Explaining Robert Frost’s ‘Education by Poetry’

An earlier post in which I talked my way through Frost’s essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’  has proved to be one of my most visited pieces. As both teacher and poet, I wanted to explore Frost’s often teasing pronouncements and here I want to do the same with his longer essay, ‘Education by Poetry’. This was originally a talk delivered at Amherst College. It was subsequently revised for publication in the Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly (1931). Frost also separately printed an extract from the conclusion of the essay under the title ‘The Four Beliefs’. Frost’s full text can be accessed here.   In the essay, Frost argues that nothing (other than mathematics)is known in itself – our knowledge is only via relations. So we must live by crediting metaphors of self, love, art, nation and deity, among others. Yet all these break down at some point and it this awareness that education ought to provide us with. There is a clear connection to Frost’s idea of a poem as a “clarification of life [. . .] a momentary stay against confusion” (‘’The Figure a Poem Makes’).

 

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Frost does not do rebarbative. Even when ultimately – as here – he has complex and profound issues to discuss, he invites us in and we follow trustingly. Here, he lulls us with the idea that he will “urge nothing”, will merely consider and describe. Only once he has finished will we grasp that his sometimes infuriating reluctance to commit lies at the core of his thinking.

His subject is how poetry is treated in American education. One approach is to bar it which, he admits with full-on irony, “takes the onus off the poetry of having to be used to teach children anything”.

Only slightly less ridiculous is the method of other institutions which permit a few examples of traditional poetry but “bar all that is poetical in it by treating it as something other than poetry”. What Frost means by “poetical” emerges later but here he mocks the way that poems are treated as no different to other conventional knowledge-based texts (“science”) or are examined merely for their linguistic and technical illustrations (“syntax, language”).

In a passage that all English teachers will recognise, Frost ironically concedes that education treats poetry in this way in large part because we have to submit marks for assessment. The brute simplicity of a marking regime has its attractions, but it inevitably narrows our focus until we mark for little else but “for accuracy, for correctness”. Still keeping what constitutes the “poetical” up his sleeve, Frost tempts us on by suggesting that such accuracy is “the least part of my marking. The hard part is the part beyond that, the part where the adventure begins”. The adventure is the real nature of a poetic text.

The Big Idea

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Having considered the abolition and the denaturing of poetry as ways of dealing with its “nuisance” value in education, Frost considers a third way of neutralising it. Mockingly once more, he describes those who accept poetry as a separate discourse but assign it to a “nowhere”, exile it to the “flowery”, to a place diametrically opposed to the “rigorous and righteous”. Poetry here becomes mere entertainment with no truth value, no concern for, or capacity for, knowledge. Poetry occupies only that part of the curriculum that “scatter[s] brains over taste and opinion” but this is hard to assess. Teachers may resort to “a general indefinite mark of X” in such courses and if a marking regime cannot be imposed then such a course can hardly be graced with the description of ‘education’. Frost’s tone is simultaneously sarcastic and passionately concerned: “How shall a man go through college without having been marked for taste and judgment? What will become of him? What will his end be? He will have to take continuation courses for college graduates. He will have to go to night schools”.

Coming closer to his real intention, Frost really does lament this lack of education in taste and opinion. Look at the rising seriousness of concern in this passage: “they have not been educated enough to find their way around in contemporary literature. They don’t know what they may safely like in the libraries and galleries. They don’t know how to judge an editorial when they see one. They don’t know how to judge a political campaign”.

This is a key moment because Frost makes it clear that for all his self-deprecatory tone, the foolery and sarcasm, he is leading us to a declaration that education does have a responsibility to prepare young people to be citizens as well as members of a skilled work force. Frost expects education to inculcate interpretative skills and too many Americans leave school/college ill-equipped to “know when they are being fooled by a metaphor, an analogy, a parable”. This is not science, nor is it merely syntax or language: “metaphor is, of course, what we are talking about”. For Frost, an understanding of how metaphor works is a key part of understanding the world (he will explain this later in the essay) and an understanding of metaphor is best learned through a study of how poetry works. Education about metaphor is education through poetry and “Education by poetry is education by metaphor”.

