Alyssa Mahoney on Adrienne Rich

The first poem, "Trying to Talk with a Man, " occurs in a desert, a desert which is not only deprivation and sterility, the place where everything except the essentials has been discarded, but the place where bombs are tested. The "I" and the "You" have given up all the frivolities of their previous lives, "suicide notes" as well as "love-letters, " in order to undertake the risk of changing the desert; but it becomes clear that the "scenery" is already "condemned," that the bombs are not external threats but internal ones. The poet realizes that they are deceiving themselves, "talking of the danger / as if it were not ourselves / as if we were testing anything else."

Like the wreck, the desert is already in the past, beyond salvation though not beyond understanding.

Susan Stanford Friedman On: "Twenty-One Love Poems"

Throughout "Twenty-One Love Poems," which form the structural center of The Dream of a Common Language, Manhattan serves as the alienating setting, representing the violent world which the lovers must inhabit, yet seek to transform with love and relationship. Just as H. D. started the Trilogy with her impressions of destruction on walking through her London neighborhood after a bombing raid, Rich began poem I of "Twenty-One Love Poems" with a walk through the city which produces images of violence. . . .

From Signs (1983).

Grace Akers on

Robert Dale Parker (1988)

Much depends on how we take the ending. When I first read it, I laughed out loud at the final line, and felt delighted at what I took for a trivial and charming little appreciation of motherhood. I mention that response because it may be a common one, and surely there is some truth to it. Bishop is a poet of great charm. But as we ponder the ending it gets more and more suggestive. "Somebody loves us all" – unless the poem’s evidence, namely a doily, a taboret, a begonia, and some neatly arranged cans of motor oil, doesn’t justify such an all-inclusiveness, so that the final line becomes ironic. We can read it with a sarcastic accent on somebody, as if to admit wryly that maybe somebody is fool enough to love even this oil-soaked father and his greasy sons.

… Indeed, Bishop’s work is preoccupied with motherhood, sometimes in the most unlikely places. … The unseen but much pointed to mother of "Filling station" thus seems part of a private obsession, perhaps unacknowledged, but still urgently felt as central to Bishop’s world.

For the final line of "Filling Station" turns to herself and turns to us all. The unexpected cropping up of first person plural at the end is part of what so greatly expands the poem’s final import, but in a way so gentle we can almost spoil it by pointing it out. She sustains the subtlety of what could have been a bravura pulling in of her readers by mixing it with that mysterious word somebody. The charmingly coy vagueness of that climactic reference monopolizes our attention, so that we take the effect of being brought in ourselves with hardly any notice. Which is partly the point, for the poem is about taking thins for granted. We take the work of women for granted, and that work, especially when it is the work of art, turns surreptitious in response. It gains something distinctive in that way, but loses much as well. It loses, in Bishop, some species of confidence, or else provides a specially feminine outlet for the crisis of confidence that any poet suffers. For no poet knows for sure where the next poem will come from, or whether it will come at all.

from Robert Dale Parker, "Bishop and the Weed of Poetic Invention," Chapter 1 in The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 25, 27

Susan McCabe: On "One Art"

Though personal loss is often not explicitly confronted in Bishop's poems, it pervades them. Readers of Bishop frequently turn to "One Art" in Geography III as distinctively Bishopian in its restraint, formality, classicism. Yet this poem deals openly with loss and has been rightly called by J. D. McClatchy "painfully autobiographical." The formal demands of the villanelle keep "squads of undisciplined emotion" from overwhelming the poem, while James Merrill has spoken of "One Art" as resuscitating the villanelle in that its "key lines seem merely to approximate themselves, and the form, awakened by a kiss, simply toddles off to a new stage in its life, under the proud eye of Mother, or the Muse." Personal expression makes the form looser, more pliant and intimate. In fact, Bishop uses form frequently, and especially here, to show its arbitrariness, its attractive flimsiness. Bishop claims that she had not been able to write a villanelle before but that "One Art," possessing a somewhat diaristic dating through its metrics and tone, "was like writing a letter." It is a form tellingly imitative of the obsessional behavior of mourners with their need for repetition and ritual as resistance to "moving on" and their inevitable search for substitutions.

We are ultimately left not with control but with the unresolved tension between mastery and a world that refuses to be mastered; we are left with language. Restraint is tense hilarity here:

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture  I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident  the art of losing's not too hard to master  though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

 The imperative self-prompt "(Write it!)" conveys the immense energy needed to utter the last word of "disaster." From the beginning, Bishop presents "the art of losing" as perverse rejection of the desire to win. In the poem's alternating rhyme of "master" with "disaster," disaster has the last word. "The art of losing isn't hard to master" is true because losing is all we do. The poem reveals a struggle for mastery that will never be gained. We can only make loss into therapeutic play. One does try to master loss, but Bishop recommends that we recognize our powerlessness and play with the conditions of loss: the blurring and splitting of presence and absence, being and nonbeing.

Bishop's "art of losing" resembles what Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle calls the rule of "fort-da" (gone / there), after a game his grandson constructed in his mother's absence:

 The child had a wooden reel with a piece of string tied round it. It never occurred to him to pull it along the floor behind him, for instance, and play at its being a carriage. What he did was to hold the reel by the string and very skillfully throw it over the edge of his curtained cot, so that it disappeared into it, at the same time uttering the expressive "o-o-o-o." He then pulled the reel out of the cot again by the string and hailed its reappearance with a joyful "da" ("there"). This, then, was the complete game—disappearance and return.

At first perplexed by an impulse seemingly opposed to the pleasure principle, by a symbolic repetition of the distressing experience of the mother's departure, Freud offers two explanations for the child's apparent gratification in this loss game.

At the outset he was in a passive situation--he was overpowered by the experience; but, by repeating it, unpleasurable though it was, as a game, he took on an active part. These efforts might be put down to an instinct for mastery acting independently of whether the (repeated) memory were in itself pleasurable or not. But still another interpretation may be attempted. Throwing away the object so that it was "gone" might satisfy an impulse of the child's, which was suppressed in his actual life, to revenge himself on his mother for going away from him. In that case it would have a defiant meaning: "All right, then, go away! I don't need you. I'm sending you away myself." (10)

Freud finally hands over to a "system of aesthetics" (17) the consideration of how pleasure can come from repeating traumatic moments of dissatisfaction. The child's rendering of loss in symbolic terms with the accompanying verbalization "fort-da" suggests that loss marks entry into language, as language marks entry into the awareness of the presence of absence. The shifting between such appearance and disappearance. as we have seen, becomes quite vivid through abruptly sequential sentences of "In the Village":

First, she had come home. with her child. Then she had gone away again, alone, and left the child. Then she had come home. Then she had gone away again, with her sister; and now she was home again.

In a sense, Bishop practices the "instinctual renunciation" Freud points to in her poem not only by making loss an intention and active practice (as she does by swallowing the coins and burying the needles in the story) but by losing and recuperating words in rhyme. Poetry can imitate through refrain the experience of "fort-da."

