This is a famous and in my view somewhat misunderstood poem, the misunderstanding being entirely the fault of the poet. Robert Frost liked to put it about that this was a playful poem written to tease his friend Edward Thomas, who was, it seems, given to reflecting ruefully on the choice of path after one of their country walks together and saying now if only they’d gone the other way… In particular the last line, Frost claimed, was an ironic joke at Thomas’s expense and not to be taken literally. Thomas did indeed take the tease seriously and was apparently quite perturbed by the poem, but to me all this was just Frost putting up a smokescreen: clearly the poem is about him and not Thomas, the road less taken is the path of poetry, and there is no reason not to take the last line at face value: our life choices do indeed make a difference. I’m afraid Frost liked to play these games, maybe from a wish to disguise the act of self-revelation, or from a fear of committing himself too deeply to his own truth, or just from a mischievous sense of fun. Which doesn’t make it any less of a fine poem.
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost is by no means the only poet in whom a hunger for recognition comes into conflict with a wariness, an inner reticence, a distaste for self-revelation. But I think in him the conflict was particularly acute. On the one hand he could be quite shameless in his pursuit of favourable reviews and his presentation to the public of a folksy and largely misleading image. On the other hand we have cryptic comments scattered throughout the work, like the line in ‘Paul’s Wife’ where Paul does not wish his fantasy wife (for which read muse figure) to be spoken of ‘in any way the world knows how to speak’. In this poem it is not made explicit what the ‘things forbidden’ are that he has managed to preserve for himself but I take them to be his poems, or those things that his poems keep alive, and he is rightly confident enough in his own powers as a poet to feel that he has succeeded.
I Could Give All To Time
To Time it never seems that he is brave
To set himself against the peaks of snow
To lay them level with the running wave,
Nor is he overjoyed when they lie low,
But only grave, contemplative and grave.
What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time’s lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.
I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.
Tucked away at the end of my copy of Robert Frost’s ‘Complete Poems’ are two rather curious pieces, ‘A Masque of Reason’ and ‘A Masque of Mercy’. All credit to the man for trying something different, but I have to say that with their folksy theology they really don’t work for me: Frost towards the end of his creative life, running on empty. And yet, just at the end of ‘A Masque of Mercy’, you do get a bit of echt Frost, that seems to stand as a credo for his often troubled mind and life, and one indeed that might have a resonance for many another poet.
Paul. Yes, there you have it at the root of things.
We have to stay afraid deep in our souls
Our sacrifice—the best we have to offer,
And not our worst nor second best, our best,
Our very best, our lives laid down like Jonah’s,
Our lives laid down in war and peace—may not
Be found acceptable in Heaven’s sight.
And that they may be is the only prayer
Worth praying. May my sacrifice
Be found acceptable in Heaven’s sight.
Keeper. Let the lost millions pray it in the dark!
My failure is no different from Jonah’s.
We both have lacked the courage in the heart
To overcome the fear within the soul
And go ahead to any accomplishment.
Courage is what it takes and takes the more of
Because the deeper fear is so eternal.
And if I say we lift him from the floor
And lay him where you ordered him to lie
Before the cross, it is from fellow-feeling,
As if I asked for one more chance myself
To learn to say (He moves to Jonah’s feet.)
Nothing can make injustice just but mercy.
Robert Frost was a fine poetic chronicler of marital disharmony, as attested by such poems as ‘Home Burial’, ‘The Subverted Flower’ and ‘The Thatch’. But this poem is one of a love still unshadowed by the tragic events and stresses of his life, about that sweet unrepeatable time when a couple are first exploring the territory of each other’s life and identity. If you want an object lesson in what simplicity of language can achieve, look at the closing two lines.
Meeting and Passing
As I went down the hill along the wall
There was a gate I had leaned at for the view
And had just turned from when I first saw you
As you came up the hill. We met. But all
We did that day was mingle great and small
Footprints in summer dust as if we drew
The figure of our being less than two
But more than one as yet. Your parasol
Pointed the decimal off with one deep thrust.
And all the time we talked you seemed to see
Something down there to smile at in the dust.
(Oh, it was without prejudice to me!)
Afterward I went past what you had passed
Before we met and you what I had passed.
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.
Robert Frost’s reputation might have been built initially on his admirable longer poems like ‘Home Burial’ and ‘Death of the Hired Man’, but how easily his shorter lyrics too can slip into the memory. Like this beautifully oblique meditation on ageing and decline.
The Oven Bird
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
It can be a bit annoying when you are having an experience that you are trying to put into words and up pops someone else’s poem in your head to save you the bother. Yet who would forgo the pleasures of a well-stocked memory? This happened to me last Saturday when I was in the local woods at dusk to catch the roding flight of a woodcock, and song thrushes (now sadly vanishing from my garden) could be heard all around. ‘Far in the pillared dark/Thrush music went…’. How perfect that epithet ‘pillared’, I thought, looking at the tall straight beeches disappearing into dimness rank on rank. Here is the whole poem, where Frost contemplates his sense of apartness as a poet with a kind of wistful defiance.
Incidentally, Frost’s ‘pillared’ may well be an echo of A.E.Housman’s beautiful ‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying’ – ‘And full of shade the pillared forest/Would murmur and be mine’. Good poets borrow, great poets steal!
As I came to the edge of the woods,
Thrush music — hark!
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.
Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing.
The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush’s breast.
Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went —
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.
But no, I was out for stars:
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked,
And I hadn’t been.
Until quite recently I had somehow overlooked this delicate short lyric in my well-worn copy of Robert Frost’s ‘Collected Poems’; it has since become one of my favourites. I guess we all have our gold – the vigour of our youth, first love, the infancy of our children – and indeed it does not stay.
Nothing Gold Can Stay
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.
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!
An Old Man’s Winter Night
All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him – at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping here, he scared it once again
In clomping off; – and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon, such as she was,
So late-arising, to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man – one man – can’t keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.
One is spoilt for choice when it comes to the poems of Robert Frost, but this one seems to me to exemplify his deceptively subtle art of plainness as well as any: nothing pretentious, nothing for show, just focus, balance, cadence and compassion, bringing us back to poetry as, in Frost’s own words, ‘merely one more art of having something to say, sound or unsound. Probably better if sound….’