Frost’s way of speaking
A first observation in the matter of irony in Robert Frost’s poetry must concern tone, since this turns out to be largely a tonal matter. Tone isn’t always absolutely in the control of the writer, of course-a reader’s quirks of sentiment, stereotype, aesthetic and thematic preference, and even temperament and mood may color perceptions of tone. Accordingly, Frost’s lyric and narrative endeavors depend in part on his reading of his readers’ attitudes toward the rural. For urbanites the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century northeast landscape and the people who lived there-with their plain-song speech-may seem to hold some significance that sets it apart from the tenor of life closer to their own experience. All Frost’s references to snow, for instance -some literal and others as manifestly figurative-must lose some of their effect and even a part of their meaning when for the reader weather is altered, by heating and cooling systems, into abstraction. Something will be missing unless the imagination supplies it.
To put the matter simply, Robert Frost’s poetry is intimately involved with the colloquial. Frost spoke with much acuity about his interest in what he called “sentence tones.” In a letter to Walter Pritchard Eaton written in September 1913, he explains the particular nature of this preoccupation: “I am only interesting to myself for having ventured to try to make poetry out of tones that if you can judge from the practice of other poets are not usually regarded as poetical. You can get enough of those sentence tones that suggest grandeur and sweetness everywhere in poetry. What bothers people in my blank verse is that I have tried to see what I could do with boasting tones and quizzical tones and shrugging tones (for there are such) and forty eleven other tones. All I care a cent for is to catch sentence tones that haven’t been brought to book.” Frost doesn’t claim to invent these tones; he talks about catching them: “No one makes them or adds to them. They are always there-living in the cave of the mouth. They are real cave things: they were before words were…. The most creative imagination is only their summoner. But summoning them is not all. They are only lovely when thrown and drawn and displayed across spaces of the footed line.”
This colloquial tone of Frost’s, however, was something that he came to only after his first lyrics. Several of his tendencies in the first book, A Boy’s Will, had to disappear before the idiomatic could be heard: for instance his uses of archaic diction-“the maiden fair,” “alway,” “sit me down,” “fair,” “list,” “fen,” “I wist,” “fields of asphodel.”
Except for a couple of instances in North of Boston, though, his early poems in overly poetic style, including, too, the tones of melancholic regret and conventionality of mood-what he called “tones that suggest grandeur and sweetness” in his letter to Eaton-were written during the same period when he was inventing his modern voice. A different sort of language commenced with the poems in North of Boston, but it is worth remarking that most of them were written during the years that he was writing more conventional (and derivative) lyrics. There are lines in A Boy’s Will that predict, to some extent, Frost’s willingness to let go of the genteel tradition in American literature, lines and tones mixed in with those others that bear some strong relation to those employed by his mother, Isabelle Moodie, in, for instance, these lines of hers from “The Artist’s Motive,” published in the San Francisco Daily Evening Post, March 188+, p. 6, col. 1:
She had Not looked upon the grass and flowers For many a day. Her eyes, too weak To gaze on nature dipped in dyes Of heaven’s own light, looked fondly on This soft and fair landscape of mine. One day she fell asleep and dreamed Of wandering by that stream with those she loved, Then woke and said: “I shall see the tree of life that grows Close by the stream of God.” And so She passed, consoled by my poor works, To landscapes of the world beyond. Thus labor took unto itself diviner form Poured into molds of use for dear humanity.
‘Twas there a new sense thrilled my soul: For Truth with gentle hand had led Me over rough, uncertain roads Into a place serene with holy light Where dwelt her fairer sister, Love. And now the picture glows before me. Heart, mind and hand, so closely Wedded are they, act in perfect unison.
The notion expressed in Thompson’s biography that Isabelle Moodie may have helped Frost compose “God’s Garden” is given credibility in a comparison of the style of Robert’s poem with that of his mother’s. Frost’s poem, written circa r 890 or earlier according to Lawrance Thompson, describes God’s “beauteous garden” and the “gold flowers” along a pathway that hide “thorns of av’rice” and tempt “mankind” to wander away from the route “that leads on to heaven.” The poem ends with advice not “to heed the glamour/That binds your foolish eyes,” but to “keep the narrow way” to heaven, “your home.” The movement from happiness, to falseness, then to the possibility of spiritual transcendence, exists in both poems. They’re similar, too, in their archaic diction, personifications of abstraction, and iambic meter, though Isabelle Moodie’s lineation here with its changing number of iambs is more like Frost’s in “After Apple Picking” than in “God’s Garden.” Even some of the metaphoric equivalents are similar: her lines describing materiality (“To me what most I needgold gold”), the uses of bud and blossom of “e’en the flowers, those fairest types of innocent humility,” are similarly used in her son’s poem six years later. No one knows for certain whether his mother helped him with “God’s Garden,” and, indeed, Frost disliked the poem. While admitting that he’d written it, he said, “I don’t write this way.”‘ It may be more likely that Frost, having seen the poems his mother wrote and having taken his lead from her in reading and writing, began his aesthetic development from the point where his mother’s taste stood-in late-Romantic style.
