Robert Frost & The New England Renaissance

by George Monteiro

 

Published by The University Press of Kentucky                                              
Lexington, Kentucky 40508 (176 pgs)                                            
Copyright 1988 by The University Press of 
Kentucky pages 123 through 129 reproduced 
here by permission of the publisher.  All 
rights reserved by UPK.

 Due to the brevity of this essay, no search tips nor PDF are provided.

Look for references to Emerson in Frost's poems "The Tuft of Flowers" and "Mending Wall" and the transition of Frost's first two volumes, A Boy's Will and North of Boston.

                 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Linked Analogies

 
Loved the wood-rose and left it on its stalk.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Forebearance" (1842)
     
CONCERNED ABOUT possible responses to his first collection of poems, A Boy's Will (1913), Frost set about hedging his bets. Fearing underinterpretation above all, he provided straightforward hints to the themes of thirty of the thirty-two poems in the volume. After each entry in the table of contents he added a gloss. "The Demiurge's Laugh," for instance, carried the note that it is " about science," and "Pan with Us" is "about art (his own)." "The Tuft of Flowers " is "about fellowship." (l)

Encouraged by the reception accorded A Boy's Will, however, Frost found it unnecessary to add such glosses to his second collection, North of Boston (1914) - except in one case. "Mending Wall," opening the book, he prefaced with the statement that it "takes up the theme where ' A Tuft of Flowers' in A Boy's Will laid it down." (
2) With this gesture Frost effectively linked the two books. Yet explicit though it is, the deliberately made connection between "The Tuft of Flowers" and "Mending Wall" has drawn little significant response from Frost's critics. The poems have not been read reflexively; that is, not fully in the light that each sheds upon the other, even though their author himself insisted upon the link. (3)

Frost would have the reader believe that, in writing "The Tuft of Flowers," he discovered the experience of renewed fellowship. "A Boy's Will told how I was scared away from life and crept back to it through this poem," Frost wrote; in "The Tuft of Flowers," he admitted, "I was speaking literally." (
4) The experience had taught him, moreover, that fellowship transcends time. It can exist between human beings who work the same field but at different times. For in sparing the tuft of butterfly weeds - "a leaping tongue of bloom " - the mower has performed a deed that will communicate something of importance to the worker who will follow him but not see him. At the outset, the poet has decided: "I must be, as he had been, - alone, / As all must be, I said within my heart, / 'Whether they work together or apart.' "

There is considerable evidence that "The Tuft of Flowers" is an Emersonian poem. (
5) In the essay "Circles," Emerson democratizes the idea of the Christian Pentecost by identifying it with inspired human conversation and friendship. That he would compare ordinary conversation with the Holy Ghost's visit to the disciples gives us some indication of the significance that Emerson found in speech. But there is almost immediately a rueful qualification. "The parties are not to be judged by the spirit they partake and even express under this Pentecost," warns Emerson. "To-morrow they will have receded from this high-water mark. To-morrow you shall find them stooping under the old pack-saddles.' And yet, he decides, "let us enjoy the cloven flame whilst it glows on our walls." (6) The image of "cloven flame" echoes Acts 2:3 - "cloven tongues like as of fire"; and as such, it offers a link between the New Testament and Frost's poem, particularly in the image of the tuft of flowers - "a leaping tongue of bloom." Frost's image is visual, of course, but it is also allusive. In speaking to the poet, this tongue, vaulting time, communicates just as Jesus' disciples did when they "began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (2:4). In sparing the flowers, the now absent mower has left his fellow worker a spiritual, Dionysian "message from the dawn." Curiously enough, for Frost "brotherly speech" has not involved "speech" at all. The mower's emblematic gesture has conveyed Emersonian revelation symbolically. "We all stand waiting, empty; - knowing, possibly, that we can be full, surrounded by mighty symbols which are not symbols to us, but prose and trivial toys," wrote Emerson. "Then cometh the god, and converts the statues into fiery men, and by a flash of his eye burns up the veil which shrouded all things, and the meaning of the very furniture, of cup and saucer, of chair and clock and tester, is manifest." (7)
 
