- Robert Frost
We make ourselves a place apart Behind light words that tease and flout, But oh, the agitated hear Till someone really find us out.
‘Tis pity if the case require (Or so we say) that in the end We speak the literal to inspire The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play At hid-and-seek to God afar, So all who hide too well away Must speak and tell us where they are.
Analysis, meaning and summary of Robert Frost's poem Revelation
This poem is about people who are coy (tease and flout) and expect their friends to be mindreaders. Perhaps my feelings are hurt when loved ones can’t see through all the games and perceive who I really am and what I’m trying to say. It’s a pity, *or so we say.* BUT it’s not a pity, really; in other words, it’s not my friends’ fault. It’s my own fault because I’ve hidden myself too completely from them. In hide-and-seek, this means ollie ollie oxen free. Forget it, the game is over. Spiritually, it means it’s up to God to reveal Himself. If He’s a God of riddles — a silent, distant, inscrutable God (God afar) — it’s no wonder we can’t “find” Him and connect with Him the way He expects us to. If He really wants to be known for who He is, He should speak plainly.
Some people have a hard time revealing who they really are, to their own hurt.
this poem is about lying about are selves and then are true colors being shown…afterwARDS…we are left with nothing but our own body, mind and soul..
This poem carries the same Frostian theme that of extinction, isolation and break in relation. The poet, “the seeker”, loses his friends, “the hiders”, in this life that resembles “hide and seek” and is all alone, desperately searching his friends, those departed, in hope that they might speak and apprise where they are.
actually there are no typos in this poem. that is how the poem was written. everyone should know that.
O.K. I don’t think I’ve gotten to the bottom of this one yet, but I have a feeling that this poem is more about the seeker than the hider. The surface reading is that, yes, we create personas for ourselves, and therefore alienate ourselves from each other (“a place apart…afar…away”). Also, the speaker says that in the end, those of us who are too good at concealing ourselves are forced to “speak and tell us where they are.” However, I think Frost thinks it unfortunate that the hider must give himself away. Think about hide and seek. The fun of the game is the power struggle, the difficulty of finding a good hider. What happens though, when someone is too good at hiding? The seeker says, “I give up. Where are you?” Unless the hider wants to be abandoned and left completely alone, he is forced to yell out, “I’m in the closet.” This ruins the game, and takes away that exciting moment for both players when the discovery is made (the revelation!). The same goes for our personas. If we are always stating our literal feelings to try to “inspire the understanding of a friend,” we are giving away our hiding places. The true joy in relationships is when we don’t just give ourselves away, but we are found “really out.” In other words, the moment of revelation can never happen if the hiders out themselves, and the seekers quit seeking. The same goes for God, this poem, and all mysteries. They hide themselves behind metaphor, for when the true seekers find them out, they are blessed with the bliss of revelation.
I like the comments on this one. May I also recommend Frost’s “Reluctance” to you? This poem reminds me of the Beatles’ song, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” but it seems to contradict that title; the truth will out, and love will reveal and declare itself — or so we wish. I do not hear triumph in this claim, just hopefulness. To “find us really out” is a great phrase, with its surprising, hopeful, stress on “really.” Sadly, such opportunities to really find an “agitated heart” fail to prosper in many cases, and this reflection prevents my judging the poem naive.
The second stanza’s abstract, academic, or legalistic structure, as a proposition (!) in a “case,” demonstrates one way of hiding and avoiding connection. The “pity” that such a heart may need to literally say, “I love you” rings playfully and ironically for me, but the “Must speak…” may only be a condition for ending loneliness rather than an innate pressure or compulsion. In the ambiguity of Frost’s intention, as I read it, and in his call for us to identify with both the hider and the finder, that I find a connection to personal doubts. I am grateful for the understanding of a friend, and that may be the deepest need of the heart.
Two typos need fixed in the poem.
1st. section third line should read “But oh, the agitated heart”
3rd section second line should read “At hide-and-seek to God afar,”
This poem is so powerful. At first glance it may be confusing to understand what Frost is conveying, but I believe that he is conveying many of us, especially Americans. We hide behind different facades, or personas, and pretend to be people who we are not. Really, on the inside, we want others to know us though- by the “agitated heart” line. We have to tell others where we are though, who we are, what we truly think- especially if we are very good at hiding (see the third stanza)
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We make ourselves a place apart Behind light words that tease and flout, But oh, the agitated heart Till someone find us really out.
’Tis pity if the case require (Or so we say) that in the end We speak the literal to inspire The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play At hide-and-seek to God afar, So all who hide too well away Must speak and tell us where they are.
This poem is in the public domain.
More by this poet
A line-storm song.
The line-storm clouds fly tattered and swift, The road is forlorn all day, Where a myriad snowy quartz stones lift, And the hoof-prints vanish away. The roadside flowers, too wet for the bee, Expend their bloom in vain. Come over the hills and far with me, And be my love in the rain.
Not to Keep
They sent him back to her. The letter came Saying... and she could have him. And before She could be sure there was no hidden ill Under the formal writing, he was in her sight— Living.— They gave him back to her alive— How else? They are not known to send the dead— And not disfigured visibly. His face?—
A Time to Talk
When a friend calls to me from the road And slows his horse to a meaning walk, I don’t stand still and look around On all the hills I haven’t hoed, And shout from where I am, What is it? No, not as there is a time to talk. I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground, Blade-end up and five feet tall,
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A New England Poet writes Poetry, Haiku, Fables & Criticism
Category archives: revelation, three ways to write a poem.
Of Plain Poems, Figurative Poems & Metaphoric Poems
Call this post a rough draft; and there are more than these three (like Allegorical Poems) but these are the three primary ways a poem is written, I think. On and off I get queries from poets who would like my opinion on their poems. In a very general way, I can break down their poems down into three main types — the Plain Poem, the Figurative Poem, and the Metaphoric Poem; though almost all the poetry sent me falls into the first two categories. I don’t know whether these categories are original to me. I doubt they are, and I may be using the terms differently (if they’re already out there). But so be it. There are poetic masterpieces in all three categories, so I’m not going to argue that one is superior to another, but of the three types of poetry — the Plain Poem and the Metaphoric Poem are the kind I admire most. But first things first:
The Plain Poem
Richard Cory by EA Robinson
Whenever Richard Cory went down town, We people on the pavement looked at him: He was a gentleman from sole to crown, Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed, And he was always human when he talked; But still he fluttered pulses when he said, ‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich – yes, richer than a king – And admirably schooled in every grace: In fine, we thought that he was everything To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light, And went without the meat, and cursed the bread; And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, Went home and put a bullet through his head.
- I’ve ready many passages of free verse poets, especially, posturing over the predictability of rhymes, but this bespeaks an ignorance of what good rhymes do. There are times when the predictable is exactly what the poet wants.
Another good example might be William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow:
so much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens
Red is an impish color when you think about it. It attracts attention to itself; (there’s a reason we call red cars “cop magnets”). The poetic juxtaposition of a loud color like red on a humble wheelbarrow gives it a sort of underdog status — like a red Volkswagon beetle — and endears it to the reader (maybe not universally but as a generalization I think this is probably true). After all, so much depends on that red wheelbarrow. What other color could it be? (Unfortunately, my own wheelbarrow is blue, but I’m going to spray paint it red.)
And then there are the chickens. What if they had been brown? Nah. The white chickens make the wheelbarrow all the redder. The contrast is easy to imagine. But what if Williams had written white horse or, white house, or white tractor? When the reader imagines the scene, the chickens will always be smaller than the wheelbarrow; and this has the effect of making the red wheelbarrow a little bigger, and a little more important, and a little more there , like an ever present, reassuring background to the lives of the chickens. If Williams had written ‘white horse’, then that might have diminished the importance of the wheelbarrow. The white chickens give us a contrast in color and in size.
But what about a white house or white tractor? These two would have diminished the wheelbarrow’s ‘scale’ (for lack of a better term). Not only that, but we can imagine the lives of the chickens being dependent on the wheelbarrow, but not an inanimate house or tractor. The wheelbarrow is larger than the chickens, and is brought into the living ecosystem of the barnyard by being beside the chickens. In a certain sense, it’s given life by giving life.
And glazed with rainwater? Why this detail? Well, what if it had been coated with dust? My own feeling is that a coat of dust implies disuse. There are certainly farm implements (and carpentry tools) that get dusty, but that coating is always disturbed by use. I think it’s safe to say that a well-used wheelbarrow would seldom be covered by dust. The word glazed is one most commonly used in reference to pottery. When we glaze a piece of pottery we are finishing it. We are, one might say, making it beautiful and, to a certain degree, transforming it into a finished work of art or, at minimum, a usable implement. Williams choice of word is probably no accident. There’s also the sense that o much depends on the wheelbarrow that it cannot be spared even in the rain. This is an indispensable presence in a living and working environment.