One wonders at what point he gave up nearly all trace of this earlier style. According to Frost, he composed “My Butterfly” one afternoon in 1894 at his mother’s dining room table and at that point felt the effect of a couple of lines as being very much his own, for he must have been very much attuned to the echoes of other poets’ voices, poets from the nineteenth century he so enjoyed reading in Pal,rave’s Golden Treasury. “The gray grass is scarce dappled with the snow/ Its two banks have not shut upon the river” are certainly plainer, more Frostian, than the first three lines-“Thine emulous fond flowers are dead, too,/ And the daft sun-assaulter, he/ That frighted thee so oft, is fled or dead.” But it is evident that the composition of the plain-styled, more idiomatic poems occurs in and around his writing of the more conventional poems. There seems to be no clear date marking this change, only perhaps a growing tendency toward that recognizably modern voice and tone. Frost called “Mowing,” a poem he wrote in 1900, his first “talk-song”-“perfectly clear, straight goods-mine.” (Cramer 22). “The Vantage Point,” with archaicisms like “Well I know where to hic me,” “and, lo,” and “I smell the bruised plant,” was written that same year. Perhaps most noteworthy is “Now Close the Windows,” written while Frost was at Dartmouth in the fall of 1892 (Cramer 25)-making it the earliest poem Frost later published in a book (preceding “My Butterfly” by two years). Frost at eighteen was able to compose in a manner and tone as original as the Frost of the later poetry: “Now close the window and hush all the fields:/ If the trees must, let them silently toss;/ No bird is singing now, and if there is,/ Be it my loss.” The next two lines repeat the borrowed word ere, then the poem returns to the simplicity of accent and tone that readers associate with the true Frost: “So close the windows and not hear the wind,/ But see all windstirred.” “If the trees must, let them silently toss” is not only effective but typical of Frost as we remember him-the colloquial Frost, speaking in an open, intimate tone.
What exactly is tone? In real life tone is simply tone of voice-inflections given to words by speakers in normal discourse. A sentence may be uttered in several tonesvarying the pitch of the voice, stressing one over another part of the utterance, with pauses or a lengthening of a sound’s duration. It is possible to say a simple sentence, such as “I never said I’d marry you,” with any one (or more, in mixture!) of a number of intonational contours (one of which is “But I will”). A voice can express scorn, incredulity, delicacy, apology, playfulness, love, love and scorn both, etc. But the written sentence is obliged to rely on an assigning of tone, as in “He shouted,” or on contextual clues-situation, an adding together of character traits in gesture and deed, perhaps some degree of knowledge of human behavior and of the author’s attitudes toward his subject or character-or on patterns of sound (for instance, repeating short sentences as a tonal equivalent of abruptness or simplicity, or in imitation of sounds associated with a particular mood, what Frost referred to as “a matter of harmonized vowels and consonants” in his July 4 letter to John Bartlett in 1913). There might be long e’s and n’s for keening, perhaps; short a’s and long o’s to connote pleasure or sighing. As this brief survey of the possibilities suggests, there aren’t enough punctuation points or other typographic signals to display the whole rich range of human voicing. Tone has to be inferred and reasoned out by an attentive reader. It is by virtue of the fact that written speech but poorly captures inflection that the opportunity exists for richness of ambiguity or irony. An equal opportunity exists, however, for apprehensions and misjudgments on the part of both anther and reader.
Frost spoke at some length about tone, believing as he did that the “One who concerns himself with it [what he called the sound of sense] more than the subject is an artist.” (letter to John Bartlett, Fourth of July, 1913). The best way to hear “the abstract sound of sense,” Frost told Bartlett, “is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words.” The sounds that the voices produce replicate the mood or tone of expression even without an understanding of the particular words-meaning, then, is carried by tone even before we form an idea of what is specifically denoted. “It is the abstract vitality of our speech,” Frost continued, noting that “an ear and an appetite for these sounds of sense is the first qualification of a writer, be it of prose or verse.” In his essay “The Imagining Ear,” Frost went on to speak of “bringing in the living sounds of speech…. And the great problem is, can you get these tones down on paper? How do you tell the tone? By the context, by the animating spirit of the living voice.”
Well, it’s not as easy as it sounds, I think. Frost goes on in the talk to describe the “five tones in this first stanza” of “The Pasture”: “(light, informing tone)” in the first line, “(‘only’ tone-reservation)” in the second line, “(supplementary, possibility)” in the third, then “(Free tone, assuring)” and “(after thought, inviting)” in the last line, and then to demonstrate in “Mending Wall” the “challenging and threatening” tone, at “We have to use a spell to make them balance: `Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”‘ Essentially, the poet seems to be asking readers for a level of audile imagination that I won’t say most are incapable of, but that some may find too complex or subtle or esoteric to make fully functional.
I wonder, for instance, if the manners or situations or speech of the country people that Frost often gives voice to may lead readers to mistake the truths expressed as simplified. There’s the famous anecdote about Frost’s upset after seeing a 19 15 dramatic production of “The Death of the Hired Man” in which Mary and Warren are portrayed by the actors as clumsy in gesture and crude in speech. If rustics weren’t folksy and simple, what were they? Only a subtle reader could know, and an unsubtle reader would likely rely on cultural bias and casual stereotype.
