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“I’m always interested, you know, when I have three or four stanzas, in the way I lay the sentences in them. I’d hate to have the sentences all lie the same in the stanzas.”–Robert Frost

October 14, 2009

Robert Frost, speaking in an interview in 1959: “I look on a poem as a performance. I look on the poet as man of prowess, just like an athlete. He’s a performer. And the things you can do in a poem are very various. You speak of figures, tones of voice varying all the time. I’m always interested, you know, when I have three or four stanzas, in the way I lay the sentences in them. I’d hate to have the sentences all lie the same in the stanzas. Every poem is like that: some sort of achievement in performance.”

“Nature” (Longfellow)
As a fond mother, when the day is o’er,
Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
Half-willing, half reluctant to be led,
And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
Nor wholly reassured and comforted
By promises of others in their stead,
Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
Being too full of sleep to understand
How far the unknown transcends the what we know.

“The Silken Tent” (Frost)
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a 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 everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

“Autobiography at an Air-Station” (Larkin)
Delay, well, travellers must expect
For how long? No one seems to know.
With all the luggage weighed, the tickets checked,
It can’t be long…
We amble to and fro,
Sit in steel chairs, buy cigarettes and sweets
And tea, unfold the papers.
Ought we to smile,
Perhaps make friends?
No: in the race for seats
You’re best alone.
Friendship is not worth while.
Six hours pass: if I’d gone by boat last night
I’d be there now.
Well, it’s too late for that.
The kiosk girl is yawning. I feel stale,
Stupified, by inaction—and, as light
Begins to ebb outside, by fear;
I set
So much on this Assumption.
Now it’s failed.

†For a detailed commentary on this sonnet elsewhere in The Era of Casual Fridays, click here.  But for the moment, a few definitions. O.E.D.: “assumption 1. The action of receiving up into heaven; ascent to or reception into heaven. HANMER Anc. Eccl. Hist. (1619) 21 The wonderfull resurrection of our Saviour, and his assumption into the heavens. 1627 tr. Bacon’s Life & Death: He lived after the Assumption of Elias, sixty yeares. TENNYSON In Mem. lxxiii: Can hang no weight upon my heart In its assumptions up to heaven.   b. esp. The reception of the Virgin Mary into heaven, with body preserved from corruption, which is a generally accepted doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church. Also the feast held annually on the 15th of August in honour of this event.”

“Autumn Within” (Longfellow)
It is autumn; not without
But within me is the cold.
Youth and spring are all about;
It is I that have grown old.

Birds are darting through the air,
Singing, building without rest;
Life is stirring everywhere,
Save within my lonely breast.

There is silence: the dead leaves
Fall and rustle and are still;
Beats no flail upon the sheaves,
Comes no murmur from the mill.

Notice in these several poems, the first three of which are sonnets, the extraordinary variety in relation of sentence or independent clause (“grammatical” units) to line (“metrical” units). The sonnets by Frost and by Longfellow each consist of a single sentence, carried out over 14 lines (or 140 syllables). In the sonnet by Larkin we find, by contrast, and in those same 14 lines and 140 syllables, no fewer than 15 independent clauses, 13 of which are punctuated as separate sentences (I color the clauses to indicate the variety clearly), and almost all of which call for varying tones of voice. For this reason, among many others, Larkin’s sonnet sounds a good deal much more like ordinary English conversation than do either of the other two sonnets printed here. However, to indicate what variety in relation of sentence to line Longfellow was capable of, I also include above his short lyric, “Autumn Within.” Here, in 12 lines—and short lines at that—he packs 10 grammatically independent units (clauses & sentences). And finally, consider the way Frost “lays” his sentences into the four stanzas of the following poem. Again, I color code each grammatically independent unit (whether clause or sentence) to make the variety clear. In stanza one we find 3 sentences (i.e., independent clauses) laid into 5 lines. In stanza two we find 4 sentences (i.e., independent clauses) laid into the same 5 line structure (the meter & rhyme scheme being consistent through the whole of the poem). In stanza three we find 1 compound sentence (with a dependent clause) in 5 lines; and notice that the main subject of this sentence—“she,” which takes two predicates (”thinks,” “vexes”)—only appears at the start of line 4 in the stanza, and that the pronoun “these” (in the same line) takes no fewer than 5 antecedents. At last, in stanza five, we find 1 compound sentence laid into the allotted 5 lines, this time turning on a logical “not/but” pattern. Notice also the variation between hypotaxis (lines 1-3, lines 11-15, and lines 16-20) and parataxis (lines 4-9). Frost also pointed out that, especially in its last two stanzas, “My November Guest” throws the speaking voice into several postures, each quite distinct: exasperation (“She thinks I have no eye for these and vexes me…”), admonition (“Not yesterday…”), some slight shading of sarcasm (“But it were vain…”), and, as with a kind of sigh, concession (“And they are better for her praise”). These qualities, so far as I am concerned, make this one of the better love/courtship poems in 20th century English poetry. You must hear it as if spoken by a lover to his (male) friend, as he tries to account for his fascination with the melancholy woman here described, who is somewhat conventionally allegorized (though wryly & affectionately) as “My Sorrow,” in a trope hardly unfamiliar to anyone who has ever listened to men speak of their lovers. No wonder Frost appended to the title of this poem, where it is listed in the table of contents to the first editions of A Boy’s Will‡ (1913, 1915), the following gloss: “He is in love with being misunderstood.”

“My November Guest” (Frost)
My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;

She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds have gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

One final note, the link to the text of A Boy’s Will provided above takes you to a digitally scanned copy of the first American edition of the book (Holt, 1915), held at the Internet Archive. If you examine the full color PDF file there, you will see that Frost inscribed the book in 1954, on one of the front flyleaves, to his friend Jack Hagstrom, in whose personal library it once was. This particular copy of the book now resides at the University of New Hampshire.

For other entries in this ‘blog having to do with sonnets, click on the word “sonnet” in the “Category Cloud” (on the right side of the main page for the site).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tito permalink
    November 5, 2009 10:27 AM

    Frost’s, in different colours, was line by line; but the way you’ve coloured in PHRASES of Larkin’s sonnet is amazing! It takes time to prepare a post in that way, but has the effect of making the art of composing poetry seem like the weaving of a rug. Ravishing and rapturous. I might try it once on the Icebox to see what I can do with the technique vis-a-vis a renga perhaps. Have to see first what we produce in Okayama this weekend. What a site this is. I only wish I had more time to read it! There is such density here, and yet a light touch.

    • November 5, 2009 8:15 PM

      Thanks for stopping in, Tito (aka SG). The coloring for “My Nov. Guest” is actually done according to sentence (or independent grammatical unit), the point being to illustrate relation of line to stanza (or, independent clause). RF particularly prized variety in relation of sentence to stanza.

      BTW, that sonnet by Larkin is perfectly wonderful: for a commentary on its theme/argument, cf. this entry in The Era of Casual Fridays:

      Larkin! Larkin! What a sad old lark of a poet he is.

      Yours ever, Mark

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