Sunday, December 5, 2010

Life Explained, Part Eight: "Happiness Makes Up In Height For What It Lacks In Length"

Thus far in my "Life Explained" series, I confess that the news has not been all good.  For instance, Christina Rossetti has asked:  "Does the Road Wind Up-Hill All the Way?"  And Philip Larkin has observed (no surprise here) that "Continuing to live -- that is, repeat/A habit formed to get necessaries--/Is nearly always losing, or going without./It varies."  Perhaps it is time for some good news.  And who better to provide that news than a sometimes cranky farmer from New England?

One should never underestimate Robert Frost.  Beyond the old chestnuts, hidden gems await us.  Frost can be irritating, but he is nothing if not crafty.  A phrase to bear in mind when reading his poetry:  "Gone into if not explained."

     Happiness Makes Up in Height
        for What It Lacks in Length

Oh, stormy stormy world,
The days you were not swirled
Around with mist and cloud,
Or wrapped as in a shroud,
And the sun's brilliant ball
Was not in part or all
Obscured from mortal view --
Were days so very few
I can but wonder whence
I get the lasting sense
Of so much warmth and light.
If my mistrust is right
It may be altogether
From one day's perfect weather,
When starting clear at dawn,
The day swept clearly on
To finish clear at eve.
I verily believe
My fair impression may
Be all from that one day
No shadow crossed but ours
As through its blazing flowers
We went from house to wood
For change of solitude.

Robert Frost, A Witness Tree (1942).

Lest we be deceived into thinking that Frost is offering us a simple feel-good, self-help nostrum, we are well-advised not to forget line 12:  "If my mistrust is right."  This is one of those characteristic Frostian utterances that give something and then take something away (or, take something away and then give something back).  (Edward Thomas is also quite good at this.  One can see why he and Frost got along together so well.)

Oh, and we are also well-advised not to forget "change of solitude" in the final line.  Again, as Frost said:  "Gone into if not explained."

                                   Edvard Munch, "The Storm" (1893)


Shelley said...

Nothing if not crafty hits the nail right on the head. He's my favorite poet, but any reader that rejoices in Frost's simplicity is being laughed at behind his back.

Stephen Pentz said...

Shelley: Thank you very much for visiting and commenting.

Yes, the veneer of simplicity can be deceiving. On the other hand, as I have mentioned before, when Frost dons his Yankee Philosopher hat he is in fact too simple. I like this remark by Randall Jarrell in 'To the Laodiceans': '[Frost's] Complete Poems have the air of being able to educate any faithful reader into tearing out a third of the pages, reading a third, and practically wearing out the rest.'

Thank you again, Shelley.

Shelley said...

You're quite right. You're quoting my all-time favorite critic: I pine for a twenty-first century Randall Jarrell.

Thanks for a lovely website.

Shelley said...

p.s. Feel free to delete this, but I just noticed that you have Tender Mercies listed as your favorite movie.

The man who wrote that film changed my life. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't have a website.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Stephen. Glad to see all the Frost coming as we fall into winter. (And also the Thomas.) Below is a link to a previously unpublished letter from Frost to his old friend George Browne, co-founder of the Browne and Nichols school in Cambridge. I think you'll find it amusing. It has all of RF's wit and doggedness (as to precision) in it:


Stephen Pentz said...

Thank you for visiting again, Shelley. And thank you for the kind words about this blog.

Yes, 'Tender Mercies' is a wonderful movie -- one of the many fine works by Horton Foote. And Robert Duvall is, of course, remarkable in it.

Stephen Pentz said...

It is a pleasure to hear from you again, Mark. Given your great knowledge of, and expertise on, Frost, I am honored that you are dropping in -- but I need to keep on my toes when writing about Frost when you are around!

Thank you for the link to the College Hill Review letters on 'interval.' Coincidentally, Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence forwarded the link to me earlier this week as well. Yes, the correspondence does show Frost the leg-puller in action! I first came across 'intervale' (with the 'e') a long time ago in the poem 'Again' by Howard Nemerov. Nemerov taught at Bennington for a while -- perhaps that is where he picked up the word. It is great to have the additional information about the word, not to mention the wonderful material on Frost.

Thank you again, Mark.