The American poet Randall Jarrell recounts how he was floating in a quarry with his chin on a log when he discovered that he knew Robert Frost’s ‘Provide, Provide’ by heart without having consciously learnt it. Many poets, among them W.H.Auden, Derek Walcott, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, have stressed the value of learning poems by rote. No doubt there is much in what they say, but I do find that the poems that have meant most to me have seldom waited for the invitation of rote learning; they just sort of wander in and make themselves at home.
I like the folksy pastoral side of Frost very much as long as it’s not overdone, but I have to say that I think it’s the bleaker side, as, say, in ‘Home Burial’, that makes the greater poems.
The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag,
Was once the beauty Abishag,
The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.
Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state.
Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone.
Some have relied on what they knew;
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.
No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard,
Or keeps the end from being hard.
Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!