Even in the age of free verse, people still read Robert Frost. Or at least they read “The Road Not Taken,” anyway, which gets recited in a few thousand graduation speeches every year. That is, indeed, a fine poem; though I suspect it gains more popularity because people can read it to applaud themselves. But also popular is “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which does not afford the same pleasure—but is (in my opinion) a rather better poem.
So how did Frost succeed in continuing to be read, even as other metrical verse fell out of popular circulation? I don’t know for certain; but I can think of several aspects of his work which might begin to account for it. First, Frost knew how to write in meter such that the language remained natural. Second, his rhymes (when he wrote in rhyme) were also natural word choices, instead of strained ones. Third, he had a gift of showing forth the beauty of many everyday and commonplace moments in life. His subject choices resonated with people—and did not require some esoteric background experience or education to connect with. (Even when he wrote of peculiarly New England experience, a reader did not have to be a New Englander to “get” it.)
Here is a sample of one of those commonplace moments rendered beautifully in verse:
Going for Water
The well was dry beside the door,
And so we went with pail and can
Across the fields behind the house
To seek the brook if still it ran;
Not loth to have excuse to go,
Because the autumn eve was fair
(Though chill), because the fields were ours,
And by the brook our woods were there.
We ran as if to meet the moon
That slowly dawned behind the trees,
The barren boughs without the leaves,
Without the birds, without the breeze.
But once within the wood, we paused
Like gnomes that hid us from the moon,
Ready to run to hiding new
With laughter when she found us soon.
Each laid on other a staying hand
To listen ere we dared to look,
And in the hush we joined to make
We heard, we knew we heard the brook.
A note as from a single place,
A slender tinkling fall that made
Now drops that floated on the pool
Like pearls, and now a silver blade.
Here’s another mundane moment made beautiful:
A Time to Talk
When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.
I particularly like the last line: he trim it two only two beats instead of four, cutting short his work to go talk with his friend.
I’ll give you one more today; and just for fun I’ll print it here as if it were prose: notice how you read it how the poetry still jumps out loud and clear:
A Brook in the City
The farmhouse lingers, though averse to square with the new city street it has to wear a number in. But what about the brook that held the house as in an elbow-crook? I ask as one who knew the brook, its strength and impulse, having dipped a finger length and made it leap my knuckle, having tossed a flower to try its currents where they crossed. The meadow grass could be cemented down from growing under pavements of a town; the apple trees be sent to hearth-stone flame. Is water wood to serve a brook the same? How else dispose of an immortal force no longer needed? Staunch it at its source with cinder loads dumped down? The brook was thrown deep in a sewer dungeon under stone in fetid darkness still to live and run—and all for nothing it had ever done except forget to go in fear perhaps. No one would know except for ancient maps that such a brook ran water. But I wonder if from its being kept forever under, the thoughts may not have risen that so keep this new-built city from both work and sleep.
You can read more by Frost here and here. And for a great discussion of how Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening is a great example of how poetry works, I recommend John Ciardi’s essay, “How Does a Poem Mean.”
What are some of your favorite poems by Frost? Say in the comments below.
I read an article today that declared, “Robert Frost said that good fences make good neighbors.” What? Oh my! but I do believe that the author of the article totally misunderstood Robert Frost–or else had hadn’t remembered aright. (By the way, “What? Oh my!” is my attempt at a polite rendering of my astonishment at the error, which I had originally expressed with sputtering and nonsense syllable.) Anyway, read the following poem yourself, and see what I mean.
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.”
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is just as great
And would suffice.
Fireflies in the Garden
Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
That though they never equal stars in size,
(And they were never really stars at heart)
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.
The Exposed Nest
You were forever finding some new play.
So when I saw you down on hands and knees
In the meadow, busy with the new-cut hay,
Trying, I thought, to set it up on end,
I went to show you how to make it stay,
If that was your idea, against the breeze,
And, if you asked me, even help pretend
To make it root again and grow afresh.
But ’twas no make-believe with you today,
Nor was the grass itself your real concern,
Though I found your hand full of wilted fern,
Steel-bright June-grass, and blackening heads of clovers.
‘Twas a nest full of young birds on the ground
The cutter-bar had just gone champing over
(Miraculously without tasking flesh)
And left defenseless to the heat and light.
You wanted to restore them to their right
Of something interposed between their sight
And too much world at once—could means be found.
The way the nest-full every time we stirred
Stood up to us as to a mother-bird
Whose coming home has been too long deferred,
Made me ask would the mother-bird return
And care for them in such a change of scene
And might our meddling make her more afraid.
That was a thing we could not wait to learn.
We saw the risk we took in doing good,
But dared not spare to do the best we could
Though harm should come of it; so built the screen
You had begun, and gave them back their shade.
All this to prove we cared. Why is there then
No more to tell? We turned to other things.
I haven’t any memory—have you?—
Of ever coming to the place again
To see if the birds lived the first night through,
And so at last to learn to use their wings.