There are other traces of "Circles" in Frost's poem. Beginning with conversation, Emerson moves on to a higher form of communication. "Good as is discourse, silence is better, and shames it," he decides. "The length of the discourse indicates the distance of thought betwixt the speaker and the hearer. If they were at a perfect understanding in any part, no words would be necessary thereon. If at one in all parts, no words would be suffered. " (8) As Emerson had observed in Nature, " An action is the perfection and publication of thought. A right action seems to fill the eye, and to be related to all nature." (9) Frost's poem reaches further. It suggests something about the transcendental community shared by poets through their poetry. For poets and prophets, poems and prophecies are not merely words: they are gestures and actions. They, too, link workers who toil together even as they toil apart, and they bridge time as well as space. It is Whitman's gesture in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, " though the image, as Frost uses it, comes from Emerson. Emerson's essays and poems are the "leaping tongue of bloom" that conveys "the message of the dawn" to the fellow poet who would follow and, in turn, lead. Literature, as Frost once defined it, consists of "words that have become deeds." (10)

"Mending Wall" is a meditative lyric that reports and assesses a dialogue between neighbors who have joined in the annual occupation of rebuilding the wall which separates their farms. Obviously antedating the farmers themselves, the old wall seems to serve no modern need. Has "walking the line" degenerated, the poet wonders, into bootless and vulgar ritual? Or are there fresh reasons, as yet unarticulated, for maintaining the wall ? The poet's mischief - that impulse which urges him to needle his rather taciturn neighbor with this puckish question - acts to open things up.
 
Asked once about his intended meaning, Frost recast the question: "In my Mending Wall was my intention fulfilled with the characters portrayed and the atmosphere of the place?" Characteristically, he went on to answer obliquely.
 
 
I should be sorry if a single one of my poems stopped with either of those things - stopped anywhere in fact. My poems -- I should suppose everybody's poems -- are all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless. Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks carts chairs and such like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to fall forward over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in the dark. I may leave my toys in the wrong place and so in vain. It is my intention we are speaking of - my innate mischievousness. (11)

 

No other poem in the Frost canon better illustrates his manner - as he described it - and his overall poetic intention. "Mending Wall" is constructed around the idea of mischief. The poet's mischief ultimately erects the verbal barrier that his neighbor is bullied into trying to surmount or withstand. "Why rebuild ancient walls? " is a question offered to trip the neighbor. But one of the surprises in "Mending Wall" is that the neighbor responds with a defense. He does not fall forward. He cannot be tripped into darkness - and a new outlook. Instead, threatened, he reaches into the past for support and comes up with his father's proverb: "Good fences make good neighbors." When we fail to recognize that the neighbor replies to the poet's prodding with a proverb, we miss a good deal of Frost's point.
 
Current in America as early as 1850, "Good fences make good neighbors" can be traced to the Spanish, "Una pared entre dos vezinos guarda mas (haze durar) la amistad," which goes back at least to the Middle Ages. (12) In this form, Vicesimus Knox translated it for his compendium of Elegant Extracts in 1797, and in 1832 Emerson record it in his journal - "A wall between both, best preserves friendship." (13) That Frost encountered the idea in Emerson's published journals is probable, though it seems more likely that he found its precise expression elsewhere. For our purpose it is important that both Frost and Emerson were attracted to the same idea, suggesting an affinity of poetic temperament. "The sea, vocation, poverty; are seeming fences, but man is insular and cannot be touched." (14) In sentiment this is vintage Frost, but Emerson made the remark.
 
