Guy Rotella

Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On "An Urban Convalescence"

No one has accused James Merrill of being postmodern. If anything, his accomplished formalism and his reliance on traditional verse forms and conventions have made his poetry seem slightly anachronistic. If we are not to dismiss Merrill as a reactionary but to try to define his place in postmodern American poetry, we need to rethink the models of literary history and change such which we have read American poetry since World War II, for his work challenges the ways we have configured the aftermath of modernism.

[….]

Merrill s work calls for a model of literary change that is not based on contests between such binary oppositions as past and present, convention and originality, tradition and experiment. If the possible uses of the past are confined to the reductive models of iconoclasm, nostalgia, and reactionary recuperation, we cannot account for Merrill’s project, which is rhetorically and functionally discontinuous with the canonical tradition his forms invoke. "An Urban Convalescence," which opens Water Street (1962), has been singled out by Merrill’s readers as marking the beginning of his mature work. I propose, however, to cast this poem on a larger, historical stage as an exemplary postmodern ‘beginning" at the end of the modern idea of history as progress. To highlight Merrill’s "lateness" to modernity and progress, we can approach "An Urban Convalescence" by way of a detour and consider Paul de Man’s remarks on the figure of convalescence. "The human figures that epitomize modernity, he writes, are defined by experiences such as childhood or convalescence, a freshness of perception that results from a slate wiped clear, from the absence of a past that has not yet had time to tarnish the immediacy of perception of a past that, in the case of convalescence, is so threatening that it has to be forgotten" (157). If this use of convalescence is "modern," Merrill’s use of the figure is clearly different. He diagnoses "the sickness of our time" not as a Nietzschean "historical sickness," but precisely as forgetfulness, a series of slates wiped clean in response to a threat posed by the mere presence of the past. Of course the "freshness," this modern erasure of history, is the postmodern poet’s very sickness, his particular past, and Merrill’s poem traces his "convalescence" from just such "modernity."

The poem begins with an emblematic modern scene:

[quotes lines 1-8]

Luxuriating in the "filth of years," jaws dribbling "rubble," the crane is doing the work of demolition. While the scene suggests an unseemly overindulgence in the detritus of the past, the crane is also the agent of urban renewal. Making things "new" by tearing them up, it represents a militant commitment to change, which regards the "simple fact of having lasted" as a threat that calls for the swift retribution of a BLAST. And the mystification and even religious awe that attend the scene ironically hint at the spiritual mission of this breaking of the vessels.

With the allusion to Robert Graves, this devastation that leaves "not one stone upon another" reverberates with more specific historical and literary connotations. The ‘huge crane" brings to mind Graves’s White Goddess, presumably because cranes were sacred to the goddess—a mother-muse figure who authorizes an Orphic model of a poetic language grounded in nature. Graves also links cranes to the invention of writing and cites a legend that Mercury invented the letters after watching a flight of cranes, "which make letters as they fly" (224). In Egypt, Mercury was Thoth, the god who invented writing and whose symbol was the crane-like white ibis (227). Graves further suggests that the association of cranes with writing and literary secrets makes sense because "cranes fly in V-formation and the characters of all early alphabets, nicked with a knife on the rind of boughs or on clay tablets, were naturally angular" (227). At the "close" of his book, he offers a poem imagining the wrathful second coming of the goddess at her "cannibalistic worst," in the form of "a gaunt, red-wattled crane," to punish "man’s irreligious improvidence" that has led to the exhaustion of the "natural resources of the soil and sea" (486).

Merrill’s bringing in Graves effects an odd pun. If the reference to Graves suggests that the crane as goddess is punishing "man’s" improvidence, its incarnation as a mechanical crane—an agent or, at least, an accomplice of "man’s" sins against nature—is problematic. Furthermore, the destruction wrought by the mechanical crane the "old man" operates is purely mechanistic, demystified, and urban, and takes place in the linear time of Time; this crane is indeed an agent of forgetfulness. The crane as a goddess incarnate, however, is an elemental force, whose destructions belong to the cyclical time of nature and myth, and she threatens to avenge herself on those who forget. Merrill’s conflation of historical and mythic forces and conceptions of change in a pun enables him to equate these mastering "ideologies" and thus lightly to sidestep both. His pun exposes the nostalgia underwriting a modernity that seeks to return to and recover a foundation through technical progress. By positioning himself at the margins as a "meek" bystander, he resists both progressive history and a regressive appeal to myths of return.

In this maneuver, the pun on "crane" becomes a textual "ground" that stages the conflict and continuity between progressive historical time and cyclical myth. Unlike a metaphor, a pun highlights a nonhierarchical, synchronic duplicity, doubleness, or difference internal to the signifier. The distance between the mythic crane, a symbol or reincarnation of the goddess, and the technological crane committed to an urban destruction and renewal is the distance between mythic-pastoral and technological-urban conceptions of death and rebirth. Merrill’s pun compresses the conceptual and historical distance between two different systems in a synchronic doubleness and figures it as internal to language. Grounding himself in a purely literal and accidental resource, Merrill questions the claims of both the technological and the mythic "crane"—the Janusfaced deus ex machina of the modernist aesthetic. Thus "the close of The White Goddess," with which Merrill opens, is not merely the conclusion of Graves’s book but the end of a poetic era.

[….]

