Thursday, December 4, 2008

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows...On reading Robert Frost

The title is from Frost's early poem about work & the creative process called "Mowing" and is a great link to my current obsession with this most fascinating of our great American poets (and like many of his works, can be read a la double entendre). See below for more on Frost's multivalent meanings. First a digression on one of his early trips south (thanks to the Parini biography I mentioned in another post). Consider this entry my take on how one reads a poem...

20 year-old Rob Frost sojourned down from New England to Norfolk to visit the Dismal Swamp (an awesome natural wonder in our own backyard here in Tidewater, VA). He trekked on foot towards Deep Creek and blindly explored the swamp. This visit made a lasting impression, and images of solitary wanderers, loners, tramps, and pilgrims would people his poetry for the rest of his long life. As would the existential nature of the elements and, for that matter, nature itself. A survey of some titles of his individual books of poetry confirms this indebtedness: Mountain Interval, West-Running Brook, A Further Range, A Witness Tree, to his final collection, In the Clearing. And as always with Frost, layers of meaning are implicit in titles, phrases, stanzas, poems and entire collections. Multiple readings, like perspectives, can be fetched from line to line, poem to poem. Like a subject under a microscope, they lend themselves to being dissected, examined and re-examined, held up to the light and known in new ways.

Here's a little piece to wrap your head around. Its a modern version of an Elizabethan sonnet (an octave--that is, an 8-line stanza, and a musical one at that!--answered by a sextet, with the requisite iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme). At once an exquisitely crafted scena from the animal planet (a spider with its latest catch, a moth, on a flower, in the morning), it is a lesson in attention to details of the natural world, and a densely packed collection of metaphors (the religious/sacramental tone in line 3 juxtaposed with the Shakespearean evocation of Macbeth's witches in line 6, for starters).

That would be enough to qualify this little ditty as memorable, but Frost goes further, turning the Elizabethan model on its head (the closing sextet is supposed to "answer" or resolve the question or issue posed in the opening octave, with the closing rhyming couplet the climactic cadence to the exercise). Frost composes a sextet which is a series of (unanswerable) questions of existential dimension that anticipate the culture war on evolution v. "Intelligent design" by decades (Frost, in life and death, resists pigeon-holing. He is a bundle of contraries: independent, iconoclastic, progressive, conservative, reader of Darwin & Santayana, Emerson & Thoreau, Homer & the Old Testament; botanist, farmer, anti-establishment professor, and the list goes on...). The title of the poem doesn't appear until the closing couplet, and thus highlights the tightly controlled diction which packs a punch that shows this blazingly intelligent (self-taught-college-drop-out-with-2-dozen-honorary-doctorates) lyric poet in his best form.


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth--
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern a thing so small.

(Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays.
The Library of America)

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