Wednesday, March 26, 2008

ROBERT FROST, 1874 - 1963

(Robert Frost; photo by Paul Bishop, 1958)

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite poets of all time, and the numero uno man on the list, Robert Lee Frost. Here's what Writer's Almanac has to say about him:

"Robert Frost was born in San Francisco (1874). He cultivated the image of a rural New England poet with a pleasant disposition, but Frost's personal life was full of tragedy and he suffered from dark depressions.

"He graduated from high school at the top of his class but dropped out of Dartmouth after a semester and tried to convince his high school co-valedictorian, Elinor White, to marry him immediately. She refused and insisted on finishing college first. They did marry after she graduated, and it was a union that would be filled with losses and feelings of alienation. Their first son died from cholera at age three; Frost blamed himself for not calling a doctor earlier and believed that God was punishing him for it. His health declined, and his wife became depressed. In 1907, they had a daughter who died three days after birth, and a few years later Elinor had a miscarriage. Within a couple years, his sister Jeanie died in a mental hospital, and his daughter Marjorie, of whom he was extremely fond, was hospitalized with tuberculosis. Marjorie died a slow death after getting married and giving birth, and a few years later, Frost's wife died from heart failure. His adult son, Carol, had become increasingly distraught, and Frost went to visit him and to talk him out of suicide. Thinking the crisis had passed, he returned home, and shortly afterward his son shot himself. He also had to commit his daughter Irma to a mental hospital.

"And through all of this, Robert Frost still became one of the most famous poets in the United States. He said, 'A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching out toward expression, an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the word.'

"And, 'In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on."

After the fold are my four favorite poems by him.

FYI, today is also the birthdays of Tennessee Williams, A.E. Houseman, and Joseph Campbell.


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.

(Water Over Rock, 1938 in Yosemite Country, photo by Ansel Adams)

This is a poem I memorized very early, by age five or six, but find new deep meaning in each year. I think it is perfect in its construction.


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.

For John F Kennedy's inauguration as President of the United States on 20 January 1961, Robert Frost wrote a new poem entitled, "Dedication". But the poet was old (87) and he couldn't see the words because of the sun's glare that bright, cold January day. The poem's newness to him and his unfamiliarity with and uncertainty about the way it went caused him to stumble uncertainly with his voice and tone and he gave up. Instead he fell back on an old one he knew perfectly, and in the most splendidly commanding of voices, recited it impeccably:


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.

(Holograph of Frost's poem "The Gift Outright")

The last stanza of this poem is, in fact, part of my code for living.


Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily "Hit them hard!"
I knew pretty well why he had dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.

Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose to my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn't blue,
But he wouldn't advise a thing to blossom.

The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand,
In every wheelrut's now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
Be glad of water, but don't forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.

The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You'd think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay

And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man's work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right--agreed.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

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