At the start of the poem Mary greets Warren as he returns from running errands to tell him that the hired man has returned: “Silas is back,” she says; and immediately afterwards, she says, “Be kind.” What follows is a dialogue between Warren, whose concerns tend toward the pragmatic, and Mary, who is all compassion. If the reader only sees a change in Warren coming at the end of the poem, by dint of Mary’s doggedness to be kind, Warren comes across as hard and unfeeling-traits we might be inclined to associate with a lack of intelligence. But Frost’s tonal fingering and the changes he suggests are much more subtle than that. Simple examples occur when the colloquial summary by the narrator tells us that Mary’s intention is “to put him [Warren] on his guard,” and when Mary tries to get Warren to lower his voice. But in effect nearly all of the poem is about carefully calibrated shifts in nuance, as when Warren explains in the tones of someone who has made up his mind-“In winter he comes back to us. I’m done”-the conflict he and Silas have had in the past about Silas’s loyalty. During the explanation to Mary, Warren tells of his verbal exchange with Silas. We are asked to hear both men’s tones in Warren’s words: “`All right,’ I say, ‘I can’t afford to pay/any fixed wages, though I wish I could,’ `Someone else can,’ `Then someone else will have to.”
The complex rapport between the married couple is everywhere evident. Warren’s initial sternness is a plausible reaction to the surprise of Silas’s return. Warren has to have his say, but gradually he is able to hear Mary. In line 39 he says, “Where did you say he’d been?” This response has occurred just after Warren’s smiling at Mary with what one guesses is a mixture of fondness for and wryness about her compassion. When she says, “I found him here,/Huddled against the barn-door fast asleep,/A miserable sight, and frightening, too-,” he smiles, as her next words and the next line of the poem make clear: “You needn’t smile.” Later in the poem, we hear a summary from Mary of what Silas has said to her, replete with Mary’s addressing Warren both to remind him of Silas’s words (and tones) and to involve him in her experience of talking with Silas: “That sounds like something you have heard before?/Warren I wish you could have heard the way/He jumbled everything.”
Each of Warren’s responses after line 39 indicates a sensitivity to and consideration of Mary’s moral argument and her compassion-“some tenderness/That wrought on him beside her in the night,” as they sit side by side on the wooden steps to their house. When he mocks her for saying Silas has come home, it’s “gently.” When the husband and wife consider how and whether to get Silas’s brother who directs a bank to help, Warren shows some of his own concern in saying, “I wonder what’s between them.” “I can’t think Si ever hurt anyone” expresses open feeling in the shift from Christian name to nickname and in the emphasis on the “I” indicated by Frost with italics. In his next statement eight lines later, Warren is equally compassionate. He says he’d “not be in a hurry to say that” Silas’s working days are done.
Mary asks Warren to go to Silas, to see for himself how he is, and to listen-“He has a plan. You mustn’t laugh at him./He may not speak of it, and then he may.” But Silas is dead, and Warren comes back quickly, slipping to her side to catch up her hand. He waits for her to speak: “`Warren?’ she questioned. `Dead,’ was all he answered.” Out of context, Warren’s word may seem hard, but all that has taken place between the man and wife makes the meaning of he word elusive. How would the word be spoken? With regret, a sense of irony, shame, some mixture?-whatever it is, the implication isn’t simple.
Frost is misread in his poems when a reader is less attuned to the contours of the poem than he is to his own sense of the world. Either the rural is lovely, nature poetry is lovely, we will hear something lovely about it or ourselves, something to stick to our moral or philosophical ribs; or rural life is backward, the dominant cultural voice is urban, and so what does the irretrievable past, or Frost’s presumed pastoralism, have to say to us of any relevancy? For the sake of argument let’s say that his poetry is an attempt at refiguring what some might deem a pass landscape and habitation into a land where what the sound of what is spoken-be it about raking the spring, picking blackberries, mortality, insanity, education, or religious skepticism-is caught in a way that credits the natural (and nature itself) without succumbing to its seeming limitations. While some readers today may feel uncomfortable with nature poetry, “a private, mutable construct of words, feathers, and bones,” Dorothy Barresi calls it in “Poetry and Lies”2, Frost’s nature was not a single beautiful or cruel entity about which he knew more than the rest of us and could with his supple artistry render for us with its instructive lessons. As Frost once tellingly observed, “Only two of my poems haven’t any people in them”; and these people are people who speak, many of them rural figures who meet the poet on equal ground.