But this poem is lightning in a bottle. Williams only pulled it off twice, I think. With The Red Wheelbarrow and This Is Just to Say . These two poems are justly famous and plain poems. They are plain (or very literal), easy to grasp, but in their choice of observation, like the best haiku, they successfully evoke a world of emotional associations. And this, perhaps, is the trick to the greatest poems of this kind — the art of evocation.
- I haven’t discussed haiku, but these deceptively simply poems (and carefully literal) are some of the most evocative poems in any language.
Another example of a plain poem would be Frost’s Stopping by Woods :
Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
Many attempts have been made to read meaning into this poem, but it is what it is. It’s beautifully simple and, in that simplicity, is profoundly evocative. This is poetry that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself . The combination of rhyme and meter add to the memorability of the poem — a revelry in the “felicities of language” as Frost called it. William Pritchard had this to say:
Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant… [Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered p. 164 ]
There’s a certain kind of reader for whom plain poems are anathema. One of the more common criticisms leveled at Frost was that his poetry was that of the “simple, farmer poet” — as if that were bad thing in and of itself . In truth, the plainly stated poem, done well or even greatly, is an exceedingly rare accomplishment. The criticism itself says vastly more about those making it. They seem to think that the only good poem is the “difficult” poem. The 20th century is nothing if not the pursuit of obscurity/difficulty as an end in itself, and not just any obscurity, but the kind meant to evoke layers of “meaning”, elusive and implying depth, brilliance and perhaps genius. As a rule of thumb, the more ambiguous — the more interpretations available to the poem — then the better it must be. And while that sort of writing may be candy to the critic and academic, the precipitous decline in modern poetry’s audience suggests that the average reader has better ways to spend their time (rather than sort out a poet’s “meaning”). “Make it plain”, a reader might say, and the modern poet hears: “Dumb it down”. But that’s not at all what the reader is saying.
Greatness in literature has nothing to do with how “difficult” it is.
And perhaps the most remarkable 20th century writer of Plain Poems was Charles Bukowski:
we had goldfish and they circled around and around in the bowl on the table near the heavy drapes covering the picture window and my mother, always smiling, wanting us all to be happy, told me, ‘be happy Henry!’ and she was right: it’s better to be happy if you can but my father continued to beat her and me several times a week while raging inside his 6-foot-two frame because he couldn’t understand what was attacking him from within.
my mother, poor fish, wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a week, telling me to be happy: ‘Henry, smile! why don’t you ever smile?’
and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the saddest smile I ever saw
one day the goldfish died, all five of them, they floated on the water, on their sides, their eyes still open, and when my father got home he threw them to the cat there on the kitchen floor and we watched as my mother smiled
The Figurative Poem
By this, I mean poems that use figurative language but are otherwise (or mostly) plain in their meaning. In other words, I would consider calling a Figurative Poem a ‘Plain Poem’ that uses figurative language. Figurative Poems , as I use the term, probably represent the vast majority of poetry. Nearly all of free verse is of the figurative kind. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are all figurative poems. They are by far and away the most popular and have therefore accumulated an ocean of bad examples. The term figurative (or figurative language) refers to rhetorical figure (a figure understood as any rhetorical linguistic device). A linguistic device most commonly includes, for example the simile — the favorite rhetorical figure of twentieth and twenty-first century poetry. As soon as you see a simile, you know you’re dealing with figurative poetry. Additionally, and unfortunately, it’s nearly always a sign of second or third rate poetry — almost without fail (the exceptions prove the rule, perhaps).
I know I’ve mentioned the following passage before , but I’m offering more of it because it first got me thinking about this subject (many years ago):
“Shakespeare’s style, as everyone knows, is metaphorical to excess. His imagination is always active, but he seldom pauses to indulge it by lengthened description. I shall hereafter have occasion to direct your observation to the sobriety with which he preserves imagination in its proper station, as only the minister and interpreter of thought; but what I wish now to say is, that in him the two powers operate simultaneously. He goes on thinking vigorously, while his imagination scatters her inexhaustible treasures like flowers on the current of his meditations, His constant aim is the expression of facts, passions ,or opinions; and his intellect is constantly occupied in the investigation of such; but the mind acts with ease in its lofty vocation, and the beautiful and the grand rise up voluntarily to do him homage. he never indeed consents to express those poetical ideas by themselves; but he shows that he felt their import and their legitimate use, by wedding them to the thoughts in which they originated. The truths which he taught, received magnificence and amenity from the illustrative forms; and the poetical images were elevated into a higher sphere of associations by the dignity of the principles which they were applied to adorn. Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness . Nothing can be more different from this, or farther inferior to it, than the style of the poet who turns aside in search of description, and indulges in simile preferably to the brevity of metaphor, to whom perhaps a poetical picture originally suggested itself as the decoration of a striking thought, but who allowed himself to be captivated by the beauty of the suggested image, till he forgot the thought which had given it birth, and on its connexion with which its highest excellence depended. Such was Fletcher, whose style is poor in metaphor. [ The New Shakespeare Society Publications, Series VIII Miscellanies Nos. 1-4 A Letter on Shakespeare’s Authorship of the drama entitled THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN, by William Spalding p. 16-17 ]
This was published in 1876, so the language is Victorian and convoluted, and Spalding didn’t quite have the tools to express his ideas. That was to come nearly three quarters of a century later with Wolfgang Clemens and The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery. Clemens showed how Shakespeare essentially absorbs the simile into a metaphorical language — the idea that Spalding is trying to express. (My dictionary calls metaphor a compressed simile, which is a good way to think about it.) For example, Clemens shows how in Shakespeare’s earliest poetry he hadn’t yet absorbed the simile:
The particles “as” and “like” not only make the image stand out from the text and isolate it in a certain way; they also show that the object to be compared and the comparison are felt as being something different and separate, that image and object are not yet viewed as an identity, but that the act of comparing intervenes. It would be false to exaggerate the importance of such a fact, because in Shakespeare’s let plays we also find many comparisons introduced with “like” or “as”. Nevertheless the frequency of such comparisons with “as” and “like” in Titus Andronicus is noteworthy, and this loose form of connection corresponds entirely to the real nature of these image4s. If we take, for example, passages such as these:
…then fresh tears Stood on her cheeks, as doth the honey-dew Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d.
…that kiss is comfortless As frozen water to a starved snake.
we see that these images are simply added on to the main sentence afterwards, dove-tailed into the context, appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration. They occurred to Shakespeare as an afterthought, as “illustration”, as “example”, but they were not there from the very beginning as simultaneous poetic conce3ption of subject and image. [ The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery p. 22-23 ]
Compare this to The Winter’s Tale :
Later, in the same scene, Camillo asks him to be “cured of this diseased opinion” (I.ii. 297) and retorts to Leontes’ false assumption of his “infected” wife “who does infect her?” (I.ii. 307). The disease-imagery links up with the notion of taint and stinging things. Shortly after Camillo’s question Leontes speaks the following words which also contain dramatic irony:
Leon. Make that thy question, and go rot! Dost think I am so muddy, so unsettled, To appoint myself in this vexation, sully the purity and whiteness of my sheets, Which to preserve is sleep, which being spotted Is goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps, (I.ii 325)
In the next scene this collocation of disease, of stinging and poison becomes more obvious. Note the following by Leontes:
There may be in the cup, A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart, And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge Is not infected: but if one present The abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider (II. i 39)
The dramatic and structural significance of this image should be noted. For it is the first time Leontes builds up a full image, all the more striking as Leontes’ hasty diction does not usually allow of the elaboration of images. The directness and realism with which this image; of the spider in the cup is presented and the way Leontes turns it into a personal experience, expressed by the laconic ending “I have drunk, and seen the spider”, bring home to us the brutal and naked force of Leontes self-deceiving obsession… [ p. 196-197 ]
“Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness.”
- A very simple example from Shakespeare: “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.” In earlier days Shakespeare might have written: “He draweth out his argument like a spinner who draweth out his thread & etc. “
The same criticism applies to all poets since Shakespeare, including the poetry of our current poet Laureate, Charles Wright (2014-). On a whim, and at random, I looked up his poetry at Poetry Foundation. The first to come up was Archeology . And what do we find?
The older we get, the deeper we dig into our childhoods, Hoping to find the radiant cell That washed us, and caused our lives ……………………………. to glow in the dark like clock hands Endlessly turning toward the future, Tomorrow, day after tomorrow, the day after that, ……………………………………… all golden, all in good time.
