Info

poem.

Frost's use ofsyntax also contributes to this feeling ofsimplicity and colloquialism. In the opening line, the use of the contraction "doesn't" introduces a colloquial style that is in marked contrast to the self-consciously poetic style of most post-Victorian poetry; Frost's use of contractions continues in phrases such as "Isn't it where there are cows?" "I'd ask to know," and "it's not elves exactly." This colloquial, conversational style is typified by the fifth line, "The work of hunters is another thing." Here we have a feeling of a speaker addressing the reader directly and sharing his thoughts, rather than a poet trying to elevate his language to the most refined level. The reader is pulled into the poem and made to feel comfortable in a way not possible with the poems of Santayana and the other "genteel" poets. This impression is heightened at moments when Frost appears to interrupt the flow ofhis own thoughts and clarify something he has previously said, much as one might do in actual speech. "The gaps I mean," at the end of line 9, pulls us gently back from the digression about hunters and returns us to the main thread of the poem, at the same time reminding us that someone is speaking. The predominance of sentences constructed around simple connectives ("and" and "but") also suggests the presence of an actual speaker rather than a more distanced and controlling authorial voice. Eight of the poem's lines begin with "And" and another three begin with "But," giving the impression of a speaker spontaneously working through his thoughts and establishing connections even as he speaks the poem. The alternation of simple declarative sentences that fit cleanly within the line and sentences that are made to spill over several lines not only keeps the poem's syntax relatively simple, but it also makes the poem more rhythmically interesting. On a thematic level, this alternation also reenacts the fate of the wall itself, which is built and rebuilt only to be toppled over by hunters or the forces of nature.

Despite all of these examples of colloquialism and apparent simplicity in Frost's poetry, we should not be deceived into thinking ofFrost as a rustic or a primitive. On the contrary, Frost was a sophisticated writer who was well versed in Latin poetry and who knew as well as any poet of his time how to make effective use of formal and rhetorical strategies. From his early career on, Frost prided himself on being "one of the most notable craftsmen of my time," as he wrote in his 1913 letter to John Bartlett. Frost's style is dualistic rather than simplistic: he uses the poetic form to hold thematic dualities in ironic tension, while at the same time using formal devices to create tensions or ironies within the language of the poem. Frost is a master at embedding rhetorical devices within apparently simple poems, making effective use of punning and word play, repetition, prosody (the use of rhythm and meter), and metaphor.

In "Mending Wall" for example, Frost skillfully highlights the relation between form and content. We have already seen this relation established through his use of repetition and syntax, but it is also apparent in his prosody. Throughout the poem, lines in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) play both within and against the metrical and structural impositions of the form. In the opening lines, the speaker's energies disturb formal walls and boundaries: here, we find enjambment (run-on lines) and caesura (breaks within the line), as well as metrical variations which contribute to the theme of the lines. The poem begins with a trochaic substitution ("Something") and contains spondees is lines 2, 4, and 7, emphasizing the powerful destructive forces at work on the wall. Frost uses his versification to create subtle tensions between form and idea, as for example when he uses the enjambment between lines 6 and 7 to break his description of repairing the wall destroyed by hunters: "and made repair / Where they have left not one stone on a stone." But in the lines where Frost describes the annual ritual of rebuilding the wall with his neighbor, the rhythms become more consistently iambic and the lines more often end-stopped. Just as the speaker of the poem describes the act of wall-mending as "another kind of outdoor game," Frost plays a little game with the reader, replicating the changing state of the wall within the form of the poem itself.

Frost also embeds a substantial amount offigurative language in the poem, though he does so in such as way as to make the figures of speech seem rustic and natural rather than abstruse and literary. He refers metaphorically to the wall's stones as "loaves" and "balls"; he uses metonymy to compare the respective orchards with their owners - "He is all pine and I am apple orchard"; he jokingly personifies the apple trees - "My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines"; and he uses a simile to compare his somewhat primitive neighbor to "an old-stone savage armed." Only in the final figure of the poem does Frost move to a level of symbolic ambiguity: "He moves in darkness as it seems to me, / Not of woods only and the shade of trees." Frost remains deliberately vague about exactly what this "darkness" is, though we can gather that it is the darkness of a confining tradition ("his father's saying") and the resultant lack of the neighbor's capacity for play or imagination.