[W]hile Merrill’s mock-sublime "crane" makes light at once of an Orphic poetic and of a now senile faith in technical renewals, he also "obeys" both principles, if "inversely," for a pun is a curious hybrid. Its truth is, after all, technical, residing in its letters; at the same time, it gives of an uncanny double of super- or sub-literal vision. For Merrill’s relation to these master myths is not a progressive antagonism: he is not out to destroy them in order to install other, more valid myths in their place. From his postmetaphysical perspective, all truths are rhetorical, and all ideologies, mastering and marginal, are textual options. And he presents this rhetorical position not as a timeless truth but as indicative of the historical state of affairs at "the close of The White Goddess."

Merrill’s narrative of convalescence unfolds the options that the crane levels. The speaker remembers the figure of a garland decorated the lintel of the building being torn down. The iconoclastic destruction of received structures—specifically structures of closure like buildings—is "inscribed" with a garland, "stone fruit, stone leaves, / Which years of grit had etched until it thrust / Roots down, even into the poor soil of my seeing." Again, the garland "sways" into "focus" as an emblem of the cyclical-mythic time that underwrites the modern project of catastrophic progress, of radical breaks with history. Next, Merrill moves to the memory of another representation of natural force—"a particular cheap engraving of garlands." The engraving evokes an equally fuzzy and belated avatar of the White Goddess, whose link to reproductive forces and "deadly" power still manages to register, just as the forlorn pastoral emblem of "garlands" still manages to be remembered—if at the expense of the history of the buildings and the people themselves, whose features "lie toppled underneath that year’s fashions." The engraving was

Bought for a few francs long ago,

All calligraphic tendril and cross-hatched rondure,

Ten years ago, and crumpled up to stanch

Boughs dripping, whose white gestures filled a cab,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Also, to clasp them, the small, red-nailed hand

Of no one I can place

 

And this forgetfulness locates Merrill in his "urban" setting, in Graves’s words, "The Goddess is no townswoman: she is the Lady of the Wild Things" (481). By forgetting the goddess, Merrill both implicates himself in the modern "sickness" and turns away from a pastoral recuperation. Following this episode, stanzas of drastic "exposure" underscore the poet’s new clarity about his place on the margins of progressive history and natural force, which are themselves only figurations of centers of power—emblems and chapters in the "massive volume of the world." Such knowledge of pervasive textuality, which is also "self-knowledge," delivers him "indoors at last" to an explicitly and historically textual "house."

The speaker’s move indoors coincides with a formal switch to quatrains. Merrill himself calls this poem "a turning point" for him and associates this turn with a return, with his staged formal switch: "I remember writing half of it and thinking it was going to be impossible to finish. Then I had the idea of letting it go back to a more formal pattern at the end" (Recitative 45). Elsewhere, he tells us that "’Stanza’ is the Italian word for ‘room,’" and relates his fondness for regular stanzas to his attachment to "interior spaces, the shape and correlation of rooms in a house," rather than the vistas it commands or the "human comedies" it stages (Recitative 3). Here, the enveloping abba rhyme reinforces the enclosure of the quatrains. And the poem’s resolution suggests that convalescence will involve remembering closures and interior spaces, answering a "dull need to make some kind of house / Out of the life lived, out of the love spent." Given the in-and-out movement that constitutes the poem’s adventure, from "out for a walk" to "indoors at last," the repeated "out of’ in the final line has an added resonance. "Out of" may mean not only "constituted of" but "outside the lived life, the spent love. If we register both senses, the house-poem made out of the lived life moves out of the life lived. Merrill here dedicates himself to his special brand of transpersonal autobiographical writing. For his move "inside," to the at least temporarily protected space of his own life, is modified by the fact that he also moves into quatrains. Subscribing to such marked conventions without any effort to naturalize his forms effects an impersonal, intertextual erosion of the personal, and Merrill’s formalism, always sharply aware of this, does not offer protection but leaves him open to a different kind of history and loss

Merrill often makes the textual dangers and "losses"—of signature and singularity, of authorship and authority—that are internal to writing his explicit subjects, but his conventional forms also work implicitly to efface the speaking subject, dispersing it in the drift of impersonal time and history. Poetic conventions such as meter, rhyme schemes, and stanza forms, are timing devices that are also always more than mere schemes, because they remember a past and carry with them the burden of a public history. Thus Merrill’s urban convalescence inside quatrains represents more than an urbanity of manners that remediates the natural or the oracular. A convalescence that identifies the "indoors" with formal stanzas dissociates the "inside" from the subjective or the intuitive. As the architectural metaphor of house also signals, Merrill is interested in public building, in transmitting a public history. His conventions make for this historical dimension, while his artificial staging of his forms registers their anachronism and thus divests them of historical authority. Urban as well as urbane, Merrill can maintain a critical distance from progress and historical authority, from Orphic, oracular, or intuitive speech and conventions.