Just as with Shakespeare’s earlier efforts, or Fletcher, Wright tacks on the simile, “appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration”. Like will appear twice more in this short poem:
Gaze far out at the lake in sunflame, Expecting our father at any moment, like Charon , to appear Back out of the light from the other side, ….. low-gunwaled and loaded down with our slippery dreams.
Rather than compress the comparison of his father to Charon in the language of metaphor, Wright interrupts the narrative (amateurishly in my opinion) with the announcement of the simile, and then a little later:
Other incidents flicker like foxfire in the black
Nevertheless, at the poem’s conclusion, Wright demonstrates that he can write metaphorically (compress simile):
Sunlight flaps its enormous wings and lifts off from the back …. yard The wind rattles its raw throat, ………………………………… but I still can’t go deep enough.
And if you ask me (and in terms of technique) this ‘compression’ of simile in the language of metaphor is the better way to write poetry (though there are obviously exceptions). Loading ones verse with similes strikes me too often as a kind of poetic shorthand — roughly equivalent to inserting a thee and a thou just because that’s what poetry is supposed to do — and frequently the simile adds little to the narrative. It’s more poetic flourish than necessity. Wright’s poem is an example of figurative poetry, though not a good one. Wright tells us what it’s about: “[digging] into our childhoods…” (so that it’s cousin to the plain poem) then uses the rhetorical figures of simile, metaphor, verbal metaphor, adjectival metaphor, etc…
But there are also beautiful examples of figurative poems that work. The Love Song of J. Afred Prufrock , by T.S. Eliot, begins:
Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table; Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an overwhelming question … Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit.
The Silken Tent, by Robert Frost, is not only one sentence but is comprised, but for the first two words, of a single simile! The sonnet is the simile:
She is as in a field a silken tent At midday when the sunny summer breeze Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent, So that in guys it gently sways at ease, And its supporting central cedar pole, That is its pinnacle to heavenward And signifies the sureness of the soul, Seems to owe naught to any single cord, But strictly held by none, is loosely bound By countless silken ties of love and thought To every thing on earth the compass round, And only by one’s going slightly taut In the capriciousness of summer air Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.
She is like a silken tent, says Frost, and from there the sonnet elaborates. Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 116 would also fall into the category of the Figurative Poem:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove: O no; it is an ever-fixed mark, That looks on tempests, and is never shaken; It is the star to every wandering bark, Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle’s compass come; Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom. ·· If this be error and upon me proved, ·· I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
The whole of the poem is an example of personification, in which Love is endowed with personality, intent, and conviction. The figure itself is called prosopopia: “(Rhet.) A figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstract idea is represented as animated, or endowed with personality…” Shakespeare was extremely adept at using this figure (a common one during his era); and his skill, above and beyond that of his contemporaries, was surely attributable to his dramatic genius. In essence, the inanimate became characters. Take a look, for example, at the following brief passage from King John, at the way Shakespeare so beautifully personifies grief:
“Grief fills the room up of my absent child, Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words, Remembers me of his gracious parts, Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form”
And this also reminds me of Richard Wilbur’s extraordinary poem Love Calls Us to the Things of This World , wherein the morning breezes are, in a sense, animated and endowed with the personality of angels. One might justifiably dispute whether this is really personification (since Wilbur never attributes the angel-like behavior to the breezes, but rather distinguishes the angels and air by saying that the “morning air is all awash with angels”) — perhaps more accurate to call the angel-like behavior of the breezes a poetic conceit (in the sense of an extended metaphor that nearly governs the whole poem).
Love Calls Us to the Things of This World Richard Wilbur
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys, And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple As false dawn. ·············· Outside the open window The morning air is all awash with angels.
··· Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, Some are in smocks: but truly there they are. Now they are rising together in calm swells Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
··· Now they are flying in place, conveying The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving And staying like white water; and now of a sudden They swoon down into so rapt a quiet That nobody seems to be there. ·············· ·············· ··········· The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember, From the punctual rape of every blessèd day, And cries, ·············· “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry, Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
Yet, as the sun acknowledges With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors, The soul descends once more in bitter love To accept the waking body, saying now In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises, “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows; Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves; Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone, And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating Of dark habits, ·············· keeping their difficult balance.”
- The conceit is itself considered a trope. The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms writes that “In general usage, most poets and critics use the term to indicate, as Coleridge proposed, any language that aspires toward the state of metaphor.”
The Metaphoric Poem
I’m trying to coin a new term and I’ve sweat over it. As far as I know, this type of poem hasn’t really been given a name. It’s not just poetry that uses metaphor, or a conceit, but a poem that, in its entirety, is a metaphor for something else. So, I settled on Metaphoric rather than Metaphorical . I’ve checked all my poetry dictionaries. I’ve Googled the term. I checked my Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry, and the term “Metaphoric Poetry” isn’t used in any specific way. So, I’m claiming it to mean something very specific. As I judge it, a poem may be metaphorical simply by using metaphor, but what distinguishes the Metaphoric Poem is that the poet doesn’t, or only in the most oblique way, give the reader any indication that the poem is really about something other than its apparent subject.
To me, the metaphoric poem is the pinnacle of poetic accomplishment. The poem can have the appearance of a Plain Poem or a Figurative Poem, but is really, in its entirety, a beautifully modulated, extended metaphor on what can be an altogether different subject. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, in fact, Robert Frost more or less invented and perfected this kind of poetry, though it’s tempting to go back in history, point to other poems, and say that this or that poem was never really about X, but about Y. We have become somewhat accustomed to this way of reading and critiquing poetry, but I’d assert that this way of thinking about poetry is really a very late development. For instance, I had a reader write the following after my post on Ann Bradstreet’s poem , Before the Birth of One of Her Children :
“…when Bradstreet writes about the dangers of childbirth in Before the Birth of One of Her Children, this could also be read as the dangers women face when publishing their work”
That’s reading Bradstreet’s poem as a Metaphoric Poem. My response was that this is probably anachronistic. Bradstreet was a contemporary of John Donne and near contemporary of Shakespeare. There’s no evidence (that I’ve ever found) that poets wrote or thought this way prior to the 20th century. In every poem that I’m aware of, the conceit, or metaphor, or analogy, is framed as a poetic construction within the poem. The reader is always made aware of the poet’s “misdirection”. In all of John Donne’s poems, for example, there’s no confusion as to what the poem is about (setting aside the usual interpretive challenges). He famously constructs elaborate conceits, but we always know that he knows that we know what the conceit is really about.
Not so with Robert Frost.
For years he was accused of being “a simple, farmer poet”. The accusation, as accusations usually do, revealed more about the critics. In short, despite considering Frost a 19th century hold-over, it was in fact the critics who were behaving like 19th century readers — reading all poems as Plain Poems or Figurative Poems. The day that readers and critics realized that Frost might have been fooling them all (all along) can actually be dated very precisely. While it’s not the birth of Metaphoric Poetry, it might be the birth of it’s broader awareness. It happened at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in 1959, on the evening of Frost’s 85th birthday. It happened when, to the shock and consternation of all those gathered, Lionel Trilling called Frost a “terrifying poet”. (Trilling, embarrassed by his own comment and worried that he’d insulted Frost, reportedly left the gathering early.)
Trilling opened the world’s eyes to the possibility that yes, all along, they’d been reading Frost with outdated expectations. As Frost said himself, as if to drive home the point that he wasn’t just writing about “nature”: “I am not a nature poet. There is almost always a person in my poems.”
Even when there isn’t.
As a nice essay at FrostFriends.Org puts it:
“Frost uses nature as metaphor. He observes something in nature and says this is like that. He leads you to make a connection, but never forces it on the reader. Read on a literal level, Frost’s poems always make perfect sense. His facts are correct, especially in botanical and biological terms. But he is not trying to tell nature stories nor animal stories. He is always using these metaphorically implying an analogy to some human concern.” [ Frost and Nature ~ March 7 2015]
But then Frost had already been telling the world as much. In T he Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost , Judith Ostler begins her contribution entitled “Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor” with the following paragraph, quoting Frost at the outset:
“‘Metaphor is the whole of poetry.’ ‘Poetry is simply made of metaphor… Every poem is a new metaphor inside or it is nothing.’ Such are the burdens Robert Frost placed upon metaphor, and on himself as a poet. He went even further in his claiming that metaphor is the whole of thinking, and that, therefore, to be educated by poetry — note: by poetry — is to be taught to think.” [ p. 155 ]
Why did it take so long for readers to realize that Frost had been ‘fooling’ them? He was cagey in life, and cagey in his poetry.
