Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Mountain Interval by Robert Frost

Source of book: I own this.

It was definitely time to read some Frost, who remains my favorite poet. What can I say? I’m a bit of a traditionalist, with a love for nature, and he speaks to me.

I own the complete Frost, a gift from my wife long ago. (I honestly cannot remember if it was before we married, or just after.) This is his third collection. You can read my thoughts on A Boy’s Will and North of Boston if you like.

Mountain Interval has a surprising number of dark poems in it. I have found that many people familiar only with Frost from their American Literature classes in high school or college tend to know only his “happier” or merely melancholy poems, and not the ones with a real edge. This is too bad, as it has meant Frost has a reputation as being pleasant but not deep. This is a huge mistake, in my opinion. Frost has a wide emotional range, and some of his most psychologically devastating poems are the dark ones. A good case in point in this collection is the long blank verse narrative “The Bonfire,” or the multi-part poem “The Hill Wife.” But there is so much more treasure to be found here.

The collection opens with “The Road Not Taken,” rightfully one of Frost’s best known poems, and one of my all time favorites. It has that characteristic melancholy feel, and a meaning which is both apparent on the surface, and deeper if you think it through.
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.

I’ll also note that this is a great example of Frost’s use of a five line stanza.

Another poem in this collection is “Christmas Trees,” which I used for one of my Christmas posts.

I also should mention “In the Home Stretch,” another narrative poem in blank verse. It is obviously too long to quote, but it tells of a young(ish) couple moving into a home in the mountains on some land. As they settle in, they have an intriguing philosophical conversation about beginnings and endings and their complex relationship.

Another poem I loved, also about a relationship of sorts, is “Meeting and Passing.”

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 have mentioned a few times how much I love the sonnet form. This is a good one, in the Italian form. I also love the way Frost understands introversion - that bit about smiling at the dust - but don’t take that to mean she disliked me - is great.

Another poem that I really loved is this one:

Hyla Brook

BY June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)—
Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat—
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.

That last line is outstanding, as is the picture of the seasonal stream, so well known to us in the western part of the country.

While “Hyla Brook” is close to a sonnet, it has one extra line, and isn’t quite in the right form. The next one is a true sonnet, again in the Italian (rather than English) pattern. The rhyme scheme of the final six lines differs from “Meeting and Passing.” I like this one for its attention to small, seemingly insignificant details within a larger story which is only obliquely alluded to.


The battle rent a cobweb diamond-strung
And cut a flower beside a ground bird's nest
Before it stained a single human breast.
The stricken flower bent double and so hung.
And still the bird revisited her young.
A butterfly its fall had dispossessed
A moment sought in air his flower of rest,
Then lightly stooped to it and fluttering clung.

On the bare upland pasture there had spread
O'ernight 'twixt mullein stalks a wheel of thread
And straining cables wet with silver dew.
A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.

The battle referred to is probably one from World War I - a counterpart to “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae.

Two more poems deserve mention. The first is this one, which really speaks to me. There are two sounds I could listen to all day: the sound of the surf, and the wind in the trees.

The Sound of Trees

I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.

Just a brilliant and delightful poem.

I’ll end with one of my all time favorite Frost poems. Every time I read it again - aloud, of course - I am thrilled with the melody of the words, and with the subversive themes. Enjoy.


When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

There isn’t anything that needs to be said beyond that.

I could mention a number of other fine poems, both shorter and longer. I highly recommend Frost, and particularly recommend reading an entire collection as a unit, as the poems are often related and build on each other. And, as always, read them out loud! Poetry is meant to be heard, and the music of the sounds is part of the thrill.

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