The famous example where Frost seems to stand above the other figure in the poem is “Mending Wall,” with its “stone savage armed,” who doesn’t know well enough to go “behind his father’s saying” that “Good fences make good neighbors.” The first-person speaker in the poem wishes his wall-mending partner would speak for himself and think for himself, and finally the poem adds up as one of many, many Frost poems that are less a working through toward some absolute truth than a presentation of the intricate processes of thought, feeling, perception, will, and judgment. Any comprehensive truth Frost knew to be elusive. Stanley Burnshaw notes in Robert Frost Himself the poet’s repeated uses of the word something to mean something partly known and partly unknown. The Concordance to the Poetry of Robert Frost, published in 1975 (and put together by Edward Connery Lathem), lists 135 uses of the word, whereas the word truth appears only twenty-one times in the poems and plays; true appears twenty-seven times, usually with some qualification or sense of contingency, as in “For Once, Then, Something”: “What was that whiteness?/ Truth? A pebble or quartz? For once, then, something?” In a letter to Sydney Cox in 1926, Frost said, “Having ideas that are neither pro or con is the happy thing. Get up there high enough and the differences that make controversy become only the two legs of a body, the weight of which is on one in one period, on the other in the next. Democracy monarchy; puritanism paganism; form content; conservatism radicalism; systole diastole; rustic urbane; literary colloquial; work play …. I’ve wanted to find ways to transcend the strife method. I have found some …. It is not so much anti-conflict as it is something beyond conflict.” “AN man’s art,” he remarked another time, “is a bursting unity of opposites.” And the reason for the contrarities, Frost intimated, is that the line between two sides, even of opposites, is imperfectly seen “for the reason that we are the line ourselves.113
In “The Onset” the something is figured as white: snow, “the white of a birch,” and in the last line, the white New England church and steeple. The whiteness of snow symbolizes both evil (freezing death, and the sound it makes, reminiscent of the hissing of a snake) and the ideal of purity and goodness (whiteness of the birch, the church). The poem’s second and third lines show the snow as vaguely heartening, though it is primarily a signifier of the arrival of the end, “with nothing done.” It is “gathered snow” that “lets down as white,” in contrast to the “dark woods.” It hisses, but it also sings. Frost both plays with and works against our stereotypes by employing them (our sense of winter as the end and of whiteness as pertaining to purity) in a melody of ambiguity. Frost’s intention seems less to get us to live for the spring despite death’s omens than it is to portray the combined sense of comfort and threat that our days (and seasons) give us. This is an easy poem to misread-as is “Mending Wall,” of course. For most readers, the initial sense of this latter poem is that good fences really do make good neighbors. You can consult your almanac on it; and in political feuds (as in the Cold War) and for some advertising purposes, the phrase is used as a flat-out assertation, with none of the subtlety and ambivalence that the poet intended to suggest. Isn’t it an irony that to get to the misreading that places Frost in self-appointed superiority to the other figure in the poem, a reader must get past an earlier identification? Both misreadings are based on a sense that we may assign meanings to the poem irrespective of the poet’s careful wordings.
Must cultural bias inevitably be the root of the reader’s response? What of Keats’s “heard melodies”-with the emphasis on heard? I have heard critics express disapproval of a poem for its subject, for a situation in the poem (as in the killing of a small pig in Stephen Dobyns’s highly moral poem “White Pig,” which concerns an unwillingness to confront and take responsibility for one’s actions), or for the poem’s purported political incorrectness, or its lack of postmodern grit. Frost had his political detractors all through his career, though particularly in the 1930s. Consider Granville Hicks’s review in the New Republic, which bemoaned the lack of any reference to Freud in Frost’s poems, or of any poem making reference to industrialism, or to the deplorable effect of scientific hypotheses on modern thought. Frost, Hicks declares, “cannot contribute directly to the unification, in imaginative terms, of our culture.” Speaking for myself, I didn’t know that was the poet’s occupation, vocation, or avocation. Unification sounds too much like a program to me. I’d rather our culture made room for a multiplicity of contradicting voices, considering the poet as a bard “containing multitudes,” as Whitman would have had it. I’d rather have audiences read the words the poet has chosen to arrange on the page, which means in part listening to the address and the tonal qualities of the lines.
In the main, Frost’s sense of rural people is not stereotypical, nor does he patronize the people in his poems. In “The Mountain,” the loveliest passages are spoken by an oxen-driver, whom the speaker stops to ask about the environs. Neither has been to the top of the mountain, but the driver of the “white-faced” oxen imagines with great fullness and articulates with great detail the effects near the top of “Hor” of mist freezing near a brook and sun shining on it: “It’s always cold in summer, warm in winter./One of the great sights going is to see/it steam in winter like an ox’s breath,/Until the rushes all along its banks/Are inch-deep with the frosty spines and bristles-/You know the kind. Then let the sun shine on it!” “The Ax-Helve” introduces readers to a French-Canadian neighbor of the speaker who is dismayed that the speaker is using a shoddily made ax handle. Later, when the speaker takes Baptiste up on his offer to hand-make him one and goes to his house, Baptiste describes the way to fashion the curve of the handle in terms Frost later said were “as near as I like to get to come to talking about art, in a work of art-such as it is”:
He liked to have it slender as a whipstock, Free from the least knot, equal to the strain Of bending like a sword across the knee. He showed me that the lines of a good helve Were native to the grain before the knife Expressed them, and its curves were no false curves Put on from without. And there its strength lay For the hard work. He chafed its long white body From end to end with his rough hand shut round it. He tried it at the eye-hole in the ax-head. “Hahn, hahn,” he mused, “don’t need much taking down.”
