Matthew A. Fike: On "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same"
Critical commentary on Frost's sonnet "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same" (1942) has presented but not explored a biographical controversy centered on the sonnet's composition. The poet's treatment of Eve's influence on birds has been read both as an "elegy" to his wife Elinor, who died in 1938, and as a loving tribute to his friend Kay Morrison, to whom he proposed marriage and who became his secretary in the same year. But even if elegiac, says the critic, the poem "turns out in the end not to be an elegy at all": the tone is generally considered positive, and the poem, whoever the poet had in mind when he composed it, is a love sonnet. The purpose of the present essay is to suggest that "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same" is a subtle meditation on the Fall, in which Frost complements affectionate portrayal with sadness—his love for Kay and his wife is tempered by feelings of failure and loss related to his marriage. By undercutting the joy of paradisal love and the sense that Eve's unfallen voice will never be completely lost, the poem conveys the lamentation to which all fallen love is heir.
In many ways, of course, the poem is highly positive, as Frost's own testimony suggests. At his birthday celebration in 1962, he praised Kay as "the lady who made me make it," referring to his most recent book, In the Clearing (published earlier that day and dedicated to her and others), and he recited "Birds' Song" in her honor. Fourteen years earlier, in a letter to Louis Untermeyer, Frost had praised her in language that anticipates the poem:
My secretary has soothed my spirit like music in her attendance on me and my affairs. She has written my letters and sent me off on my travels. It is an unusual friendship. I have come to value my poetry almost less than the friendships it has brought me. . . . I was thrust out into the desolateness of wondering about my past whether it had not been too cruel to those I had dragged with me almost to cry out to heaven for a word of reassurance that was not given me in time. Then came this girl stepping innocently into my days to give me something to think of besides dark regrets. . . . I wish in some indirect way she could come to know how I feel toward her.
Kay's "attendance" evidently had an influence on Frost's spirit as Eve's voice alters Adam's view of the birds' song. In each case, music is the metaphor of loving affection, and the poet, like Adam, responds to its soothing presence. The letter also anticipates the poem insofar as it echoes the Fall. Upon Elinor's death, Frost "was thrust out into the desolateness of wondering about my past," as Adam is expelled from Eden into a life of sad recollection. But then the Fall is reversed: Kay comes "stepping innocently into my days," much as God brings Eve to Adam in the unfallen garden. Contrary to a prevailing opinion on Frost's Eden poems, felix culpa does have some application in his personal life, and finds subtle expression in "Birds' Song." With Kay in mind, Frost could write with positive intent that the world would "never again" be the same.
At the same time, however, the influence of his wife must also be considered. He wrote to his daughter Lesley in March 1939 regarding a letter of Elinor's he had discovered:
My, my, what sorrow runs through all she wrote to you children. No wonder something of it overcasts my poetry if read aright. No matter how humorous I am[,] I am sad. I am a jester about sorrow. She colored my thinking from the first just as at the last she troubled my politics. It was no loss but a gain of course. She was not as original as I in thought but she dominated my art with the power of her character and nature.
Clearly, Frost is reflecting on his former poems, but it would be naive to believe that Elinor's influence ceased at her death. The letter itself, along with his continuing grief, suggests that it did not. Or as one critic puts it in a comment on Kitty Hawk (1956), Elinor "lived in his memory long after she was no longer a physical part of his world." As Frost is a "jester about sorrow" in earlier poems, so "Birds' Song" mingles the joy of paradise with the lamentation of the Fall, so that the poem subtly expresses Adam's profound regret.
This dual reading begins with the sonnet's structure. Although the poem does have a Shakespearean rhyme scheme, the three quatrains in "Birds' Song" do not contribute equally to a positive view of Eve's influence. Two distantly removed time periods are presented, and the turn between them comes between lines eight and nine. The octet deals with Adam's perception, whereas the sestet reveals the fallen poet's similar view in the present day. In other words, despite a Shakespearean rhyme scheme, the poem's use of the Petrarchan structure of meaning is in keeping with Frost's frequent manipulation of sonnet form.