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I find the next two paragraphs hard to follow. Frost’s end point is to return to the importance of metaphor but here he detours through the idea of enthusiasm. As much as taste, enthusiasm is not something the academy can easily mark, but Frost wants it, or at least he wants enthusiasm “taken through the prism of the intellect”. This prism metaphor suggests that enthusiasm, when processed through the intellect, refracts a pure-blooded enthusiasm (Frost calls this latter “crude” and likens it to the “oh’s and ah’s” of someone admiring – without any thought? – a sunset). Such a refraction gives rise to a continuum of different levels of enthusiasm, from “something of overstatement, something of statement, and something of understatement”. The prism of the intellect is now re-named as “an idea”. I think Frost wants a not-unsurprising blend of passion and thought in his enthusiasm – neither cold assessment (marking?) nor the oh’s and ah’s of thoughtless fanaticism.

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Frost now returns to his main theme via a slight revision of his thought, suggesting he’s really been discussing “enthusiasm tamed by metaphor”. His next point is much clearer: “I do not think anybody ever knows the discreet use of metaphor, his own and other people’s, the discreet handling of metaphor, unless he has been properly educated in poetry”. Metaphor is the prism (spawned from intellect, something of an idea) through which our emotional responses are projected to achieve knowledge. But Frost is convinced that an awareness of this fact is not shared equally amongst us and that education through poetry will serve to increase this awareness.

Now Frost begins to talk more clearly about metaphor itself. The importance of it lies in the fact that it “begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, “grace” metaphors” but (as his essay argues) metaphor also “goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have”. Frost talks elsewhere of what Tim Kendall calls “ulteriority”, glossed here as the method of poetry of “saying one thing and meaning another”. The way Frost discusses this he is sure it is not an abstruse poetic idea but a day to day, almost instinctive human preference: “People say, “Why don’t you say what you mean?” We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections—whether from diffidence or some other instinct”.

untitledFrost wants to make big claims for metaphorical thinking: “I have wanted in late years to go further and further in making metaphor the whole of thinking”. He allows the exception of “mathematical thinking” but wants all other knowledge, including “scientific thinking” to be brought within the bounds of metaphor. He suggests the Greeks’ foundational thought about the world, the “All”, was fundamentally metaphorical in nature, especially Pythagoras’ concept of the nature of things as comparable to number: “Number of what? Number of feet, pounds and seconds”. This is the basis for a scientific, empirical (measurable) view of the world and hence “has held and held” in the shape of our still-predominating scientific view of it.

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Frost refers to a visiting scientist who tried to mix spatial and temporal metaphors: “The two don’t go together”. Another such modern metaphor is that a thing is “an event”. Another is that space “is something like curved”. Another is that individual particles possess a freedom. Another is the “metaphor of evolution” or indeed that the whole universe, the whole of everything, “is like unto a growing thing”. Frost wants to alert his audience to the role of such metaphors – often unrecognised as such – in both our everyday and more refined scientific views of the world. He briefly dwells on the metaphor of evolution, accepting its brilliance (in terms of its still-continuing applicability) but insisting that even this “will break down at some point”.

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These are the key paragraphs. Frost argues that our lack of understanding of how metaphor works will leave us “not safe”. We must understand “figurative values” and so be able to assess “the metaphor in its strength and its weakness”. In an image that brings to mind his poem ‘Birches’, he explains we will not “know how far [we] may expect to ride it and when it may break down”. The point is that it will break down (the boy riding the birch always comes back to earth) and education ought to give us the experience and the equipment to recognise a “good metaphor, as far as it goes, and [we] must know how far”. As I understand it, Frost wants us to approach human knowledge more tentatively, more sceptically, recognising its provisional nature because it is based in metaphors which will at some moment break down and need to be replaced by a better, more “brilliant” metaphor. The study of poetry offers us experiences of figurative thinking and (if we think of Frost’s poems) the sense of provisionality they often inculcate.

