Frost is in the forecast…Robert, that is. An advisory is usually a warning of some kind, and this sermon might fit that category. The warning is that Robert Frost is intent on being duplicitous, and he says so, himself.
So, take my advice – don’t believe what you hear or read at first blush, at first glance…there’s more to his folksy poems than meets the eye.
Frost called it ‘the pleasure of ulteriority,’ which, he explained, is ‘saying one thing and meaning another,’ as one with an ulterior motive, or a hidden motive.
Tim Kendall, a recent Frost biographer, said, “His double speaking allowed him to address multiple audiences at the same time.”
I smiled at that line, because every speaker needs to know that there are ‘multiple audiences’ out there – as a matter of fact, there are ‘multiple audiences’ inside each of us! We hear things, intended by the speaker or not…we hear things because of who we are, or where we are at the moment; just as we ‘fail to hear things,’ which is the opposite of ‘multiple audiences.’ We may think we’re speaking to someone, or to a group, but there may be ‘nobody home. When just two people are in conversation there are ‘multiple audiences.’ Smile, you’re on candid camera!
(Speaking of ‘multiple audiences,’ I misread the title of Tim Kendall’s book: The Art of Robert Frost. The book was a gift, left on my desk, and the way it was sitting I left off the T in THE and read the ‘HE ART’; without the T it’s the ‘HEART of Robert Frost…which I liked…which is, at least in part, why I ‘read it’ that way! We hear what we want to hear, we see what we hope to see…we sometimes block out what we are afraid to see!)
Tim Kendall paraphrases a talk Frost gave about his experience of writing poems: ‘He said that in writing a poem, he was aware of saying two things at once; but of wanting to say the first thing so well that any reader who liked that part of the poem might feel free to settle for that part of the poem as sufficient in itself. But, he added, it was the nature of poetry to say two things at once, and it was the nature of literary appreciation to perceive that an ulterior meaning had been included in the particular meaning.’
I remember how surprised I was, years ago, to learn that Robert Lee Frost, named for the famous Southern General by his Southern-sympathizing father, William Prescott, was born in San Francisco; on March 26, 1874. Which is to say, he was not born in New England!
His father, who hailed from Maine, was a teacher and at the time of his death in San Francisco, a newspaper editor. He died when Frost was just eleven years — he and his mother, Isabel, moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he attended public schools.
It’s doubtful that he was ever ‘a swinger of birches,’ and certainly not ‘as he went out and in to fetch his father’s cows,’ as the narrator of Birches says.
So it’s a bit surprising, and maybe even disappointing, that he wasn’t born in Vermont or New Hampshire, where he later lived, eventually owning several farms in those New England states.
We think of him as the quintessential New Englander, but then we’re told he was born in San Francisco, and as if that weren’t enough, his first book of poems was not published in America – it was published in England!
He and his wife, Elinor Mirian White, with whom he had 6 children, 2 of whom died in childhood, moved to England for a time when he was 38 years old, and his first book of poems was published there in 1912. He called it A Boy’s Will, taking a line from one of America’s great literary lights, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The line is from Longfellow’s poem, My Lost Youth: and reads, “A boy’s will is the wind’s will/And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”
A boy’s will is a force of nature – it can’t be controlled; it is subject to change…just like Robert Frost!
Two years after his first book of poems was published war broke out in Europe and Frost returned to his native country, taking with him a life-long affinity for the British Isles.
Frost had misgivings about poetry being taught in a school curriculum. He said it ‘reduces them (poems) to the rank of mere information,’ and he said he ‘doubted the value or use of poetic literature in the curriculum’
He said, “A poem’s most precious quality is that it ran in from nowhere and carried the poet away with it.”
Talking about writing poetry Frost said, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
Since Frost’s first book of poems was such a big hit in England, he came home to America to great acclaim. It was a circuitous route to have his poetry introduced in America by way of England. But he had ‘promises to keep,’ here, especially his explicit promise to his grandfather to become a poet.