Details that highlight the two time periods reinforce the sense of loss and regret marked by the turn at line nine. Frost contrasts "the garden round," roundness symbolizing perfection and wholeness, with "the woods"—the New England woods or the region east of Eden. The garden is "there," in the past, whereas the speaker believes that Eve's influence still persists "now," in the present day or post-lapsarian time in general. A further indication of sonnet structure is that Eve's "daylong voice," her "call or laughter," ends at line eight, so that the next line returns to the fallen world. If one regards the time of the third quatrain as the period directly after the Fall, the portrait is hardly positive: the birds pass the voice of Eve between them; her voice no longer has any impact, since she has little reason to laugh, much less in a "daylong" fashion worthy of the birds' emulation. The shift in line nine, however, more likely brings Frost's speculation on distant matters to bear on birds of the present day. Meter now implies his uncertainty: "Be that as may be, she was in their song." The word "may" is accented, so that the phrase sounds like "maybe," implying modern man's uncertainty and inadequacy in commenting on edenic perfection. And ironically, the poet is speaking not with Eve's unfallen "eloquence"—a word whose polysyllables imply a higher state of language in the unfallen garden—but primarily in monosyllables, a technique which captures the simplicity of fallen speech. The sonnet's very language, then, implies that "her voice" has indeed been lost, contrary to the claim "That probably it never would be. . . ."
In the opening lines, Frost's lack of specificity in two particular monosyllables opens the poem to a range of meaning. Attention has been paid to his not identifying who "He" is. As the pronoun suggests that the poem is a love sonnet of Frost or Everyman, it also implies Everyman's lament. The word "there," relating to space as well as time, serves a similar purpose. Adam in the garden notes lovingly that the birds have captured Eve's "tone of meaning but without the words"—a view in keeping with the traditionally positive interpretation of the poem. In addition, the word "there" suggests a displacement not only from the modern "woods" but also from Adam's fallen life in the region east of Eden. "He would declare and could himself believe," then, captures two types of habitual recollection: Adam's unfallen joy, as well as his lamentation after the Fall, his sad, habitual realization that birds' song bears a reminder of what he has forever lost. Frost's use of the pluperfect bears out this point: "He would declare and could himself believe" (habitual acts of perception in the past after the Fall), but the birds "Had added to their own an oversound" (action identified with the unfallen garden further in the past).
If the poem is a lament, Adam resembles Everyman in the manner of the fallen poet: Adam recalls paradise but cannot forget the Fall; Frost mourns the loss of joy in marriage even as he remembers its bitterness. "Birds' Song" does not merely offer onesided admiration; it offers love mingled with regret. It shows in the third quatrain Frost sharing the qualities he attributes to Adam in the octet—not only the Wordsworthian sense that perception is plastic, but more important, humans' tendency to view the world in terms of the persons they love, with whom they have shared poignant experiences. Birds' song will never be the same—and here "never" conveys a sense of bittersweet finality—because the human perception of it has been forever changed by love and by the Fall.
The song itself has presumably changed as well. Although Eve's influence may never be "lost," the word implies the Loss to which birds' song is subject in the present day, as well as the previous lessening of Eve's "eloquence." So the final line bears a dark implication: Eve came not only to humanize and color Adam's perceptions but also to bring about the Fall, because "birds" represent creation in general, in keeping with Frost's claim that he was a synechdochist. Certainly the phrase "to do that to" conveys the sense of inflicting injury or pain. It is not that Eve ruins the birds' song; it is simply that Frost rounds out his "love sonnet" with irony that befits the fallen woods.
Insofar as Frost weaves a thread of lamentation throughout the poem, the sonnet form becomes a compensatory device. For Frost, as critics writing on his other sonnets have observed, form provides the means to overcome chaos. Whereas the Fall qualifies the sense that "Birds' Song" is a love poem for Kay Morrison, the sonnet form indicates the poet's attempt to forge order out of chaos—the fall out of happiness in his marriage but on a larger scale the Fall he shares with humanity. There sounds a further note of hope in "her voice upon their voices crossed." One critic's reading, that "’crossed’ raises the specter of conflict, as in a crossing of swords," bears out the negativity of the Fall. But "crossed" more aptly calls to mind the Cross, on which Christ undoes what Eve has done to birds and Adam and all of creation. The word shares in the optimism of Frost's letter to Untermeyer, and qualifies the notion that felix culpa was ever far from the poet's mind.
From The Explicator 49:2 (Winter 1991), pp. 108-112.
|Title||Matthew A. Fike: On "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Matthew A. Fike||Criticism Target||Robert Frost|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||15 Feb 2015|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||No Data|
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