While Baptiste is whittling the ax handle, he talks about his conception of knowledge and defends his decision to keep his children out of school so they can learn from experience instead of books and “laid-on education,” and the speaker we associate with Frost becomes suspicious of the woodsman’s motives, wondering if he’d been brought “unscrupulously” to see the inside of the house and to be made a friend of to support Baptiste’s decision. What happens next is typical of the Frost some call elusive. Baptiste stands the finished ax up so that to the speaker it looks the way “The snake stood up for evil in the Garden.” Several factors must converge to help readers understand what Frost means by this. One important note could be sounded by our knowledge that Frost home-schooled his children for several years and was himself taught at home by his mother during the times he was ill–once a whole year. Another note comes from the preceding lines about fashioning the ax handle-“as near as” Frost noted, “I like to come to talking about art, in a work of art.” Was Frost saying that the hand-made (not “Made on machine”) ax handle was actually a source of evil, that Baptiste was a maker of evil, and that art was somehow evil, or was he subverting the old myth in the name of some deeper knowledge? Instead of succumbing to the redoubtable God’s wrath when we disobey, might we instead reconsider the importance of knowing, or at least probing for, the truth? A third implication asserts itself, about which I have meant to speak all along-Frost’s willingness to tell not only the good parts but also the nasty bits about himself. Who can honestly like the man who looks a gift horse in the mouth? Baptiste makes him a beautiful handle, pointing out to him “at length” the beauty in the natural curves and grain of the hickory, yet the speaker distrusts him, thinking him possibly unscrupulous. At the start of the poem something similar occurs. When the speaker realizes that his upswing of ax has not been interfered with by a branch of a tree but by Baptiste, who catches it expertly then holds it “for a moment where it was, to calm me,” he is in some doubt about Baptiste’s motives. He puts this gently enough, in a formal tone, as if to make the whole of the potentially violent encounter more polite:
Then took it from me,-and I let him take it. I didn’t know him well enough to know What it was all about. There might be something he had in mind to say to a bad neighbor He might prefer to say to him disarmed.
His distrust of Baptiste’s motives continues some thirty lines later with a silent response to Baptiste’s offer to make him a new ax-helve-“Something to sell?” The end of the same line, though, shows the significance here of the precise tone of voice: “That wasn’t how it sounded.” If the poem is simply a rhapsody about the value of individualism, why is there such a strong undercurrent of suspicion and why does the speaker essentially make fun of Mrs. Baptiste as she rocks in a chair “That had as many motions as the world”? The speaker is off balance and out of his element from the start, and the foreignness of Baptiste and his wife-in word (“`She ain’t spick too much Henglish-dat’s too bad,”‘ remarks Baptiste) and also in deed-has him bristling with suspicion. Baptiste is aware of this and takes out his ax-helves “needlessly soon” to keep the speaker “from suspecting him/Of never having meant to keep” the bargain. The kindness of strangers, Baptiste’s evident phyisical strength, too, and his odd, accented speech make the speaker somewhat fearful (“I was afraid,” he acknowledges), as we often are when we are met with foreignness. The unknown, unfolding into the known-materializing suddenly as a snake in a garden might-can feel fraught with danger, or the threat of evil.
In a sense, the metaphor of the snake is meant as a kind of ironic exaggeration, as the context shows, since the poem is busy translating into its special sensory language a great deal that is given to us in ordinary daily intercourse between people only by implication, through gesture, expression, and tones of voice. The speaker’s doubtful attitudes toward what is new and strange are responsible for his regarding the ax-helve as if it were a snake. In this way, the poem turns on itself, obliging us to recognize that ways of speaking are ways of knowing: “Do you know, what we talked about was knowledge?” Among the ironies that this line amplifies is the persistent stereotype about people who work with their hands. Baptiste is whittling hickory. How should someone like him be expected to speak of any abstraction? With his tone of surprise, Frost’s speaker, his “I,” reveals the familiar inclination toward ingrained and unexamined attitudes about a laborer’s capacity for reflection.
The suggestion of irony directed intentionally toward himself occurs in several of Frost’s better-known poems. At the end of “After Apple-Picking,” for instance, the “I” pokes a complicated sort of fun at himself, who would make much out of “This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is” with the all-important phrase, “as I describe its coming on”-meaning the “sleep of mine” (mind)4 and the woodchuck’s. The woodchuck “could say” what the sleep is, the poet assures us, but in reality the woodchuck can “say” nothing, nor could he be aware of human obligations, rest, imagination, and uncertainty about death. Only the narrator can be. It is he who imagines the woodchuck and it is through imagination, too, that both he and we conceive of death. The irony expressed here is focused on our possible uses of imagination to torment ourselves about a mortality whose implications we’ve fabricated. Readers have the woodchuck, who cannot possess human vision, who simply hibernates (no imagining, dreaming, concerns with death, Christian fate, redemption, resurrection), telling the narrator only what the narrator imagines and ascribes to the woodchuck, who isn’t present (“were he not gone”). The tone, which people so often read as solemn, is unstoppably ironic. The joke is on the narrator, at first, and then upon those who would be tempted to read too much into the poem about Great Death. The only death here is our vision of it, an imagined version.
