I think this is a wonderful poem, and one of Frost’s greatest, and yet I find it also one of his most elusive: I feel that from long acqaintance with and admiration for his work I ought to be as attuned to Frost’s thought as anyone, yet every time I think I have this one sussed out I come back to it and realise there is another resonance I have missed, another seemingly random detail whose significance I have overlooked. This is a journey poem and as such suitably full of signposts, but you have to be careful with signposts in a Frost poem: they may be like the ones in wartime, turned to point in a wrong direction to confuse those who he feels have no business in the country. And as the poet himslef confesses at the start of this one, he is a guide who ‘only has at heart your getting lost’. Getting lost seems indeed to be a key theme: lost, that is, in the sense of escaping from the confusion of our present, and perhaps from the prison of our own too burdensome identity, and presenting ourselves in a state of nameless innocence, like children entering what may not be the kingdom of heaven but is at least a time and place of greater spiritual clarity, back up the line and so nearer to the mysterious spring of our existence here on earth. ‘Weep for what little things could make them glad’ – surely this is one of the most touching lines any poet ever wrote, and yet be careful with that signpost: it is easy to forget that the children in their simplicity were glad, and it is us that are doing the weeping. A journey poem and a spell poem: in another place Frost speaks of a poem as being a ‘momentary stay against confusion’, but this one, like many others of his, offers a stay that some will surely find much more than momentary.
Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry–
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretence of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.