Speech in proverbial form surfaces as the poem's final "wall." Since the proverb's message is sanctioned by tradition, the poet's neighbor can retreat to safety. Resorting to a proverb enables him, moreover, to have the last word in the exchange. The importance of what he chooses to say is exceeded by the import of how he has chosen to say it. Provoked into speech, the farmer hides behind a clinching proverb. Twice the proverb is offered to close the matter. Failing to understand the message the first time, the poet repeats his question. The neighbor employs his proverb to win his point, even as it is employed in some African tribes, for example, where participants are allowed to use proverbs in litigation. (15)

What finally emerges from Frost's poem is the idea that the stock reply - unexamined wisdom from the past - seals off the possibility of further thought and communication. When thought has frozen into folk expression, language itself becomes another wall, one unresponsive to that which it encircles and given over to fulfilling a new and perhaps unintended function. Meeting once a year and insulated from anything beyond simple interaction by their well - defined duties and limits, these "good" neighbors turn out to be almost incommunicative.
 
It is difficult to ascertain Frost's full intent in linking "Mending Wall" with "The Tuft of Flowers." If the latter is about unexpected fellowship, then some interesting possibilities present themselves when it is paired with "Mending Wall." One way of stating the theme of "The Tuft of Flowers" is that even when a man works alone he works with others - but that is hardly the theme of "Mending Wall." On the contrary, in "Mending Wall" the poet discovers that, even when men work together, each of them works alone. "The Tuft of Flowers" also says that there can be communication without words, beyond physical presence and across time. But in "Mending Wall" we see that communication breaks down even as men converse. For Frost, "taking up a theme" did not at all entail dealing with it always in the same way. When we examine these linked poems in the light that each casts on the other, we find that their relationship really involves statement and counterstatement, or, put another way; theme and antitheme.
 
Yet if Frost could provide links between and among his poems to encourage the kind of cross-reading that he so much favored for poetry; he could also omit from his poems the kinds of links - in the form of pieces of information - that would show him plainly to be writing in many cases within a larger historical and mythic context. Such is the case with "Mending Wall," in which the poet deliberately withholds a piece of useful information.
 
"Who are bad neighbors? " asked Thoreau, for the sole purpose of answering his own question. "They who suffer their neighbors' cattle to go at large because they don't want their ill will, - are afraid to anger them. They are abettors of the ill-doers." (16) Thoreau could as readily have asked, "Who are good neighbors ?" Whereupon, following his reasoning, he could have answered, "Those who build and maintain walls which keep out their neighbors' cattle. "
 
How, and indeed whether, the goodwill of one's neighbor is fostered by boundaries, however, was a general question that engaged Frost. Were walls and fences instrumental in the retention and renewal of human relationships? The answers presented in "Mending Wall" are somewhat less than clear-cut. The reason is at least partly that Frost has purposely and purposefully left out of his poem some important information. One key to the poet's omission lies in the final lines of the poem.
 
..................... I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'
 
In these lines the poet moves back through time, no longer questioning the possible reasons for continuing annually to repair the now apparently useless boundaries, and returns to an earlier, darker age. Indeed, his neighbor seems to be moving in a "darkness" that is, suggestively, "not of woods only and the shade of trees." To the poet he is now "like an old-stone savage armed." Even on New England farms in this century the ways of the savage continue, it would seem, no matter how transformed they may be or how radically attenuated.
 
Indeed, Frost shrewdly and characteristically stopped his poem just short of a mythological link. That Frost and his neighbor engage in what is tantamount to a vestigial ritual and that, furthermore, prodded by the poet, the neighbor would defend his father's idea (proverbially expressed) (17) that "Good fences make good neighbors" relates this poem to traditions and rituals antedating the Romans. The god of boundaries they named Terminus was not invented by the Romans, but he became one of their important household gods. (18) Terminus was annually honored in a ritual that not only reaffirmed boundaries but also provided the occasion for predetermined traditional festivities among neighbors.
 
 
The festival of the Therminalia was celebrated in Rome and in the country on the 23rd of February. The neighbours on either side of any boundary gathered round the landmark [the stones which marked boundaries), with their wives, children, and servants; and crowned it, each on his own side, with garlands, and offered cakes and bloodless sacrifices. In later times, however, a lamb, or sucking pig, was sometimes slain, and the stone sprinkled with the blood. Lastly, the whole neighbourhood joined in a general feast. (19)

 

If the poet's neighbor does not know that this annual ritual of walking the boundaries to repair their common wall has its obscure source in the all but totally lost mysteries of ancient man, that information could not possibly have been unknown to the serious student of the classics who wrote the poem and who had read in Walden of Thoreau's search for firewood: "An old forest fence which had seen its best days was a great haul for me. I sacrificed it to Vulcan, for it was past serving the god Terminus." (20) What impresses itself on Frost, however, is something quite different. Whatever the reason, men continue to need marked boundaries, even when they find it difficult to justify their existence.
 