The difference between the two men in the poem lies in the fact that while the neighbor participates in the wall's construction only as a necessary and repetitive chore, the speaker (a version of Frost himself) uses it as an occasion for imaginative play. The narrator does not mind building the wall, but it is clear that his sympathies lie more with the "something" that wants it down (whether elves, nature, or his own sense of "mischief") than with the neighbor's unthinking need to repair it. The neighbor is an "old-stone savage" not because he wants to maintain the wall between them, but because he can think of no reason for doing so other than his father's proverb. The poem is in part an allegory for the poetic process itself:as a poet, Frost needs to keep himself open to all forms of experience, and he must be constantly vigilant about what he is "walling in or walling out." The physical wall in the poem is a wall of the psyche, a barrier to human understanding, connection, and communication.

Frost was a nature poet, but not in the naively romantic sense of a poet who celebrates the beauty or pastoral simplicity of nature. Instead, he uses the rural world as a source of emblems and symbols, creating paysages moralises through the use of complex images and extended metaphors. Frost, who in later life described himself as "a confirmed symbolist," could find in almost any natural or man-made object an apt symbol, or emblem, for a more general idea. Such emblems include the scythe in "Mowing," the wall in "Mending Wall," the apple tree in "After Apple-Picking," the woodpile in "The Wood-Pile," the burnt-down farmhouse in "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things," the trees in "Birches," the pitchfork in "Putting in the Seed," the well in "For Once, Then, Something," and the isolated woods in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

As an illustration of the way in which Frost used such symbols from the pastoral landscape to comment on more universal human concerns, let us look at "Birches" (1916), another of Frost's most deservedly famous poems. The poem opens with a series of strong visual images suggesting that Frost was as deeply engaged with the visual imagination as with the auditory "sound of sense":

When I see birches bend to left and right Across the lines of straighter darker trees, I like to think some boy's been swinging them. But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning After a rain. They click upon themselves As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

"Birches" is more elegiac and less playful in tone than "Mending Wall," and while it retains the conversational voice of a first-person speaker its language is somewhat more elevated and less colloquial. According to Frank Lentricchia, it was in "Birches" that Frost began "to probe the power of his redemptive imagination," moving from playfulness toward transcendence.5 The birch trees, with their brilliant white bark and pliable trunks that "bend to left and right," are contrasted in the first two lines with the "straighter darker trees" that form a kind of mysterious background behind them. Unlike birches, which can be manipulated by men (and boys) as well as the forces of nature, these straight and dark trees are a somewhat ominous presence which resists human interpretation. In lines 3-5, Frost introduces a second opposition: between the actions of boys swinging on birches (bending them temporarily but not putting them "down to stay") and the power of a natural force, the ice-storm. Frost appeals to the reader to imagine with him the sight of the trees "loaded with ice" and the sound of them "click[ing] upon themselves." So great is his appreciation of the scene that he aestheticizes the ice-covered trees by comparing them to a work of human creation: the cracking and crazing of the enamel on a piece of pottery. This comparison in turn takes the speaker to an even more dramatic image, as his imagination transforms the pieces of ice shed by the trees into "crystal shells," shards of "broken glass," and finally fragments of "the inner dome of heaven."

