Everything rides on—everything depends on—its own melting.
My last post but one had to do with a short poem of Frost’s. This one, which is quite longer than most in The Era of Casual Fridays, deals with his prose, and with prose style more generally—in which latter I have been schooled chiefly by Morris Croll, as will become clear.
Frost himself is on record about his prose style. “Some of my first thinking about my own language,” he said in 1959, “was certainly Emersonian. ‘Cut these sentences and they bleed,’ he says. I am not submissive enough to want to be a follower, but he had me there. I never got over that.” Frost quotes this phrase—“Cut these sentences and they bleed”—from memory. It occurs in Emerson’s essay on “Montaigne,” collected in Representative Men. The allusion suggests somethingabout Frost’s own sentences, and about his affiliations as a writer of prose, which extend back through Emerson, as it happens, to Montaigne and his 16th and 17th century contemporaries. I have in mind what is sometimes called the “anti-Ciceronian” style in English prose; it has also been called “attic” and “baroque.” The labels don’t matter here. Suffice it to say that they point to the sort of prose that Francis Bacon, Montaigne, Sir Thomas Browne, and Ben Jonson wrote—all differences allowed for. They were reacting against a school of writing that modeled itself on the grand style of Cicero. Ciceronian prose is characterized by carefully constructed “periods,” or “periodic sentences” as we now say. These periods are highly subordinated, or “hypotactic.” Sentences turn on complex logical hinges: if/then and not/but constructions, for example. We find in them a high incidence of subordinating conjunctions (that, where, while, though, as, and so on), and also of relative pronouns like “which.” The syntax of the sentences, and of the phrasing within the sentences, often organizes itself neatly into parallelisms and antitheses (patterns known to rhetoricians as “schemes”). The result is typically a long sentence, or series of sentences, in which each part or member is related deliberately and painstakingly to the whole; each constituent part has its place, and no constituent part is out of place. The effect is orderly and hierarchical, and also highly premeditated; every sentence seems to know its end, even as it begins, as does every paragraph, and in fact every essay. The style suits oratory, and public, or “communal,” settings; it implies declamation.
Over against this style arose the “anti-Ciceronian” movement, in which Montaigne in France, and Bacon and Browne in England, took part. They sought a more private and intimate style, faithful much more to the movements of conversation & thought than to those of oratory. The result is “probative” (as Bacon called it) or even provocative; it is good at opening questions, but shows little interest in closing them. The state of mind implied is at once acute in its attention, precise in its inflection, and cavalier in its disregard for discipline, regularity, and tradition. The “anti-Ciceronian” style answers to the difficult experience of seeking after truth, rather than to the affirmation or contemplation of it. It is a modern style, self-consciously associated—especially in Bacon—with the “new science” of the 17th century, with its empirical and experimental air. The periods (the sentences and paragraphs) are paratactic rather than hypotactic. Coordinating conjunctions replace subordinating ones. Often anti-Ciceronian writers dispense with conjunctions or ligatures of any kind. Nothing binds the sentences, or members of the sentences, into larger structures. Whereas the Ciceronian manner favors schemes of sound and balance (antithesis, parallelism, alliteration, anaphora), the anti-Ciceronian style favors schemes of wit: metaphor, paradox, irony. The effect is often a remarkable condensation and brevity. Sentences unfold in mercurial and ever-changing moods that hardly seems premeditated at all. The diction is often, but not always, vernacular, or even homely. Writers in this mode, very far from fearing obscurity, often not only tolerate but court it. Literary historians call the style “anti-Ciceronian” because men like Bacon and Montaigne were consciously combating the defects, as they saw it, of an educational program built on imitation of Cicero. The new style is also called “Attic,” to emphasize its difference from the “Asian” pomp and splendor (so-called) of the “grand” or “noble” style. At other times the style is called “baroque,” when the emphasis is on its more dynamic and energetic features.