For Merrill, change and continuity are not polar opposites: continuity is infected with change and change with continuity. For example, situating himself inside quatrains in "An Urban Convalescence" allows him to revise himself and question what are presumably his authorizing values. He begins with a diagnosis of planned obsolescence as "the sickness of our time" that requires things be "blasted in their prime." Yet he immediately overturns this judgment:

There are certain phrases which to use in a poem

Is like rubbing silver with quicksilver. Bright

But facile, the glamour deadens overnight

For instance, how "the sickness of our time"

 

Enhances, then debases, what I feel

This "revision" implies that his "conservative" rejection of novelty has itself joined the "great coarsening drift of things" (Recitative 60) or "progress." His second thoughts occur, however, in a conventional form that would conserve the past. In this disjunction, his conventional forms divest themselves of authority: they are dissociated from a conservative ideology that would judge the present by taking refuge in the canonical authority of the past. If originality and novelty are outmoded concepts for Merrill, so is the expectation of a correlation between convention and authority. He employs conventions not because they carry a prescriptive authority but as if they did, at once remembering and transmitting a past and denying it any absolute vitality or validity beyond its being there, a shared, public past. For the anachronism of his forms in the time of Time and in one’s own "life lived" and "love spent" are evident enough. Moreover, to claim any inherent validity or recuperative efficacy for his forms would reinscribe him in the logic of modernity. Indeed, when he stages his more elaborate forms within larger pieces—as when he breaks into quatrains in the middle of a poem containing blank verse or even prose—he presents such forms as quotations cut off from their original contexts, functions, and "grounds." In his hybridizing use, the "quoted" forms both carry historical associations and assume new functions in their new contexts. Such functional discontinuity again subverts any claim to canonical authority, and traditional forms are at the same time technically closed and rhetorically open.

Merrill’s distinction is his ability to register at once the textuality and the historical nature of writing. His polyvalent literalism and his fondness for "accidents" and puns in general foreground the play of the signifier and approach an internalization of history within poetic language. His conventional formalism, however, holds this tendency in check by placing poetic language within a public literary history. Thus he can be grounded in textuality, doing without historical or metaphysical foundations, yet stop this side of an ahistorical, self-reflexive subjectivity, for the textual inside is governed by publicly recognizable, historically coded rules, which transmit a past even if they do not carry any inherent validity.

Guy Rotella: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

I have argued that the concepts of indeterminacy, correspondence, and complementarity are useful for developing a sense of Frost's poems and of their modernity. As illustration, a single poem will have to serve, a famous one. "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" stages its play of opposites at typically Frostian borders between night and day, storm and hearth, nature and culture, individual and group, freedom and responsibility. It works them, not "out" to resolution but in permanent suspension as complementary counters in mens animi, the feeling thought of active mind. The poem is made to make the mind just that. It unsettles certitude even in so small a matter as the disposition of accents in the opening line: "Whose woods these are I think I know." The monosyllabic tetrameter declares itself as it declares. Yet the "sound of sense" is uncertain. As an expression of doubtful guessing, "think" opposes "know," with its air of certitude. The line might be read to emphasize doubt (Whose woods these are I think I know) or confident knowledge (Whose woods these are I think I know). Once the issue is introduced, even a scrupulously "neutral" reading points it up. The evidence for choosing emphasis is insufficient to the choice.

One of Frost's characteristic devices is to set up and undermine a case of the pathetic fallacy in such a way that both construction and collapse stay actively in play. In "Stopping by Woods," the undermining nearly precedes the setting up. "Must" gives the game away, as the speaker (exercising indeterminacy) interferes with the reality he observes, imposing his thoughts and feelings on it. "Darkest" contributes to the pattern. Is the evening, say, the winter solstice, literally darkest? Could it be, given the way that snow concentrates light? Or is "darkest" a judgment the speaker projects? In the next stanza, the speaker's "reading into" nature intensifies to the point where harness bells "actually" speak. Then, as if to emphasize that such speaking is a human addition to a speechless scene, we hear that the only other sound is the "sweep" of light wind on softly falling snow. Those two categories of evidence, the self-consciously imposed and therefore suspect yet understandable human one, and the apparently indifferent yet comfortingly beautiful natural one, seem to produce the description of the woods as "lovely" and "dark and deep," a place of both (dangerous) attraction and (self-protective) threat. The oppositions are emphasized by Frost's intended punctuation—a comma after "lovely"; none after "dark," and the double doubleness of attraction and threat complicates the blunt "But" that begins the next line. Which woods, if any, is being rejected? How far does recalling that one has "promises to keep" go toward keeping them in fact?

The poem's formal qualities, while not obviously "experimental," also contribute to its balancing act. The closing repetition emphasizes the speaker's commitment to his responsibilities. It also emphasizes the repetitive tedium that makes the woods an attractive alternative to those responsibilities. This leaves open the question of just how much arguing is left to be done before any action is taken. The rhyme scheme contributes to the play. Its linked pattern seems completed and resolved in the final stanza, underlining the effect of closure: aaba, bbcb, ccdc, dddd. But is a repeated word a rhyme? Is the resolution excessive; does the repeated line work as a sign of forced closure? None of this is resolved; it is kept in complementary suspension. Similarly, the poem is clearly a made thing, an object or artifact, as its formal regularities attest; it is also an event in continuous process, as its present participial title announces and as the present tense employed throughout suggests. At the same time, the poem has a narrative thrust that tempts us to see the speaker move on (even though he does not), just as too much insistence on the poem as stranded in the present tense falsely makes it out as static. In the words of "Education by Poetry," "A thing, they say, is an event. . . . I believe it is almost an event." Balancing, unbalancing, rebalancing, those acts are the life of the poem, of the poet making and the reader taking it. Indeterminacy and complementarity are implicit in them.