The poet's "one art" handles plural loss; but the expansion of this phrase to include so much validates such activity as the one and only one possible—with death as the ultimate project to be undertaken even as it is postponed within language. The middle line endings weave together to spell ultimate "evident" loss—"intent" / "spent," "meant" / "went": the other side of will and choice must always be loss of control, abandon, renunciation. Bishop instructs us: "Lose something every day," and in the third stanza, "Then practice losing farther, losing faster." The tercets logically build up from small (keys) to big (continent) with demonic precision and momentum. We are reassured by the second stanza that mastery will come to the novice in time, that we will develop the ability to "[a]ccept the fluster." Yet the items lost become increasingly personal with her "mother's watch" at the center, deliberately at the beginning of a line as if to skip over it with a distracting exclamation, one that further heightens the way the poem presents a consciousness in process:

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or  next-to-last, of three loved houses went.  The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Still a potentially "last" or "yet-to-be-dismantled" house remains for us to see slip away from the poet, but there will always, one senses, be a further house, the never-to-be-secure home of her childhood that must be continually refigured, the child of "Sestina" drawing yet "another inscrutable house." As we move forward, we also step backwards. The watch stands in for her mother's absence and loss—a timekeeper that reflects its inability to "keep" time. Embedded in the loss of the watch is also the loss of her mother's caretaking and vigilance, as well as her father's position as timekeeper.

In the penultimate stanza, she leaps from the moment of initial loss:

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,  some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.  I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

She can afford to let go of these "realms" because her imagination can provide new ones. She travels from one tercet to the next, pushing the poem in opposing directions with rhyme. Crisis occurs just when we might expect "mastery." Even within lines there emerges the desire for mastery along with its inevitable breakdown. Enjambed lines in all stanzas but the next to last indicate slippage. A complete sentence occupies only part of a line in stanzas 2, 4, and 5 and so disintegrates any effect of finality or surety. Movement in time—"losing farther, losing faster"—is loss, and Bishop reinforces her theme of displacement with "farther" liminally haunted by "father."

Bishop's characteristic dash emphasizes breakage and propels us forward into the last enjambed four lines:

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture  I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident  the art of losing's not too hard to master  though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Loss and love are significantly enjambed with the first two lines of this final stanza, but they not only confess how loss and love are bound, but give continuing evidence of "I love)," risked with a solitary parenthesis in the line. The most intimate words are not deemphasized by being parenthesized but blaze out as a temporary withholding, as her most prominent resistance to and acceptance of losing. We no longer have an object such as the timepiece standing ill for a person but an evanescent voice and gesture, silhouette and trace. There appears a breakdown also in the certainty of the declaration "The art of losing isn’t hard to master" by the addition of "not too hard" and an admission of strain with the fiercely whispered "(Write it!)" between the stuttered double "like." Her "write it" is another way of saying "don't lose it. " But disaster exceeds troping. Writing reveals a doubleness: Bishop wants language to gain mastery, but writing brings us back to the recognition of displacement and loss. Rhyming, dashing, parenthesizing, joking—all these are activities meant to contain but in emphatic practice remind only how such strategies finally fail. They can lead to renunciation not by making "disaster" into reified form but by accepting it as process and reenactment.

 The "work of mourning," explains Freud, involves a gradual withdrawal of investment from a loved and lost object but against such a necessity "a struggle of course arises—as maybe universally observed that man never willingly abandons a libido position, not even when a substitute is already beckoning to him." Bishop's art is one that gives up fixed positions. We can now understand, perhaps, how "One Art" is only seemingly far removed from The Diary or "In the Village": these texts demonstrate as well, as we have seen, Bishop's concern with absence as it participates in writing. Language insists upon presence but always keeps loss in sight through its movement; ultimately it cannot hold back the fluid self and reminds us of the space left between us and our words.

 Elaborating upon Freud's "fort-da," which brings language and loss together, Jacques Lacan asserts that the experience of primal loss and the emergence of identity coincide in language. An originary unrelocatable moment, removing us from a state of undifferentiated wholeness with our mothers, commits us to continuous desire and translates us into the symbolic order of language and law. We become bound up in the paradoxical condition that "is neither the appetite for satisfaction, nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second, the phenomenon of their splitting"; our "demand for love," the articulation of it, then, puts us forever out of love's reach. Coming to see and say ourselves outside of the maternal body, we call ourselves others and feel the loss that this entails.

Since our identity, our assertion of "I," can only be constituted through language, according to Lacan, we see ourselves as whole or unified subjectivities only through the "function of meconnaissance" most notable in the mirror stage when the child sees its fragmented drives and motor impulses duplicated as a whole-but a whole that rests on the split or chasm necessitated by mirroring; the "meconnaissance" occurs as "form situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction" and offers a gestalt, or "an exteriority in which this form . . . is certainly more constituent than constituted" and that "symbolizes the mental permanence of the I, at the same time as it prefigures its alienating destination." Language, thus, aids us in believing the false vision of wholeness even as it shows such a vision to be an oversight. Consciousness attempts to veil over the power of the signifier over the signified, "the incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier" that represents the operation of the unconscious. Poems that reflect such ontological uneasiness will appear from Bishop's first volume on, with its "Gentleman of Shalott" presenting a character divided by a shifting, unstable mirror, living within the breach "of constant re-adjustment, " within perpetual yet "exhilarating" uncertainty and halfness (CP, 9). Such a poem almost literalizes the Lacanian fracturing of the self.

Lacan, as does Bishop, always points us back to our language. Dreams rely upon the functions in language of metonymy and metaphor, covered over in waking consciousness to conceal fissure. Both metaphor and metonymy reveal that we cannot escape an endless chain of signifiers. Metaphor corresponds to "condensation," the superimposition of one signifier upon another: "One word for another, that is the formula for metaphor"; metonymy, on the other hand, reflects "displacement," the continual "veering off of signification," the "eternally stretching forth towards the desire for something else" ("Agency," 156), much like the tireless and timely parataxis another early poem "Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance" discovers in its own text and the childhood book it describes with "Everything only connected by 'and' and 'and"' (58).

According to Lacan's psycholinguistic model, we are constituted by a language that deconstitutes us, where "no signification can be sustained other than by reference to another signification" (150): subjectivity is always then, at risk, so precarious that it becomes appropriate to say: "I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think" (166). The entry into the symbolic through the Oedipal event inaugurates a gendered subject while the desire for wholeness exists in excess of possible satisfaction: this desire for completion will be thwarted by the subject's fragmentation within language. The phallus comes to stand for that moment of rupture from the imaginary dyadic relation with the mother, where one does not feel desire for the Other, because the Other is yet the self, or not other, without limit or demarcation. Lacan's definition of demand is relevant in showing the gap that persists between the subject's need and demand; this gap constitutes desire, so that "[d]emand constitutes the Other as already possessing the privilege of satisfying needs, that is to say, the power of depriving them of that alone by which they are satisfied"; this explains the "unconditional element of the demand," which must look beyond itself to some fictive "'absolute' condition," and it is from such an absence, "the residue of an obliteration" that "the power of pure loss emerges," which cannot, in any last analysis, be singularized or pinpointed ("Signification," 287).

Such an understanding of language and identity as grounded in loss is central to Bishop's feminist attempt to undo fixed or unitary identity. Jacqueline Rose's introduction to Lacan's essays makes clear his acknowledgment that the phallus is made only to figure by anatomy and signals its own "pretence to meaning," and the impossibility of satisfying desire; sexual identity is only "enjoined" upon the individual through entrance into language. Because of the arbitrary element in gender division, Rose sees implicit in Lacan's argument the possibility that "anyone can cross over and inscribe themselves on the opposite side from that which they are anatomically destined" (49). Lacan's project, in this light, encourages boundary transgression, especially if we consider his belief that analysis should not allow an individual to mask over the precariousness of her or his identity.

