Saturday, September 22, 2007

Frost On Trees


The American poet, Robert Frost (1874-1963) won four Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry. Before winning those prizes, he faced years of rejection from literary magazines. It was only through determination and a persistent belief in himself that he persevered through the miserable years into the light of publication.

Born in San Francisco, California, Frost had little time to know his father who died when the poet was young. The family moved across country to New England where Frost grew up. He tried college, but found himself ill-suited to academia. He became a poultry farmer. Meanwhile, he wrote verse and continued to educate himself.

In 1912, Frost moved to England to hopefully find a publisher for his work. There, he met the influential poet Ezra Pound who helped Frost place his work with publishers. Critical acclaim followed after each of Frost’s two books of poetry. This enabled him, in 1915, to return to the U.S. a success. He went on to teach at Amherst and Harvard colleges, starting the Breadloaf School of English all while carrying on his life as a farmer.

In 1960, Frost received a singular honor: President-elect John F. Kennedy asked him to read a poem at his inauguration. On that day, Frost approached the dais and prepared to read, but his planned poem blew away in the stiff wind. He resorted to reciting his well-known poem, “The Gift Outright” instead.

Frost’s poems built on traditions going back centuries, but turned on a uniqueness all his own. They seem deceptively simple on the surface, but often contain layers of meaning. Many fall into the category of pastoral poems, but are often marked by a tragic vein. He disliked free verse, and used traditional metrical and rhythmical schemes.

Frost uses trees and tree imagery in many of his poems to illustrate life lessons. Three of these poems, “Into My Own,” “Birches,” and “The Sound of Trees” best illustrate the poet’s fascination with nature as embodied in trees. For him, trees represented childhood, the life span of Man, and the purity of nature.

His poem, “Into My Own” begins with the lines: “One of my wishes is that those trees, / So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze, / Were not, as ‘twere, the merest mask of gloom, / But stretched away unto the edge of doom.” The speaker outlines one of Frost’s enduring ideas: to steal away into the woods, to disappear into nature, “into my own,” in the speaker’s words. He wants the forest to not just be the “merest mask of gloom,” but to stretch out for all eternity “unto the edge of doom.” He wants to lose himself, taking refuge in the womb of nature, the forest primeval.

Frost is writing here in the tradition of a group of New England writers of the mid to late nineteenth century, the Transcendentalists, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson. They too saw nature as a refuge, a place to go for healing. In nature, Man is reminded of the cycle of life, that all things must change and evolve. Robert Frost is the twentieth century keeper of the flame for Transcendentalist philosophy.

In nature, the speaker can travel “Fearless of ever finding open land,” or “where the slow wheel pours the sand.” He sees nature as endless, offering opportunities to escape the industrialized urbanization of city life. The speaker in the poem sees no reason to ever return to such urbanization. There is more peace in nature than in civilization.

And what does the speaker offer to those that might miss him? They can seek him in the forest to see if he has changed, or if he loves them less. “They would not find me changed from him they knew—/ Only more sure of all I thought was true.” The speaker is unchanged, except that he is more sure of the truth. This too is a Transcendentalist idea. Nature teaches truth. Mysteries of life, like where we go when we die, are answered in nature. A consistent theme from Emerson down to Whitman on down to Frost is that we die, we decay, we fertilize the soil for the next generation. We live on in essence, just as nature continues on when a tree’s leaves fall in the autumn. They become fertilizer for the new grass and plant life in the spring. This is the truth of life that nature teaches.

Of course, this truth was one we already suspected as true because we know it in our souls. Still, one might fear death because it is the “undiscovered country,” as Shakespeare put it, and because it is unknown. But we cannot know for certain what will happen after death. Frost argues, as did many New England poets before him, that nature offers us solace in this quest for knowledge. Dead plant life remains long after death to bring forth a new generation; so are we like the plants. We procreate and bring forth progeny, and our lives are the fertilizer for these new generations of human beings.

He also shows us the life cycle—winter and death become, in time, spring and summer—much like humans are born (spring), they move through childhood (summer), they reach middle age (autumn) and grow old and die (winter). This is the truth that Frost knew, and found strong evidence of, in nature.

“Birches” in the poem and in nature are trees with white bark. Frost describes them as bending “left to right / Across the lines of straighter darker trees.” For the poet, birches represent our lives, twisted and bent by our struggles. This distortion occurs as a natural part of life. Sometimes, the birch is broken and destroyed by the events of a lifetime. This is represented in the poem by the ice storms. Frost has stumbled upon another truth: life changes us. We begin as a young, straight tree, and end up bent and twisted, but wiser and stronger for the journey.

The boy in the poem does not damage the trees permanently. “I like to think some boy’s been swinging them. / But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay / As ice storms do.” To a boy, the trees are an adventure to swing from and play on, a source of fun.