Here is Emerson in “Experience” (1844):
Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again. Did our birth fall in some fit of indigence and frugality in nature, that she was so sparing of her fire and so liberal of her earth, that it appears to us that we lack the affirmative principle, and though we have health and reason, yet we have no superfluity of spirit for new creation? We have enough to live and bring the year about, but not an ounce to impart or to invest. Ah that our Genius were a little more of a genius! We are like millers on the lower levels of a stream, when the factories above them have exhausted the water. We too fancy that the upper people must have raised their dams.
Notice how loose the “logic” of the paragraph is. The elements of it—the sentences—are related in theme, and at times in imagery. But they are not related by subordination; nothing holds them firmly in their order. Consider how easy it is to set the sentences in some other sequence. It hardly upsets the sense of the paragraph at all:
Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again. All things swim and glitter. Did our birth fall in some fit of indigence and frugality in nature, that she was so sparing of her fire and so liberal of her earth, that it appears to us that we lack the affirmative principle, and though we have health and reason, yet we have no superfluity of spirit for new creation? We have enough to live and bring the year about, but not an ounce to impart or to invest. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Ah that our Genius were a little more of a genius! We are like millers on the lower levels of a stream, when the factories above them have exhausted the water. We too fancy that the upper people must have raised their dams.
A careful reader of my “deranged” version of the paragraph would likely form the impression that something is amiss in it. But I doubt even the sharpest reader would be able to sort the elements out again to arrive at the original. Morris Croll describes the sort of prose we are dealing with very well. “The first member” or element of a paragraph such as this, says the great Croll, is “likely to be a self-contained and complete statement of the whole idea.” Writers in this style, he explains, “avoid prearrangements and preparations; they begin, as Montaigne puts it, at the point aimed at. The first member therefore exhausts the mere fact of the idea; logically there is nothing more to say. But it does not exhaust its imaginative truth or the energy of its conception. It is followed, therefore, by other members, each with a new tone or emphasis, each expressing a new apprehension of the truth expressed in the first.” And so it is with “Experience”: “Where do we find ourselves?”—the first member—somehow says it all.
Examples of this sort of thing occur throughout Frost’s best prose. Following is his brief essay on Amy Lowell, together with my own derangement of its sequence.
Frost’s original: It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound—that he will never get over it. That is to say, permanence in poetry as in love is perceived instantly. It hasn’t to await the test of time. The proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but that we knew at sight that we never could forget it. There was a barb to it and a toxin that we owned to at once. How often I have heard it in the voice and seen it in the eyes of this generation that Amy Lowell had lodged poetry with them to stay. The most exciting movement in nature is not progress, advance, but expansion and contraction, the opening and shutting of the eye, the hand, the heart, the mind. We throw our arms wide with a gesture of religion to the universe; we close them around a person. We explore and adventure for a while and then we draw in to consolidate our gains. The breathless swing is between subject matter and form. Amy Lowell was distinguished in a period of dilation when poetry, in the effort to include a larger material, stretched itself almost to the breaking of the verse. Little ones with no more apparatus than a teacup looked on with alarm. She helped make it stirring times for a decade to those immediately
My derangement: The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound—that he will never get over it. There was a barb to it and a toxin that we owned to at once. That is to say, permanence in poetry as in love is perceived instantly. It hasn’t to await the test of time. The proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but that we knew at sight that we never could forget it. It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. How often I have heard it in the voice and seen it in the eyes of this generation that Amy Lowell had lodged poetry with them to stay. The most exciting movement in nature is not progress, advance, but expansion and contraction, the opening and shutting of the eye, the hand, the heart, the mind. We explore and adventure for a while and then we draw in to consolidate our gains. The breathless swing is between subject matter and form. We throw our arms wide with a gesture of religion to the universe; we close them around a person. Amy Lowell was distinguished in a period of dilation when poetry, in the effort to include a larger material, stretched itself almost to the breaking of the verse. Little ones with no more apparatus than a teacup looked on with alarm. She helped make it stirring times for a decade to those immediately concerned with art and to many not so immediately. The water in our eyes from her poetry is water flung cold, bright and many-colored from flowers gathered in her formal garden in the morning; it is not warm with any suspicion of tears. Her Imagism lay chiefly in images to the eye. She flung flowers and everything there. Her poetry was forever a clear resonant calling off of things seen.
There is a limit to experiments like these. But they reveal something important. Frost’s prose is never highly subordinated. Its schemes are not those of logic or close deliberation. We seldom find subordinating conjunctions or relative pronouns in his sentences. He hardly uses conjunctions of any kind, even coordinating conjunctions. The logic, as Frost himself said, speaking of his poetry, is more “felt” than “seen ahead.” Following is a counter-example in the Ciceronian style from Samuel Johnson‘s Rambler. I’ve highlighted in color a few of the more striking instances of rhetorical “schemes” (parallelisms, etc.), as I will do also below with several more examples of highly schematic (or patterned) prose.
That the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time, now in our power, to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us, has been frequently remarked; and as this practice is a commodious subject of raillery to the gay, and of declamation to the serious, it has been ridiculed with all the pleasantry of wit, and exaggerated with all the amplifications of rhetoric. Every instance, by which its absurdity might appear most flagrant, has been studiously collected; it has been marked with every epithet of contempt, and all the tropes and figures have been called forth against it.
Notice that a hypotactic, or highly subordinated style, involves a writer in somewhat longer sentences. The style implies considerable premeditation. Here the “subject” of the sentence is a matched pair of dependent clauses beginning with “that.” Each long sentence, such as the first one in this paragraph, must somehow “know” its end, even as it begins. Every member has reference to the whole. Sentences of this kind are often called “periodic” or “suspended” sentences. They abound in Samuel Johnson. Related to the highly elaborated structure we are talking about here are the “schemes,” as rhetoricians used to call them: well-marked patterns in structure, syntax, and sound. Examples include parallelism, antithesis, alliteration, anaphora, and so on (click on these terms when first they appear above for such illustrative definitions as Wikipedia provides). The most highly patterned or “schematic” prose ever written in English dates from the second half of the 16th century. I am thinking of the so-called “euphuistic” style of John Lyly.
There dwelt in Athens a young gentleman of great patrimony, and of so comely a personage, that it was doubted whether he were more bound to Nature for the lineaments of his person, or to Fortune for the increase of his possessions. But Nature impatient of comparisons, and as it were disdaining a companion or co-partner in her working, added to this comeliness of his body such a sharp capacity of mind, that not only she proved Fortune counterfeit, but was half of that opinion that she herself was only current. This young gallant, of more wit than wealth, and yet of more wealth than wisdom, seeing himself inferior to none in pleasant conceits, thought himself superior to all in honest conditions, insomuch that he deemed himself so apt to all things, that he gave himself almost to nothing, but practicing of those things commonly which are incident to these sharp wits, fine phrases, smooth quipping, merry taunting, using jesting without mean, and abusing mirth without measure. As therefore the sweetest rose hath his prickle, the finest velvet his brack, the fairest flower his bran, so the sharpest wit hath his wanton will, and the holiest head his wicked way. And true it is that some men write and most men believe, that in all perfect shapes, a blemish bringeth rather a liking every way to the eyes, than a loathing any way to the mind.
Harry, I do not only marvel where thou spendest thy time; but also, how thou art accompanied: For though the chamomile, the more it is troden, the faster it grows; yet Youth, the more it is wasted, the sooner it wears. That thou art my son: I have partly thy mother’s word, partly my opinion; but chiefly, a villainous trick of thine eye, and a foolish hanging of thy nether lip, that doth warrant me. If then thou be son to me, here lyeth the point: why, being son to me, art thou so pointed at? Shall the blessed son of Heaven prove a micher, and eat blackberries?—a question not to be asked. Shall the son of England prove a thief, and take purses?—a question to be asked. There is a thing, Harry, which thou hast often heard of, and it is known to many in our land, by the name of pitch: this pitch (as ancient writers do report) doth defile; so doth the company thou keepest: for Harry, now I do not speak to thee in drink, but in tears; not in pleasure, but in passion; not in words only, but in woes also.