After graduating from Lawrence high school in Massachusetts, Frost enrolled in Dartmouth College where he spent an uneventful seven weeks. After just seven weeks at Dartmouth he said, in a sense, “I’m going out to clear the pasture spring…” So, out of Dartmouth he went.
A few years later he enrolled at Harvard where he spent two years before saying, “I’m going out to fetch the little calf that’s standing by the mother…’ Out he went, again!
He was in his mid-20’s without the kind of direction his grandfather wanted for him, so his grandfather gave him a farm in Derry, New Hampshire, on the condition that he farm it for at least ten years. All of a sudden he had a ‘promise to keep.’ He tried his hand at farming, but couldn’t make it pay the bills, so during those farming years he also taught school to supplement his farming income.
When the ten promised years were up he sold the farm and a short time later he relocated to England, plowing into the pastures of poetry, and the rest is history, as they say.
In his second book, North of Boston, Frost introduced his poem, The Pasture, and subsequently used that well-worn poem as the italicized introductory poem as front piece to all the books he published from then on.
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan’t be gone long. — You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be gone long. — You come too.
Frost liked to say that ‘a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.’ It’s like Rumi’s poem that has become popular in recent years:
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense. Rumi
He also said that his poems always have a double meaning, at least a double meaning, or maybe a triple meaning. But he leaves that up to you, after stating clearly that his poems have double meaning, which, to my mind, suggests that you bring yourself to the poem and once you take in the obvious or simple meaning, you’re invited, or encouraged, to take the next step. That ‘next step’ may come as a surprise, as I keep finding out as I read, or, more especially, as I ‘recite’ his poems. (ex. “I am over-tired of the harvest I myself desired…there were ten thousand fruit to touch and not let fall.” Those lines from After Apple Picking, which I used for opening words this morning, (see footnote) take on a new meaning for me in this final year of my ministry!)
A good poem is like one of Rorschach’s ink blots!
Tim Kendall, in his new book, The Art of Frost, says:
“Frost encourages multiple answers without giving precedence to any of them.” Frost called it duplicity, or double meaning.
Frost said that poems provide “…a clarification of life, not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.”
It’s an interesting comment – that ‘sects and cults are founded on attempts to offer great clarification,’ or to provide all the answers, as if to say ‘no further thinking is necessary.’
Poems, he says, provide ‘a momentary stay against confusion.’
Frost is known for his simplicity – for some it’s a critique, as if a poem should not be obvious, should require more work than a first reading allows. “I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”
Some give high praise for a poem that is difficult, like the Sunday crossword puzzle in NY Times. Some like a poem that is obscure, making poetry become elitist or even pretentious…like we can be, or sometimes try to be.
That doesn’t mean that a seemingly simple poem like The Pasture is really all that simple. I’m going to look at it again…’you come, too.’
First, it’s an invitation to share some time together, like the opening words to our Sunday service: ‘you come, too.’ It’s an invitation to ‘connect’ with one another – to communicate. (think about that word—commune I cate)
It’s also about coming outside instead of being closed in by walls and windows and closed doors. (“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.“) Come with me, outside in the air where you can feel the breeze, where you can ‘watch the water clear’ in the spring that has become clogged with fallen leaves, and ‘fetch the little calf’ that’s tottering when her mother licks it. “It begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”
We need all the clarity we can muster! We need ‘a momentary stay against confusion.’
In recent decades the idea of ‘coming out’ has taken new meaning, as in ‘coming out of the closet,’ for gays, lesbians and transgender folks.
I think of The Pasture as Frost’s invitation to join him in the wonderful world of metaphors and similes, and to hear the disciplined cadences of meter and rhyme, like soldiers on parade, or like synchronized swimmers, or like a large flock of geese flying south when summer turns to fall.
At Frost’s 85 birthday celebration his long-time friend Lionel Trilling said that Frost was a ‘terrifying poet.’ Did he have tongue in cheek? Was he serious? Where’s the evidence?