Even in these opening lines, we have already come far from an ordinary pastoral or natural landscape. The images and metaphors Frost chooses enact a fusion of the natural world and the realm of human artifice (pottery, glass, crystal, a cathedral dome), suggesting a possible transcendence ofbrute nature into an imaginative realm. But Frost cannot settle on a single symbolic register for the trees. The next three lines focus not on the transcendent beauty of the scene but on the oppressive weight of the ice:

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load, And they seem not to break, though once they are bowed So low for long, they never right themselves:

Here again, Frost makes skilled use of versification to enhance his description: the lines are lengthened (eleven and twelve syllables instead often) and they depart radically from the iambic meter of the opening lines. Frost uses sound to make us feel the heaviness ofthe ice-covered trees in the drawn-out vowels of words like "dragged," "bracken," "load," "bowed," and "low." The downward movement ofthese lines concludes with an evocative simile comparing the trailing branches of the trees to "girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads."

As brilliant as these descriptions are, however, they are not the main point of Frost's poem, as the speaker goes on to explain:

But I was going to say when Truth broke in With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm I should prefer to have some boy bend them As he went out and in to fetch the cows -Some boy too far from town to learn baseball, Whose only play was what he found himself, Summer and winter, and could play alone.

As in "Mending Wall," where Frost used the stone walls of rural New England to explore the more general idea of boundaries and borders in human life, here he uses the birches to create a complex symbolic landscape. Frost prefers the birches to the other trees because they are flexible enough to move in different directions: either "toward heaven," as he says near the end of the poem, or down to the earth. Frost also uses the pliable nature of the birch to suggest the form of his poem: he "swings" from one subject to another, moving from a description of ice-storms to a narrative of a boy bending the trees on his father's farm. The image ofthe farm-boy playing on the trees is clearly a vision of the poet as well. Like the boy, he works ("plays") in solitude, far from human society; just as the boy attempts to "subdue" and "conquer" his father's trees, the poet tries to bend and shape nature within an artistic form; just as the boy keeps his "poise" while climbing the tree, the poet focuses all his attention on his task; just as the boy swings out, "feet first, with a swish, / Kicking his way down through the air to the ground," the poet swings on an imaginative arc into a state of absolute freedom from earthly concerns.

But the speaker realizes that his "dream" of being a "swinger of birches" cannot always be realized:

It's when I'm weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig's having lashed it open.

I'd like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

Those transcendent moments of swinging on birches and creating poetry are unfortunately not the whole of life: there is also the mundane reality of "considerations," those details of everyday existence that seem to thwart our imaginative freedom. The simile comparing life to a "pathless wood" is hardly original, but Frost uses it very effectively to make us sympathize with his desire to "get away from earth awhile." The speaker's concerns are universal: we can all relate to the kind ofsetbacks and irritations represented by the cobwebs on the face and the twigs unexpectedly lashing the eye.

But despite these "considerations," the speaker does not choose to leave earth entirely; instead, he recognizes that "Earth's the right place for love." In the final lines of the poem, he returns to the birch once again in order to establish a balance between the groundedness of daily life and the dream of absolute freedom:

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree, And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, But dipped its top and set me down again. That would be good both going and coming back, One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Frost ends the poem with typical understatement. After all, as he put it in "The Oven Bird," the question raised by poetry in the modern age is "what to make of a diminished thing." By "diminished thing," Frost means human life as we live it on a daily level, diminished from the romantic dreams of transcendence we all entertain at certain privileged moments. Frost never attempted to make of poetry the kind of epic quest for meaning sought by many other modern poets; as he stated in an essay "The Figure a Poem Makes" (1939), he preferred to set himself the more modest goal of finding in poetry a "momentary stay against confusion." If poetry "plays perilously between truth and make-believe," as Frost once wrote, he preferred to stay slightly to the side of "truth," allowing into his poems only as much "make-believe" as the creative act required.

Helping Your Child Learn To Read

Helping Your Child Learn To Read

When parents help their children learn to read, they help open the door to a new world. As a parent, you can begin an endless learning chain: You read to your children, they develop a love of stories and poems, they want to read on their own, they practice reading, and finally they read for their own information or pleasure. They become readers, and their world is forever expanded and enriched.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment