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“But Islands of the Blessèd, bless you son, I never came upon a blessèd one.”

November 9, 2009
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As printed in the first edition of Frost's book "A Witness Tree" (1942), his last to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

This poem—this epigram, I should say—was collected first in Frost’s 1942 volume A Witness Tree. A few weeks ago I chanced to be in Amherst, Massachusetts, and heard William Pritchard deliver a lecture on Frost, the occasion being the dedication of the Jones Library there as a National Literary Landmark owing to its association with Frost, and to the fine collection held there of his literary manuscripts.

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On Amity Street, Amherst, MA.

Pritchard read this poem aloud, read it well, and brought the sound of it home to me again in all its bitter mischief. The first of it has to do with the title: “An Answer.” To whom? And to what query? And how particular should one be with the person addressed, this “son” spoken of and to? The “But” with which this “answer” begins implies a discursive context of disagreement, or at least demurral: “Perhaps for you, my boy, though I rather doubt it. But no, not for me to be sure.” Likely the person addressed is your rather generic young man, who still thinks that the world, insofar as and where he dwells in it, can be made better, meliorated—even perfected, let’s say for the sake of argument. Or, if we take it a bit colder, the young man addressed might wish for nothing more than perfectly mundane sorts of happiness: vocation, family, friends, sanity, health—all the great desiderata, and all so hard to keep, to hold, to make stay.

The Islands of the Blessèd, of course, are the fabled “Islands of the Happy,” a kind of terrestrial paradise imagined by the ancients as lying, well, somewhere due west. This we have from Plutarch‘s Life of Sertorius, a.k.a. Quintus Sertorius (123 BC-72 BC), a Roman statesman and general, born in Nursia, in the Sabine territory:

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The Straits of Gades (as anciently known). Near Beatis (a.k.a. Baetica); now in Spain.

“As the wind abated he set sail, and put in at some scattered islands, which had no water. Leaving them, and passing through the Straits of Gades, he touched at those parts of Iberia on the right which lie out of the strait, a little beyond the mouths of the Bætis, which flows into the Atlantic Sea, and has given name to those parts of Iberia which lie about it. There he fell in with some sailors, who had returned from a voyage to the Atlantic Islands, which are two in number, separated by a very narrow channel, and ten thousand stadia [pl.: stadium] from the coast of Libya, and are called the Islands of the Happy [or Blessèd]. These islands have only moderate rains, but generally they enjoy gentle breezes, which bring dews; they have a rich and fertile soil, adapted for arable cultivation and planting; they also produce fruit spontaneously, sufficient in quantity and quality to maintain, without labour and trouble, a population at their ease. The air of the island is agreeable, owing to the temperature of the seasons, and the slightness of the changes; for the winds which blow from our part of the world from the north and east, owing to the great distance, fall upon a boundless space, and are dispersed and fail before they reach these islands; but the winds which blow round them from the ocean, the south and west, bring soft rains at intervals, from the sea, but in general they gently cool the island with moist clear weather, and nourish the plants; so that a firm persuasion has reached the barbarians that here are the Elysian Plains and the abode of the Happy which Homer has celebrated in song. Sertorius, hearing this description, was seized with a strong desire to dwell in the islands, and to live in quiet, free from tyranny and never-ending wars.” The latter to reference to Homer concerns this passage from The Odyssey: “As for your own end, Menelaus, you shall not die in Argos, but the gods will take you to the Elysian plain, which is at the ends of the world. There fair-haired Rhadamanthus reigns, and men lead an easier life than any where else in the world, for in Elysium there falls not rain, nor hail, nor snow, but Oceanus breathes ever with a West wind that sings softly from the sea, and gives fresh life to all men.”

The Islands of the Blessèd were, then, indeed a terrestrial paradise, where Adam’s curse was redeemed, commuted, dismissed: Genesis 3:17-19: “And unto Adam [God] said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;  Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;  In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” So often did Frost write poems about the “that other fall they name the fall” (as he puts it in “The Oven Bird“) that I’ve half a mind to include “An Answer” in the small anthology that might be made of them.

But the mischief I’ve spoken of, and which Pritchard’s lecture brought home to this epigram of a poem, only begins with questions that might be asked about whom this “answer” is given to, and in what context. No, the real mischief comes in that second line, which admits of two readings, one colloquial and profane, the other neither. “Blessed” is often used in an ironic sense, colloquially, to mean precisely the opposite of what it lexically means (so to speak). “I never came upon a blessèd one” can mean “I never came upon a goddamned one.” Cf., for example, the Oxford English Dictionary, definition 5, of “blessed”: “Euphemistically or ironically used for ‘cursed’ or the like. 1806 13 Sept. in Brewer WINDHAM Let. in Speeches (1812) I. 77 As one of the happy consequences of our blessed system of printing debates, I am described to-day as having talked a language directly the reverse of that which I did talk. 1865 tr. Spohr’s Autobiog. I. 221 The whole of the members must attend every blessed evening in the theatre.” Curiously, J.E. Lighter offers no entry for “blessed” in the latter ironic sense—cursed, or goddamned—in his Historical Dictionary of American Slang (or in any other sense), nor does H.L. Mencken in his American Language; perhaps they regarded it as chiefly British. But I have myself certainly heard it often enough in American speech, and Frost doubtless draws on “blessed” in its ironic sense here, or at the very least lets it hang there, suspended, equivocal. And here it may help the reader unacquainted with Frost to know a little of what his life had been like in the decade before A Witness Tree appeared in 1942. In 1934, his beloved daughter Marjorie died of child-bed fever after a six-week battle against the infection, which at times, as Frost and his wife attended her bedside, drove her to delirium. Then in 1938 the poet’s wife Elinor died. Hard upon that came the suicide of his son Carol, a victim of paranoid schizophrenia (the disease that had bound Frost’s sister Jeannie in the State Hospital for the Insane at Augusta Maine some 20 years earlier, where she lived until her own death).