From "Comparing Conceptions: Frost and Eddington, Heisenberg and Bohr." In On Frost: The Best from American Literature. Ed. Edwin H. Cady and Louis J. Budd. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Duke UP. Orginally published in American Literature 59:2 (May 1987).

Guy Rotella: On "Birches"

Although "Birches" describes a boy's game instead of a chore, it too has fact, dream, and in that intent game a commitment as deep as one of earnest love. Here Frost's comments on being at home in figurative values are most apt for his actual poetic images: knowing how to ride metaphor is analogous to knowing how to ride birches.

The facts about the ice storm in "Birches" grow the more and more figurative as the poet's imagined preference sounds real and prosaic. In the first lines, the poet associates a real scene with an image in his mind, and he deliberately distinguishes between the two. The casual assumption, "you must have seen them," makes his statements sound public and verifiable:

[quotes ll. 1-7]

What follows is by no means lifeless fact but an enchanting account. Not Just some ordinary woods, the enameled trees look as crafted and ornamental as fine glass sculpture, and the fallen ice evokes a mythical catastrophe:

[quotes ll. 7-13]

Again the poet knows metaphor's limits and implies that anyone knows them. The offhand "You'd think" shows how common it is to slip into expressions of fancy and fall back on shared myths about the heavens and earth.

The accurate description in the next lines also suggests possible metaphors :

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 . . .

After "withered," "bowed," and "years afterwards," I tend to picture old men bowed by life's burdens, but that is not the case. As part of our education in metaphor, we must learn that a visual image can take us in several directions. To the poet these trees are

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair Before them over their hands to dry in the sun.

The poet then circles back to his first image of the boy. That turn itself suggests something about the way one habitually thinks of truth and fact:

But I was going to say when Truth broke in With all her matter of fact about the ice storm . . .

"Truth" with a capital "T" is abstraction personified, a figurative value. She, a trusted absolute, it seems, and not the poet interrupts with these "facts"—"crystal shells" and "the inner dome of heaven." By implication, the poet prefers an untruth which does not deal in facts. His fancy, though, is down to earth. No idle, elvish tale here:

[quotes ll. 23-40]

Why is the game of this solitary boy so appealing and poignant? He never expresses his feelings, whether of joy, accomplishment, or adventure. His game, which leaves the birches limp, places him in no idyllic, pantheistic relation with nature, yet it redeems itself in part. The meaning of his actions is not explicit. As Frost once said, in poetry "We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections" ("Education by Poetry," p. 332). Here the hints and indirections tease us to make more of the parable. At the same time, something holds us back, an adherence to fact, perhaps, to orchises or apples or birches. The tease lies in the account of the boy's thoroughness and intentness in his sport. An air of dedication, purpose, and fulfillment hovers about "one by one," "over and over again," "not one . . . not one." The boy has power; he subdues and conquers. He understands perfectly how to maneuver the trees and fly from branches to ground. The predicates which convey this could preface some finality. "He learned all there was" and "he always kept his poise," themselves poised at the ends of lines, evoke the mastery and freedom of one who knows "all there is" about life. But the boy's wisdom, after its fling into the air, lands on something specific: "He learned all there was / To learn about not launching out too soon," "He always kept his poise / To the top branches." His knowledge is valid in that context, as truth in "Mowing" is valid in terms of the sun’s heat and the silence.

[....]

The swinger of birches, boy or poet, must know his own powers and know the strength of the trees and the strength of metaphor.

This parable is both history and dream:

[quotes ll. 41-53]

Unlike the boy among the birches, the poet is subdued by a "pathless wood." The form of his dream of release corresponds to the boy's physical action: getting away from earth to begin "over and over again."

In the last lines, the poet clearly uses the parable for its figurative value, and another of Frost's comments comes to mind: the aim of metaphor is "to restore you to your ideas of free will" ("Education by Poetry," p. 333). The poet's imagination, with metaphors which attend to longings and to real events, restores free will without distorting the truth. The trees are not bent by the boy; thinking that he changes the woods is the fiction. However, it seems someone really has climbed the trees and enjoyed a flight from sky to earth. By using metaphors which fuse fact and dream, the poet is no longer beaten back; and he recovers the freedom of the boy who knows all there is to know and who always kept his poise:

[quotes ll. 54-61]

In the end, dividing Frost's poetic images into fact, dream and both is impossible. Frost undermines such divisions in a manner both playful and serious, exploring slippery issues about the natures of perception, interpretation, reality and truth. His poems often illustrate the mind seeking out metaphor and meaning in some rural or domestic scene, testing different possibilities. They also show with varying degrees of irony the mind, language, and familiar, perhaps inherent, myths imposing themselves on a landscape. Or maybe the landscape imposes something on the mind. . . .

From "Comparing Conceptions: Frost and Eddington, Heisenberg and Bohr." In On Frost: The Best from American Literature. Ed. Edwin H. Cady and Louis J. Budd. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Duke UP. Orginally published in American Literature 59:2 (May 1987).

Poem "Birches"

Although "Birches" describes a boy's game instead of a chore, it too has fact, dream, and in that intent game a commitment as deep as one of earnest love. Here Frost's comments on being at home in figurative values are most apt for his actual poetic images: knowing how to ride metaphor is analogous to knowing how to ride birches.