In the Lacanian economy, woman becomes, however, "other. "As Rose exposes, the phallus is by no means unproblematically privileged, for it is: "from the Other that the phallus seeks authority and is refused," but even as woman is subversive Other, Rose does not think females have "access to a different strata of language" (as does Yaeger, for example, in her discussion of "In the Village"): there is no escape from the Law of the Father (55). However, as Lacan does not differentiate enough the breakage of mother-child dyad in terms of the child's gender, he misses the distinct relationship that persists between mother and daughter. The female may indeed, come to the symbolic via an alternate route—her language a different relation to loss. For the girl child, the ruptured primordial relationship may appear less final, and her gender role less reified than the boy's in his identification with his father, as Chodorow has described. Rose objects to Chodorow's apparent assumption of a unified identity (37), yet Chodorow acknowledges gender position as social construction that makes intrasubjective shifting more available to women; in his emphasis on lack and loss, Lacan does not acknowledge relation (as do both Chodorow and Bishop), primarily because his androcentric perspective posits woman as the eternal Other.

If language is joined inseparably with the recognition of loss, females come to that language doubly exiled from the dominant sign system. Nevertheless, identification with the mother makes for a potentially more pluralistic and multiple self. Julia Kristeva, for instance, rereads Lacan and posits a "questionable subject in process" that exists through the fluctuation between the poles of the semiotic (associated with the unconscious, the maternal, the disruptive) and the symbolic (responsible for the rational, the paternal, the systematic). She considers such movement "poetic language," which through its "signifying operations, is an unsettling process—when not an outright destruction—of the identity of meaning and the speaking subject," and links the feminine with poetry, or more precisely, with the disruption it produces. While she does not explicitly catalogue her writing as feminist or, for the most part, treat women writers, Kristeva tellingly concedes: "It is probably necessary to be a woman . . . not to renounce theoretical reason but to compel it to increase its power by giving it an object beyond its limits" (146).

Bishop's poems subvert the very forms—not in themselves radical or "avant-garde"—they employ. "One Art," specifically, casts itself either forward or backward: testing the limits of rational control, revealing the subject unsettled within flux; it literalizes displacement through its calling up of and discarding of objects. While "One Art" appears almost hyperrational, it remains consistent with Bishop's earlier more explicit surrealism—the Paris poems "Sleeping on the Ceiling," "Sleeping Standing Up," and "Paris, A.M.," to name the most striking—which openly affronts reason and logic, manipulating dream symbols in incongruously neat stanzas, to disorient and to trouble. We come upon form, yet cannot locate or settle into a "subject." Bishop wrote at least seventeen drafts of "One Art" before she considered it written.  Not surprisingly, the act of writing is a focal concern of the poem, as becoming an artist is in the story "In the Village." Earlier drafts of the poem show her struggling with the crucial final stanza where phrases such as "Say it," "Oh, go on, write it!" recur as she tries to allow herself to articulate "disaster." Draft 2 even has the tentative entitlement: "(Why not just write 'disaster'?)," protected within a parenthesis. The stilted archaism of "shan't" reveals the essential feebleness involved in the final version's assertion "I shan't have lied." In some of the telling drafts, she simply admits "all that I write is false. I'm writing lies now. It's quite evident"—with false crossed off. Writing may tempt us into lies, but it also shows us up. It is only in the process of "writing it" that Bishop can face the catastrophic losing of a love, though the drafts do not foresee surviving such an event: the first one trails off with the impossible maxim, "He who loseth his life, etc.—but he who / loses his love—never, no never never never never again—" (draft 1).

As Lorrie Goldensohn acutely reminds us in her study on Bishop, written with biography as guide to the poetry, we cannot read the poems in Geography III, and especially "One Art," underestimating the impact Lota's death had upon Bishop or without appreciating the topographical loss Bishop felt in repatriating to the States from Brazil: loss of person, home, family, country can hardly be disengaged (126). The seventeen drafts Bishop wrote present a series of "mislayings," a word Bishop uses in her first version, and the published poem continues to confess its inevitable lying. "I really / want to introduce myself," says draft 1: identity is predicated upon mislaying, so that like the more lavishly described loved one who disappears into a flickering "you," the "I" completely goes under. The "you" is at first an "average-sized" "dazzlingly intelligent person" with blue eyes that "were exceptionally beautiful" (draft 1), and does not, by the way, seem necessarily identifiable with Lota, but with all those whom she has lost or could lose. What becomes "eyes of the small wild aster" in draft 2 evaporates in the remaining trials. "One Art," with all its drafts, represents an archaeology of the struggle with losing. a process that is always with us, so that every loss comes to be all losses, retrogressive and prospective, shuttling through villanelle. As a love poem, "One Art," as Goldensohn points out, does not necessarily signpost a same-sex relationship. Yet it must; for we know what we know. It is stitched together through a lineage of female loss, with the mother's watch in the centrifugal position, with all other love relationships with women timed by it.

Throughout her work, Bishop will test and question the boundaries imposed by "theoretical reason" with the awareness that we must resort to them; if we continue to use Kristeva's model, language and sense emerge only in the spaces created through severance from the semiotic. Retrieval through rhyme in "One Art" again serves as a way of pointing up the passage of language from the semiotic through the symbolic; form becomes a net through, which identity and all its belongings slip. In spite of Bishop's reliance on form, her poem disturbs through its attention to arbitrary and frangible boundaries. Ultimately, Bishop practices forfeiture, a recognition of human limits and imperfection, and therefore, also a potentially freeing activity. When Adrienne Rich writes "It's true, these last few years I've lived / watching myself in the act of loss," she pointedly addresses Bishop's "One Art." Instead of sanctifying art, Rich insists upon imperfection, and says that "the art of losing" is "for [her] no art / only badly-done exercises." Rich's poem insists on the primacy of loss and refuses to accept "acts of parting." She concludes inconclusively:

trying to let go  without giving up     yes     Elizabeth  a village there     a sister, comrade, cat  and more     no art to this but anger  

Celebrating attachment to earthly things. Rich calls for a vitriolic response, not the pained submission that might be read in Bishop. Yet Rich's poem presents itself as both homage and umbrage in mirroring what "One Art" un- says by its terminal "disaster." Bishop does indeed feel her "heart forced to question its presumption in this world" (Rich, "Contradiction," Your Native Land, 98) because she does not see any reason to presume. Still "One Art" admits that—tied to the villanelle in a ritual exercise and exorcism of loss—she cannot but be caught up in desire and attachment. Bishop's poem suggests that she would like to write off artfully what she realizes always eludes inscription—those spaces marking the losses of a "questionable subject"; the form of poems becomes, again and again, expressive of the unruly processes of consciousness they denote. 

from Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1994. Copyright © 1994 by The Pennsylvania State UP.

J. D. McClatchy: On "One Art"

[McClatchy is discussing the last stanza.]

