptom of how for her they have become a way of deadening a deeper grief too painful to be borne. Her list of grievances is no adequate metaphor, that is, for the grief she feels. All she can do is insist that " 'I won't have grief so,' " won't have it, that is, dissipated by the passage of time. In response, one might think of a poem called "Good Relief" never collected by Frost in any volume, in which he says that "No state has found a perfect cure for grief / In law, in gospel, or in root or herb." "Grief without grievance" - this, we have seen, was a dictum for Frost; the limits of sympathy were no less prescribed by the nature of things than were the limits of metaphor. A bit like the wife here was his sister Jeanie, as described in a letter of April 12, 1920, to Louis Untermeyer:

She has always been antiphysical and a sensibilitist. I must say she was pretty well broken by the coarseness and brutality of the world before the war [World War I] was thought of. . . . She was willing to go almost too far to show her feeling about it, the more so that she couldn't find anyone who would go far enough. One half the world seemed unendurably bad and the other half unendurably indifferent. She included me in the unendurably indifferent. A mistake. I belong to the unendurably bad.

And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies. As I get older, I find it easier to lie awake nights over other peoples' troubles. But that's as far as I go to date. In good time I will join them in death to show our common humanity (Thompson, Letters, p. 247).

The experience in the reading of the poem is that the wife's talk in this long peroration has a driven and dissociated quality with respect not only to the form of the poem but to the conversation going on in it. That is why the husband feels that she has somehow purged herself and that the "talk" will of itself have relieved her and the situation of a kind of swelling:

"There, you have said it all and you feel better. You won't go now. You're crying. Close the door. The heart's gone out of it: why keep it up? Amy! There's someone coming down the road!" "You -- oh, you think the talk is all. I must go -- Somewhere out of this house. How can I make you -- "If-you-do!" She was opening the door wider. "Where do you mean to go? First tell me that. I'll follow and bring you back by force. I will! --"

Clearly, she cannot say "it all" because her grievances are not and cannot be the equivalent of her grief, and so she necessarily rejects what to her cannot help but sound like condescension. Her movement out of the house, out of discord, and into a literal "extravagancy" on the road leads again to his assertion of masculine threat and will, though this is now so tempered by an evident love and toleration and concern that the threat sounds more like a plea and an admission of helplessness.

Besides being a moving and powerful human drama, "Home Burial" is about the limits, as revealed through the consciousness of these two unique people, of "home" as a place, a form, a mode of discourse in which often unmanageably extreme states of feeling occur. But if the limits are sad and terrifying, Frost seems nonetheless sure of their necessity. His decorums, he would have it, are consistent with reality and, if respected, can make life at least manageable. Violations of decorum in a poem or in any other formed relationship are a cause as well as a symptom of induced terror. "Poetry is measured in more senses than one," Frost wrote to Sidney Cox in September 1929. "It is measured feet, but more important still it is a measured amount of all we could say an we would. We shall be judged finally by the delicacy of our feeling of where to stop short" (Thompson, Letters, p. 361). It could be said that the central subject of this poem is poetic form seen in the metaphor of domestic form - a debate between a husband and wife about how each "shall be judged finally by the delicacy of our feeling of where to stop short." She claims that he has violated any possible decorums of grief by his lack of expressiveness. Hence, she "must get out of here" (line 37), "somewhere out of this house" (line 113) - this poem, too. He insists that she restrict her expression of grief to the house and to the boundaries of their marital contract, but he is in all this too peculiarly willful for her or for his own good. The poem ends on his exclamation " 'I will!' " Our only sure indication that she has by then gone through the door she has been gradually opening while they talk.

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright Ó 1977 by Oxford University Press.

Richard Poirier: On "Good-by and Keep Cold"

Again, Frost, or what a purist would call the speaker, is in a familiar stance. He is on "the edge of the dark / And the cold." And again he is aware of "precedents" in the nature of things ("saying goodby . . . Reminds me") which can be either harmful or helpful. More than half the poem is given over to what he "does not want" to happen to his orchard. There are six negative clauses; four begin with "I don't want," and the others with "It wouldn't" and "It mustn't." On the other hand, what he does want is as emphatically stated as what he doesn't -- he wants the reality of winter cold unadulterated by any unseasonal warmth. His call here for the beneficent severities of nature -- "dread fifty above more than fifty below" -- is a piece with his blustering announcement that he is going to busy himself cutting down trees "less fruitful" than those in his orchard. The whole poem develops consistently toward his charming but chilling comparison between a freezing, dying orchard and a freezing, dying friend. Or rather it is a comparison that comes into existence, as often happens in Frost, in the act of disowning it:

I wish I could promise to lie in the night

And think of an orchard's arboreal plight

When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)

Its heart sinks lower under the sod.

But something has to be left to God.

A lot is happening in this short passage. His denial to the orchard of a status in his emotions equal to that of a freezing and dying loved one nonetheless suggests that with the latter he would know how to act compassionately. All the more so for not being the kind of man who wastes compassion on an orchard. The rightness of the position is buttressed by the wit of the last line. It pretends to mean that what is left to God is to "think of an orchard's arboreal plight." But since God expresses Himself through the variations and durations of the seasons, and since He knows, therefore, that the orchard is not in a "plight," He would hardly worry when its so-called "heart sinks lower under the sod." That, after all, is exactly what is good for it.

But the sophisticated intentions of the poem can only be grasped along with the evidence in it of Frost's metrical genius and his total absorption of English and American verse form. These are an indispensable part of his functioning voice, his poise of seriousness and wit. The poem is written in anapestic tetrameter, a meter whose history is admirably outlined by Hollander in his essay "Romantic Verse Form and the Metrical Contract" (Vision and Resonance, pp. 187-211). From Palgrave, Frost would have known the serio-comic use of the meter in Cowper's "The Poplar-Field," and its alternate uses both in elegiac and in satirical or comic verse by Wordsworth, Tom Moore, Hunt, and Landor, one of the poets Frost greatly admired. These two modalities are captured and held brilliantly in suspense by the enjambed first line: "This saying good-by on the edge of the dark." It seems at this initial point like a crisis poem about death or departure. But the next line, while continuing to exploit the possibility ("And the cold . . .") gets us into the full jingle of the verse form and then to the revealed object: "good-by . . . to an orchard." Later, near the end, in lines 25-26, the same effect is gained in "I wish I could promise to lie in the night/ And think of an orchard's arboreal plight." The wonderful trickery of this, along with some similarities of phrasing, is evident also in the second stanza of the Cowper poem ("Twelve years have elaps'd since I first took a view / Of my favorite field and the bank where they grew"). Frost's choice of the form with its sing-song movement and rhymes, as in "house," "mouse," "browse," "grouse" of lines 5-8, is an especially vivid example of how he hedges his "seriousness" to serious effect. He hides his poetic allegorizing -- his commentaries on a literary history that goes back, as Hollander shows, to the drinking songs and bawdy of earlier times -- by so outrageously exploiting it as to seem almost disingenuously adroit.

Instead of ending with a cheerfully sentimental affirmation of God's mercy, the poem is a jocular and sly insider's view of God's justness, or at least the justness inherent in what Emerson calls, again, "the life of God." The poem is a joke on the whole idea of divine intercession beyond the provisions, some of them quite harsh, of already functioning arrangements. In fact, the speaker is so cognizant of the way nature works that he, and the poem, really "leave" nothing to God at all. It is the speaker who provides for the human needs in such a climate (wood and food) and who makes every provision (short of ridiculously summoning grouse, rabbit, and deer for a warning lecture) to insure an orchard cold and deserted enough for the sake of future growth.

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright © 1977 by Oxford University Press.