Sitting by myself, and thinking about the prospect of a month or two more of sitting by myself, it’s a good time for quiet reflection. So, here’s a little meditation on Robert Frost, who is surely the most American of all the American poets.
In January of 1961, John F. Kennedy had just been elected president and was about to be sworn in to the highest office in the land. He asked Robert Frost read a poem at the inauguration. “I think,” said JFK, “that politicians and poets share at least one thing, and that is that their greatness depends upon the courage with which they face the challenges of life.
So, Frost took to drafting a poem. But he was still hard at work finishing the piece on the morning of the great ceremony. He was eighty-six years old, and it all seemed a bit much; the long dedicatory poem was still in its handwritten form, and the day was frigid, snowy, and blustery. Frost chose to read, instead, his poem “The Gift Outright.” I always thought that the first line of this piece was slightly over-possessive. But as the poet spins out his meditation on the proprietary agreement between the land and the inhabitants, it all seems to fall into place. The poem does not, however, address the fact that the land was, when these Europeans arrived, already long tenanted.
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
And here’s another by Frost, this one quite well known ─ “The Road Not Taken.”
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
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 traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
So… A poet has paused at a fork in a woodland trail, in dappled sunlight, warm and welcoming — and chooses to commit himself to the bright, untrodden way.
This next piece takes quite an antithetical point of view as it considers the attractions of darkness. As in the “Road Not Taken,” it’s told in the first person, by a poet. The man and his horse stop to take a breather, maybe near the same bit of woodland. It’s the coldest night of the year, and dark, and the horse is a little grumpy. But for the poet, it’s a significant moment. He muses on the nightfall, on the gathering darkness ─ how might it feel to take his place in it? Darkness is a reliable poetic trope that signifies death, threatening and fearful. Here, though, pausing by a wooded grove, the poet’s horse seems the more anxious of the two. To the man, the twilight is dark, yes, but lovely, and deep. Does it signify death? If so, it is not at all fearful or threatening, but attractive, even seductive. So, what does the poet decide about all this? Spoiler alert: He refuses the woods’ dark attraction ─ he still has a lot do to. The poem is called “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.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
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.
And finally, here’s a short poem by Robert Frost, titled “Fire and Ice.” Succinct, and maybe a little bitter, it seems well suited to our age of anxiety.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great,
And would suffice.
Be of good cheer, my friends, and most important, stay safe and healthy. We’ll meet again soon!
Wednesday, April 1, 2020