… The loss of love here is not over and thereby mastered, but threatened: a possibility brooded upon, or an act being endured. How Bishop dramatizes the threatened loss is uncanny. "I shan’t have lied," she claims. Under such intense emotional pressure she shifts to the decorous "shan’t," as if the better to distance and control her response to this loss, the newest and last. And again, my mind’s ear often substitutes "died" for "lied." In self-defense, lying makes a moral issue out of the heart’s existential dilemma; a way of speaking is a habit of being. The real moral force of her stanza comes – and this is true in many other Bishop poems – from her adverbs:even losing you; not too hard to master. These shades of emphasis are so carefully composed, so lightly sketched in, that their true dramatic power is missed by some readers.

And then that theatrical last line – how severely, how knowingly and helplessly qualified! It reminds me of that extraordinary line in "At the Fishhouses," at three removes from itself: "It is like what we imagine knowledge to be." The line her begins with a qualification ("though"), goes on to a suggestion rather than the assertion we might expect of a last line ("it may look"), then to a comparison that’s doubled, stuttering ("like … like"), interrupted by a parenthetical injunction that is at once confession and compulsion, so that when "disaster" finally comes it sounds with a shocking finality.

The whole stanza is in danger of breaking apart, and breaking down. In this last line the poet’s voice literally cracks. The villanelle – that strictest and most intractable of verse forms – can barely control the grief, yet helps the poet keep her balance. …


From J. D. McClatchy, "Elizabeth Bishop: Some Notes on ‘One Art,’" in White Paper: On Contemporary American Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 145.

Joseph Brodsky: On "Home Burial"

In "Home Burial" we have an arena reduced to a staircase, with its Hitchcockian banister. The opening line tells you as much about the actors’ positions as about their roles: those of the hunter and his prey. Or, as you’ll see later, of Pygmalion and Galatea, except that in this case the sculptor turns his living model into stone. In the final analysis, "Home Burial" is a love poem, and if only on these grounds it qualifies as a pastoral. But let’s examine this line and a half

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs Before she saw him

Frost could have stopped right here. It is already a poem, it is already a drama. Imagine this line and a half sitting on the page all by itself, in minimalist fashion. It’s an extremely loaded scene—or, better yet, a frame. You’ve got an enclosure, the house, with two individuals at cross--no, diverse--purposes. He’s at the bottom of the stairs, she’s at the top. He’s looking up at her, she, for all we know thus far, doesn’t register his presence at all. Also, you’ve got to remember that it’s in black and white. The staircase dividing them suggests a hierarchy of significances. It is a pedestal with her atop (at least, in his eyes) and him at the bottom (in our eyes and, eventually, in hers). The angle is sharp. Place yourself here in either position—better in his—and you’ll see what I mean. Imagine yourself observing, watching somebody, or imagine yourself being watched. Imagine yourself interpreting someone’s movements—or immobility—unbeknownst to that person. That’s what turns you into a hunter, or into Pygmalion.

So let’s watch the deportment of the model

                She was starting down, Looking back over her shoulder at some fear. She took a doubtful step and then undid it To raise herself and look again.

On the literal level, on the level of straight narrative, we have the heroine beginning to descend the steps with her head turned to us in profile, her glance lingering on some frightful sight. She hesitates and interrupts her descent, her eyes still trained, presumably, on the same sight neither on the steps nor on the man at the bottom. But you are aware of yet another level present here, aren’t you?

Let’s leave that level as yet unnamed. Each piece of information in this narrative comes to you in an isolated manner, within a pentameter line. The isolation job is done by white margins framing, as it were, the whole scene, like the silence of the house, and the lines themselves are the staircase. Basically, what you get here is a succession of frames. "She was starting down" is one frame. "Looking back over her shoulder at some fear" is another, in fact, it is a close-up, a profile—you see her facial expression. "She took a doubtful step and then undid it" is a third again a close-up—the feet. "To raise herself and look again" is a fourth—full figure.

But this is a ballet, too. There is a minimum of two pas de deux here, conveyed to you with a wonderful euphonic, almost alliterative precision. I mean the ds in this line, in "doubtful" and in "undid it," although the ts matter also. "Undid it" is particularly good, because you sense the spring in that step. And that profile in its opposition to the movement of the body—the very formula of a dramatic heroine—is straight out of a ballet as well.

But the real faux pas de deux starts with "He spoke / Advancing toward her." For the next twenty-five lines, a conversation occurs on the stairs. The man climbs them as he speaks, negotiating mechanically and verbally what separates them. "Advancing" bespeaks self-consciousness and apprehensiveness. The tension grows with the growing proximity. However, the mechanical and, by implication, physical proximity is more easily attained than the verbal—i e , the mental—and that’s what the poem is all about. "’What is it you see / From up there always?--for I want to know’" is very much a Pygmalion question, addressed to the model on the pedestal atop the staircase. His fascination is not with what he sees but with what he imagines it conceals—what he has placed there. He invests her with mystery and then rushes to uncloak it: this rapacity is always Pygmalion’s double bind. It is as though the sculptor found himself puzzled by the facial expression of his model: she "sees" what he does not "see." So he has to climb to the pedestal himself, to put himself in her position. In the position of "up there always"—of topographical (vis-à-vis the house) and psychological advantage, where he put her himself. It is the latter, the psychological advantage of the creation, that disturbs the creator, as the emphatic "‘for I want to know’" shows.

The model refuses to cooperate. In the next frame ("She turned and sank upon her skirts at that"), followed by the close-up of "And her face changed from terrified to dull," you get that lack of cooperation plain. Yet the lack of cooperation here is cooperation. The less you cooperate, the more you are a Galatea. For we have to bear in mind that the woman’s psychological advantage is in the man’s self-projection. He ascribes it to her. So by turning him down she only enhances his fantasy. In this sense, by refusing to cooperate she plays along. That’s basically her whole game here. The more he climbs, the greater is that advantage, he pushes her into it, as it were, with every step.

Still, he is climbing: in "he said to gain time" he does, and also in

                        "What is it you see?" Mounting until she cowered under him. "I will find out now—you must tell me, dear

The most important word here is the verb "see," which we encounter for the second time. In the next nine lines, it will be used four more times. We’ll get to that in a minute. But first let’s deal with this "mounting" line and the next. It’s a masterly job here. With "mounting," the poet kills two birds at once, for "mounting" describes both the climb and the climber. And the climber looms even larger, because the woman "cowers"—i.e , shrinks under him. Remember that she looks "at some fear." "Mounting" versus "cowered" gives you the contrast, then, between their respective frames, with the implicit danger contained in his largeness. In any case, her alternative to fear is not comfort. And the resoluteness of "’I will find out now’" echoes the superior physical mass, not alleviated by the cajoling "dear" that follows a remark—"’you must tell me’"—that is both imperative and conscious of this contrast.

[quotes ll. 13-20]

And now we come to this verb "see." Within fifteen lines it’s been used six times. Every experienced poet knows how risky it is to use the same word several times within a short space. The risk is that of tautology. So what is it that Frost is after here? I think he is after precisely that tautology. More accurately, non-semantic utterance. Which you get, for instance, in "’Oh,’ and again, ‘Oh.’" Frost had a theory about what he called "sentence-sounds." It had to do with his observation that the sound, the tonality, of human locution is as semantic as actual words. For instance, you overhear two people conversing behind a closed door, in a room. You don’t hear the words, yet you know the general drift of their dialogue; in fact, you may pretty accurately figure out its substance. In other words, the tune matters more than the lyrics, which are, so to speak, replaceable or redundant. Anyway, the repetition of this or that word liberates the tune, makes it more audible. By the same token, such repetition liberates the mind—rids you of the notion presented by the word. (This is the old Zen technique, of course, but, come to think of it, finding it in an American poem makes you wonder whether philosophical principles don’t spring from texts rather than the other way around.)