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Title Page and frontispiece, "A Witness Tress" (1942)

And as if these serial blows were not enough, Frost’s daughter Irma had by this time begun to manifest symptoms of the same disease. Bear in mind what the poet says in his 1935 “Letter” to The Amherst Student: ““The background is hugeness and confusion shading away from where we stand into black and utter chaos; and against the background any small man-made figure of order and concentration. What pleasanter than that this should be so?” Small, “man-made” figures of order are all we have and all we need. Poems, for example. Don’t go looking for divine “figures” of order; and don’t regret that there are none. “Fill full your cup, feel no distress; ’tis only one more thought the less” (as Hardy would say). However it is in some other world, there’s not a blessed [i.e., goddamned] redemptive place in this one, and rarely even a blessed hour, for that matter. Remember the name of the book in which “An Answer” appears, which is accounted for in its first poem, “Beech”:

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Frost, in his later years.

Where my imaginary line
Bends square in woods, an iron spine
And pile of real rocks have been founded.
And off this corner in the wild,
Where these are driven in and piled,
One tree, by deeply wounded,
Has been impressed as Witness Tree
And made commit to memory
My proof of being not unbounded.
Thus truth’s established and borne out,
Though circumstanced with dark and doubt—
Though by a world of doubt surrounded.

And bear in mind that before the reader ever reaches “An Answer,” with its equivocal, tough-minded bitterness (if such it may be called), he has read that “happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length”; and he has read of how

‘Twas Age imposed on poems
Their gather-roses burden
To warn against the danger
That overtaken lovers
From being over-flooded
With happiness should have it
And yet not know they have it.
But bid life seize the present?
It lives less in the present
Than in the future always,
And less in both together
Than in the past. The present
Is too much for the senses,
Too crowding, too confusing—
Too present to imagine.

And he has read also this:

I have been one no dwelling could contain
When there was rain;
But I must forth at dusk, my time of day,
To see to the unburdening of the skies.
Rain was the tears adopted by my eyes
That have none left to stay.

And this:

Oh, we make a boast of storing
Of saving and of keeping,
But only by ignoring
The waste of moments sleeping,
The waste of pleasure weeping,
By denying and ignoring
The waste of nations warring.

And of course he has read also of that “Rabbit Hunter,” “lurking” with “gun depressed,” facing “alone” the alder swamps “ghastly snow-white,” and all the better “to deal a death” to his prey that neither “he nor it (nor I) / Have wit to comprehend.” And then, as if that were not enough already, the reader will have encountered this poem, titled “A Question”:

A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.

To which, of course, Arthur Schopenhauer would answer without hesitation: “No. It was far too much to pay.” But to which America’s supposed cracker-barrel philosopher-bard, Robert Frost, makes answer—or anyway “an” answer—in the equivocally cracker-barrel idiom of the poem I began this entry by reading: “Islands of the Blessèd? Son, well, here’s hoping you find one. Because the Lord knows I never came across a goddamned one.”

N.B.: Incidentally, I think it not entirely impossible—though fairly unlikely—that “son” in “An Answer” may include, in its address, the poet’s own son Carol Frost, whose suicide in 1940 followed upon several years of unendurable suffering. In which case, “An Answer” might have among its meanings a kind of eulogy: “But Islands of the Blessèd, bless you, son. Your father never came across a cursed one.” A Witness Tree (1942) is under copyright; the text of it is not available on-line. But for a link to readings of poems from Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will, click here. And for links to digitally scanned facsimiles Frost’s first three books click here, and here, and here.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tito permalink
    November 22, 2009 11:14 PM

    The Islands of the Blessed also appear in Breton, Cornish and Irish stories. It is interesting to reflect that even in Japan there was a belief amongst certain sects of Buddhism that far to the southwest lay Fudaraku (Sanskrit: Potalaka), a land of immortality presided over by Kannon (Avalokitesvara), which monks would sometimes actually try to reach by casting themselves off in a boat with a sail from the coast of Kumano in Wakayama, to surrender to the whim of the waves and currents, praying all the while. It was, for sure, a way of leaving this world and finding another.

    • November 23, 2009 4:30 AM

      Fascinating. Thank you, Tito (aka SG), for this. I knew none of these things, only the Greek angle of it (more or less, let’s say).

      The “two world” theory of, well, things beneath and above the moon, things merely apparent and actually Real, things locked in Time and untouchable by Time, things of the Body and things of the Soul, is so utterly pervasive amongst homo sapiens sapiens.

      Let me have a crack at St. Paul, who took his slightly Platonized thinking from the Greeks, and lay it at his doorstep for mere convenience, because he formulated it so clearly, late-comer to the whole business though he was. He simply pointed to his body and said, in effect, “This is not the Real Me.” Romans 7:14-25: “For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.”

      The Schopenhaurian/Nietzschean reply to all this would be: Well, nothing but the fear of total annihilation of “personality” lies behind it all.

      I guess I prefer to take Richard Dawkins’ way out. We can say “No” to vitality “in principle,” and then move on both to the terminal pleasures of being alive, and to the responsibility of entering upon what Dawkins calls “a conspiracy of doves,” so as to relieve the suffering that being alive always also entails.

      But I guess I begin to make Dawkins sound like either an Epicurean in the classic sense, or a primitive, “4-noble-truths” sort of Buddhist. He’d chide me for my license & imprecision. So consider me self-chidden in his stead.

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