“For Once, Then, Something” also addresses itself ironically, while being serious about the search for truth. It is the suppleness with which Frost combines the two tones that makes the poem extraordinary. At its heart, the poem is concerned with the difficult search for truth in life and art. The first-person speaker seeks truth by looking into the deep water of the well, which only gives him back his reflection. In part this is because he doesn’t see past the surface (and his reflection) as a result of his not being in the right position (“Always wrong to the light,” a phrase which imparts a humorous tone); and in part his vision is limited because his reflection pleases him. The description of himself is ironic in its exaggerations: “Me myself in the summer heaven godlike/Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.” The “Me/myself” is self-regarding, as is the exaggerated vision of himself like a god wreathed by “ferns and cloud puffs.” Puffery is part of the fun. On one notable occasion-” Once,” placed in italics for emphasis, as if its occurring twice would be far beyond the speaker’s powers to see-he manages to look beyond and through his self-image to something meaningful in the depths, but he immediately loses it when only “one drop” of water rebukes the water and a ripple blurs and blots out the elusive truth he seeks. The repetition of the title in the last line affirms that he did see something, even though it’s only been the vaguest glimpse.
Frost’s self-directed irony succeeds because the voice of his imagination is true to something we are able to recognize in ourselves if we are being honest-that there is a little bit of Narcissus in all of us. He is willing to make fun of this in himself. Notice, in those “Me myself” lines, the striking sentence sounds, the self-satire and the sly fun at the expense of any of his detractors who regarded him as self-absorbed. An “eye reader” (Frost’s term), or a simple head or heart reader-someone unattuned to tone-can miss a good deal in a poem. And a reader unaware of or unwilling to listen to the way that Frost lays the sentences down across the lines of verse will miss much of the pleasure in his form of expression. Frost wrote the poem, he said, after challenging his daughter Leslie Frost to write a poem in eleven syllables. Frost’s poem places the eleventh syllable in exactly the same position in every fine, making the second foot of the iambic poem dactylic. The sort of colloquialism that results is different, say, from what we find in W. C. Williams, but is it any more bookish sounding than his? I think not. I raise the issue of Frost’s use of traditional meters here in part because of another problem of stereotyping that tends to afflict a modern audience: the unquestioned assumption that the only originality and freshness in verse come from the lips of the free verse poet. In a similar way, readers’ appreciation for traditional meters and rhyming may predispose them positively only toward poetry that is metered. Its beauty or nuance or vision, or their absence, would not figure vividly in their experience.
The reason that “The Road Not Taken” is so often misunderstood returns us to tonal matters. The popular misconception that the “I” has taken the less popular way to success or fulfillment is only supportable if substantial portions of the poem are glossed over, for instance “Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same,// And both that morning equally lay.” The poem’s last two lines, detached from the syntactic and argument of the whole of the sentence in which they figure, create an aphorism for the kind of rugged individualism Americans admire themselves for: “I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.” What of the sense, and sound, of the preceding three lines? Well, that reference to a sigh is a bit vague, isn’t it? “I shall be telling this with a sigh,” says the speaker. What we know as background to the poem doesn’t seem particularly helpful in this instance. We’ve learned that Frost once told Edward Thomas, his English poet friend, that “No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh and wish you’d taken another.” But we also know the passage in Longfellow, whom Frost read and admired, from Drift-Wood (“Table-Talk”)- “Round about what is, lies a whole mysterious world of might be [ …] by turning down this street instead of the other, we may slip some great occasion of good, or avoid some impending evil, by which the whole current of our lives would have been changed.” In Virgil’s Aeneid (book VI, 11. 540-543), the Sibyl tells Aeneas: “Here is the place where the road forks: on the right hand it goes past mighty Dis’s walls, Elysium way,/Our way; but the leftward road will punish/Malefactors.”
What are we to make of that sigh? We sigh for all sorts of reasons: in pleasure, selfsatisfaction, fatigue-disingenuously, wistfully, ironically, regretfully, etc. The clause alone doesn’t tell readers how to hear the sigh, but the next line does. “Somewhere ages and ages hence” carries both a boastful tone and, in its exaggeration (“ages and ages hence”), a self-satiric intention. The speaker of the poem combines with poet to comment on the propensity of people to make a myth of themselves. The “I” is sighing with a mixture of emotion. I hear the tone of the phrasing as sonorous, as the “I” allows how his choice, which he has purposely or inadvertently forgotten was actually no more than a whim, has indeed “made all the difference.” The poet mocks his own, and Edward Thomas’s, and our own inclination to romanticize the past. Yes, casual choices affect our destinies, but the emphasis in the poem is on whim or chance, rather than upon character and determination. And back of the poem lies Frost’s notion that the dialectic-good versus evil, seriousness versus playfulness-is only one narrow way of creating order out of chaos.
As any careful reader knows, Frost’s ambiguities in tone are sometimes very difficult to resolve. It seems possible, for instance, to read the last line of “Design” in two opposing ways. “If design govern in a thing so small” has always sounded to me like yet more doubt cast on the notion that any power at all (whether benign deity or some dark force) could succeed in bringing together “Assorted characters of death and blight” to frighten or entertain the “L” The qualification in the “if” seems especially tuned to seem momentary. One asks oneself briefly if maybe the diabolical doesn’t function in such small matters. But that dismissal, as Randall Jarrell observes in “To the Laodiceans,” “is only for a possibility still more terrifying, a wholly random, statistical, astronomical abyss underlying the diabolical machinery of the poem.” The ambiguity in the line actually seems to run even deeper than this statement implies, especially in the context of Frost’s own remarks about the poem. In the end, one sees that the line really could be saying that a grand design does not trouble itself to “govern” in such petty matters, and that it seems silly to attribute to deity malevolence whenever a spider eats a moth. Could Frost be mocking himself here for making a religious argument out of something merely coincidental, acting like a follower of witches, believing in their attributions of malificent power?