Frost follows this with a seemingly wandering digression into the ice storm and what it does to the birches. “…[O]nce they are bowed / So low for long, they never right themselves: / You may see their trunks arching in the woods / Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground / Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.” Frost identifies this idea as a truth in the next line, “But I was going to say when Truth broke in,” and capitalizes truth to affirm that this is a life lesson as well. Life does twist and bend us down, but he wants to discuss the life of the boy, and how he grows by taking on his father’s trees.

The boy in the poem plays in solitude, as only a dreamer can. The speaker seems to speak from experience. Is this Frost himself? Is this the reason he is always drawn back to the farm, to nature, rather than New York City, or the world where a man of letters might seek publication and the intellectual life more easily? One can only guess, but the speaker seems to relate the story of the boy and the birches with the passion of reflection. The boy subdues his father’s trees, following in his father’s footsteps.

The boy in the poem lived “too far from town to learn baseball,” and “Whose only play was what he found himself, / Summer or winter, and could play alone.” This is a child raised in nature, one not used to the street games of baseball or stick ball. He uses the materials in his world as a game, and this is why he turns to the birch trees. The speaker says that he was once a “swinger of birches.” And this signifies a switch in the point of view in the poem. The speaker moves from the objective view of the trees to a more personal and subjective one.

“So was I once myself a swinger of birches. / And so I dream of going back to be.” We are now in the speaker’s mind, and hearing him express a desire to return to the truths of nature and childhood. “It’s when I’m weary of considerations, / And life is too much like a pathless wood.” The considerations Frost speaks of are the ways of the world. When civilization becomes too much to handle, that is when he longs to return to nature. When the road through life is unclear and filled with obstacles, he longs for the simple life. But the speaker does not rest with simply wanting to go back to childhood and his trees; he wants to be reborn to the world. “I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” This is not a suicidal wish, and in fact, the speaker worries that someone might “grant what I wish and snatch me away.” He knows that “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

The speaker simply wants to take a break from it all. He wants “to go by climbing a birch tree, / And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk / Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, / But dipped its top and set me down again.” Through nature, pure interaction with the mystical realm of nature, we can be reborn to purity and a better life. It is in nature we find solace.

Frost ends the poem with: “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” One could do worse than be a kid again, or to maintain a bit of childish awe into adulthood. Frost argues that we must maintain a certain joy in life. This is his poem of reflection. In fact, he wrote many poems of reflection about life and childhood. But this poem is not only about childhood.

The middle section about the ice storm is a classic Frost digression to make a salient point. He does this in several poems. One might think he has simply wandered away to another topic, but he brings the reader back on track with a connection between what seems to be a random digression, and his main point. It is not a digression at all, but a kind of sub-thesis. In this poem, ice storms damage the trees permanently. The young boy does not. They are simply learning experiences for him. He can swing and fall and get back up again without fear of permanent injury. Life often twists and bends us; in childhood, we are able to withstand this because we are young and resilient. Play is not the same as life-changing twists and turns, as if the “inner dome of heaven” were crashing down upon us. Play is healing, and nature is the landscape of the lesson.

In the poem, “The Sound of Trees,” Frost avoids visual description of the trees in favor of aural views. It is the sound that he is interested in here. He asks the question: “Why do we wish to bear / Forever the noise of these / More than another noise / So close to our dwelling place?” More than traffic or the freeway, the trees in the poem offer distraction from urban sounds. The speaker believes we “lose all measure of pace,” and “acquire a listening air.” What we are listening to, and mesmerized by, is nature.

“They are that that talks of going / But never gets away.” The sound of trees keeps us rooted. It draws us into the lullaby of nature. We grow older and wiser. We learn the value of staying put, that there are things in life worth staying for, like the deeper ideas of love, beauty, and truth. Frost is not speaking of material things here, but the joys of living the simple life. To him, being able to hear the sound of trees is more important than living near the city.

The speaker in the poem actually begins to equate himself with trees. He mimics their movements. “My feet tug at the floor / And my head sways to my shoulder / Sometimes when I watch trees sway, / From the window or the door.” He takes his cues from them, the way they shift in the wind. The speaker knows that the trees stay rooted, but he must set out for somewhere. He must “make the reckless choice.” Life is a journey, and there are times for staying and there are times for moving on, like the “white clouds” hurrying across the sky in the poem. But the speaker says that he will have less to say because he will be gone. He is older and wiser for his time spent, and therefore, he knows that the wise cannot tell their wisdom to others. They must learn it through experience. They must stand and listen to the trees to learn what they teach.

Again here, trees are symbolic for stages in life. In this poem, trees are not just playthings for children, but bearers of wisdom. Repeatedly, Frost offers nature as solace from the stresses of the world. We hear the voice of Frost the farmer, listening to nature.

Robert Frost continues Transcendentalism into the twentieth century. His thesis is clear: in nature we are purified and healed. His trees have lessons for us if we only listen. They will bring comfort in distressing times. Nature is the antidote to materialism and greed. If we listen to the trees, they will tell us how to live. They will speak of history. From them, we can find comfort and solace, here in the fast-paced world of the twenty-first century.