On Poetry: Frost, ‘Birches’ and the Sublime

For the Valley News
Published: 10/5/2017 10:00:16 PM
Modified: 10/5/2017 10:00:19 PM

Robert Frost was a sublime poet who struck terror in both himself and his readers. Gifted with a prodigious capacity for what John Keats called “negative capability,” that is, the ability to exist “in uncertainty, Mystery, doubt” — and I would add suspense — “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” Frost created characters who pondered one moral and/or metaphysical question after another, usually in pastoral and domestic settings.

As famous as he was, Frost was misinterpreted as more of a lovable folk poet than a stunning witness of the sublime. He made an indelible first impression as a genial Yankee bard, primarily because of his pastoral subject matter and his adherence to traditional prosody. Unlike his modernist peers, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore and Hart Crane, he avoided urban settings, erudite subject matter and mythological allusions in favor of local landscapes and rural narratives. Although he won four Pulitzer Prizes, his readers failed to appreciate the elevated nature of his obsessions, or what he liked to call his “ulterior meanings.”

Randall Jarrell was the first important critic and fellow poet to announce the terror in Frost’s poems in his 1953 essay To the Laodiceans, pointing out how “diabolically good” Frost’s details were in his poem Design, how full, he wrote, of “the stilling rigor of death that ‘white piece of rigid satin cloth’ is.”

Then six years later in 1959 at Frost’s 80th birthday party at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Lionel Trilling echoed Jarrell’s observation in a speech he called “a cultural episode.” Trilling declared:

So radical a work, I need scarcely say, is not carried out by reassurance, nor by the affirmation of old virtues and pieties. It is carried out by the representation of the terrible actualities of life in a new way. I think of Robert Frost as a terrifying poet. Call him, if it makes things any easier, a tragic poet, but it might be useful every now and then to come out from under the shelter of that literary word. The universe that he conceives is a terrifying universe.

Trilling went on in his birthday speech to cite the last stanza of Frost’s poem Desert Places as a witty ars poetica that exemplified what he felt was “the energy with which emptiness is perceived”:

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces

Between stars—on stars where no human race is.

I have it in me so much nearer home

To scare myself with my own desert places.

Frost replied to Trilling with this thank you note a few weeks after his “birthday party”:

You made my birthday party a surprise party. I should like nothing better than to do a thing like that myself — to depart from the Rotarian norm in a Rotarian situation. You weren’t there to sing “Happy Birthday, dear Robert,” and I don’t mind being made controversial. No sweeter music can come to my ears than the clash of arms over my dead body when I am down.

What’s worse, one wonders, to suffer lack of recognition as a poet for nearly 100 years, and be bastardized to boot like Emily Dickinson, or to achieve enormous fame while going largely misunderstood throughout one’s career?

Both Dickinson and Frost, the most sublime American poets, along with Walt Whitman, terrified their readers, while at the same time entertaining them. But Frost was the most canny of the three in his talent for distracting the guard dogs of his readers’ houses, that is, their initial wariness about any ulterior meanings, by throwing them “bones” of blank verse, rhyme, and accessible subject matter during the erudite epoch of high modernism, while then slipping around back and breaking in with terror.

The delayed recognition of Frost’s break-ins betrayed his readers’ immediate inclination to appreciate his poems for their familiar pastoral quality and Yankee wit, which, for the most part, they found comforting, despite Frost’s dark subject matter and bleak conclusions.

Frost’s unprecedented initial popularity existed ironically in direct proportion to his readers’ flight from his genius. Americans loved him in the way children love Mother Goose, falling under the hypnotic spell of such lullabies as London Bridges, Rock-a-Bye Baby and Jack and Jill without realizing they’re listening to one catastrophe after another. Frost also loved Mother Goose and acknowledged its influence, audible in the one poem out of all his work he felt approached perfection, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, which, indeed, is no less than a haunting adult nursery rhyme in 16 unfaltering iambic tetrameter lines.