Often, highly patterned sentences such as we find in the euphuistic style accompany the expansive hypotactic “period.” This is especially so in formal oratory, to which both styles are well suited. Here is Lincoln at Gettysburg, doing it to perfection:
The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Structures of this kind focus the attention and aid memory. They are also pleasing in themselves. Orators love them. They are public, communal. In fact, this style, in the hands of a man like Lincoln can re-build a nation, re-formulate a nation. For which reason, as is often pointed out, his one-minute speech overshadowed Edward Everett’s 2-hour oration—which was to have been the main show at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery—as Mount Everest does a mole-hill.
Frost almost never relies on parallelism and antithesis. Perhaps the closest he comes is in such sentences as the following, from “The Figure a Poem Makes”: “Abstraction is an old story with the philosophers, but it has been like a new toy in the hands of the artists of our day.” “Old story” is set against “new toy,” as “philosophers” offsets “artists.” But the effect is muted, to say the least, and the sentences that follow are a study in contrast. Frost’s sentences unfold in a manner more organic than architectural. There’s an undisciplined air about him. Partly this is an effect of parataxis; namely, a style in which there is little or no subordination at all. The standard textbook illustration of parataxis is the series “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Here’s a passage from “The Prerequisites,” which Frost published in the New York Times Book Review in 1954. He refers to Emerson’s poem “Brahma.”
Some sixty years ago a young reader ran into serious trouble with the blind last stanza of a poem otherwise perfectly intelligible. The interest today might be in what he then did about it. He simply left it to shift for itself. He might see to it if he ever saw it again. He guessed he was no more anxious to understand the poem than the poem was to be understood. He might have gone to college for help. But he had just left college to improve his mind if he had any. Or he might have gone to Asia. The whole poem smacked of Asia. He suspected a whole religion behind it different from the one he was brought up to. But as he was no traveler except on foot he must have gone by way of the Bering Strait when frozen over and that might have taken him an epoch from East to West as it had the Indians from West to East.
To the eye the paragraph looks repetitive and static in its movement. “He might see,” “He guessed,” “He might have gone,” “Or he might have gone,” “He suspected.” But the lack of variety, the sameness, is merely apparent. In fact, these sentences—as Frost puts it elsewhere of Emerson’s—“may look tiresomely alike, short and with short words.” And “yet [they] turn out as calling for all sorts of ways of being said aloud or in the mind’s ear.” Notice how the essay seems almost casually to stumble on what it wants to say, with colloquial vigor: “He might have gone to college for help. But he had just left college to improve his mind if he had any. Or he might have gone to Asia. The whole poem smacked of Asia. He suspected a whole religion behind it different from the one he was brought up to.”
What have I been suggesting? That in sensibility, and in style, Frost is closer by far to the prose of the great writers of the 17th century—Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, and Thomas Browne—than to his own contemporaries. Frost tells us as much not simply by singling out Emerson as his model, but by choosing to quote, when he singles Emerson out, a passage from an essay on Montaigne. Before going further into “The Figure a Poem Makes” I’ll offer up one more example, this time from Bacon.
What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. Certainly there be, that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free will in thinking, as well as in acting. And though the sects of philosophers of that kind be gone, yet there remain certain discoursing wits, which are of the same veins, though there be not so much blood in them, as was in those of the ancients. But it is not only the difficulty and labor, which men take in finding out of truth, nor again, that when it is found, it imposeth upon men’s thoughts, that doth bring lies in favor; but a natural, though corrupt love, of the lie itself. One of the later school of the Grecians, examineth the matter, and is at a stand, to think what should be in it, that men should love lies; where neither they make for pleasure, as with poets, nor for advantage, as with the merchant; but for the lie’s sake. But I cannot tell; this same truth, is a naked, and open day-light, that doth not show the masks, and mummeries, and triumphs, of the world, half so stately and daintily as candle-lights. Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond, or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds, of a number of men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?