The six "see"s here do precisely that. They exclaim rather than explain. It could be "see," it could be "Oh," it could be "yes," it could be any monosyllabic word. The idea is to explode the verb from within, for the content of the actual observation defeats the process of observation, its means, and the very observer. The effect that Frost tries to create is the inadequacy of response when you automatically repeat the first word that comes to your tongue. "Seeing" here is simply reeling from the unnameable. The least seeing our hero does is in "‘Just that I see,’" for by this time the verb, having already been used four times, is robbed of its "observing" and "understanding" meaning (not to mention the fact— draining the word even further of content—that we readers are ourselves still in the dark, still don’t know what there is to see out that window). By now, it is just sound, denoting an animal response rather than a rational one.

This sort of explosion of bona-fide words into pure, non-semantic sounds will occur several times in the course of this poem. Another happens very soon, ten lines later. Characteristically, these explosions occur whenever the players find themselves in close physical proximity. They are the verbal—or, better yet, the audial—equivalents of a hiatus. Frost directs them with tremendous consistency, suggesting his characters’ profound (at least, prior to this scene) incompatibility. "Home Burial" is, in fact, the study of that, and on the literal level the tragedy it describes is the characters’ comeuppance for violating each other’s territorial and mental imperatives by having a child. Now that the child is lost, the imperatives play themselves out with vehemence they claim their own.

By standing next to the woman, the man acquires her vantage point. Because he is larger than she, and also because this is his house (as line 23 shows), where he has lived, presumably, most of his life, he must, one imagines, bend somewhat to put his eyes on her line of vision. Now they are next to each other, in an almost intimate proximity, on the threshold of their bedroom, atop the stairs. The bedroom has a window, a window has a view. And here Frost produces the most stunning simile of this poem, and perhaps of his entire career:

[quotes ll. 20-30]

"‘The little graveyard where my people are’" generates an air of endearment, and it’s with this air that "‘So small the window frames the whole of it’" starts, only to tumble itself into "‘Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?’" The key word here is "frames," because it doubles as the window’s actual frame and as a picture on a bedroom wall. The window hangs, as it were, on the bedroom wall like a picture, and that picture depicts a graveyard. "Depicting," though, means reducing to the size of a picture. Imagine having that in your bedroom. In the next line, though, the graveyard is restored to its actual size and, for that reason, equated with the bedroom. This equation is as much psychological as it is spatial. Inadvertently, the man blurts out the summary of the marriage (foreshadowed in the grim pun of the title). And, equally inadvertently, the "is it?" invites the woman to agree with this summary, almost implying her complicity.

As if that were not enough, the next two lines, with their stones of slate and marble, proceed to reinforce the simile, equating the graveyard with the made-up bed, with its pentametrically arranged pillows and cushions—populated by a family of small, inanimate children. "Broad-shouldered little slabs." This is Pygmalion unbound, on a rampage. What we have here is the man’s intrusion into the woman’s mind, a violation of her mental imperative—if you will, an ossification of it. And then this ossifying hand—petrifying, actually—stretches toward what’s still raw, palpably as well as in her mind:

"But I understand it is not the stones, But the child’s mound—"

It’s not that the contrast between the stones and the mound is too stark, though it is, it is his ability—or, rather, his attempt—to articulate it that she finds unbearable. For, should he succeed, should he find the words to articulate her mental anguish, the mound will join the stones in the "picture," will become a slab itself, will become a pillow of their bed. Moreover, this will amount to the total penetration of her inner sanctum that of her mind. And he is getting there:

[quotes ll. 30-35]

The poem is gathering its dark force. Four "don’t"s are that non-semantic explosion, resulting in hiatus. We are so much in the story line now—up to the eyebrows—that we may forget that this is still a ballet, still a succession of frames, still an artifice, stage-managed by the poet. In fact, we are about to take sides with our characters, aren’t we? Well, I suggest we pull ourselves out of this by our eyebrows and think for a moment about what it all tells us about our poet. Imagine, for instance, that the story line has been drawn from experience— from, say, the loss of a firstborn. What does all that you’ve read thus far tell you about the author, about his sensibility? How much he is absorbed by the story and—what’s more crucial—to what degree he is free from it?

Were this a seminar, I’d wait for your answers. Since it is not, I’ve got to answer this question myself And the answer is: He is very free. Dangerously so. The very ability to utilize—to play with—this sort of material suggests an extremely wide margin of detachment. The ability to turn this material into a blank-verse, pentameter monotone adds another degree to that detachment. To observe a relation between a family graveyard and a bedroom’s fourposter—still another. Added up, they amount to a considerable degree of detachment. A degree that dooms human interplay, that makes communication impossible, for communication requires an equal.


Remember the hiatus, and what causes it, and remember that this is an artifice. Actually, the author himself reminds you of it with

She withdrew, shrinking from beneath his arm That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs . . .

It is still a ballet, you see, and the stage direction is incorporated into the text. The most telling detail here is the banister. Why does the author put it here? First, to reintroduce the staircase, which we might by now have forgotten about, stunned by the business of ruining the bedroom. But, secondly, the banister prefigures her sliding downstairs, since every child uses banisters for sliding down. "And turned on him with such a daunting look" is another stage direction:

He said twice over before he knew himself: "Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?"

Now, this is a remarkably good line. It has a distinctly vernacular, almost proverbial air. And the author is definitely aware of how good it is. So, trying both to underscore its effectiveness and to obscure his awareness of it, he emphasizes the unwittingness of this utterance: "He said twice over before he knew himself."


This whole section of the poem, from "‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t’" on, obviously has some sexual connotations, of her turning the man down. That’s what the story of Pygmalion and his model is all about. On the literal level, "Home Burial" evolves along similar "hard to get" lines. However, I don’t think that Frost, for all his autonomy, was conscious of that. (After all, North of Boston shows no acquaintance with Freudian terminology.) And, if he was not, this sort of approach on our part is invalid. Nevertheless, we should bear some of it in mind as we are embarking on the bulk of this poem:

[quotes ll. 36-44]

What we’ve got here is the desire to escape: not so much the man as the enclosure of the place, not to mention the subject of their exchange. Yet the resolution is incomplete, as the fidgeting with the hat shows, since the execution of this desire will be counterproductive for the model as far as being the subject of explication goes. May I go so far as to suggest that that would mean a loss of advantage, not to mention that it would be the end of the poem? In fact, it does end with precisely that, with her exit. The literal level will get into conflict, or fusion, with the metaphorical. Hence "‘I don’t know rightly whether any man can,’" which fuses both these levels, forcing the poem to proceed, you don’t know any longer who is the horse here, who is the cart. I doubt whether the poet himself knew that at this point. The fusion’s result is the release of a certain force, which subordinates his pen, and the best it can do is keep both strands— literal and metaphorical—in check.