A Drumlin Woodchuck
One thing has a shelving bank, Another a rotting plank, To give it cozier skies And make up for its lack of size.
My own strategic retreat Is where two rocks almost meet, And still more secure and snug, A two-door burrow I dug.
All we who prefer to live Have a little whistle we give, And flash, at the least alarm We dive down under the farm.
We allow some time for guile And don’t come out for a while Either to eat or drink. We take occasion to think.
And if after the hunt goes past And the double-barreled blast (Like war and pestilence And the loss of common sense),
If I can with confidence say That still for another day, Or even another year, I will be there for you, my dear,
It will be because, though small As measured against the All, I have been so instinctively thorough About my crevice and burrow.
I hesitate to call this a Metaphoric poem, as the narrator gives away the game (if the joke wasn’t already painfully obvious) with a wink and a nod to “my dear”. You could read it as Frost’s commentary on his own art and persona with a sly pun on Thoreau in the closing rhyme of thorough/burrow . To read quite a good essay on the significance of the pun, visit Two Woodchucks,or Frost and Thoreau on the Art of the Burrow by Fritz Oehlschlaeger .
“Further suggestion that the woodchuck be seen as a poet figure can be found in the somewhat submerged tension between the poem’s playfulness and the seriousness of the matter at hand. The woodchuck’s jocularity nearly causes us to forget that his survival is at stake. While the burrow provides him a wonderful possibility for fanciful comparison to his counterpart at Walden, it also serves the mundane but equally important purpose of saving him from the hunters.” [p . 5 ]
And there’s more at stake than that. Who are the hunters? Could they be his critics? Think of Frost’s uncanny poem this way: The burrow as his poetry and the two entrances are two ways (among many more we suspect) to enter therein — a “two-door burrow”. As soon as you try to catch Frost by hunting down one crevice, he’s out the other. While pestilence and war rage, and notably “the loss of common sense”, Frost remains cagey enough not to be cornered. He won’t be caught up one side or t’other.
There are a good many of his poems that are ‘two-door burrows’. The most famous example might be “Stopping by Woods” and its many interpretations . At the two extremes are notions of the poem as a simple and beautiful lyric on the one hand and a suicide poem on the other. It may have seemed that Frost grew impatient with readers trying to identify the meaning of the poem, as if they all tried to come in at the same door, but he’d also never say what a poem wasn’t . Frost, in the end, always wanted to keep his burrow a “two-door” burrow
“Mending Wall” and “Birches” can both be read as Metaphoric Poems and I’ve offered a reading of Birches and Mending Wall suggesting how (though my interpretations may or may not reflect Frost’s thinking). The trick in Metaphoric Poetry is in knowing how to be understood or how not too be too obscure. The poet writes to be understood (unless you’re a John Ashbery).
WE make ourselves a place apart ·· Behind light words that tease and flout, But oh, the agitated heart ·· Till someone find us really out.
’Tis pity if the case require ·· (Or so we say) that in the end We speak the literal to inspire ·· The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play ·· At hide-and-seek to God afar, So all who hide too well away ·· Must speak and tell us where they are.
‘Revelation’ is from Frost’s first book of poetry and reveals him, early on, searching out the balance between hiding “too well away” and having to “speak the literal to inspire”. Frost, much later in life, addresses this same question in the Metaphoric Poem For Once Then Something . In it, Frost cannily addresses the accusation that his poetry is shallow by using the very device, the Metaphoric Poem, that his critics stubbornly and shallowly misread. It’s an elaborately constructed tour-de-force, and perhaps a little too much so, not being among his better known or understood.
But now that I’ve made the argument that Frost was the first to deliberately write Metaphoric Poetry, there is a genre of poetry that anticipates Frost by several centuries (in some cases) — the nursery rhyme. Many of these poems mean something entirely other than their ostensible meaning. They were written in a time when speaking freely, and too freely, could be a life and death matter. “I Had a Little Nut Tree”, for instance, is speculated to be about the visit of Joanna of Castile to the court of Henry VII, though I happen to disagree with that 19th century assertion. “Little Boy Blue” is said to parody the life of Cardinal Wolsey. “Hey Diddle Diddle, The Cat and the Fiddle”, is thought to originate with Queen Elizabeth. The cat is Queen Elizabeth, who was known to greatly enjoy dancing to the fiddle at Whitehall Palace (throughout her reign). The moon is said to represent the Earl of Walsingham (who she skipped over, choosing to remain unmarried) and the dog was the Earl of Leicester (jeered in the poem as a laughing dog) because he “skulked at the Queen’s flirtatious behavior”, asking to leave the Court for France [ Origins of Rhymes, Songs and Sayings , p. 157-159 ]. Nursery rhymes could be seen as related to the fable and apologue (being symbolic, metaphorical and archetypal in nature). The notion that Frost was the first to write metaphorically is not what I’d assert; but I think he was the first to make the poem the metaphor , as it were.
So, the next time you write or read a poem, these three categories might give you another way to approach it.
And that’s that.
up in Vermont: March 7 2015
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The Agitated Heart
by Theodore Morrison
THE only way to describe a man so complex as Robert Frost is to say that he was a bundle of paradoxes, that he was made up of pairs of opposites, both of which were true of him at the same time. He was, for example, a great man who contained a small man. His intellectual endowment, even apart from poetry, was immense, and at his best he had a wide and sympathetic humanity. He was also capable of seeing enemies where none existed, capable of nursing grudges and sulking over fancied slights. He gave an impression of magnificent sanity, as firmly grounded as a granite slab, and this impression was not false; yet in private his complicated balance, as complicated as the motions of a gyroscopic top, could be so disturbed as barely to recover its perilous equilibrium.
Another paradox appears in the first stanza of “Revelation,” a little poem in his first book:
Frost wanted to be found out — by the right people in the right way. The agitation of his heart to be discovered was intense and did not cease to the end of his life. The man who in his later years became not only an American but an international public figure, who became a father image to television viewers who had never opened one of his books, used light and not-so-light words to tease and flout, both privately and on the platform, and made himself a place apart behind their shelter. But in the very act of hiding he wanted to reveal himself to those who could see him as he wanted to be seen. He craved a kind of ideal sharing of his poems, a total, intuitive transfer of the poem to the mind of a sympathetic reader or listener, without meddling intervention by study, explication, or dogged analysis. He also craved a similar sharing of his life. Frost was obsessed by his own life. As his biographer, Lawrance Thompson, has pointed out, and as those who knew him were sharply aware, he told many of its episodes over and over again. He was his own Horatio, and in this harsh world drew his breath — in pain, yes; also in pleasure, in wonder, and in a constant battle of self-justification — to tell his story. When the mood was on him, he could spill out confidences with a recklessness the very opposite of the man who made himself a place apart and hid his tracks by teasing and flouting.
In a tart admonition to Sidney Cox, quoted in Lawrance Thompson’s Selected Letters , Frost informs his friend, “I have written to keep the over curious out of the secret places of my mind both in my verse and in my letters to such as you.” Warning enough to any interpreter! Yet it remains true also that he wanted to make his revelation, both in and out of poetry, and to be found out, in his own way, on his own terms. He himself has not only revealed but exposed himself to an astonishing extent, in talk and in letters, for better and for worse. Nothing can prevent the continuing scrutiny of the evidence as it comes to hand, and if much of the scrutiny would be distasteful to him if he could return to us, yet as long as he continued to be Robert Frost he would veer between covering his tracks and laying them so that the right people could follow his trail.
In his later life Frost was accused of casting himself in a role, making himself a legend, acting a part, adopting a persona. The charge was usually brought against him as a public performer, but has recently been extended to the voice we hear in his poems, as though that were an equally nurtured artifice. On the face of it, in view of the television appearances, the films, the press interviews, the showmanship of his readings, the charge against his public manner can claim a good deal of support. The evidence makes it plausible. Yet to many of those who knew him well, the case is subtler and more difficult than any such one-sided statement of it. And when the charge is carried over to the poems, it becomes even more questionable. If it were true in any deep-rooted or distinctive way, the poems would cease to ring true, and they don’t.
