Saturday, March 30, 2013

"His Gains In Heaven Are What They Are"

I'd like to stay with the themes of "the lovely in life is the familiar" (Walter de la Mare) and "the seeing of small trifles . . . ./Real, beautiful, is good" (Ivor Gurney) for a moment longer.  As one might expect, Robert Frost takes an equivocal, and sly, view of such things in the following poem.

Harry Epworth Allen (1894-1958), "The Road to the Hills"

               Bond and Free

Love has earth to which she clings
With hills and circling arms about --
Wall within wall to shut fear out.
But Thought has need of no such things,
For Thought has a pair of dauntless wings.

On snow and sand and turf, I see
Where Love has left a printed trace
With straining in the world's embrace.
And such is Love and glad to be.
But Thought has shaken his ankles free.

Thought cleaves the interstellar gloom
And sits in Sirius' disc all night,
Till day makes him retrace his flight,
With smell of burning on every plume,
Back past the sun to an earthly room.

His gains in heaven are what they are.
Yet some say Love by being thrall
And simply staying possesses all
In several beauty that Thought fares far
To find fused in another star.

Robert Frost, Mountain Interval (1916).

Harry Epworth Allen, "Summer" (1940)

The question immediately arises:  where do you stand on this Love versus Thought business?

I suspect that Frost comes down on the side of Love, but one can never be sure when it comes to Frost.  On the one hand, he titles the poem "Bond and Free," rather than "Bond or Free," so perhaps his view is that we are fated to continually move back and forth between Love and Thought.  It is not a matter of either/or.

On the other hand, the final stanza seems to come down on the side of Love:  "His gains in heaven are what they are" seems to suggest that the gains don't amount to much.  "Simply staying" seems to be the way to go. Or so "some say."  ("Some say" is a characteristic Frostian way of hedging: "Some say the world will end in fire,/Some say in ice.")

One commentator believes that a clue may lie in Frost's placing "Bond and Free" immediately prior to "Birches" in Mountain Interval, citing these lines in "Birches" as evidence that Frost opts for Love:  "Earth's the right place for love:/I don't know where it's likely to go better."  John Walsh, Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost, 1912-1915 (Grove Press 1988), page 250.

But, then again, the final lines of "Birches" suggest the back and forth of "Bond and Free":

I'd like 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.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Robert Frost, Ibid (italics in original).

Yes, of course:  "Toward heaven."  Which fits quite well with:  "His gains in heaven are what they are."  (Whatever that means!)  Typical Frost: equivocal and sly.

Harry Epworth Allen, "A Derbyshire Farmstead"


Anonymous said...

You call Frost "equivocal and shy." Yvor Winters in his essay "Robert Frost: or the Spiritual Drifter as Poet" is more severe in his condemnation of Frost. Says Winters of many of Frost's poems: "These poems all have a single theme: the whimsical, accidental, and incomprehensible nature of the formative decision; and I should like to point out that if one takes this view of the formative decision, one has cut oneself off from understanding most of human experience, for in these terms there in nothing to be understood--one can write of human experience with nothing to be understood or with sentimental melancholy, but with little else."

Winters calls Frost "a spiritual drifter," a poet who have neither "the intelligence [nor] the energy to become a major poet." Winters goes on to say that many of Frost's poems are good as far as they go, but they don't go far enough. The poem "is incomplete and it puts upon the reader a burden of critical intelligence which ought to be borne by the poet."

As I read what I have written I think of the last line of Frost's sonnet "Design." He does, it seems to me, here put the burden on the reader of the poem and not himself: "If design govern in a thing so small." One might ask, "Well, does Frost believe in design or not?" One can't tell. I think such an equivocation is the gravamen of Winters's charge that even though Frost is a very good poet sometimes, he is never a great poet. Frost is a relativist, and in the end, lacks the wisdom and perhaps courage to be a great poet. Frost is, once again says Winters, "a spiritual drifter." It's strong condemnation.

It's fair to say that many readers of Frost don't agree with Winters's assessment of Frost. I myself am ambivalent about Frost, though I am drawn to his suggestion that one must come to some kind of reconciliation with human predicament, be versed, he says, "in country matters," meaning no more, it seems to me, that the natural world bears a stony and blind indifference to the hopes and yearnings of humankind.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: well, that's a lot to chew on. I greatly appreciate hearing your thoughts.

First, a technical matter: I presume that the "shy" in your comment is a typo, since I said "sly." A second technical matter: when you say that Winters "is more severe in his condemnation of Frost," that could be read to suggest that my comments were a "condemnation" of Frost. They were not.

As to Winters's comments. As better men and women than I have noted, Winters's critical pronouncements can sometimes be characterized as eccentric. And I believe that that characterization applies in this case.

Winters liked to think of himself as being classically severe. His approach to things is summed up in the closing lines of "On Teaching the Young":

The poet's only bliss
Is in cold certitude --
Laurel, archaic, rude.

"Cold certitude" sounds like a lovely prescription for writing poetry. In a way. But perhaps not in practice. It depends upon one's temperament, I suppose. Thus, as much as I admire Winters's poetry for its technical virtuosity, it is indeed "cold." Which is why I find it difficult to like his poetry, even though I admire it.

I haven't read his essay on Frost, but it appears that Winters thinks that Frost lacks "cold certitude," which is what Winters is after. Thus, "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep" is likely too ambiguous for Winters's taste. The same probably goes for "The Road Not Taken," "Desert Places," "The Wood-Pile," et cetera.

Hence, Winters prefers Fulke Greville to Robert Frost.

As I say, Winters can be eccentric.

Thank you very much for your thoughts, you have raised some interesting issues.