Sunday, July 03, 2005

A Witness Tree

I have reached the point in Parini's Frost biography where Frost's wife of 43 years, Elinor, dies of a series of heart attacks. Not that Frost was every short of grief-stricken inspiration, but in A Witness Tree, there is a series of poems that address Time and the difficulty in accepting its passing with painful directness and precision. I'm most struck by "I Could Give All to Time," in which Frost figures Time as a kind of Customs agent who stops travelers and takes from them what they are not allowed to keep. The middle stanza illustrates a point about Frost's writing about nature that strikes me again and again as I read:

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time's lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

First of all, this strikes me as very deft and nearly perfect, excepting the somewhat cute last word, cuteness being one of Frost's occasional ticks. But what strikes me most here, as in much of Frost's writing, is the employment of nature for metaphor. The first two lines are sweepingly visionary. While Frost is hailed as a writer who had an unusual fidelity to nature, to the world, it seems to me he never writes about the world at all, but about himself, his emotions, imposed on the world. In those first two lines, Frost makes time pass with such god-like speed and power that I can hardly see the world in them; what I do see is the terrifying and anxious power of the imagination to refigure the world as it needs to. Nature was Frost's muse--and it worked for him because the world is the biggest, most inclusive source of metaphor possible--but he could have written this way about anything, cars, factories, people in cities, though I guess nature is the baseline, and his imagination worked from the bottom up.

And before closing for the night, I need to quote a few more lines that seem incredible wise and alive to me, written at a time when perhaps Frost was not perceived to be at his best. These are from the first section of "The Wind and Rain," the second section of which I like less. Frost reassesses himself, having, as a young man, written a great deal about loss; now, as an aging man, he sees how little he understood what loss really is:

I sang of death--but had I known
The many deaths one must have died
Before he came to meet his own!
Oh, should a child be left unwarned
That any song in which he mourned
Would be as if he prophesied?
And yet 'twould seem that what is sung
In happy sadness by the young,
Fate has no choice but to fulfill.

As a poet, I feel I've courted a lot of that "happy sadness," which seems so accessible and useful a muse. This, I think, is an important warning for all of us, or at least a kind of useful wisdom from one who knows. And, of course, the rhymes, especially in the first bit I quoted, are unlikely in their perfection; the rhymed words--"died" with "prophesied," "unwarned" with "mourned" seem uncanny in how well they match, as if they were born to be paired.

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