5727567383_f719380140_oThat we have a tendency to forget this provisional nature of knowledge and understanding seems to be Frost’s next point. We take up arms (as it were) by taking up certain metaphorical ideas and making totems of them. He berates Freudianism’s focus on “mental health” as an example of how “the devil can quote Scripture, which simply means that the good words you have lying around the devil can use for his purposes as well as anybody else”. That this is dangerous (makes us not safe) is illustrated by the passage of dialogue Frost now gives between himself and somebody else. The other argues that the universe is like a machine but Frost (adopting a sort of Socratic interrogation technique) draws out the limits of the metaphor, concluding he “wanted to go just that far with that metaphor and no further. And so do we all. All metaphor breaks down somewhere. That is the beauty of it. It is touch and go with the metaphor, and until you have lived with it long enough you don’t know when it is going. You don’t know how much you can get out of it and when it will cease to yield. It is a very living thing. It is as life itself”.

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Frost now returns us to the school room and what it is for a student to “Think”. It is now clear that this frequent exhortation from teachers really means “just putting this and that together; it is just saying one thing in terms of another”. In a clear allusion to his poem ‘After Apple-picking’, Frost says to explain to students about the workings of metaphor is to “set their feet on the first rung of a ladder the top of which sticks through the sky”. The most significant example of such metaphorical thinking is “the philosophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit, or spirit in terms of matter.” This – like all metaphors in the end – is an attempt that must fail but “it is the height of poetry, the height of all thinking, the height of all poetic thinking, that attempts to say matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter”. Frost clearly feels each realm is more clearly understood via metaphors of the other but (speaking in the 1930s) the main danger he foresees is a too-materialist vision of the world: “The only materialist – be he poet, teacher, scientist, politician, or statesman – is the man who gets lost in his material without a gathering metaphor to throw it into shape and order. He is the lost soul”. He is lost because blind to metaphors.

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Frost starts to look at metaphors through some “trivial ones” from the Odyssey – a shield and seeds of fire. These are the raw materials for an education by metaphor and recall his definition of a poem as “a momentary stay against confusion” in The Figure a Poem Makes where he arguesI would rather have trivial ones of my own to live by than the big ones of other people. But there are more significant metaphors: “the ones we live by”. Frost repeats: “[metaphor] is all there is of thinking”. He explains we do not have to write poetry to understand metaphor. Reading it serves as long as we read it “not as linguistics, not as history, not as anything but poetry”. The only form of assessment a teacher can apply to someone reading poetry is how “close” they come to it. This remains vague, to say the least, but Frost insists “everything depends on the closeness with which you come, and you ought to be marked for the closeness, for nothing else”.

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Evidence of such closeness to the true nature of poetry (and hence metaphor) is now termed a form of “belief”. He gives five different forms of such belief. Frost makes each sound like a sense of conviction, arising from the perception of a metaphorical connection between two things. Our giving credence to this sense of connection is also what can give rise to a fulfilling of such a connection, almost as if our belief in it gives rise to it.

His first illustration of this is in a young person’s self-belief. Is this like a young woman seeing herself as an engineer, giving that vision credit and hence pursuing it towards fulfilment? Of course, such metaphors break down and this is something more clearly acknowledged in Frost’s second example: “the belief of love”. The metaphor of a romantic relationship between two individuals must be given credence (on both sides) to be pursued but “the disillusionment that novels are full of is simply the disillusionment from disappointment in that belief. That belief can fail”.

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The third form of belief is literary or art belief. Frost focuses on the creation of a work of art which should arise not from cunning or calculation but from “belief. The beauty, the something, the little charm of the thing to be.” This is more “felt than known” (again recalling The Figure a Poem Makes) and we need to see the artist sensing a connection to something other, giving it credence, and trying to fulfil the insight, working towards it, bringing it in existence (not merely recording something already known). This is also the model for Frost’s fourth belief –  the God-belief. He’s most brief on this but the implication seems to be that God is something we bring into existence through our belief. Again, we need to remember that both literary- and God-belief is liable to failure and break down.

Here, Frost’s final belief is national belief, a belief in a nation to which we give credence and hence bring about its fulfilment, bringing it into existence. The particular and personal nature of each of these beliefs is brought out when Frost reaches for the metaphor of the painter’s palette. As he says elsewhere, being forced to adopt others’ metaphors, even a whole culture’s metaphors, becomes a form of tyranny that he would resist. This is partly because all metaphors break down eventually, but also because “I want my palette, if I am a painter, I want my palette on my thumb or on my chair, all clean, pure, separate colours. Then I will do the mixing on the canvas”. Whether we are engaged in self-, love-, art-, God- or nation-creation, we must make our own.