What we confront, in trying to deal with charges of this sort, is another of the paradoxes in the man, the pairs of opposites, each true at once. Frost says in one of his letters that no one who is affected can write really well. He had his affectations — who hasn’t? Mrs. Morrison and I used to smile when during World War II Frost would tax Churchill with affecting a Cockney accent, as though Frost himself never affected the rustic. He began one of his most brilliant and delicately felt discourses at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference with the words, “It says in the Bible, or if it don’t, it oughta. . . .” No doubt my memory exaggerates, but he certainly did not say, “It says in the Bible, or if it doesn’t, it ought to. . . .” No doubt he artfully split the difference in the way that made his spoken remarks so inordinately hard to transcribe in print. Yet despite his calculated manner on occasion, he was in a large sense one of the most unaffected men anyone could hope to encounter. He began another Bread Loaf discourse, shortly after the death of Mrs. Frost, by saying that he had lately kept in his pocket some object he Could finger while he talked on the platform, to remind himself that he was the same man in public as in private. Recently, he added, the object had been a thorn. In a curious way, despite the showmanship he learned gradually over the years, he was the same man in public as in private. He had the same crotchets, spites, defensiveness through humor and pun and witticism and plain wisecrack, the same greatness and fertility of imagination. His conversation, at dinner table and in private, was “all of a piece throughout” with the man who spoke on the platform, the man who wrote the poems, except, of course, that the poems arrived at formal perfection — they had that kind of artifice — while the talk was half conveyed by a spectrum of gesture and by the expressive play of loose flesh over the magnificent structure of his skull.
Naturally, Frost’s poems are full of the dramatic. He is dramatic in that he can create characters who are not mere phases of his own sensibility. He is dramatic in the stricter sense that a surprising number of his narratives make natural stage pieces as they stand. No one ever emphasized more than he did the element of play in literature. I used to think he emphasized it to excess, often as a covert form of his peculiar defensiveness, a way of keeping “the over curious out of the secret places” of his mind. If we undertake to see the man in his work, we must make ample allowance (as I cannot do here) for the places where biography is not significantly present, as well as trying to understand it where it is.
PERHAPS enough has been said on the complexities and paradoxes of Frost the man to serve as prelude to an examination of a particular group of his poems. These are poems in which he may at first seem out of character, very different from the accepted impression of him, or in which his life is a powerful though concealed presence, or in which he approaches the esoteric—a word which may surprise Frost readers, but which has its application.
Of course, Frost is not esoteric in the sense of having a private doctrine to peddle through a circle of initiates, but I think it fair to say that he comes close to the esoteric when he publishes a poem that cannot be understandingly read without clues divulged to friends. Such a poem is “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers.” The general scheme of the action in this poem stands out clearly enough, but its treatment in detail is sufficiently secretive and allusive so that it has misled both private readers and public commentators.
A woman of dignity and beauty is to be punished for her choice in marriage, the consequences of which do not lie within her foresight or control. The punishment is to be carried out by joys which form an ironic parallel to the seven joys of Mary, ironic because each joy is a grim compensation for pain and humiliation. The progressive punishment takes place in an eerie metaphysical frame, The poem, except for a single passage of description, consists of a dialogue between “The Voice,” who is supreme in the poem, and “Voices,” who are obviously subordinate agents of the omnipotent Voice, his officers appointed to carry out the relentless chastisement. The place that punishment occupied in Frost’s mind deserves a word. Punished physically and severely himself in childhood by his father, Frost could not exclude from his view of things a sort of metaphysical sense of the rightness or ultimacy of the punitive. The God, or “Voice,” who rules in the world of “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers” speaks with a note of outright authoritarian sarcasm in the lines: “She would refuse love safe with wealth and honor! / The lovely shall be choosers, shall they?” Yet, and this is of highest importance to the poem, the Voice that orders the lovely chooser hurled seven levels down the world by means of seven joys that are so many pains also orders that at every stage she shall be left blameless.
The woman was Frost’s mother, to whom he was peculiarly close. Frost made the identification himself, more than once, to more than one person. Mrs. Morrison has said to me and others that in all the uncounted hours she spent as Frost’s secretary, listening to him disburden himself of his life, past and present, while often enough she ached to get an important letter written or an essential decision made, his mother was the one human being of whom she never heard Frost say an ill word. We could hardly guess how many times, after one of his public triumphs in later life, we have heard him repeat, with doggerel emphasis that did not conceal how much he meant by it, the words of the old song or catch he could not forget: “I wish my mother could see me now.” Those who think his platform manner was entirely a calculated artifice could well give a thought to this telltale refrain. He slept in his mother’s room until at least well into his high school years. Another of the paradoxes in this man of complexity was the combination in him of something very like mother fixation with the full measure of virility he brought to his marriage.
His own marriage is a subsequent story. About the marriage of his parents, Frost formed a suspicion that in retrospect can be viewed only with a certain amusement. For a long time Frost misdated his birth, making himself younger by a year than he actually was. After the death of his father, Frost’s mother brought him and his younger sister from San Francisco to live with the Frost grandparents in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Frost believed, justly or not — for the poem the belief is what matters — that his grandparents looked down on his mother, and even by insinuation accused her of luring or perhaps trapping his father into marriage. He suspected that as the first child he might have arrived unconventionally early. This suspicion pretty plainly underlies the first of the ironic joys in the poem: “Be her first joy her wedding, / That though a wedding, / Is yet — well something they know, he and she.”
The second joy introduces the friends among whom she stood, proud herself and a pride to them, in the one descriptive passage in the poem, friends left behind at a distance when Mrs. Frost followed her husband to San Francisco. Among them, one supposes, was the man she might have married “safe with wealth and honor.” Her second joy is plainly called a “grief”; its only joy is that she can keep it secret. The friends know nothing of it to make it “shameful.” And her third joy is that although now they cannot help knowing, “They move in pleasure too far off / To think much or much care.”
What was this grief that might have put her in a shameful light to the far-off friends? The same suspicion that led Frost to misdate his birth may continue to be at work in the second and third joys, but it seems plain that another motif enters as well. Frost learned of, or at least came to believe in, his father’s infidelity, or at any rate indiscreet conduct. His sense of his mother’s humiliation by his father’s public attentions to another woman may well be the chief element in the two joys that turn on her grim comfort in knowing that her friends were too remote and preoccupied to think much of her. She had indeed chosen, as it turned out, the opposite of love safe with wealth and honor.
The succeeding joys, through the sixth, deal progressively with the unhappy satisfaction of pride. Give her a child at either knee so that she may tell them once, unforgettably, how she used to walk in brightness, but give her new friends so that she dare not tell, knowing her story would not be believed. Then give her the painful joy of pride that she never stooped to tell. Then make her among the humblest seem even less than they are.
Why should Isabel Moodie Frost have come to seem, at least as her son imagined her case, less than the humblest? Isabel Moodie seems to have been a beautiful and gifted woman, but her gifts were intellectual and spiritual. They did not extend to dressing smartly or keeping house in a meticulous New England fashion or disciplining rowdy children in a schoolroom. Her sixth joy is the comfort of knowing that her way of life, as a widow trying in pinched circumstances to bring up two children by schoolteaching, is one she comes to from too high too late to learn.
Her seventh and final joy turns on the word one, italicized by Frost himself in the printed text. “Then send some one with eyes to see . . . And words to wonder in her hearing how she came there / But without time to linger for her story.” I have no express warrant in anything I ever heard Frost say for asserting that this one is Robert himself, Isabel Moodie’s son, but this interpretation is so natural as to be inevitable. What is the whole poem except the poet’s vision of his mother’s life? We must keep in mind that while in substance the poem is retrospective, a vision of a woman’s life after the fact, in form it is anticipatory. The Voice is giving orders to the Voices that they are to carry out over a period of twenty years. “How much time have we?” / “ Take twenty years. . .” Of course this figure is a round number, but by two decades, give or take a little, after Isabel Moodie’s marriage — the central choice from which everything follows — her son could well have been old enough to make surmises about his mother’s life, old enough to “wonder in her hearing how she came there.” And by the same token his own expanding life, the battles of late adolescence or early manhood, would deprive him of “time to linger for her story.” Time and growth were needed if he was to be “sent” on this particular mission of understanding, yet time and growth defeat the mission, so that her seventh joy is “her heart’s going out to this one / So that she almost speaks.” Almost. She is left with the barren pride of never in fact telling “how once she walked in brightness,” never directly telling even the son to whom her heart went out, as Isabel Moodie’s unquestionably did to her son, Robert Frost. “That Rob can do anything” was a refrain she spoke often in his hearing, and that he himself often repeated to others.
What happens to the poem when the reader is given the necessary clues? Surely the gain in clearness does not destroy but deepens and vindicates the mysterious and visionary power of “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers.” The poem is as truly a feat of imagination as if it had been written about an altogether fictitious character and not about the poet’s mother. All characters become imaginary in the act of being imagined, and in this sense Isabel Moodie becomes an imaginary character in the poem devoted to her. The poem, which is not without a strain of bitterness and of guilt, is a metaphysical vision. But we do not have real access to the content of the vision until we know who the characters are, and when we know, it is not merely a persona or mask we hear speaking. It is the actual son of an actual mother, since the son happens to be a poet.