The facts about the ice storm in "Birches" grow the more and more figurative as the poet's imagined preference sounds real and prosaic. In the first lines, the poet associates a real scene with an image in his mind, and he deliberately distinguishes between the two. The casual assumption, "you must have seen them," makes his statements sound public and verifiable:

[quotes ll. 1-7]

What follows is by no means lifeless fact but an enchanting account. Not Just some ordinary woods, the enameled trees look as crafted and ornamental as fine glass sculpture, and the fallen ice evokes a mythical catastrophe:

[quotes ll. 7-13]

Again the poet knows metaphor's limits and implies that anyone knows them. The offhand "You'd think" shows how common it is to slip into expressions of fancy and fall back on shared myths about the heavens and earth.

The accurate description in the next lines also suggests possible metaphors :

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 . . .

After "withered," "bowed," and "years afterwards," I tend to picture old men bowed by life's burdens, but that is not the case. As part of our education in metaphor, we must learn that a visual image can take us in several directions. To the poet these trees are

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair Before them over their hands to dry in the sun.

The poet then circles back to his first image of the boy. That turn itself suggests something about the way one habitually thinks of truth and fact:

But I was going to say when Truth broke in With all her matter of fact about the ice storm . . .

"Truth" with a capital "T" is abstraction personified, a figurative value. She, a trusted absolute, it seems, and not the poet interrupts with these "facts"—"crystal shells" and "the inner dome of heaven." By implication, the poet prefers an untruth which does not deal in facts. His fancy, though, is down to earth. No idle, elvish tale here:

[quotes ll. 23-40]

Why is the game of this solitary boy so appealing and poignant? He never expresses his feelings, whether of joy, accomplishment, or adventure. His game, which leaves the birches limp, places him in no idyllic, pantheistic relation with nature, yet it redeems itself in part. The meaning of his actions is not explicit. As Frost once said, in poetry "We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections" ("Education by Poetry," p. 332). Here the hints and indirections tease us to make more of the parable. At the same time, something holds us back, an adherence to fact, perhaps, to orchises or apples or birches. The tease lies in the account of the boy's thoroughness and intentness in his sport. An air of dedication, purpose, and fulfillment hovers about "one by one," "over and over again," "not one . . . not one." The boy has power; he subdues and conquers. He understands perfectly how to maneuver the trees and fly from branches to ground. The predicates which convey this could preface some finality. "He learned all there was" and "he always kept his poise," themselves poised at the ends of lines, evoke the mastery and freedom of one who knows "all there is" about life. But the boy's wisdom, after its fling into the air, lands on something specific: "He learned all there was / To learn about not launching out too soon," "He always kept his poise / To the top branches." His knowledge is valid in that context, as truth in "Mowing" is valid in terms of the sun’s heat and the silence.

[....]

The swinger of birches, boy or poet, must know his own powers and know the strength of the trees and the strength of metaphor.

This parable is both history and dream:

[quotes ll. 41-53]

Unlike the boy among the birches, the poet is subdued by a "pathless wood." The form of his dream of release corresponds to the boy's physical action: getting away from earth to begin "over and over again."

In the last lines, the poet clearly uses the parable for its figurative value, and another of Frost's comments comes to mind: the aim of metaphor is "to restore you to your ideas of free will" ("Education by Poetry," p. 333). The poet's imagination, with metaphors which attend to longings and to real events, restores free will without distorting the truth. The trees are not bent by the boy; thinking that he changes the woods is the fiction. However, it seems someone really has climbed the trees and enjoyed a flight from sky to earth. By using metaphors which fuse fact and dream, the poet is no longer beaten back; and he recovers the freedom of the boy who knows all there is to know and who always kept his poise:

[quotes ll. 54-61]

In the end, dividing Frost's poetic images into fact, dream and both is impossible. Frost undermines such divisions in a manner both playful and serious, exploring slippery issues about the natures of perception, interpretation, reality and truth. His poems often illustrate the mind seeking out metaphor and meaning in some rural or domestic scene, testing different possibilities. They also show with varying degrees of irony the mind, language, and familiar, perhaps inherent, myths imposing themselves on a landscape. Or maybe the landscape imposes something on the mind. . . .

from "Comparing Conceptions: Frost and Eddington, Heisenberg and Bohr." In On Frost: The Best from American Literature. Ed. Edwin H. Cady and Louis J. Budd. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Duke UP. Orginally published in American Literature 59:2 (May 1987).

