Week 436: Iris by Night, by Robert Frost

There are innumerable poems of love, not so many of friendship, and I think that this one, with its perfect closing image, is among the best of them. In the summer of 1914 a group of poets gathered around Dymock in the Gloucestershire countryside, among them being Robert Frost, newly arrived from America, and Edward Thomas, then known only as a reviewer and a writer of prose. Frost and Thomas took many walks together, discussing poetry, and it is these as much as anything that seem to have catalysed Thomas’s wonderful late flowering as a poet. We can date the walk described in this poem precisely, to August 6th, 1914, a night of full moon.

‘From all division time or foe can bring’ – yes, in the platonic realm of poetry, but one has to wonder: would that friendship would have lasted so well in practice, if Thomas had survived? It is tempting to believe so, but I have doubts. Frost went back to the States after the outbreak of war, and proved an unsatisfactory correspondent by letter. There was also the fact that he did not get on well with Edward’s wife Helen, who found him bossy and given to offensive remarks; indeed they later had quite a falling out over Helen’s accounts of her marriage in the two volumes ‘As It Was’ and ‘World Without End’ (lately republished in one volume entitled ‘Under Storm’s Wing’), which Frost felt portrayed his friend in too unmanly a light. I can see his point in a way, yet I have always found those accounts interesting and in places very moving.

No, that summer was the golden time of their friendship, and as Frost observes in another fine poem (see week 134), ‘nothing gold can stay’.

Iris by Night

One misty evening, one another’s guide,
We two were groping down a Malvern side
The last wet fields and dripping hedges home.
There came a moment of confusing lights,
Such as according to belief in Rome
Were seen of old at Memphis on the heights
Before the fragments of a former sun
Could concentrate anew and rise as one.
Light was a paste of pigment in our eyes.
And then there was a moon and then a scene
So watery as to seem submarine;
In which we two stood saturated, drowned.
The clover-mingled rowan on the ground
Had taken all the water it could as dew,
And still the air was saturated too,
Its airy pressure turned to water weight.
Then a small rainbow like a trellis gate,
A very small moon-made prismatic bow,
Stood closely over us through which to go.
And then we were vouchsafed a miracle
That never yet to other two befell
And I alone of us have lived to tell.
A wonder! Bow and rainbow as it bent,
Instead of moving with us as we went
(To keep the pots of gold from being found),
It lifted from its dewy pediment
Its two mote-swimming many-colored ends
And gathered them together in a ring.
And we stood in it softly circled round
From all division time or foe can bring
In a relation of elected friends.

Robert Frost


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