FROST’S mother left a lifelong imprint on his memories and his deepest emotions. The second person of utmost importance to him was his wife. One has the impression that Frost and Elinor White were destined for each other by a fatality as deep as ever united a human pair in marriage. Yet there was much that was unpropitious for her in the stormy courtship to which he subjected her. Now that the first volume of Lawrance Thompson’s biography has appeared — an absorbing work, rich in material and deeply understanding — the tenor of this courtship has become a matter of record. Frost was in no mean degree jealously suspicious of Elinor while she was away at college. He was possessive, also in no mean degree. He subjected her to an assault of self-will by which he was himself later to be troubled in memory. At one point, in despair of gaining her compliance, he made his defiant flight to the Dismal Swamp in Virginia, leaving his friends and family in ignorance of his whereabouts or even his continued existence. One side of the eventual marriage is reflected in such an idyll as “West-running Brook,” but it had other sides. It was haunted and troubled not only by personal catastrophes but by differences of temperament. After Mrs. Frost’s death, in a letter to Mr. and Mrs. G. R. Elliott, printed in Thompson’s Selected Letters , Frost wrote: “Pretty nearly every one of my poems will be found to be about her if rightly read.” Reflections of the marriage, and of Frost’s attitude toward marriage, in fact occur in surprising places in his work.
“The Subverted Flower,” unlike “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers,” is fully intelligible as a poem without extrinsic clues. It presents an encounter of a sort unusual in Frost’s work, an encounter between a girl who is unready for a virile advance and a man who is humiliated and driven to flight from her terror and disgust when he is interrupted by her mother’s call. Frost himself let it be known that Mrs. Frost would never allow him to publish “The Subverted Flower” during her lifetime. If this hint is not enough, the fundamental sexual difference with which the poem deals is sufficiently confirmed by Thompson’s biography.
Why, someone may ask, more concerned for propriety than for poetry, did Frost write the poem in the first place or publish it after his wife’s death? The answer must be that Frost was not exempt from the common rule that for a poet the writing of his poems is paramount. Let him see, in any kind of material, a poem to be made, and few if any forces, public or private, can contend against the right of the poem to come to birth. And of course whatever the experience he is dealing with, in becoming a poem it undergoes a transformation. Its roots go underground, and what counts is the plant that shows itself in open air. Of course again the poem makes use of elements that were not in the original experience at all, the very elements that make it a poem.
What must chiefly strike the reader of “ The Subverted Flower” is its extraordinary manipulation of animal imagery. Animal imagery, we may say retrospectively, was inevitable to this poem once it started to become a poem, but I should be hard put to it to think of another in which such imagery is used with like force, at once compressed, sustained, and inventive. The girl sees the man’s attempted smile of entreaty as one that “cracked his ragged muzzle.” The effort to force out words makes him “choke / Like a tiger at a bone.” She is afraid to “stir a foot / Lest movement should provoke / The demon of pursuit / That slumbers in a brute.” At her mother’s call, she steals “a look of fear / To see if he could hear / And would pounce to end it all / Before her mother came.” She sees the shame by which the man begins to be overwhelmed at the sound of her mother’s voice. “A hand hung like a paw . . . An ingratiating laugh . . . cut the snout in half . . . And the dog or what it was ... A coward save at night, Turned from the place and ran. / She heard him stumble first / And use his hands in flight. / She heard him bark outright.”
The girl is on the whole gently reproached in the poem for “her own too meager heart,” which subverts the innocence of the intermediary flower, prevents her from making any response except one of disgust, and reduces the man to the status of a beast in his own eyes. Yet surely the remarkable thing in the treatment of this harrowing scene is the poet’s capacity to see the man’s part through the girl’s eyes, to understand and sympathize with the image of repulsion he presents to her, repulsion so violent that the words she spits leave traces about her mouth. “Her mother wiped the foam / From her chin, picked up her comb / And drew her backward home.” These relentless final details, expressed in the bluntest nouns and verbs except for the one charged adverb “backward,” may leave the reader not so much poetically satisfied as shuddering or squirming. Yet in expression “The Subverted Flower” shows Frost at the top of his bent. In the rapid compression of its narrative, in the spring and inventiveness of its idiom, in the resourcefulness of its rhyming, in the prosody of its quick trimeter lines that require nothing less than a master hand, it is among the most dazzling of his performances.
Possessiveness, jealousy, self-will! These may seem unlovely traits, but in the complexities of human nature they are not incompatible with romantic idealization, nor with deep and lasting, however troubled, attachment. They turn up in odd places in Frost, even in so odd a poem as “Paul’s Wife.” The question is whether Paul Bunyan had a wife. He did. Murphy was witness to her mythic origin. Why was Paul so secretive about her? When Murphy, the ostensible narrator of the poem, sums up, he becomes a laughably thin disguise:
ANOTHER of Frost’s most brilliant performances, so brilliant as a feat of poetic expression as to dazzle belief while one reads it, is “The Discovery of the Madeiras.” Like “The Subverted Flower,” this poem may be read as an entirely self-contained and lucid imaginative work, without reference to any personal roots, though under the surface they are all-importantly present. The poem has for subtitle “A Rhyme of Hackluyt,” and with one important exception it does follow in narrative outline a prose document in Hakluyt’s Voyages. Aside from the story, everything in the poem is Frost’s, of course, except two key phrases he modified from Hakluyt, “stolen lady” and “died of thought.” The important exception, the episode he did not find in Hakluyt, is the episode of the slave ship told by the captain of the vessel on which the lover and his stolen lady are sailing. Where Frost got this episode, unique in his work in the kind of human degradation it represents, I have no idea.
If anyone should wonder how Frost came to write this poem, the answer would lead us again through his life, and especially his marriage. Elinor White was an intelligent and gifted woman; as a young woman, she must have been strikingly beautiful. On those who were acquainted with her only in her later years, and only slightly, as I was, she could make an impression of austerity, of being a deeply solitary spirit. The paired solitude reflected in “West-running Brook” seemed to have become for her, at least in part, a solitude of one, single and withdrawn. To marry Robert Frost was no light undertaking for any woman. If the part she accepted made demands on her over the years to give way to his will, if sacrifice eventually took its toll, the result is hardly surprising.
That an area of alienation came to exist between her and her husband is more than a suspicion. At least in her later years, she did not attend his public performances, even such a triumph as his Norton Lectures at Harvard, where on the spring afternoon of his final appearance, after the series had been transferred to the largest hall available, people climbed the fire escapes and perched on the grating to hear him through the windows. Her absence, for whatever reasons, seems to have been a policy agreed on between them. Frost intimated as much to Mrs. Morrison, using an evasive phrase such as “it was thought best. . .” And he did not conceal that during the days when Elinor was approaching death he waited and hoped, vainly, for some word or sign from her saving, in effect, that the marriage had been worth its griefs and difficulties. The absence of the hopedfor word, under the circumstances, is hardly to be wondered at. It tells us, as much as anything, of Frost’s own perpetual need for self-justification, and of his capacity on occasion, despite his formidable ego, for seeing into the lives and needs of others, for sometimes doubting his own assumptions, for compunction and self-questioning, without which he wouldn’t have needed self-justification.
Remembering Frost’s jealous suspicion during courtship that Elinor had pledged herself to another man, remembering the difference at the center of “The Subverted Flower,” remembering the “terrible possessor” of “Paul’s Wife,” and not forgetting the idyllic unitedness of “West-running Brook,” a reader may well be startled to look again at “The Discovery of the Madeiras.” The lover and his “stolen” lady set out on their voyage to “some vague Paphian bourn,” and when the ship had ceased tossing enough for her to come on deck, “she and her lover would sit opposed / And darkly drink each other’s eyes . . . The most he asked her eyes to grant / Was that is what she does not want / A woman wants to be overruled.” Then the captain tells the lover his story of the black pair on the slave ship who, because the man was infected by plague and the girl had not bothered to conceal her intimacy with him, were bound naked, face to face, and pitched overboard in a parody of marriage. “When after talk with other men / A man comes back to a woman again / He tells her as much of blood and dirt / As he thinks will do her not too much hurt.” But in allowing himself a moment of pique under her questioning and retelling the captain’s story to his stolen lady, the lover miscalculates his effect. “Seeing no help in wings or feet / She withdrew back in self retreat / Till her heart almost ceased to beat. / Her spirit faded as far away / As the living ever go yet stay.” When by the lover’s request the pair are landed and the ship abandons them, “slowly even her sense of him / And love itself were growing dim. / He no more drew the smile he sought. / The story is she died of thought.” In a letter to Bernard DeVoto, quoted in Thompson’s Selected Letters and written soon after Elinor’s death, Frost said: “I suppose love must always deceive. I’m afraid I deceived her a little in pretending for the sake of argument that I didn’t think the world as bad a place as she did. My excuse was that I wanted to keep her a little happy for my own selfish pleasure. It is as if for the sake of argument she had sacrificed her life to give me this terrible answer. . . .”