Guy Rotella: On "Home Burial"

However “dim,” the vestiges of elegy in “The Death of the Hired Man” are largely traditional and consolatory in effect; the presence of elegiac vestiges in “Home Burial”28 is more overt, but their effect is a good deal less conventional and far less happy. Earlier I mentioned a significant but oblique exception to the general exclusion of Frost from consideration as an elegist in studies of the genre by Sacks, Shaw, Ramazani, Vickery, and Spargo. That exception is the extended discussion of “Home Burial” in Shaw's Elegy & Paradox. Frost's tragic drama (like “The Exposed Nest,” the poem is also covertly autobiographical) depicts a marriage and home being destroyed (or buried) by the irreconcilably different and competing modes of grief experienced by parents suffering the death of their first child: he accepts traditional forms of solace; she is inconsolable and won't (or can't) share her bereavement or let it go. Shaw's analysis of the poem is characteristically insightful, and its profile aligns nicely with the brilliant responses to “Home Burial” offered by Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney in Homage to Robert Frost.29 But Shaw's immediate concern is to demonstrate the inability of the psychoanalytic and therapeutic model of mourning to account for all the effects of elegy in general and of Frost's poem in particular. To show the limitations of Freud's account (according to which successful mourners survive grief, overcoming loss by accepting a consoling figurative substitution for it, while unsuccessful mourners are destroyed by grief: overcome by loss, they reject consolatory substitution and fall cripplingly ill with melancholy), Shaw focuses on Frost's refusal in “Home Burial” reliably to distinguish strong from weak mourners in hierarchically psychic or other judgmental terms; that is, he focuses on Frost's willingness to grant both the husband's consoled response and the wife's inconsolable one their due, in whatever bittersweet mixture of sympathy and disparagement each of them deserves. This is wholly right, I think, and in keeping with the poem's exposure of language's limited ability to heal the wounds it depicts: throughout “Home Burial” words (including body language) are salt as well as salve. Still, there are ways in which those vestiges of elegy Shaw doesn't address play vital roles in Frost's great poem, not least in affirming and assailing the logic of figuration Freud and traditional elegy enact.

The husband in “Home Burial” seems to have achieved the solace provided by “normal” mourning. He's laid the child to rest himself, burying him in the “little” farmyard plot where his people are. The intimacies of this involvement, the homely placement of the family graveyard, and the dead child's accommodation within familiar patterns of life, death, and continuity all console him (as does his pragmatic response to infant mortality, an event more common and predictable than shockingly rare in the early twentieth-century moment when the poem is set). Meanwhile, the gap between his real but solaced sorrow and his wife's desperate and irremediable grief has left the couple estranged, their affective and sexual life destroyed (the comfort he means to convey by comparing the graveyard to a bedroom, as if to say, with elegies before and since, that death is only sleep, also dreadfully declares, and half-inadvertently at best, that their marital life is dead or frigid). The husband struggles bravely to bridge the gulf between them, but his attempts at gentleness and understanding, his willingness to be taught, and his moving plea that he be allowed to penetrate his wife's suffering (“ ‘Let me into your grief’ ”) are fatally damaged by utterances that shift uncontrollably from affectionate accommodation to angry accusation. An irrepressible sense of the “natural” superiority of his own responses (“ ‘What was it brought you up to think …’ ”), his will to power (he mounts bullishly; she cowers under him), and his snide, conventional views of gender (“ ‘A man must partly give up being a man / With women-folk’ ”) all disable his attempts at reconciliation. Meanwhile, Amy's wholly convincing grief renders her inflexible (“She … refused him any help / With the least stiffening of her neck and silence”). She, too, has gender biases (assessing his ability to understand her feelings, she says, “‘I don't know rightly whether any man can’”). Amy accuses her husband, only half-justly, of not knowing how to speak. And she denies his grief any legitimacy whatever. She insists that precisely because he buried the child himself and expressed his sorrows about death and decay in terms of the ordinary tasks and talk of farming, he “ ‘couldn't care’.” She evaluates the very sources of his consolation as beyond the pale of meaningful emotion. In words of almost Shakespearean dignity and philosophical weight (her “Don't, don't, don't, don't” echoing Lear's imperious negations, for instance, or Benedick's calm conviction in Much Ado About Nothing that “every one can master a grief but him that has it”), Amy rejects the very idea of human compassion. To her, neither condolence nor community exists, let alone provides convincing solace in the face of individual death and private sorrow. Her enormously moving words have tragic grandeur. In their melancholic exclusivity and refusal of limits they are also nearly deranged, for what Amy assails are the unalterable facts of time and change and death, the root conditions of life itself.

“Home Burial” is desolate and desolating. It ends in impasse. I want to conclude this brief discussion of it by considering how a particularly powerful vestige of elegy (and of anti-elegy) in the poem participates in that impasse. The husband of “Home Burial” is a farmer, of course; he takes solace in performing his accustomed tasks. He is also a version of Frost, a farmer-poet whose own first child died at four, and who, I suspect, took solace for that in his own accustomed tasks, including the handiwork of making this scarifying poem. The identification between the poem's farmer-speaker and Frost as farmer-poet is confirmed by biographical fact. It's also confirmed by each man's investment in metaphor and by the etymological and epigrammatic logics that bind spade to sword (“spada”) and sword to pen (“the pen is …”), connections that emphasize the inextricability of creative and destructive elements in every human art and action. Those things in turn help make audible the echo, in the husband's homely comparison of his deceased first child to the “best birch fence a man can build,” of Ben Jonson's description of his deceased first son as “his best piece of poetry.” Like Jonson's poem, Frost's “Home Burial” interrogates the worth of elegy and of poetry alike. Both poems are fully controlled yet racked with guilt and self-loathing. Both insist that nothing humans make: fences, marriages, homes, children, or poems, can escape the deathly “rot” that comes to everything. Those intertextual matters join with Amy's attack on her husband's earthy metaphor and with her disparagement of the repetitive rhythmic (that is, poetic) actions he used in digging the grave, which actions, in her view, unfeelingly lightened—like an elegy—the gravity of grief by lifting or transposing, converting, or turning sorrow into something else—consolation, say, a metaphor, a poem—by means of patterned labor. And all of these details indicate the presence in “Home Burial” both of Frost's heartfelt trust in poetry's ability to temper or “stay” sorrow and his chastising doubts about that ability, including his guilt that he may be profiting aesthetically from his child's death and his fear of Elinor's disapproval that he writes about such things at all. “Home Burial” puts on trial not only the best birch fence a man can build, but marriage, elegy, poetry, and the entire beguiling array of human efforts to forge a satisfying form of consolation in the face of death and grief. All are praised for their capacity and accused of selfishness, delusion, and fraud (or forgery). “ ‘There, you have said it all, … and you feel better’,” the husband says, confirming his trust in the healing power (the talking cure) of conversation, poetry, and language. “ ‘You—oh, you think the talk is all’,” she replies, incurably wounded, wholly unconvinced, and entirely dismissive.