 
NOTES
CHAPTER 13. "LINKED ANALOGIES"
 
1. A Boy's Will (London: David Nutt, 1913), p. ix. These glosses disappeared in all subsequent printings of the poem. All further quotations from "The Tuft of Flowers" come from Complete Poems, 1949, pp. 31-32.
2. North of Boston (London: David Nutt, 1914), p. x. This gloss was also dropped in reprintings of the poem. All subsequent quotations from "Mending Wall" come from Complete Poems, 1949, pp. 47-48.
3. Two exceptions, both of which acknowledge Frost's link but do almost nothing with the clue, are Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Fire under the Andes: A Group of North American Portraits (New York: Knopf 1927), pp. 296-97; and John Robert Doyle, Jr., The Poetry of Robert Frost: An Analysis (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand, 1962), pp. 208-9.
4. Quoted in Sergeant, Trial by Existence, p. 67. It is of interest that Frost credited a public reading of this poem in 1906 with his being hired to teach at Pinkerton Academy; see Thompson, Early Years, pp. 318-23.
5. See Waggoner, American Poets, pp. 307-8. The Emerson texts he finds significant are an essay and a poem, both entitled "Friendship."
6. Collected Works of Emerson, 2:184.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., pp. 184-85.
9. Ibid., 1:28.
10. Letters of Frost to Untermeyer, p. 10.
11. Selected Letters of Robert Frost, p. 344.
12. See Refranes y frases proverbiales Espanolas de la edad media, compiled by Eleanor S. O'Kane, Anejos del Boletin de la Real Academia Espanola, 2 (Madrid: Academia Espanola, 1959): 182, 12.600 refranes mas, compiled by Francisco Rodriguez Marin (Madrid: Tipografia de la "Revista de Archivos, Bibliotecas y Museos," 1930), p. 249; and R. Foulche-Delbosc, "Proverbes judeo-espagnols," Revue hispanique 2 (1895): 350. In the United States the proverb appears, exactly as Frost gives it, in Blum's Farmer's and Planter's Almanac (Winston-Salem, N.C.: John Christian Blum, 1850), p. 13; see Addison Barker, "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors," Journal of American Folklore 64 (1951): 421.
13. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph H. Orth, vol. 6: 1824-1838 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1966): 161. Orth cites Knox's Elegant Extracts as Emerson's source.
14. Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1910), 4:238.
15. See John C. Messenger, Jr., "The Role of Proverbs in a Nigerian Judicial System," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 15 (Spring 1959): 64-73, and Kwesi Yankah, "Proverb Rhetoric and African Judicial Processes: The Untold Story, " Journal of American Folklore 99 (July-September 1986): 280-303.
16. Journal ( 11 :338), in Writings, vol. 17.
17. Compare Emerson, who writes in "Intellect": "God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. ...He in whom the love of repose predominates, will accept the first creed, the first philosophy; the first political party he meets, - most likely his father's. ... He in whom the love of truth predominates, will keep himself aloof from all moorings and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations between which, as walls, his being is swung" (Collected Works of Emerson, 2:202). In "Quotation and Originality" Emerson put it simply: "The child quotes his father, and the man quotes his friend" (Complete Works of Emerson, 8:190). Consequently; in "Mending Wall," the neighbor quotes his father and the speaker quotes his neighbor.
18. Edith Hamilton, Mythology (New York: New American Library; 1953), p. 44.
19. Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, revised and edited by Henry Nettleship and J.E. Sandys (New York: Meridian Library; 1956), p. 621.
20. Walden, p. 249.