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Interestingly, Frost concludes by reviewing and re-ordering the five areas of metaphorical belief. Each has a “shyness” about it in that we are reluctant or incapable of pronouncing upon it until we have tried to pursue it: “only the outcome can tell”. This must be, in part, the source of Frost’s slipperiness, the sense we often have that his commitment is always provisional, or yet forthcoming. Even in national-belief, “it has got to be fulfilled, and we are not talking until we know more, until we have something to show”. This is understandably true of writing a poem which arises “not of cunning and craft [. . .] but of real art”. This is now glossed as “believing the thing into existence, saying as you go more than you even hoped you were going to be able to say, and coming with surprise to an end that you foreknew only with some sort of emotion”. In this conclusion, Frost holds back God-belief for its more traditional, ultimate position: “And then finally the relationship we enter into with God to believe the future in – to believe the hereafter in”.

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W H Auden’s Thoughts on Robert Frost

In what follows I am mostly summarising Auden’s own discussion of Frost, written in the late 1940s. But I am adding thoughts of my own as well (in the light of teaching Frost) and it would be prudent to make sure you have read Auden’s essay alongside this post.

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Auden’s essay, ‘Robert Frost’, can be found in The Dyer’s Hand (Faber, 1963) and it starts with a distinction between what a poem says and what the poet says. Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ ends with the statement that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. This is clearly the urn speaking and voicing a predilection for the kind of art “from which the evils and problems of this life”, argues Auden, have been “deliberately excluded” (p. 337). The Urn is such a piece of art, defining its own beauty in the act of excluding the “heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d” (alluded to in its own third stanza). Yet Keats’ main narrative voice does not subscribe to such a view and the possibilities of these ironic distances between poet, narrative speaker and dramatic characters (even if only an old urn) are things we should take into any reading of Robert Frost.

But Frost is not an Urn Poet, seeking beauty at all costs; Auden links such a desire with the figure of Shakespeare’s Ariel.  The Ariel poet wants a poem to be “a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play” which gives the reader delight in so far as it contrasts with our true existence in history, with our “insoluble problems and inescapable suffering” (p. 338). Taking an unprepossessing extract from George Peele, Auden characterises the Ariel poem as tending towards anonymous generalities, a verbal contraption such that, if we try to explain what pleasure it gives us, “one finds oneself talking about language, the handling of the rhythm, the pattern of vowels and consonants, the placing of caesuras etc”. Ariel has no passions – his earthly paradise is beautiful but not very earthly in truth, and nothing of consequence can happen there. An anthology edited by Ariel runs the risk of delivering mere narrowness and a monotony (or even absence) of feeling. Auden refers us to Virgil’s Eclogues, and poets like Campion, Herrick and Mallarme (I’d add other assorted Surrealists, Dylan Thomas, John Ashbery). In being turned away from historical reality, there is inevitably a narcissistic quality to Ariel poems (p. 340). Damning with faint praise, Auden notes Ariel’s worst fault is a minor one, a self-regarding triviality.

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In contrast, Frost is a Prospero Poet. To explain, Auden quotes Dr Johnson: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it”. The Prospero poem should provide us with “some kind of revelation about our life”; it will act so as to “free us from self-enchantment and deception” (p. 338). In order to do this, the Prospero poet must introduce into the poem “the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly”, in other words Keats’ “heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d”. Frost’s poems are recognisably of this type and they seem to derive from “an experience which preceded any words and without which the poem could not have come into being”. Rather than Ariel’s narrow focus on the beauty of the constituent verbal elements, these are now regarded as “subordinate in importance to the truth of what [the poem] says” (p. 340). Auden nominates Wordsworth as the English poet who, more than any other, has the least element of Ariel, a preponderance of Prospero. Wordsworth’s earthiness, directness of address and simplicity of language can reach peculiar, bathetic  extremes, as in ‘The Thorn:

 

This thorn you on your left espy;

And to the left, three yards beyond,

You see a little muddy pond

Of water, never dry,

I’ve measured it from side to side:

‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

 

Yet, of ‘Mending Wall, Frost has said that he “dropped to an everyday level of diction that even Wordsworth kept above”. In Frost’s poem there are only two words with more than two syllables. This is evidence of Frost’s Prospero-like quality as Auden defines it. But the risk of such simplicity and directness – lodging any validity it possesses in the poem’s relation to truth – is that, in failing, the poet offends not merely against triviality but against truth itself. The poem may be false and a reader might conclude, “This poem should not have been written” (p. 341).

