In the summer between my fourth and fifth year of university I did a four-month unpaid internship at the National Post. Without a penny to spare for recreation, I turned to the University of Toronto’s library for my reading material, and I decided to sample some of the giants of American Literature: I read Ernest Hemingway and Gore Vidal, and I devoured the complete works of Robert Frost.
Most people know a couple of Frost poems in passing. The Road Not Taken usually finds its way into your school curriculum at some point, and everyone knows the line, “Good fences make good neighbors” even if they’ve never read Mending Wall. I enjoyed them both, obviously, but those aren’t the poems that compelled me to copy them down into one of my notebooks and turn back to them in idle moments over the years. These are the ones that have stayed with me, and why:
by Robert Frost
A saturated meadow,
Sun-shaped and jewel-small,
A circle scarcely wider
Than the trees around were tall;
Where winds were quite excluded,
And the air was stifling sweet
With the breath of many flowers, –
A temple of the heat.
There we bowed us in the burning,
As the sun’s right worship is,
To pick where none could miss them
A thousand orchises;
For though the grass was scattered,
yet every second spear
Seemed tipped with wings of color,
That tinged the atmosphere.
We raised a simple prayer
Before we left the spot,
That in the general mowing
That place might be forgot;
Or if not all so favored,
Obtain such grace of hours,
that none should mow the grass there
While so confused with flowers.
A good poem speaks to everyone on an individual level, and Rose Pogonias takes me to a dozen secluded meadows Ive come across in Algonquin Provincial Park over the years. There’s something magical in finding a hidden place all your own, a spot that seems frozen in its prime. Time stands still there, and you can drink it in at your leisure, feeling the peace of it sink into your marrow. I was so taken with the picture his words painted that I was jarred at the thought of someone mowing my wildflowers down. My paradise is in the wild, but of course Frost was in New England’s pastures. He hopes the innocence of his flowers will be spared the scythe and live as they are forever, whereas mine need not fear the hand of man. I found myself feeling sympathy for his less-secure happiness, and the ridiculousness of that impulse made me smile.
The Cow in Apple Time
by Robert Frost
Something inspires the only cow of late
To make no more of a wall than an open gate,
And think no more of wall-builders than fools.
Her face is flecked with pomace and she drools
A cider syrup. Having tasted fruit,
She scorns a pasture withering to the root.
She runs from tree to tree where lie and sweeten.
The windfalls spiked with stubble and worm-eaten.
She leaves them bitten when she has to fly.
She bellows on a knoll against the sky.
Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.
The cow, to me, is a wonderful allegory of what hedonism can do. Who doesn’t feel fettered by the constraints of a society and its rules sometimes? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to make hay while the sun shines, to set aside what I can have and take what I want? Yet look what happens to the cow when she escapes the farm to live her dream of grazing free through the orchard? She gets a stomach ache, and –without a farmer to milk her– her udders hurt and then go dry. We all must pay the piper, especially when we pursue a desire that is denied us for good reason. This poem is about freedom and consequence, told through a barnyard animal. It’s beautiful.
A Minor Bird
by Robert Frost
I have wished a bird would fly away,
And not sing by my house all day;
Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could bear no more.
The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.
And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.
There’s a tremendous self-awareness in this poem. Frost is unhappy, and knows not why. He projects his discontent onto an innocent bird, but in the course of shooing it away he realizes that the fault lies within himself. This is a realization that we should all seek when we find ourselves in a sour mood. The first step in dealing with a problem is recognizing it. The second step is moving forward from that realization without being distracted by excuses.
by Robert Frost
A plow, they say, to plow the snow.
They cannot mean to plant it, no–
Unless in bitterness to mock
At having cultivated rock.
Short, pithy, flippant and yet melancholy. New England’s winters are justly famous, and for a farmer they can be a source of resentment. Still, there is some amusement to be drawn from complaining if it’s done eloquently. Frost is nothing if not eloquent. He’s a philosopher on the human condition, but his sophistry is as plain spoken as the Yankee yeoman he considered himself to be. He once said, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life — It goes on.” That’s a sobering comfort to draw upon.
His epithet was drawn from one of his poems: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” We should all be so lucky.