From Robert Frost and the Vestiges of Elegy.

Guy Rotella: On "The Death of the Hired Man"

In “The Death of the Hired Man” elegiac response might be said to precede its occasion. Perhaps that's why the title forecasts the off-stage demise the dramatic final line supposedly reveals. Throughout the poem Mary anticipates Silas's death and works to manage in advance her husband Warren's reaction to it. As is well-known, “The Death of the Hired Man” dramatizes (without resolving) the timeless debate between justice and mercy: the competing positions those terms encode are represented in the poem by Warren's and Mary's respective responses to their wayward farmhand's return from his wanderings (ostensibly to ditch the meadow but in fact to die), and they're condensed in the poem's famous rival definitions of home (the tough-minded Warren calls it “the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in”; Mary describes it tenderly as “something you somehow haven't to deserve”). It's also well-known that Mary plays a tutelary role in the poem. I've written elsewhere about economic and gender aspects of “The Death of the Hired Man,” and about the ways in which Mary “works” on Warren: she helps him to extenuate before it's too late the harsh (if just) judgments of Silas she knows he'll regret when he encounters their hired hand in the diminished, terminal state she's already witnessed (her elegiac intervention takes on even greater resonance when, as it happens, Warren finds Silas not just worn out but dead).

Mary has multiple roles in the poem. Woman, wife, and teacher, she's also a figure of the poet: she muses, she's inspired by the moon, and the vine strings on her porch recall the Aeolian harp long associated with poetic imagination. Moreover, Mary is the sort of “womanly” poet-teacher who achieves her effects through the workings of affect rather than through pronouncement, argument, or precept. In a gradual, smartly managed and manipulative, yet entirely delicate and generous process developed throughout the course of the poem, Mary gently, powerfully moves Warren away from justice toward mercy. Her control of the situation is apparent from the start; she has all the strong verbs: she “heard,” “ran,” “put,” “pushed,” “shut,” “took,” “drew,” and “dragged.” Yet she allows Warren the semblance of control. Without objecting, she lets him express his initial, understandably aggrieved and justly harsh assessment of Silas: he's been irresponsible, mercenary, and disloyal. And when Mary does interject, it's not to deny the legitimacy of Warren's charges but to insist on Silas's now reduced condition and to ask for kindness in spite of his failings. Only after she successfully uses the tale of Silas's quarrel with the college-boy Harold Wilson (it moves Warren to remember the farmer's values he and Silas share), does Mary press her advantage. Helped by her quiet urging, Warren increasingly recollects that he and Silas are allies defending a world they hold in common against challenges and threats to it from the educated classes or from bankers. His empathy awakened, Warren then turns (is turned by Mary's ministrations) from judging Silas to praising him (he eloquently eulogizes Silas's skill in building a load of hay) and from accusing him to defending him (he refutes Mary's estimate that Silas's working days are done). Finally, using an intimately friendly form of Silas's name, Warren asserts his fundamental goodness: “I can't think Si ever hurt anyone.” This is the state of Warren's mind and feelings when he goes in and finds his friend and workman dead beside the stove.

Mary works on and with Warren's memories and inclinations to turn him away from his initial resentful, anti-encomiastic judgment of the prodigal Silas toward a more inclusive, empathetic, and forgiving appreciation of his flaws and his virtues, and also toward a fuller awareness of their common bond as members of a community or class threatened by competing sets of values. In this way, Mary protects Warren from the regret and self-recrimination he would have suffered if he'd discovered Silas dead in his earlier mood. I'll put it this way: working in part as a poet (“As if she played unheard some tenderness / That wrought on him beside her in the night”), Mary creates for Warren the conditions necessary for the elegiac work of mourning, making him more amenable than he would have been to consolation, however tacit his grief for Silas may be (perhaps it is not so much tacit as laconic: “Si” does sigh). In such ways, vestiges of elegy in “The Death of the Hired Man”—antiphonal voices; the processional aspect of Mary's mournful lyric interlude or nocturne: “a dim row, / The moon, the little silver cloud, and she”; the figures of weaving present in Silas's handiwork with hay and Warren's intricately braided representation of it, in Mary's vine strings, and in Warren's catching up of Mary's hand—contribute their own generic dimension to the poem's artfully ordinary family drama.