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Auden is, of course, dealing with extremes here and he admits most poetry presents a blend or tension of Ariel and Prospero qualities. But, considering a poet’s output, it is possible (and useful) to say that he or she is dominated by one or the other. So Auden describes Frost’s Prospero-like language: “The music is always that of the speaking voice, quiet and sensible . . . he rarely employs metaphors . .  yet he manages to make this simple kind of speech express a wide variety of emotion and experience” (p. 342). This achievement is because Frost’s diction is that “of a mature mind, fully awake, and in control of itself; it is not the speech of dream or of uncontrollable passion”.  The reader will often be aware of strong, even violent, emotions lying behind what is actually said, but the saying “is reticent, the poetry has, as it were, an auditory chastity”. So Frost’s poems are quiet on the surface which readers find inviting or, if more superficially read, boring. But the drama is real enough and, once entered into, not uncommonly, in Lionel Trilling’s famous observation, potentially “terrifying”.

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Auden goes on to make observations about some of Frost’s themes. ‘Two Look at Two’ is a “miraculous exception” in Frost’s general presentation of man’s relationship with Nature since the couple observing the buck and the doe seem to be rewarded with a sympathetic response. It is “As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour / Had made them certain earth returned their love”. In fact, this conclusion may seem less exceptional if we pay attention to the “As if” and – just as in Keats’ Urn – find a difference between the poet’s intention and the Ariel-like urge towards an ideal or paradisal ending to the poem (the couple’s love is returned only in their own rosy-tinted perception). More typically, Frost’s Nature is better represented by the “great buck” of ‘The Most of It’ which emerges from a lake, alien and indifferent to the human desire for “counter-love”.

This sense of cosmic indifference to the human draws from Frost his often expressed admiration of stoic courage, the ability to keep on keeping on. This, Auden points out, is the significance of Frost’s frequently deserted dwellings. In Europe, such an image might suggest “injustice and greed and the nemesis that overtakes human pride”. But in Frost, such ruins are rather “an image of human heroism, of a defence in the narrow pass against hopeless odds” (p. 345). Auden’s point is that Frost’s poetry looks forwards rather than backwards, nostalgia is not a common note; more usual, and more distinctively American, is “the ever-recurrent opportunity of the present moment to make a discovery or a new start” (p. 349). This is why Frost lauds work and labour so much. His highest virtue is the self-respect that comes from taking pride in something achieved.

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Baptiste – the French-Canadian axe-maker in ‘The Axe-Helve – is such a man and also a Prospero-like artist:

 

He showed me that the lines of a good helve

Were native to the grain before the knife

Expressed them, and its curves were no false curves

Put on it from without. And there its strength lay [. . .]

 

An Ariel axe-helve would look beautiful – but be wholly useless for the task. Frost said: “Art should follow the lines in nature [. . .] False art puts curves on things that haven’t any curves”. Unreliably narrated by a stiffly condescending New England Yankee farmer, the poem in fact favours Baptiste’s pragmatic art (which is Frost’s too). The same effect is heard in ‘Mending Wall’ in which the arrogant, mischievous narrative voice makes no headway against his less educated neighbour’s refrain: “Good fences make good neighbours”.

The narrator of ‘The Wood Pile’ is similarly undermined by his own poem. There is an Ariel-like restlessness about him. His curiosity has an aimless, insatiable quality as if the mixed nature of what lies before him is not enough. Having decided to return home, he changes his mind: “No, I will go farther – and we shall see”. What he eventually finds is an image reflective of his own failing: a wood pile, carefully and laboriously constructed and then abandoned in a restless search for novelty. Seemingly un-selfaware, he criticises the man who “lived in turning to fresh tasks” and could “so forget his handiwork”.