We learn the heroine’s name, and that this sort of discourse had its precedents, with nearly identical results. Given the fact that we know the way the poem ends, we may judge—well, we may imagine—the character of those occasions. The scene in "Home Burial" is but a repetition. By this token, the poem doesn’t so much inform us about their life as replace it. We also learn, from "‘Don’t go to someone else this time,’" about a mixture of jealousy and sense of shame felt by at least one of them. And we learn, from "‘I won’t come down the stairs’" and from "He sat and fixed his chin between his fists," about the fear of violence present in their physical proximity. The latter line is a wonderful embodiment of stasis, very much in the fashion of Rodin’s Penseur, albeit with two fists, which is a very telling self-referential detail, since the forceful application of fist to chin is what results in a knockout.

The main thing here, though, is the reintroduction of the stairs. Not only the literal stairs but the steps in "he sat," too. From now on, the entire dialogue occurs on the stairs, though they have become the scene of an impasse rather than a passage. No physical steps are taken. Instead, we have their verbal, or oral, substitute. The ballet ends, yielding to the verbal advance and retreat, which is heralded by "’There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.’" Note again the air of cajoling, colored this time with the recognition of its futility in "dear." Note also the last semblance of actual interplay in "‘You don’t know how to ask it.’ ‘Help me, then’"—this last knocking on the door, or, better yet, on the wall. Note "Her fingers moved the latch for all reply," because this feint of trying for the door is the last physical movement, the last theatrical or cinematic gesture in the poem, save one more latch-trying.

[quotes ll. 45-56]

The speaker’s hectic mental pacing is fully counterbalanced by his immobility. If this is a ballet, it is a mental one. In fact, it’s very much like fencing not with an opponent or a shadow but with one’s self. The lines are constantly taking a step forward and then undoing it ("She took a doubtful step and then undid it.") The main technical device here is enjambment, which physically resembles descending the stairs. In fact, this back-and-forth, this give-and-take almost gives you a sense of being short of breath. Until, that is, the release that is coming with the formulaic, folksy "’A man must partly give up being a man / With womenfolk.’"

After this release, you get three lines of more evenly paced verse, almost a tribute to iambic pentameter’s proclivity for coherence, ending with the pentametrically triumphant "‘Though I don’t like such things ‘twixt those that love.’" And here our poet makes another not so subdued dash toward the proverbial: "‘Two that don’t love can’t live together without them / But two that do can’t live together with them’"—though this comes off as a bit cumbersome, and not entirely convincing.

Frost partly senses that: hence "She moved the latch a little." But that’s only one explanation. The whole point of this qualifier-burdened monologue is the explication of its addressee. The man is groping for understanding. He realizes that in order to understand he’s got to surrender—if not suspend entirely—his rationality. In other words, he descends. But this is really running down stairs that lead upward. And, partly from rapidly approaching the end of his wits, partly out of purely rhetorical inertia, he summons here the notion of love. In other words, this quasi-proverbial two-liner about love is a rational argument, and that, of course, is not enough for its addressee.

For the more she is explicated, the more remote she gets the higher her pedestal grows (which is perhaps of specific importance to her now that she is downstairs). It’s not grief that drives her out of the house but the dread of being explicated, as well as of the explicator himself. She wants to stay impenetrable and won’t accept anything short of his complete surrender. And he is well on the way to it:

                                "Don’t—don’t go Don’t carry it to someone else this time. Tell me about it if it’s something human."

The last is the most stunning, most tragic line, in my view, in the entire poem. It amounts practically to the heroine’s ultimate victory—i.e , to the aforementioned rational surrender on the part of the explicator. For all its colloquial air, it promotes her mental operations to supernatural status, thus acknowledging infinity—ushered into her mind by the child’s death—as his rival. Against this he is powerless, since her access to that infinity, her absorption by and commerce with it, is backed in his eyes by the whole mythology of the opposite sex—by the whole notion of the alternative being impressed upon him by her at this point rather thoroughly. That’s what he is losing her to by staying rational. It is a shrill, almost hysterical line, admitting the man’s limitations and momentarily bringing the whole discourse to a plane of regard that the heroine could be at home on

—the one she perhaps seeks. But only momentarily. He can’t proceed at this level, and succumbs to pleading:

[quotes ll. 59-66]

He tumbles down, as it were, from the hysterical height of "’Tell me about it if it’s something human.’"

But this tumble, this mental knocking about the metrically lapsing stairs, restores him to rationality, with all its attendant qualifiers. That brings him rather close to the heart of the matter—to her taking her "‘mother-loss of a first child / So inconsolably’"—and he evokes the catchall notion of love again, this time somewhat more convincingly, though still tinged with a rhetorical flourish: "‘in the face of love.’" The very word—"love"— undermines its emotional reality, reducing the sentiment to its utilitarian application as a means of overcoming tragedy. However, overcoming tragedy deprives its victim of the status of hero or heroine. This, combined with the resentment over the explicator’s lowering of his explication’s plane of regard, results in the heroine’s interruption of "‘You’d think his memory might be satisfied—’" with "‘There you go sneering now!’" It’s Galatea’s self-defense, the defense against the further application of the chiseling instrument to her already attained features.

Because of its absorbing story line, there is a strong temptation to bill "Home Burial" as a tragedy of incommunicability, a poem about the failure of language, and many have succumbed to this temptation. In fact, it is just the reverse: it is a tragedy of communication, for communication’s logical end is the violation of your interlocutor’s mental imperative. This is a poem about language’s terrifying success, for language, in the final analysis, is alien to the sentiments it articulates. No one is more aware of that than a poet, and if "Home Burial" is autobiographical, it is so in the first place by revealing Frost’s grasp of the collision between his métier and his emotions. To drive this point home, may I suggest that you compare the actual sentiment you may feel toward an individual in your company and the word "love." A poet is doomed to resort to words. So is the speaker in "Home Burial." Hence, their overlapping in this poem; hence, too, its autobiographical reputation.

But let us take it a step further. The poet here should be identified not with one character but with both. He is the man here, all right, but he is the woman also. Thus you’ve got a clash: not just of two sensibilities but of two languages. Sensibilities may merge—say, in the act of love; languages can’t. Sensibilities may result in a child, languages won’t. And, now that the child is dead, what’s left is two totally autonomous languages, two non-overlapping systems of verbalization. In short, words. His versus hers, and hers are fewer. This makes her enigmatic. Enigmas are subject to explication, which they resist— in her case, with all she’s got. His job, or, more exactly, the job of his language, is, therefore, the explication of her language, or, more exactly, her reticence. Which, when it comes to human interplay, is a recipe for disaster. When it comes to a poem, an enormous challenge.

Small wonder, then, that this "dark pastoral" grows darker with every line; it proceeds by aggravation, reflecting not so much the complexity of the author’s mind as words’ own appetite for disaster. For the more you push reticence, the greater it gets, having nothing to fall back upon but itself. The enigma thus grows bigger.


[quotes ll. 71-90]

This is the voice of a very foreign territory indeed: a foreign language. It is a view of the man from a distance he can’t possibly fathom, since it is proportionate to the frequency with which the heroine creeps up and down the stairs. Which, in its own right, is proportionate to the leaps of his gravel in the course of his digging the grave. Whatever the ratio, it is not in favor of his actual or mental steps toward her on that staircase. Nor in his favor is the rationale behind her creeping up and down the stairs while he is digging. Presumably, there is nobody else around to do the job. (That they lost their firstborn suggests that they are fairly young and thus not very well off.) Presumably also, by performing this menial task, and by doing it in a particularly mechanical way—as a remarkably skillful mimetic job in the pentameter here indicates (or as is charged by the heroine)—the man is quelling, or controlling, his grief, that is, his movements, unlike the heroine’s, are functional.