 

Guy Rotella: On "‘Out, Out—’"

Frost's “ ‘Out, Out—’ ”16 might seem an admissible exhibit in support of Ramazani's compelling case that the anti-elegiac modern poetry of mourning permanently keeps open the psychic injuries conventional elegies struggle to heal, and only in part because Frost's poem chillingly describes a fatal wounding. “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” not only cuts off elegy's usual conversion of mourning to solace, it seems to amputate grief itself, as if in the absence of reliable comfort sorrow is severed: the poem's abrupt conclusion and relentless past tense nearly nullify the present and future on which mourning and consolation depend. A boy had been helping to cut up firewood on a buzz saw. From the poem's outset the saw snarled and rattled with premonitory menace, but initially it also participated in the nearly idyllic domestic pattern the opening lines portray: a homely yard, cooperative engagement in productive labor, an atmosphere the scent of fresh-sawed wood makes “sweet,” the boy's sister coming companionably from the kitchen in her apron to call out “Supper”—all these details join the familiar vista of mountain ranges stretching westward in recessional rows beneath a setting sun to affirm the reliably stable continuities of rural life. Then, with an idyll-dispersing, confused and disruptive suddenness in which the saw seemed to leap at and the boy to give his hand, the boy's hand was “gone.” The implied (sociable) metaphor of lending a hand abruptly becomes a grisly fact, and the boy's place as a worker or “hand” in the rural community and economy he's inhabited is severed as well, irreversibly “spoiled.” All efforts made to save him fail. The candle of his life (“brief candle,” as the title's echo of Macbeth suggests) gutters and goes out. And, in the poem's curt last words, the boy's survivors, “since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” Resounding again with the passage in Macbeth its title recalls, the poem's stark tale of sound and fury seems intent on signifying nothing: absolute zero, the substantive void where neither grief nor comfort resides.

This summary captures only the grimmest portion of the effect of Frost’s poem, however. The reportorial bluntness and clenched, near emotionless conclusion of “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” occlude but don’t totally obscure or cancel other tones of feeling the poem contains, and contains in part by allowing vestiges of elegy to operate within and against its anti-elegiac harshness. For instance, “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” often conveys a mournful tenderness toward the boy that counters its otherwise naturalistic, utilitarian, or stoic treatment of his premature death and his family's and community's briskly pragmatic reaction to it. The speaker's counterfactual “wish” that the other workers at the saw might have called it a day a little early in order “To please the boy by giving him the half hour / That a boy counts so much when saved from work,” for example, makes room, in a poem otherwise so committed to facts, for the inclusion of imaginative alternatives that are more as well as less than “realistic” (the sort of thing provided in a different register by the counter-factual phrases “I like to think” and “I should prefer to have” in “Birches,” a poem which appeared with “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” in Mountain Interval)17. Similarly, the brevity of half an hour measured against the many years of potential life cut off by the boy's early death intensifies as well as disciplines the strong consolatory, even preventative desire the speaker's wish reveals (as the degree of cold in the poem's conclusion might be understood not only to stifle grief but also to measure the amount of real sorrow that has to be repressed if the boy's death isn’t to consume his survivors as well). Other aspects of the boy's portrayal also add warmth to the poem's cooler concerns with tough-minded accuracy and pragmatic self-preservation: movingly affectionate terms show him as poised uncertainly at the threshold of maturity, for instance: “big boy / Doing a man's work, though a child at heart”; and the boy is also frankly admired for achieving an entirely adult comprehension of his circumstances in a way that belies his years: in the moments before his death, he apprehends in full the extent and finality of the personal and social implications of his injury. Sympathy for the boy is conveyed by his own desperate words, by the “fright” the “watcher at his pulse” experienced, and by the stunned disbelief of the observers who “listened at his heart” and heard no more than this irresistibly descending terminal progression: “Little—less—nothing!”

Those aspects of “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” ameliorate its anti-elegiac qualities. At the same time, it is probably too much to claim that the voices of brother and sister in the poem echo the antiphonal division of mourning voices traditional elegies employ, or that the poem's rows of mountain ranges reflect the processions of natural and other mourners in such works. And it's clear that no matter how much the presence of sympathetic feelings in Frost's poem partially restores to it the affect of sorrow it seems to suppress, “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” finally refuses to or simply cannot convert its grief into conventional elegy's standard compensatory solace. And yet for all that it remains the case that “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” has significant elegiac elements. The effect is especially strong in the poem's use of the generically charged word “turned” in its otherwise ashen final phrase, where the term functions as a vital vestige of elegy. A meta-elegiac gesture—or ember—it ignites to make us feel intensely, heatedly, the absence of the traditional presence the poem's deprivation denies: its lack of precisely the definitive counter-turn to warmer solace elegy could once be trusted to provide. Perhaps one outcome of this is to create in readers attuned to genre a sense of the divide between what a poet performing within an inherited kind or mode might do and what a poet performing as a reporter is constrained to do. In any event, as “‘Out, Out—’ ” turns away from elegy and elegiac consolation, it also recounts the dismal cost of not turning elsewhere, or of having nowhere else to turn. In this way, the poem challenges as well as confirms the preference for laconic stoicism it is often praised for, and it achieves some of the effect of paradox Shaw associates with elegy, a reaching toward a plane where skepticism and faith remain in difficult and bracing conversation rather than in a combat necessarily fatal to one or the other or both.