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It’s in ‘Birches’ that Frost most clearly engages with the contrasting desires of Ariel and Prospero. Climbing the tree “Toward heaven” is Ariel’s desire to “get away from earth a while”. This is contrasted to the earlier passage in the poem in which “Truth” breaks into the narrative, describing the irreversible damaged an ice storm can do to a birch tree: “they never right themselves”. It is Frost’s choice to take a third way, to be “a swinger of birches”, achieving a balance or sequence of both heavenward and earthward motion. If this sounds like an equal balance, it is misleading since –  as Auden argued – the scale is unmistakably tipped in Frost’s case towards Prospero. I don’t sense any irony in the declaration of ‘Birches’: “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”.

Too Short an Arc: Robert Frost’s ‘A Soldier’

I recently posted a discussion about Robert Frost’s brief essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’. In this post I’m looking at one of the poems I’ll be teaching next year from the Cambridge International Exam Board’s list of set texts. See page 47 of the Specification. Essays are supposed to offer a close analysis of one (or two poems) while also exploring a student’s wider understanding of what the poet is doing in terms of methods and concerns (techniques and themes).

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Robert Frost’s seldom discussed sonnet, ‘A Soldier’, was first published in West-Running Brook (1928). The choice of the indefinite article in the title contrasts immediately with a war poem like Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ in which some effort is made to capture an individual voice, a specific occasion for grief. In Frost’s poem, the soldier’s death is rather an opportunity for the poet’s characteristic reflections on life’s limits and freedoms, on boundaries, on the relationship between our place on earth and our aspiration to something else.

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,

That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,

But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

If we who sight along it round the world,

See nothing worthy to have been its mark,

It is because like men we look too near,

Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,

Our missiles always make too short an arc.

They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect

The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;

They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.

But this we know, the obstacle that checked

And tripped the body, shot the spirit on

Further than target ever showed or shone.

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On the page, Frost does not divide the structural elements of this broadly Petrarchan sonnet, but it is useful to think of them for the sake of analysis and I refer to quatrains, octet, sestet and volta where relevant. Here’s me reading the poem with the text differently chunked into units of sense.

Line 1 immediately treats the dead soldier to a metaphorical (more strictly metonymic) transformation – he becomes his own weapon. But the kind of dehumanisation suggested by the ‘man=lance’ image does not lead to more obvious themes about loss of individuality in war time. Also why Frost chooses such an archaic weapon as a lance is not clear – perhaps he was thinking of a painting, perhaps he wanted to distance the death from more contemporary images of war (the poem first appeared 14 years after the end of WW1), perhaps he felt it would give him more freedom to explore the symbolism of the death without personal, (distracting?) human entanglements. The opening 3 lines of quatrain 1 (Q1) are as follows:

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,

That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,

But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

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The repetition of the verb “lies” is striking and emphasises the soldier’s passivity in death and the subsequent stillness of the lance. The adjective “fallen” confirms this idea. The end of line 1 seems to mean something like ‘the lance lies just as/in the way it was hurled’. So the throw was a failure, an ineffective effort, as also suggested in line 3 where we are told it has merely “plowed the dust”. The lance’s metaphorical ploughing of the earth further suggests an ineffective, unfertile, unproductive act. Line 2 reinforces these images of passivity, inaction, ineffectuality, as the lance “lies unlifted” over a length of time (duration suggested by the hesitations of the heavier punctuation in line 2) likely to give rise to both “dew” and “rust”. So this is not an image of death and failure in the heat of the battle; it may indeed be long after. Frost seems more than happy to draw the reader’s mind away from what might be the actual condition of the flesh and blood soldier himself by this stage. His dewy, rusty lance, plugged point first into the earth, stands in for him. This is not a poem of personal grief or lament for a warrior’s lost life. That it ought to have a bit more concern for that theme (to be a bit less exploitative) is one of the reasons why we may find reading the poem an uneasy experience.

Line 4 introduces the plural pronoun and – crossing the unmarked boundary between Q1 and Q2 – we are off into more generalised realms of philosophical speculation.

If we who sight along it round the world,

See nothing worthy to have been its mark,

It is because like men we look too near,

Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,

Our missiles always make too short an arc.

The image of ‘sighting’ along the lance perhaps re-instates more modern methods of warfare (rifles with sights?) but whether ancient or modern, Frost suggests, in looking for a suitable target or “mark”, we fail, we see “nothing worthy”. This is more hyperbolic than factual perhaps, given that we are sighting along the lance and apparently gazing “round the world”. It’s this latter phrase – its easy familiarity enabling Frost to smuggle it past the reader’s guard against inappropriate pretention – that initiates the poem’s elevation from battle-field incident to generalised speculative discussion about human aspiration and limitation.