In short, this is futility’s view of utility. For obvious reasons, this view is usually precise and rich in judgment: "‘If you had any feelings,’" and "‘Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly / And roll back down the mound beside the hole.’" Depending on the length of observation—and the description of digging runs here for nine lines—this view may result, as it does here, in a sensation of utter disparity between the observer and the observed: "‘I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.’" For observation, you see, results in nothing, while digging produces at least a mound, or a hole. Whose mental equivalent in the observer is also, as it were, a grave. Or, rather, a fusion of the man and his purpose, not to mention his instrument. What futility and Frost’s pentameter register here above all is rhythm. The heroine observes an inanimate machine. The man in her eye is a gravedigger, and thus her alternative.

Now, the sight of our alternative is always unwelcome, not to say threatening. The closer your view of it, the sharper your general sense of guilt and of a deserved comeuppance. In the mind of a woman who has lost her child, that sense may be fairly sharp. Add to that her inability to translate her grief into any useful action, save a highly agitated creeping up and down, as well as the recognition—and subsequent glorification—of that inability. And add a cross-purpose correspondence between her movements and his: between her steps and his spade What do you think it would result in? And remember that she is in his house, that this is the graveyard where his people are. And that he is a gravedigger.

"Then you came in I heard your rumbling voice Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why, But I went near to see with my own eyes."

Note this "and I don’t know why," for here she unwittingly drifts toward her own projection. All that she needs now is to check that projection with her own eyes. That is, she wants to make her mental picture physical.

"You could sit there with the stains on your shoes Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave And talk about your everyday concerns. You had stood the spade up against the wall Outside there in the entry, for I saw it."

So what do you think she sees with her own eyes, and what does that sight prove? What does the frame contain this time? What does she have a close-up of? I am afraid she sees a murder weapon: she sees a blade. The fresh earth stains either on the shoes or on his spade make the spade’s edge shine: make it into a blade. And does earth "stain," however fresh? Her very choice of noun, denoting liquid, suggests—accuses—blood. What should our man have done? Should he have taken his shoes off before entering the house? Perhaps. Perhaps he should have left his spade outside, too. But he is a farmer, and acts like one—presumably out of fatigue. So he brings in his instrument—in her eyes, the instrument of death. And the same goes for his shoes, and it goes for the rest of the man. A gravedigger is equated here, if you will, with the reaper. And there are only the two of them in this house.

The most awful bit is "for I saw," because it emphasizes the perceived symbolism of that spade left standing against the wall outside there in the entry: for future use. Or as a guard. Or as an unwitting memento mori. At the same time, "for I saw it" conveys the capriciousness of her perception and the triumph of somebody who cannot be fooled, the triumph of catching the enemy. It is futility in full bloom, engulfing and absorbing utility into its shadow.

"I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed. I’m cursed God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed."

This is practically a nonverbal recognition of defeat, coming in the form of a typical Frostian understatement, studded with tautological monosyllables quickly abandoning their semantic functions. Our Napoleon or Pygmalion is completely routed by his creation, who still keeps pressing on.

"I can repeat the very words you were saying: ‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’ Think of it, talk like that at such a time! What had how long it takes a birch to rot To do with what was in the darkened parlor?"

Now, this is where our poem effectively ends. The rest is simply denouement, in which our heroine goes rambling on in an increasingly incoherent fashion about death, the world being evil, uncaring friends, and feeling alone. It is a rather hysterical monologue, whose only function, in terms of the story line, is to struggle toward a release for what has been pent up in her mind. It does not, and in the end she resorts to the door, as though only landscape were proportionate to her mental state and thus could be of solace.


So what was it that he was after in this, his very own poem? He was, I think, after grief and reason, which, while poison to each other, are language’s most efficient fuel—or, if you will, poetry’s indelible ink. Frost’s reliance on them here and elsewhere almost gives you the sense that his dipping into this ink pot had to do with the hope of reducing the level of its contents, you detect a sort of vested interest on his part. Yet the more one dips into it, the more it brims with this black essence of existence, and the more one’s mind, like one’s fingers, gets soiled by this liquid. For the more there is of grief, the more there is of reason. As much as one may be tempted to take sides in "Home Burial," the presence of the narrator here rules this out, for while the characters stand, respectively, for reason and for grief, the narrator stands for their fusion. To put it differently, while the characters’ actual union disintegrates, the story, as it were, marries grief to reason, since the bond of the narrative here supersedes the individual dynamics—well, at least for the reader. Perhaps for the author as well. The poem, in other words, plays fate.


If this poem is dark, darker still is the mind of its maker, who plays all three roles the man, the woman, and the narrator. Their equal reality, taken separately or together, is still inferior to that of the poem’s author, since "Home Burial" is but one poem among many. The price of his autonomy is, of course, in its coloration, and perhaps what you ultimately get out of this poem is not its story but the vision of its ultimately autonomous maker. The characters and the narrator are, as it were, pushing the author out of any humanly palatable context: he stands outside, denied re-entry, perhaps not coveting it at all. This is the dialogue’s—alias the Life Force’s— doing And this particular posture, this utter autonomy, strikes me as utterly American. Hence this poet’s monotone, his pentametric drawl a signal from a far-distant station. One may liken him to a spacecraft that, as the downward pull of gravity weakens, finds itself nonetheless in the grip of a different gravitational force: outward. The fuel, though, is still the same’ grief and reason. The only thing that conspires against this metaphor of mine is that American spacecraft usually return.


From Homage to Robert Frost by Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1996. © The Estate of Joseph Brodsky.

Floyd C. Watkins: On "Birches"

"Toward heaven" but never to, never all the way. Frost fears transcendence. Despite all the apparent moralizing ("earth's the right place for love"), this passage is one of the most skeptical in Frost. He contemplates a moment when the soul may become completely absorbed into a union with the divine. But he is earthbound, limited, afraid. No sooner does he wish to get away from earth than he thinks of "fate" - rather than God. And what might be a mystical experience turns into a fear of death, a fear that he would be snatched away "not to return." He rejects the unknown, the love of God, because he cannot know it, and he clings to the finite: "Earth's the right place for love."

From "Going and Coming Back: Robert Frost’s Religious Poetry." South Atlantic Quarterly (Autumn 1974).

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).

Judith Oster: On "Two Tramps in Mudtime"

The question of respect for one's own needs despite an apparent selfishness is raised in "Two Tramps in Mud Time." Because the speaker has had no previous relationship with the tramps—they are "two strangers"—the question can remain the abstract one of what one owes to one's fellow man, what one must give of one's self to the claims of another if the claims conflict, even if there is no obligation to that person, no claim by right of anything except common humanity, human kindness, or guilt in the face of another person's need. One issue in this poem, then, is simply that of selfless giving up as opposed to keeping something for oneself. It is a question relevant to the artist's need to hoard himself as opposed to his human obligation to give himself; it illustrates the kind of conflict in Frost that was generated by his mother's hero tales of self-sacrifice and his opposite need to work for himself in asserting his creative originality (EY 377, 578-79). Like the question in "Love and a Question," this poem too asks how far one is supposed to go in self-sacrifice, how one is to draw the line between personal rights, property, or needs and some other's right to make a claim on his sympathy, to make him feel guilty, or to make him give up something that he need not have given up.

