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."

Frost’s “Bond and Free”

Although arguably not as good as more famous poems like "The Road Not Taken," "Birches," or "Out, Out" in Mountain Interval, "Bond and Free" still manages to intrigue me:

BOND AND FREE

Love has earth to which she clings
With hills and circling arms about--
Wall within wall to shut fear out.
But Thought has need of no such things,
For Thought has a pair of dauntless wings.

On snow and sand and turn, I see
Where Love has left a printed trace
With straining in the world's embrace.
And such is Love and glad to be
But Thought has shaken his ankles free.

Thought cleaves the interstellar gloom
And sits in Sirius' disc all night,
Till day makes him retrace his flight
With smell of burning on every plume,
Back past the sun to an earthly room.

His gains in heaven are what they are.
Yet some say Love by being thrall
And simply staying possesses all
In several beauty that Thought fares far
To find fused in another star.

By setting "Love" and "Thought" as opposites, Frost forces us to see both of them, but particularly love, in new ways. He sets up the poem by contrasting what is generally seen as a negative aspect of Love, the fear and clinging, with the positive side of Thought, the fearless exploration of new possibilities. While most readers would not want to think of love as "clinging" because of its negative connotations, in a very real sense all love does hold to one thing, to the object loved, whether person or a place. Thought is not bound to one object; it wanders freely constantly examining new possibilities.

Love must reveal itself in concrete ways, in earthly way. Thought need not be tied to the world. Abstract thought is ethereal, reaching out to places no man has never gone before. Unbound by earthly restraints, it can envision endless joy and passion, though in a avery real sense they are imaginary, not real.

For me, the most interesting line in the poem is "Love by being thrall/ And simply staying possesses all," with it's implication that Love is a more powerful moral force than the individual himself. Love binds us to itself, and in doing so brings us a "beauty" that Thought can only observe in others. The ties that bind need not be merely restraints but, rather, links to a new- found source of energy.

Let’s Kick Down Some Walls

The first poem you encounter when reading "North of Boston" is the much-anthologized "Mending Wall," and as I read it I thought to myself, "I hope I find a poem that I like better than this to write about."

It's not that I don't like the poem. I liked it when I first read it over thirty years ago, and I still like it today. However, I really don't want to discuss something everyone has already read. Although I liked the next poem, "The Death of the Hired Man," another popular poem and I considered discussing it instead, I realized I didn't like it nearly as well. To make a long story not so short, after reading 80 more pages of poetry I couldn't find another poem that I liked nearly as well as "Mending Wall."

I'm convinced that Frost knew it was the best poem in this section and purposely put it at the beginning, just as he begins the next section with the even more famous "The Road Not Taken." Like a good recording artist, Frost knew his "hit singles" and used them to his advantage.

Hopefully, you, like me, haven't read the poem in awhile and re-reading it brings new insights or at least reacquaints you with values that are important to you:

MENDING WALL

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulder in the sun,
And make gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there,
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

I must admit that time and my image of Frost as a curmudgeonly New Englander had distorted my memory of the poem, leaving me with little more than that famous line "Good fences make good neighbors." Somehow I managed to forget that Frost is, afterall, a "modern" poet with a modern view of life. In other words, like most modern poets his poems tend to be multi-dimensional and ambiguous.

Although it's clear that the neighbor he's working with to rebuild the fence feels that a strong fence is the best way to stay friendly, it's not at all clear that the narrator feels the same. When the narrator suggests there's no need to repair the fence between the apple orchard and pine trees, the neighbor's only reply is, "Good fences make good neighbors." Mischievously, the narrator asks the "big" question, why? Asking whether a fence isn't apt to "give offense" to a neighbor rather than convert them into a good neighbor. No matter how hard he's pushed the neighbor will not go beyond "his father's saying." Our final image of the neighbor is captured in the stark image, "In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed. He moves in darkness"" His blind obedience to the past makes him little more than an unthinking savage.

The more interesting character in the poem, though, is the narrator himself. On the surface, he seems more enlightened than his simple-minded neighbor, but strangely enough he continues year after year to rebuild the very wall that he feels is unnecessary. It is, after all, the narrator who, "let my neighbor know beyond the hill" when it was time to mend walls again. At the very least, then, he is complicit in maintaining the old beliefs. Though he claims to see rebuilding the wall as just "another kind of outdoor game, / One on a side" he "plays the game," does what's expected, and, in doing so, probably remains a member in "good standing" in his community.

The real question, of course, is whether it makes him any less of "an old-stone savage" than his neighbor. Or is he worse than his neighbor because he knows better and still goes along with it, adding hypocrisy to his savagery? How many of us personally question old, conservative ideas yet go along with them because it's easier that way, and, besides, we don't want to offend friends or family?

Robert Frost’s “Reluctance”

I've started re-reading, or perhaps reading for the first time, The Complete Poems of Robert Frost, 1949, and will admit that I am finding it harder to read his poems than I expected. Although I'm sure I had to read many of Frost's poems in classes I took, I'm not sure I ever really sat down and read his poems in a systematic way. (Since there's very few marks in the volume I'm reading, I doubt I've ever read the book from front to back in any systemetic way.) So, I'm coming to the poems with some preconceptions based on specific poems that I remember but without a real understanding of Frost's underlying philosophy.

Nor is it easy to suddenly put yourself in the same frame of mind that Frost must have had when he wrote these poems. After all, the earliest of these poems was written nearly a hundred years ago, and that generation saw the world rather differently than we did, even if they are commonly referred to as "modern poets."

And, there's no denying that "formal" lyrics impose some unique demands of their own, no matter how polished or modern they may be. Which, of course, is not to say that what has been gained may not outweigh what has been lost by employing such techniques.

Truthfully, I found very few poems in the first section, A Boy's Will, that impressed me. Still, when I reached "Reluctance" on the last page of this section, it reminded me why "great" poets are considered "great," and why they remain relevant to our lives.:

RELUCTANCE

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch-hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question 'Whither?'

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

At my age this poem rings true in so many ways it's impossible " and far too boring " to list them all. But as a I walk through the old-growth forest in Pt Defiance every day I'm more and more aware that another summer has passed us by, and winter can't be far behind.

Is it really possible that I went another summer without a single long backpack in the mountains? Is it possible that I never did get out on the Sound in my kayak the whole summer? Is it really true that I will have to wait another five months to see flowers in bloom again?

I know, I know, it's not like I sat around doing nothing all summer, feeling sorry for myself. Still, Frost is right that I'm reluctant to let this summer pass by, trying to squeeze one more activity in before the fall rains begin.

Who can go through life without regrets? Who would even want to go through life without regrets? To do so would be to deny the very dreams and aspirations that give life so much of its depth and meaning.