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The simile in line 6, comparing the observing “we” to “men” has been noted and criticised by H. A. Maxson (On the Sonnets of Robert Frost (1997)). He objects that the observing “we” are surely “men” (in the sense of human) and so the simile barrenly compares like with like. Maxson suggests Frost intended something like ‘isn’t it just like men’, a sort of frustrated, critical aside (self not excluded) that human beings have very limited powers of observation. Another way of reading the moment may be to emphasis the gender specificity of the reference: is this limit to our sight a specifically male problem?

Of course, it’s not mere shortness of optical sight that is the issue, but a “Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere, / Our missiles always make too short an arc”. The phrase “as fitted to the sphere” works in the same way as “round the world” did earlier. Frost is urging us to forget the battlefield where the poem began; the discussion now is about our place in the world/sphere and how we perceive it or not. Though the use of the word “missiles” does suggest a return to the militaristic, it works as a more generalised allusions to human tools, all carefully “fitted to the sphere” but because of that they/we are unable to contemplate what may lie beyond it. For this reasons our tools, missiles, thought and perceptions all fall short, they “make too short an arc”.

 

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Robert Frost

 

The arc image reminds us of the interim statement in Frost’s ‘Birches’ that the narrator would “like to get away from the earth awhile”. In ‘A Soldier’ the desire for a similar escape is expressed more indirectly in the constriction and thudding physicality beyond the volta, at the opening of the sestet, descriptive of all lances’ fate when limited by human “sight”:

They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect

The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;

They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.

The short phrases, heavy punctuation and repeated 3rd person pronoun as well as the violence of words like “rip”, “striking” and “break” convey Frost’s sense of the tragic, destructive quality of such limited aspiration and vision. There is a double wounding implied as the lances intersect and puncture the earth itself and in doing so “break their own” (curve, I take it).

Frost’s use of the word “cringe” in line 10 is interesting. The root of the word is relevantly related to Old English cringan, crincan to ‘bend, yield or fall in battle’. Its modern meaning is to bend one’s head and body in fear or apprehension or in a servile manner or to experience an inward shiver of embarrassment or disgust. So our human failure to see or aspire beyond the earth – represented here by the lance’s metal point striking stone – becomes a defeat of sorts, an act of weakness or servility, at least of embarrassment or disgust at our own inadequacy. It is as if the birch swinger in Frost’s other poem has no other option but to remain in his despondent state, “weary of considerations”:

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

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It’s at this point the birch swinger expresses the wish to “get away” from earth by climbing the tree and swinging on it. But this is no simple, one-way,  transcendent wishfulness. In ‘Birches’ the narrator always intends to come back to earth and “begin over” because – in two of Frost’s most moving lines – “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”.

‘A Soldier’ lacks the uplift (for reader) and complicating paradoxes of ‘Birches’. The sonnet dwells long and hard on our limitations, our poor aim and aimlessness, the burns, tickles and cobwebs. But the sestet ends in a declarative mode, not typical of Frost who works more usually via hints and guesses.

But this we know, the obstacle that checked

And tripped the body, shot the spirit on

Further than target ever showed or shone.

The “obstacle” here is the earth, plugging the lance, tripping the soldier himself, a pratfall in the obstinate materiality of the world. But Frost’s plainly concluding tone is now undermined by a more characteristic paradox in what has tripped the soldier’s body is precisely what also shoots his “spirit” beyond the merely everyday. The sonnet’s final line suggests the apparently unworthy “mark” of line 5 (now referred to as a “target”) has indeed been transcended towards something “Further”. Frost’s final phrase, overly pushy and hyperbolic, overly alliterative, the rhyming couplet also raising the poetic stakes a bit too high, strikes me as vacuous, its faux shimmer and shine propelled more by wishful thinking than precision of thought. Of course, what Frost intends to say – something about the generative tensions that exist between matter and spirit – may well be inexpressible but in poems like ‘Birches’, ‘Mowing’ and ‘After Apple-Picking’ he gets closer to it than he does in the confines of this sonnet.

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