Place was just as important for Frost in the development of his quarrels with the world. The acts of gazing out from above and swinging from side to side, both physically and cognitively, recur often in many of his most sublime poems where he suspends his speakers at the tops of trees and staircases, as in such poems as Birches, Wild Grapes, After Apple Picking, Home Burial and The Witch of Coos. He found suspense in suspension. It was his figurative study, where he either hung or stood in voluntary discomfort as he contemplated his place and condition on Earth.

In this sense, he was an earthbound poet who was inclined to crucify his speakers on found crosses, where they suffer necessary pain that transports them to some higher awareness about their grief, their longings or simply their complexity as human beings. Longinus might indeed have been describing many of Frost’s poems when he wrote in his classic essay, On the Sublime, in the first century that a sublime poem possessed “a greatness of soul, imitation or imagery” in which the poet, as if “instinctually” creates a work of art that uplifts “our soul” to an exalted height where “it takes proud flight and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.”

Although I equally admire all the “suspenseful” poems by Frost I’ve cited above, I’d like to focus on Birches, since it’s so exemplary as a poem that combines the physical with the cognitive — a breathtaking, rural game and what Frost liked to call his “quarrel with the world.”

Although Frost enjoyed the solitary activity of swinging from the tops of birch trees as a child, he finds he can’t reminisce about it as an adult as just a daring, exciting activity and leave it at that; he has to pick a “quarrel” with the firmament, which he turns into a metaphysical plane where he experiences sublime moments as a “swinger of birches.” He describes his momentary suspension at the apex of his swings as not only physically thrilling, but representative of a mortal weariness that conjures his recurrent dream of escaping gravity’s hold by returning to his childhood where he climbed “black branches up a snow white trunk/ toward heaven.”

The more Frost recounts his days as a swinger of birches, the more he develops his poetic train of thought into a dramatic monologue, but one in which we, as his reader, experience both his quarrel with time and his exhilarating childhood memory with equal intensity. We taste the bittersweet of his euphoric communion with the sky while also identifying with his weighty return to earth. His language strikes enough universal notes to transform his rural particulars into our particulars, even though they’re not. We enter his forest willingly as companion birch-climbers, hanging suspended in the same longing and bittersweet of childhood nostalgia when we’re “weary of considerations” and wish to “get away from earth awhile/ And then come back to it and begin over.”

Feeling and intellect combine in Birches to form a sublime, memorable speech that crosses over the transom of the poet’s mere personal experience to the receptive inner eye of his listener’s imagination. The poem entertains successfully first before it lowers its revelatory boom, exciting the reader with not only the thrill of birch-swinging, but by introducing a dispute at mid-poem. Birch-swinging becomes an extended metaphor for “the Truth” that breaks in at mid-life “with all her matter of fact about the ice storm,” or as Frost says more plainly several lines later, when one has grown “weary of considerations/ And life is too much like a pathless wood/ Where your face burns and tickles with cobwebs.”

This realist view of life provides the necessary grounding for the transcendent affirmation Frost makes at the end of the poem in his sudden stunning declaration: “Earth’s the right place for love./ I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” But this is a qualified rather than absolute truth, one that defers to human limitations while at the same time expressing intimations of an inscrutable beyond.

There is a word in this poem that demarcates both this sublime human condition as well as its limitations. Frost italicizes it in an almost heavy-handed way. The word is “toward.” Rather than proclaim the birch tree an earthly catapult for reaching heaven, Frost signifies the birch tree as an earthly scaffold for approaching heaven, but not reaching it, for appealing to the innate monkey in us as well as to our human wonder.

We see Frost at his best in this poem, avoiding familiar religious language for his own first-hand expression, an embodiment, at least on the page, of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “aboriginal strength” and what Longinus defined as “great soul.”

Chard deNiord is Vermont’s poet laureate. He lives in Westminster West.

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