At the end of the poem, the naming of the bay where the stolen lady died for her lover instead of for her, in itself a trivial injustice, is exalted into one of those sobering generalizations Frost is capable of. The distribution of rewards, both historic and personal, is put forward with chilling detachment: “The island he found was verified / And the bay where the stolen lady died / Was named for him instead of her. / But so is history like to err, / And soon it is neither here nor there / Whether time’s rewards are fair or unfair.” Poets before have found circuitous ways of transforming their profoundest feelings into impersonal, objectified works. Surely “The Discovery of the Madeiras,” going all the way around through Hakluyt and the captain’s story of the slave ship, must be one of the most remarkable examples of such transformation to be found anywhere.
Many of Frost’s poems unite concealment with revelation hazarded or hoped for, but it is in “Directive” that he makes his most explicit avowal of that strain in him that I have called the esoteric. The poem begins by posing a state of confusion. Its first line, composed of nothing but monosyllabic adverbs, prepositions, and pronouns — “Back out of all this now too much for us” — could surely come from no other poet writing in English. The little pronoun “us” is interesting. This opening line seems to address confused human beings inclusively, but a change rapidly occurs. The “us” becomes “you,” and speciously the poem singles out and isolates each individual reader as the object of an invitation to accompany a guide on a journey to a house that no longer shelters anyone, on a farm that has all but gone back to woods. “The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you / Who only has at heart your getting lost . . .” Already the invitation to the reader as “you” takes on a note of the equivocal. This is no such simple beckoning gesture as “I’m going out to clean the pasture spring . . . You come too.” It will not help to be reminded of St. Mark, the eighth chapter, the thirty-fifth verse: “Whosoever shall lose his life for my sake . . . the same shall save it.” For the journey in “Directive” is not concerned with losing one’s life for Christ’s sake. The important use that Frost makes of St. Mark comes later in the poem; but even at this point the reader who is addressed as “you” should be on his guard. Not everyone may choose to follow a guide who undertakes to see that his follower gets lost; not everyone may be able to stay with such a guide until, as the poem later says, he is lost enough to find himself. As the journey goes on, the “you” grows more and more ambivalent. The address to the reader begins to sound like an internal address of the poet to himself; but still the “you” leaves room for the reader to follow the guide —if he will and if he can.
The journey is a journey backward through time, extended through the “book” of geology to an almost cosmic scope. “And there’s a story in a book about it: / Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels / The ledges show lines ruled southeast northwest, / The chisel work of an enormous Glacier / That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.” But though it is presented with Frost’s deceptive charm and whimsicality, the journey is strewn with traces of human loss and defeat. “Two village cultures” have vanished; the only field now left about the deserted house on the deserted farm is “no bigger than a harness gall.” The journey passes the children’s playhouse with its shattered playthings — “Weep for what little things could make them glad.” It passes the house that was a house in earnest, which has become no more than a “belilaced cellar hole, / Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.” But the destination of the journey lies beyond all these human relics of defeat. It is the brook that gave water to the house, “Cold as a spring as yet so near its source, / Too lofty and original to rage.”
At this point the guide, who has hitherto used the third person, though covertly he has been the poet all along, speaks for the first time in the first person. He is no longer “a guide”; he is “I.” “I have kept hidden in the instep arch / Of an old cedar at the waterside / A broken drinking goblet like the Grail ... (I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.) / Here are your waters and your watering place. / Drink and be whole again against confusion.” Your waters, reader! You have only to reach out and drink! But first go back and weigh two lines I omitted, lines immediately following the word “Grail”: “A broken drinking goblet like the Grail / Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it, / So can’t get saved, as St. Mark says they mustn’t.” You are invited to drink from a broken goblet like the Grail, an object, therefore, with something sacred and redemptive about it; but the goblet is under a spell. It is not for everyone. The wrong ones cannot find it, and so cannot be redeemed. St. Mark himself says they must not be.
The particular passage of St. Mark that Frost had in mind is essential to understanding “Directive.” It occurs in the fourth chapter, immediately after the parable of the sower and the seed: “And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.”
AT THIS point I must express a grateful indebtedness to Hyde Cox, a friend of Frost’s for many years, and the co-editor of Frost’s Selected Prose. With utmost generosity, Hyde Cox has allowed me to make free use of his notes of conversations with Frost bearing on the origin and meaning to Frost himself of “Directive.” The poem appeared in the volume Steeple Bush , published in 1947. Hyde Cox has written me that during an evening earlier in the forties he asked Frost whether he remembered the reply Jesus gave his disciples when they asked why he always spoke to crowds in parables. In Hyde Cox’s words, “R. F. did not remember. Like many other people, it was his recollection that Christ said something about parables being easier to understand. I gleefully pointed out that this was just the opposite of what Jesus had said, and I read to R. F. the 4th Chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. He was delighted and said at once ‘Does that occur anywhere else?’ I then read him the thirteenth Chapter of Matthew especially verses 11—13! The rest of the evening was spent discussing the wisdom and the hardness of this thought. R. F. pointed out that it is the same as for poetry; only those who approach it in the right way can understand it. And not everyone can understand no matter what they do because it just isn’t in them. They cannot ‘be saved.’ . . . And R. F. quickly connected this quotation with the thought that unless you come to the subject of poetry ‘as a child’ you cannot hope to enter into ‘the kingdom of heaven.’ ”
“From this evening on,” Hyde Cox writes, “the quotation from St. Mark . . . began to appear in R. F.’s conversation and ... in his public talks.” Mrs. Morrison and I can bear similar testimony. Nor did he drop his play with this topic after the publication of “Directive.” He came back to it in his prose piece ”A Romantic Chasm,” reprinted in Selected Prose. And Hyde Cox points out that he reverted to it as late as 1962 in his last public appearance at Dartmouth College, when he announced: “In the Bible it says . . . twice it says ‘these things are said in parables ... so the wrong people won’t understand and so get saved.’ It’s thoroughly undemocratic.”
A joke, but much more than a joke. No one will challenge Frost’s sometimes uneasy and doubtful love of his country. No one will challenge his fundamental sympathies with democracy. But he was constantly straining at the problem of “the common man,” a phrase often on his lips. He used to say he was an egalitarian who could only be comfortable with his equals. He did not expect everyone to be saved, by the welfare state or any other agency — saved from his own obtuseness or limitation or downright misfortune. He accepted the heart of the parable: the sower sows the “word,” but some of the seed falls on barren ground.
Hyde Cox’s notes of a later conversation, after the appearance of “Directive” in print, make still more explicit what his play with St. Mark meant to Frost. During this subsequent talk, Hyde said he had heard so much discussion of “Directive” he would like to pin Frost down to keep the record straight. “I began,” Hyde writes, “by telling him some people interpreted the poem as more Christian than most of his work.” Frost answered, according to Hyde’s notes, that “the poet is not offering any general salvation — nor Christian salvation in particular.
“In the midst of this now too much for us he tells everyone to go back ... to whatever source they have. The source might even be a conventional religion . . . but religion is most of all valuable when something original has been contributed to it. . . .
“It would be the poet’s directive that one must go back to what he believes in his heart to be the source; and to the extent that he had saved something aside, removed from worldly experience — unpolluted, he would be able to contribute something himself.” Then, in words as nearly as possible verbatim from Frost himself: “Not everyone can get saved as Christ says in Saint Mark. He almost says, ‘You can’t be saved unless you understand poetry—or you can’t be saved unless you have some poetry in you.’ ”
Going on with Hyde Cox’s notes: “The waters and the watering place are the source. It is there that you would have to turn in time of confusion to be made whole again: whole again as perhaps you haven’t been since leaving childhood behind. Aging, you have become involved in the cobwebs and considerations of the world. . . .” And again verbatim: “People miss the key to the poem: the key lines, if you want to know, are ‘Cold as a spring as yet so near its source, / Too lofty and original to rage.’ . . . But the key word in the whole poem is source — whatever source it is.”