In this case the conflict is further complicated because it seems to be between something that is of little consequence to the speaker, yet vital to the tramps. The claims are not of equal weight: they are work as opposed to play, need as opposed to love. The last stanza, which declares the necessity for uniting vocation and avocation, love and need, work and playas the ideal way of doing a deed, does not resolve the dilemma of who should be chopping the wood. There seems to exist a separation between love and need, work and play.

Yet there is need and need: there is financial need and there is emotional need. There is also right and right—the right of a man to expect sympathy for his need to earn a living and the right of a man to chop wood—especially if it is on his own property—if he wants to do so. In fact the recognition on the part of the speaker is a generous and an unselfish one:

Nothing on either side was said. They knew they had but to stay their stay And all their logic would fill my head: As that I had no right to play With what was another man's work for gain. My right might be love but theirs was need. And where the two exist in twain Theirs was the better right-agreed. (CP 358-59)

The claim on his conscience may not have been valid or fair, but it worked all the same. Their "logic" did fill his head as they had counted on its doing, and whether he gives up the task or not is irrelevant, for once their logic had fined his head, the pleasure in the task would be gone. At first their claiming the task simply intensified his love for it ("The time when most I loved my task / These two must make me love it more / By coming with what they came to ask "); but then that was before their logic filled his head. The resolution of the poem will depend on whether feeling wins out over logic, and then the question is which feeling—sympathetic feeling for another or feeling about the task that unites work and play, love and need. The separation the speaker sees between work and play, love and need, is, after all, the separation he assumes the tramps to see—it is their logic, and he shows himself to be very sensitive in assuming it. If the conflict is resolved on his terms, we must assume he will give up the task should these claims remain separate; that he will continue to do it should they be united. "Theirs was the better right" only "when the two exist in twain."

Here, as elsewhere in Frost, we are shown the seriousness of "play," for this activity was "play" as long as one did not do it from motives of gain. Pay then was what defined it as work rather than play, that made it vital and "right." That it was hard work in either case is beside the point; that there was something at stake—pride in the quality of the workmanship and the aim—is beside the point. The crucial question is what will be the gain. Of what importance is it to the chopper? At least that becomes the question once the speaker feels himself to have been "caught" in the act (a tacit admission of guilt), which leads him to consider the wood "unimportant" despite the fact that he was loosing his soul, giving vent to whatever was pent up—"the blows that a life of self-control / spares to strike for the common good" (357). Loosing his soul in spending these blows on the wood is an important activity whether the wood is important or not.

In the inability of the tramps to understand his needs, Frost proves them inferior to the speaker who sees theirs. It is, once more, a matter of how one is reading the scene and what one brings to the reading. Frost reads them better than they read him. They see what their agenda permits them to see, a criticism we could level at the socialist critics who made the poem—and Frost—a target on their agenda, often unfairly, certainly missing rich possibilities of interpretation and maybe missing the point or mistaking the resolution.

Another need that the task answers is for a physical connection, muscular exertion, pitting oneself against an earth, a tree, a nature that shows crystal teeth, that moves capriciously between March and May and back in a moment:

You'd think I never had felt before The weight of an ax-head poised aloft, The grip on earth of outspread feet. The life of muscles rocking soft And smooth and moist in vernal heat. (CP 358)

A deed done "for. ..future's sake" must exert weighty grip and muscle in the face of so uncertain and capricious a future. It must require poise and balance as surely as does that boy mastering birches.

In this poem, as in "Birches," "love" is introduced where it has not seemed to be the subject: love of the work, love of the feel of the earth, and "the life of muscles, rocking soft / and smooth and moist in vernal heat"; love as it relates to labor, love as it relates to need. We see that only in uniting these will the speaker be entitled to make a claim that equals the claim of the tramps, for love must be related to need and to effort. Only in applying this union to any relationship, any task, or act of creativity does the last stanza seem to be genuinely a part of the poem and not simply the gratuitous nonresolution of Frost's poetic career, which it is so often taken to be.

But yield who will to their separation, My object in living is to unite My avocation and my vocation As my two eyes make one in sight. Only where love and need are one, And the work is play for mortal stakes, Is the deed ever really done For Heaven and the future's sakes. (CP 359)

In two separate letters, Frost relates this poem somewhat curiously to love of a woman. In his famous assertion that Elinor had been the unspoken half of everything he wrote, he went on to add: "and both halves of many a thing from My November Guest down to the last stanzas of Two Tramps in Mud Time" (SL 450). In writing about his view of imperfection, he said: "I am not a Platonist…one who believes…the woman you have is an imperfect copy of some woman in Heaven…I am philosophically opposed to having one Iseult for my vocation and another for my avocation; as you may have inferred from a poem called Two Tramps in Mud Time…a truly gallant Platonist will remain a bachelor…from unwillingness to reduce any woman to the condition of being used without being idealized" (SL 462).

Love and need, then, must be one, or the relationship, whether in marriage, in friendship, or in art, is exploitation. But there is another factor in a love relationship—in a relationship with any other human being or with one's task—which distinguishes love and need from exploitation, and that is "spending" oneself rather than merely spending another: "be it art, politics, school, church, business, love, or marriage—in a piece of work or in a career. Strongly spent is synonymous with kept. "The speaker in this poem speaks of the soul-loosing blows he "spent on unimportant wood," and if anything entitled him to "keep" the task rather than to give it up, it is the effort, the love with which he spent himself on the task. In the above quotation from "A Constant Symbol," Frost had been speaking of writing poetry: "Every single poem written regular is a symbol small or great of the way the will has to pitch into commitments deeper and deeper to a rounded conclusion and then be judged for whether any original intention it had has been strongly spent or weakly lost (5P 24; emphasis mine). Peculiar to relationships of love and creativity is the opposition of spent and lost. In commerce, one is short by what one spends; in love and in creation, one only keeps by spending, saves one’s heart with losing it; one only fulfills oneself by giving oneself. In "Two Tramps," strongly spent, being strongly spent, is the only real justification for keeping.

The question of respect for self, of integrity of self as opposed to giving up of self, is posed in two ways in "Two Tramps in Mud Time," for there are two relationships: the relationship between the speaker and the two tramps, and the relationship between the speaker and his work. If the relationship between himself and his work is one of love, need, and spending of himself for his task and the perfection of the job for its own sake, then that may take precedence over a relationship with two strangers where there is no love, no pride in work, no effort, no mutuality of give and take. The self and its labor of love are united and preserved, kept, in the face of claims that would separate that unity. If, however, the task separates love and need, if nothing further will be "spent" on it, then the job is exploitive. It had better be given to those who can use it for gain.

While the drama of the poem is more overtly social than sexual, the relationship between love and need, keeping and spending oneself, respect for the needs of the self and the other, and willingness or unwillingness to surrender to it are clearly also applicable to a discussion of love, especially as the poet has drawn attention to this poem in such a connection. If we see the sexual undertone of "outspread feet. / The life of muscles rocking soft / And smooth and moist in vernal heat" it would not be the only poem, as we shall see, to connate earth and love, the act of earth-labor with the act of love.

from Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and the Poet. Copyright © 1991 by The University of Georgia Press.