I fear that my initial reading may have been colored by my own temperament, and even by my agnosticism. I’d prefer that the poem question traditional religion, or even some more secular notion of overall design, by asking what evil made the blue flower white and what malign force brought the spider into its deadly conjunction with the moth. It happens to satisfy me to think that the poem may be a refutation of the comforting beliefs expressed in conventional religion. The idea in Genesis 1: 3 1 of a perfectly created world, where “God saw everything that he had made, and, behold it was very good,” does, I’ve told myself, support the idea that the little imperfections that exist therein are His own doing. William James says in Pragmatism that if God had fashioned every detail in nature toward some particular end, then God was obviously capable of malevolence-“To the grub under the bark the exquisite fitness of the woodpecker’s organism to extract him would certainly argue a diabolic design.” We know from his biographer Lawrance Thompson that Frost read Pragmatism, and he taught the James book at Pinkerton Academy in 1912, the year the first version of “Design” was drafted (“In White”). But what are we to make of Frost’s insistence that in fact he’d written “Design” as an answer to William Cullen Bryant’s poem “To a Waterfowl,” in which the speaker reassures himself that both the perilous and distant flight of the waterfowl and his own course through life would be carefully guided by God? “He who, from zone to zone,/Guides through boundless sky thy certain flight,/In the long way that I must tread alone,/Will lead my steps aright” gives rise to these last lines in “In White”: “What but design of darkness and of night?/Design, design! Do I use the word aright?” The tone of parody is clearly heard.
The phrase “design of darkness to appall” that replaces the penultimate line of the early draft lends itself to the idea that along with a force of goodness in the world, there is a force of evil; but could the intention and the tone reveal self-irony, self-satire? Frost seems temperamentally opposed to creating a neat pattern of thought. He seems more intent on getting several disjunctive ideas and tones roiling through the lines to get readers questioning. “I’d rather/He thought of it himself,” Frost says about his partner in “Mending Wall.” In “The Onset,” the whiteness is both deathly and pure; it hisses and sings. And in “Design,” too, whiteness has more than one value. Along these lines, the clearest expression of the existence of evil is put into the mouth of the distraught woman whose grief over her “mother-loss” in “Home Burial” so affects her that she labels the world evil after she has concluded that “Friends make pretense of following to the grave,/ But before one is in it, their minds are turned/ And making the best of their way back to life/ and living people, and things they understand.” But the poem will not permit itself to be read simply as a treatise on good and evil; it’s a presentation of two views of grief, and its subject is really the difficulties people have in speaking openly to one another, especially if one of them has a fixed and unyielding notion of what is and isn’t moral.
Is the tone of “Design” one of amusement, or is it deadly serious? Or is it both? Couldn’t one say that the tension between these two alternatives allows for a more complete presentation of the difficulties we have in arriving at a satisfactory theology? To be sure, here not “all his words are strung on definite recognizable sentence sounds,” as Frost says a poet’s words always should be (letter to J. Bartlett, 1914). The gulf between the meanings implicit in my initial reading of the poem and Frost’s stated intention is awfully wide; the two tones seem very far apart. But does my disappointment that the poet’s values do not turn out to be consistent with mine or that the poem may say something other than what I want it to say ultimately determine my judgment? What am I to make of Jarrell’s reading, which is so conveniently in agreement with mine? Can I readjust my view? Does any of these readings suffice?
The evidence of Frost’s self-regarding irony in other poems helps to give the poem another spin-Frost’s “I” is made to be seen as making too much of too little. I can hear the last six lines as representative of someone like that-sonorous tones, the language biblical as he rises to ask large philosophical questions about small matters; then more the tone of the poet himself in the last line, deflating the puffed-up attribution of meaning where none is-though I have to confess that I hadn’t caught that tone until information exterior to the poem (Frost’s explanation) directed me to. I saw no conclusive hints in the language on the page.
As a result, I find myself in the gray area I don’t especially like to enter-a consideration of intention, with all its dead ends and cul-de-sacs. Ambiguity may take a writer into murky realms, even when the presumed intention is to try to clarify and win acceptance for the thoughts and feelings expressed. Readers may misread; in the clearest writing readers may still garble the sense, mistake the tone, and respond erratically to the feeling. The poem itself may be garbled-not according to a certain necessary ambivalence, in a way that’s simply unresolved and obscure. One would hope that the result would be a recognition by readers of that incoherence. Instead, there are innumerable instances where allegedly “close” readings do no more than make up what the poem has only partially stated. One sees this again and again in creative writing workshops where affection for the poet or approval of the general drift of the poem will cause a reader to embark on amazing feats of misreading-a kind of mental contortionism. It’s as if the purpose of literature were merely to irritate the frontal lobes into spasms of response. Well, yes, I meant that, says the writer in workshop. Or: if that’s what you see, then sure.