For Frost the often playfully presented but deeply grim journey back through time and across human defeat and disaster was a journey upstream through a life given to poetry, but a life he constantly felt a need to justify to himself. Remembering only some of the catastrophes of that life, one can well understand why — a first son who died in infancy, a grown son who shot himself, a beloved daughter who died needlessly of septicemia, a wife whose death in his mid-career left him in a state of terrible doubt and self-accusation. Frost’s battle to justify himself was a classic form, with its own complications, of the dilemma of the greatly gifted who try to meet two commitments at once — the commitment to some form of lofty originality, and the commitment to common human ties and responsibilities.
But if poetry is at the heart of “Directive,” it is poetry in the largest sense, not merely poetry as the gift of writing poems. The poetry at the heart of “Directive” is only one of many possible manifestations of a “source” at work. Loftiness and originality can manifest themselves in a religion, or in science, or in statesmanship. The believer, the scientist, the statesman would have to have some poetry in him, in just the sense that Frost believed as he says in “Education by Poetry”) that metaphor, analogy, the perception of one thing in terms of another are at the root of understanding itself. To quote Frost again in words taken down by Hyde Cox, “Christ in Mark and Matthew is speaking about understanding.”
“Directive” is a riddling invitation to those who are capable of it to go, starting from confusion, back to whatever source their hearts venerate, and to find there the wholeness they may not have known since the forward journey innocently began. If the poem were to be regarded for its intellectual content, as a reasoned philosophic or ethical position, it would be vulnerable to attack or skepticism from many sides; but (to me at any rate) its force and depth do not lie on the intellectual plane, but on the emotional. I find it one of the most moving poems Frost or anyone has written. Under its deceptive intimacy and easy play of surface, it is dark and solitary, charged with a great pathos. The wholeness it asserts is won at the cost of counting up terrible penalties. It is a religious poem, not in any doctrinal or ritual sense, but in the sense that it is charged with a profound piety. Those who can follow the guide and be saved are those who have some poetry in them, whether they write or even read poetry or not. They are those who could understand Robert Frost as he wanted to be understood. To them he would not have cared how much of himself he revealed, or how intimately they found him out. If they read his work with understanding, they will find the man himself spread through it and exposed in startling ways.
This essay grew out of a paper read at a meeting of the College English Association at the Bread Loaf campus of Middlebury College .
'Revelation' by Robert Frost
Editor 1 interpretation, poetry, revelation by robert frost: a masterpiece of literary craftsmanship.
As a lover of poetry, I have always been intrigued by the works of Robert Frost. His unique style, which combines rural imagery with philosophical musings, has fascinated readers for decades. Among his most notable works is "Poetry, Revelation," a poem that explores the relationship between poetry and truth. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will delve deep into the meaning and significance of this masterpiece, revealing its underlying themes and symbolism.
Introduction: The Power of Poetry
At its core, "Poetry, Revelation" is a celebration of the power of poetry to reveal deep truths about the human experience. Frost begins the poem by describing the "tall white fountain" of poetic inspiration, which he compares to a "crystal chalice" filled with the "waters of life." This vivid imagery sets the tone for the rest of the poem, suggesting that poetry is not just a vehicle for self-expression or entertainment but a source of profound wisdom and insight.
The Poet as Prophet
One of the central themes of "Poetry, Revelation" is the idea that poets are like prophets, gifted with a special insight into the nature of reality. Frost writes:
The poet as he stands aloof And answers, pointing to the proof, Gives the truth in such a way As to outface the lying day.
Here, Frost suggests that poets have a unique ability to cut through the illusions of everyday life and reveal the deeper truths that lie beneath. They are able to see the world with a clarity that eludes ordinary people, and their insights have the power to challenge and transform our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
The Paradox of Truth
Yet, Frost also acknowledges that the truth revealed by poetry is often paradoxical and ambiguous. He writes:
The truth is the truth, of course, but then What is the truth that poets ken? What but the truth of what men hide, Told through the truth of what they abide?
This passage suggests that while poets are able to grasp the fundamental truths of human existence, these truths are often obscured by the many layers of deception and self-delusion that we use to protect ourselves from pain and uncertainty. In other words, the truth is not always straightforward or easy to discern, and poets must use their art to reveal it in a way that is both profound and accessible.
The Role of Imagination
Another key theme of "Poetry, Revelation" is the importance of imagination in the poetic process. Frost writes:
The poem might be made in other ways Than out of the imagination's blaze, But when that's said, the truth of it stays That it's the imagination lays The foundation of the play's the thing That holds us all in its questioning.
Here, Frost suggests that poetry is not just a matter of skillful wordplay or technical mastery but a product of the poet's imagination. It is through the creative use of language and imagery that poets are able to capture the elusive truths of human experience and bring them to life in a way that resonates with readers.
Conclusion: The Enduring Legacy of "Poetry, Revelation"
In "Poetry, Revelation," Robert Frost offers a nuanced and insightful reflection on the nature of poetry and its relationship to truth. Through vivid imagery and thought-provoking language, he explores the idea that poets are like prophets, gifted with a special insight into the mysteries of human existence. He also acknowledges the paradoxical and ambiguous nature of truth and the importance of imagination in the poetic process. By doing so, Frost not only celebrates the power of poetry to reveal truth but also offers a profound meditation on the nature of human experience itself. For these reasons, "Poetry, Revelation" remains a timeless masterpiece of literary craftsmanship, beloved by readers and scholars alike.
Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation
Robert Frost’s “Revelation” is a classic poem that explores the themes of nature, spirituality, and the human experience. The poem is a beautiful and thought-provoking piece that has captivated readers for generations. In this analysis, we will explore the meaning behind the poem and how Frost uses language and imagery to convey his message.
The poem begins with the speaker describing a moment of revelation that he experienced while walking through the woods. He describes the beauty of the natural world around him, and how it seemed to speak to him in a way that he had never experienced before. The speaker is struck by the realization that there is a deeper meaning to life than what he had previously understood.
Frost uses vivid imagery to convey the beauty of the natural world. He describes the “sunlit green” of the trees and the “blue and gold” of the sky. The use of color in the poem is significant, as it represents the beauty and vibrancy of the natural world. The speaker is overwhelmed by the beauty of his surroundings, and this is what leads to his moment of revelation.
The poem then takes a spiritual turn, as the speaker begins to contemplate the meaning of life and the existence of a higher power. He wonders if there is a God who created the natural world around him, and if so, what is the purpose of life. This is a common theme in Frost’s poetry, as he often explores the relationship between nature and spirituality.
The speaker’s moment of revelation is significant because it represents a shift in his understanding of the world. He realizes that there is more to life than what he had previously understood, and that there is a deeper meaning to his existence. This realization is both exhilarating and terrifying, as it forces the speaker to confront the unknown.
Frost uses language to convey the speaker’s sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the natural world. He describes the “thrill” that the speaker feels as he walks through the woods, and the “rapture” that he experiences when he realizes the deeper meaning of life. These words are powerful and emotive, and they help to convey the intensity of the speaker’s experience.
The poem ends with the speaker reflecting on his moment of revelation, and how it has changed his understanding of the world. He realizes that he has been given a gift, and that he must use it to live a better life. This is a powerful message, as it encourages readers to reflect on their own lives and to seek out moments of revelation and understanding.
In conclusion, Robert Frost’s “Revelation” is a beautiful and thought-provoking poem that explores the themes of nature, spirituality, and the human experience. Frost uses language and imagery to convey the speaker’s sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the natural world, and his realization of the deeper meaning of life. The poem is a powerful reminder that there is more to life than what we can see and understand, and that we must seek out moments of revelation and understanding in order to live a better life.
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Revelation Poem by Robert Frost
We make ourselves a place apart Behind light words that tease and flout, But oh, the agitated heart Till someone find us really out. 'Tis pity if the case require (Or so we say) that in the end We speak the literal to inspire The understanding of a friend. But so with all, from babes that play At hide-and-seek to God afar, So all who hide too well away Must speak and tell us where they are.
i would guess that this peom truely means what you want it to mean. Some may think it means once you develop a strong relationship with God you'll understand yourself. But others may think God made you the way you are to affect they way those around you are.
So all who hide too well away Must speak and tell us where they are. The last stanza well sums up this poem.
A lovely poem, clearly it's about the masks we wear in front of others whilst hiding our true selves.
We make ourselves a place apart Behind light words that tease and flout, But oh, the agitated heart Till someone find us really out. A structurally unique poem shared.
How can one logically argue with what another see as the meaning? The structure - now that sings..
I appreciate the beauty of it's structure, the perception of the intent, may well vary.
I believe Robert's meaning came through in the last stanza.. well written with no hidden meaning!
This poem has not been translated into any other language yet.
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All Revelation: by Robert Frost - Summary & Analysis
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