Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Robert Frost

The Celebrate the Author Challenge is designed to "celebrate" author birthdays. My author for March is Robert Frost who was born on 26 March 1874 in San Francisco. He moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts and apart from three years when he lived in England, he spent the rest of his life in New England.

I have a small collection of Frost’s poems. It’s illustrated by American, English and French painters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There is a short introduction, which states, “The simple language, the vernacular style and the near-whimsy of some of the earlier poems tend to mask the fact that Frost’s poetry is deeper and tougher than it seems.”


Before I read any of this collection I knew just a few of his poems, such as The Road Not Taken, which ends:


I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that made all the difference.

To me this poem is about the choices we have to make in life. You look as far ahead as you can, trying to see what lies ahead if you make a certain choice, but you can’t know how things will turn out. There’s no way of changing back to the other choice once you’ve decided – the choice you make changes things forever.

I also like Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

This is seemingly such a simple poem with its easy rhyming scheme. The repetition of the rhyme in the final verse is hypnotic:

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

There is a mystery as well - who is the traveller? His horse knows there is something different, if not odd about the wood. It’s a silent and somewhat spooky place on the “darkest night of the year”. There is a sense of loneliness and isolation of the traveller, where is he going and what has he promised?

Frost’s poems are not all about rural idylls; Out, Out is a powerful poem that tells of the brutal realities of life. The title refers to the brevity of life from Macbeth: “Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more." So there’s a hint right from the start that this is a tragic story. The scene is set – a noisy buzz saw against the backdrop of mountains in Vermont snarling and rattling, impersonal making dust as the wood is sawn. A young boy is cutting the wood, looking forward to his supper when he cuts his hand. It was as if the saw was alive as it

“Leaped out of his hand, or seemed to leap -
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!”

The poem reflects the callousness of the family towards life, but also the practicalities of getting on with life as the boy dies:

“No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little - less – nothing!- and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the dead, turned to their affairs.

The boy’s hysteria and sorrow comes over through the rhythm and structure of the poem, with lines varying between 10 and 11 syllables creating an uneasy tension. It seems the tragedy could have been avoided, as the boy’s work could have ended half an hour earlier, adding to the pathos and highlighting the fragility of life.

I still haven’t read all the poems in this little book. I find that I have to read just one or two at a time, and then come back to them. The beauty of poetry is the way that so much meaning is condensed into such few words.

2 comments:

bethany said...

uuuuuuuuuh! I got to memorize that poem (the road less traveled ) in 8th grade! It took FOR-EVER...and I don't know it now. I should refresh it, it would be fun!

Nan - said...

Frost is just such a part of my consciousness, like a family member I've always known. He writes about things in my own life, my own experience, what I see around me. You may have read in my blog that one of his houses is just a few miles away and is a poetry center now. There are a few poems on the blog too. If you type Robert Frost in the search box, they'll all come up. There's a great story I just read yesterday here:

http://kingdombks.blogspot.com/

Scroll down to March 16 entry. I've had a poem by Hayford on the blog too.

I love your reading spirit. You embark on such interesting subjects and writers.