The idea, though, that language is too wobbly to communicate with any accuracy, or that the reader’s “brilliance” (which often seems more or less a matter of expressing the motions of the reader’s mind solely, with little or no regard for the author’s particular mindful references and reverberations-the work’s intentions) quickly leads to another sort of literary narcissism. The sustained strength and ostensible authority of his or her own sentences ought to argue fairly strongly against any critic’s notion that language wobbles. Moreover, the exercise of one’s singular train of thought may culminate in a certain withdrawal from experience. From this a monotonous reading may well ensue, or the air of daydreaming-a pleasure to no one other than the self. A more complete pleasure for readers is the ability to follow another’s sense and feeling, “To make use of every friend-and every foe” (“Essay on Criticism,” Pope) in coming to know with all language’s ambiguities, and the writer’s own learned sense of it, something to satisfy, enhance, and perhaps bewilder us about mind and matter-to capture “For once, then, something” beyond ourselves.
One doesn’t feel that absolutely everything that figures in a poem has to be worked out beforehand, or even during the act of composition. I guess of the three possible models for the combined process of writing and reading a poem, I’d choose the one in between, in which a person (the reader) has been given a kit with the instructions included to make a metal staircase (a particularly beautiful and serviceable one, let’s say). At his peril does he throw out the instructions and exercise his fancy in trying to make a rocket ship-I’d wager that the rocket ship wouldn’t fly. On the other hand, it is fun to participate in the assembling of the artifact. Still, the most maddening and enigmatic part of the assembling process occurs at the moment of the discovery that one has been left with extra brackets or stair treads. And let’s say you never really come to understand how all the parts fit together. Still, you’d want to have the instructions on hand to help you imagine the object into existence. Afterwards, one could say, there would be time to think of where the staircase leads from and where it arrives-what might be called matters of cultural context.5
In the end, I’d want to give the poem the last word, and I’d credit intentionality with the important caveat that Frost himself expresses in a letter he wrote to Sydney Cox on September 19, 19 29:
Poetry is measured in more senses than one: it is measured feet but more important still it is a measured amount of all we could say and we would. We shall be judged finally by the delicacy of our feeling of where to stop short. The right people know, and we artists should know better than they know. There is no greater fallacy going than that art is expression-an undertaking to tell all to the last scrapings of the brain pan. I needn’t qualify as a specialist in botany and astronomy for a license to invoke flowers and stars in my poetry. I needn’t have scraped those subjects to the point of exhaustiveness. God forbids that I should have to be an authority on everything even the psyche before I can set up for an artist. A little of anything goes a long way in art. Im never so desperate for material that I have to trench on the confidential for one thing, nor on the private for another, nor on the personal, nor in general on the sacred. A little in the fist to manipulate is all I ask. My object is true form-is was and always will be-form true to any chance bit of true life. Almost any bit will do. I dont naturally trust any old object. I fight to be allowed to sit cross-legged on the old flint pile and flake a lump into an artifact. Or if I don’t actually fight myself, the soldiers of my tribe do for me to keep the unsympathetic off me and give me elbow room. The best hour I ever had in the class room was good only for the shape it took. I like an encounter to shape up, unify however roughly. There is such a thing as random talk, but it is to be valued as a scouting expedition for coinable gold. I may say this partly to save myself from being misunderstood; I say it partly too to help you what I can toward your next advance in thought if not in office. You’ll find yourself most effective in things people find out by accident you might have said but didn’t say. Those are the things that make people take a good reestimating look at you. You have to refrain from saying many things to get credit for refraining from a few. There is a discouraging waste there as everywhere else in life. But never mind: there is a sense of strength gained in not caring. You have added to the mass of your private in reserve. You are more alluring to your friends and baffling to your foes.
1. Jeffrey S. Cramer, Robert Frost Among His Poems: A Literary Companion to the Poet’s Own Biographical Contexts and Associations (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1995), 196.
2. Gettysburg Review, volume 12, number 3, Autumn 1999.
3. Frost’s ambivalence toward knowing can also be seen in his qualifications of the word know, which appears 440 times in the poems. A good one-third to one-half of those references are qualified (e.g., “I don’t know,” “I doubt they know,” “once to have known it,” “A man’s out there who claims to know the secret.”). On the other hand, Frost’s 4-io uses of thought/think are rarely qualified, except in the context of there being no hard and fast outcome of the mental activity (e.g., “I thought of questions that have no reply”). Thought is more often put in positive context, as in “What she thought was lovely and what good” (“Maple”), “He thought of evergreen and everlasting” (“Place for a Third”), “Of a thinking race” (“Kitty Hawk”), and a particular thought often leads to or breeds more mental activity: “The thought from that thought, I will turn it under” in “Build Soil,” or “I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture” in “For Once, Then, Something.” As such examples might suggest, Frost’s poetry was everywhere concerned with the useful motions that the mind makes toward truth, that “something” that is partly known and partly unknown.
4. Frost said in 19 62 that he liked the two ways of spelling “staid” in “Something Like a Star.” “That’s playing with words,” he said. Another notable occasion where Frost’s word choice invites a substitution is in “Design”: “begin the morning rite”-or right, as Jarrell noted in Poetry and the Age. The effect is that of a pun, and small, but hard to overlook in the context of Frost’s often sly humor.
5. Frost might have said the staircase goes “toward heaven,” but only toward; and a postmodem critic might fix it in the basement of a skyscraper, someplace he or she felt was more relevant to our age than any rural setting.
Copyright New England Review Winter 2002
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