We don’t think of Robert Frost as terrifying – as trying to frighten us or even intimidate us, much less threaten or menace us. But there’s much in life that is, of course, terrifying. Frost lived through the deaths of two children, which is expressed in his poem Home Burial.
Some of his poems hold up some terrifying things, like his poem about the boy with a buzz-saw, which is based on a local incident. It’s called Out, Out —
The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside them in her apron
To tell them “Supper.” At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. “Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!”
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
Maybe Frost took his title from Shakespeare, who was, of course, terrifying. Remember ‘out, out, brief candle,’ in the famous lines from Macbeth:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Frost’s poem, Out, Out —, was based on a terrifying event which occurred in April 1915, the same year his book, A Boy’s Will was published in America. Raymond Fitzgerald, the son of Frost’s friend and neighbor, lost his hand to a buzz saw and bled so profusely that he went into shock, dying in spite of his doctor’s efforts.
Another example of what Trilling might have meant by Frost’s terrifying poems is one about aging: Provide, Provide.
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!
Frost is simple, but deceptively so. He had a broad range, and he was not simplistic—he did not ignore the complexities of life. If he did, he would not have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize…not once, but four times; the most Pulitzers anyone has received for poetry.
Part of what I see as the Frost Advisory is that he insisted on meter and rhyme, a very disciplined approach to writing poetry. He referred to Walt Whitman’s free verse, with rhyme or meter as ‘playing tennis without the net.’
Kendall writes: “John Hollander has justly described Frost as ‘that most un-Whitmanian of major twentieth-century American poets.’
Frost’s own references to Whitman are almost uniformly negative. Whitman, Frost argued, had sacrificed art in favor of scope.
Whitman said: “The truest and greatest poetry…can never again, in the English language, be express’d in arbitrary and rhyming meter.”
Kendall says, “Frost could not have agreed less. He considered that measure gave the poet freedom within bounds (which was the only meaningful freedom)…”
The narrator in Mending Wall begins by saying ‘something there is that doesn’t love a wall.’ He complains about the wall. But he’s the one who ‘lets his neighbor know and on a day we meet to walk the line.’ He sets his bounds when writing a poem, like walls that mark boundaries. Whitman had no walls!
I like the way Frost played tennis…the net of rhyme and meter. But it’s not the only delicious and nutritious meal on the menu. I’m glad Whitman gave himself permission to do it his own way – he’s provided as many a nourishing and nurturing meal for me as Frost has provided…though Frost wins out on Sunday mornings more than Whitman.
I identify more with Whitman. I find Frost more useful in my work on Sunday mornings, and Whitman, who gets a share of Sundays, too, holds a very special place in my personal life; he nourishes my spirit.
Now let’s get back to Frost Advisory; his poem Mending Wall suggests the need for constantly ‘fixing’things…repairing what gets broken…perhaps fixing our own thinking to allow for the changes that come with age, with experience. Some of those repairs are easy enough…those are like the stones that are shaped ‘like loaves.’ But some are tricky…difficult; those are the ones ‘so nearly balls we have to use a spell to make them balance…’
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
So, what is it that ‘doesn’t love a wall,’ that sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, and spills the upper boulders in the sun? It’s Frost, of course.
The play on his name reminds me of three women in my previous congregation who were good friends: Esther Frost, Olive Snow and Mildred Winter. They ‘went well together.’
Tim Kendall quotes Frost as having said, “I hate to think I cant count on people to know when I am being figurative and when I am not being.”
Then Kendall says, “Yet this strategy required that some would not understand: to have an ulterior motive is to conceal, mislead, and deceive.”
We’re reminded of the strange comment, attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 4, verses 11 -12. Some asked why he taught in parables. “And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.'”
Talk about duplicitous! Well, I guess that’s another version of a Frost advisory. Enough said about that for now. Let’s close with another Frost favorite:
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.
‘Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.
Closing Words to service:
Reluctance, Robert Frost
Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question “Whither?”
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?