Frost’s “The Courage to be New”

I've virtually finished Frost's Collected Poems and will shortly be starting In the Clearing, his last book of poems. So far, the poems I've liked the best have conveyed Frost's love of nature, and, generally, a positive attitude towards life.

It would be a mistake to assume that those few poems accurately convey Frost's attitude towards people and life. Like most "modern" poets, his poetry also contains a cynical element. Simply put, Frost didn't always hold people in high regard. Like Frost, I occasionally despair that the human condition will ever improve:

The Courage to be New

I hear the world reciting
The mistakes of ancient men,
The brutality and fighting
They will never have again.

Heartbroken and disabled
In body and in mind
They renew talk of the fabled
Federation of Mankind.

But they're blessed with the acumen
To suspect the human trait
Was not the basest human
That made them militate.

They will tell you more as soon as
You tell them what to do
With their ever breaking newness
And their courage to be new.

Somehow it seems strangely appropriate that when I Googled "Federation of Mankind" that I found an ongoing discussion of this poem with one of our troops stationed in Afghanistan. What could better epitomize the first stanza but a country dominated by warlords and ancient hatreds?

Do you think it's because he's "disabled/ In body and mind" that Bush began talking about turning Afghanistan and Iraq into "beacons of Democracy" in the Middle East? Although Frost apparently used the phrase "Federation of Mankind" to refer to the United Nations and convey's Frost's distrust of that organization, it's obvious that the poem is about something far more innate in human nature than a single institution.

Like Frost, I often find it difficult to believe man will ever find "new" ways of eliminating violence from our world for far too many people are afraid of new ideas and blindly follow old ideas, the ones that demand an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

“Oh, Stormy, Stormy World”

You’d almost think that Frost must have been raised in the Pacific Northwest judging from the descriptions in:

HAPPINESS MAKES UP IN HEIGHT
FOR WHAT IT LACKS IN LENGTH

Oh, stormy stormy world,
The days you were not swirled
Around with mist and cloud,
Or wrapped as in a shroud,
And the sun’s brilliant ball
Was not in part or all
Obscured from mortal view
Were days so very few
I can but wonder whence
I get the lasting sense
Of so much warmth and light.
If my mistrust is right
It may be altogether
From one day’s perfect weather,
When starting clear at dawn,
The day swept clearly on
To finish clear at eve.
I verily believe
My fair impression may
Be all from that one day
No shadow crossed but ours
As though its blazing flowers
We went from house to wood
For change of solitude.

Here in the Pacific Norhwest we seem to have settled into our usual fall-winter-spring, cloud-covered skies,and sunny days seem few and far between, which may well be what makes them so special. As I’ve noted before, you know it’s going to be a good day any day you can see Mt Rainier shining in the distance.

Here in the Pacific Northwest the sailboats, rollerbladers, and sun worshippers in general appear whenever the sun appears, spring, summer, fall or winter. People act like it’s always been summer and there’s no reason to forget it.

Luckily, most of us have been blessed with more than a single day of uninterrupted bliss, but it is those precious days that stay with us and make life as precious as it is.

I’ve started some serious walking again the last two days, and though I’m still winded when I climb the steepest hills and my calves ache at the end of the walk, I haven’t coughed once since I’ve begun and it’s hard to remember how much pain I was in the last few times I walked. It almost makes me wonder if I haven’t been suffering from a low-grade infection for quite awhile. Hopefully with snow falling in the mountains I’ll be up cross-country skiing shortly and once again forget what it feels like to live as a flatlander.

Frost’s “Unharvested”

Although there seems to be much of Frost's philosophy that I would have a hard time agreeing with, I'm certainly in tune with his attitude toward nature, particularly as seen in:

UNHARVESTED

A scent of ripeness from over a wall.
And come to leave the routine road
And look for what has made me stall,
There sure enough was an apple tree
That had eased itself of its summer load,
And of all but its trivial foliage free,
Now breathed as light as a lady's fan.
For there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.

Surprisingly enough, I don't think I've ever felt this way about a tree left unharvested until I read this poem. In the past, I've always seen fruit left on the tree as a waste, either that someone had so much that they didn't need the food and didn't want to share it with others or that someone was simply too lazy to harvest.

Still, I've always made it a point to leave part of my strawberry, raspberry, blackberry and blueberry crop for the birds, as part of my dues to an ecosystem that makes my life so fruitful. There's no denying that such fruit is an essential part of our ecosystem, particularly as more and more land is consumed for man's use and taken out of the natural system.

More importantly, though, I truly hope that "may much stay out of our stated plan." I've always valued the unknown, the unexpected, in life. (Well, except for that divorce and my throat cancer.) Still, I've always loved the saying that life is what happens while you're planning your life. Even as an INTP, I think that life would be pretty damn boring if "all went as planned."

It's hard to imagine greater proof of man's fallibility than the results of his attempts to "manage" nature, and the too often unexpected results of such management. Even when planners resort to "natural" solutions, too often they end up with a new problem, one that often dwarfs the original problem. Still, left alone, nature can usually heal even man's worst insults, given enough time.

Frost’s “Dust of Snow”

Despite containing the famous "Stoping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," Frost's New Hampshire contains poems that are quite different from those in earlier sections. In some ways these poems about Paul Bunyun's wife and famous New England witches remind me of Carl Sandburg's, though I prefer Sandburg's. Though "Wild Grapes" would certainly make an interesting comparison to "Birches," I found it difficult to maintain interest in far too many of the poems.

Perhaps that's the reason I was so delighted with:

DUST OF SNOW

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

The remarkable simplicity of this poem stood in startling contrast to the long narrative poems that preceded it, reminding me of the haiku I spent much of the summer studying.

Of course, it's greatest appeal is that this is precisely the same kind of feeling I sometimes feel when I go for a walk after a stressful day, and, of course, it doesn't hurt that crows and snow are also two of my favorites. Nor does the nearly perfect rhyme hurt.

Strangely enough, two pages later there's another beautiful poem:

NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

This one reminds me alot of the Japanese concept of mono no aware, the awareness of the impermanence of all beauty. Subtly Frost reveals how this natural truth also is true of mankind's efforts. Every "Golden Age" seems doomed to be followed by a "Dark Age."