The sentences, and the clauses within the sentences, vary greatly in length. They vary also in mood. There are questions both open and closed. We find a high incidence of “logical” ligatures and conjunctions: though/yet, not/but, and so on. But the effect is never one of orderly premeditation, or of “hypotaxis,” as in the example given above from Johnson. Bacon did not consider the nature of “truth” and then decide how best to present it. He gives instead a record of a mind engaged in the act of thinking about what “truth” might be. He will not stay. He delights in giddiness. He counts it a bondage to fix belief. He isn’t even sound in his morals: “A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure.” His purpose is less to teach us what to think than to show us how to think—or even better, to show us one man thinking. The characteristic utterance is: “But I cannot tell.”
But now, “The Figure a Poem Makes.” The first paragraph is characteristic.
Abstraction is an old story with the philosophers, but it has been like a new toy in the hands of the artists of our day. Why can’t we have any one quality of poetry we choose by itself? We can have in thought. Then it will go hard if we can’t in practice. Our lives for it.
Five sentences, varying in length from four words to twenty-five. The first is neatly turned, as I pointed out above. The parallel syntax of its two elements points the contrast between philosophers and artists; for the one “abstraction” is an “old story,” for the other it’s a “new toy.” This syntactical “scheme” is more strongly felt than the voice. But in the next four sentences all we hear is the speaking voice. The phrasing is lean. There are no excess words, no ligatures that might express the logic of argument. All of that Frost dispenses with in a trice, in favor of colloquiality. He drops into a racier phrasing (“it will go hard”), and into vivid sentence sounds that we nonetheless don’t know quite how to hear: “Our lives for it.” Mockery? Irony? This is the so-called “curt” style at its best. The expression “it will go hard” adds the slightest savor of the archaic. The idiom had its day in the 16th and 17th centuries, and is familiar to most 20th century American ears from reading Shakespeare.
Frost’s prose is often touched with effects like this. Again, notice how everything said in this first paragraph is already said in its first sentence. The four succeeding ones merely restate the matter, this time relying on the vividness of animated conversation to make the point rather than on quiet antithesis and parallel syntax. Frost speaks as if in the voice of the childish “artists of our day,” impatient in their habits of “abstraction,” and prepared to give their “lives for it.” Frost’s first-person “our” includes these artists, but excludes himself; he is not speaking in propria persona. All the while his refutation of these modern abstractionists is registered in a tone that makes a mockery of their conviction.
Granted no one but a humanist much cares how sound a poem is if it is only a sound. The sound is the gold in the ore. Then we will have the sound out alone and dispense with the inessential. We do till we make the discovery that the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other, and the resources for that of vowels, consonants, punctuation, syntax, words, sentences, meter are not enough. We need the help of context—meaning—subject matter. That is the greatest help towards variety. All that can be done with words is soon told. So also with meters—particularly in our language where there are virtually but two, strict iambic and loose iambic. The ancients with many were still poor if they depended on meters for all tune. It is painful to watch our sprung‑rhythmists straining at the point of omitting one short from a foot for relief from monotony. The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited meter are endless. And we are back in poetry as merely one more art of having something to say, sound or unsound. Probably better if sound, because deeper and from wider experience.
That first sentence is typical. Frost implies an argument about (and with) “humanist” aesthetics, but never states it. He gestures toward the argument with a knowing air. He flatters the reader with the assumption, apparently, that she needs no explanation. Behind the quip (presumably) lies a whole body of debate in the 1920s and 1930s, in which “humanists” like Irving Babbitt, Norman Foerster, Stuart Sherman and Paul Elmer More figured. And yet I think it fair to say that all one gathers from Frost’s remark is that he here pretends to hold in contempt something called, in the late 1930s, “humanism,” and that he simply assumes the reader’s complicity. Well, yes; point granted, Mr. Frost. Still, I have never satisfied myself that I understand whom, precisely, Frost hits, and at what points Frost hits him (or her). And isn’t the question a bit of red herring? Frost speaks as if “humanism” were known chiefly, or at least in some significant part, for the positions it took on questions of poetics, when this was not at all the case. The concerns of the New Humanists lay for the most part elsewhere. I doubt whether anything like a consensus existed among them as to the place of “sound” in poetry. And what of the “humanism” of William James, with which we know Frost to have been in accord? Anyhow, the total effect is typical of the style I have been describing. Arguments are made with such condensation as to risk obscurity. Exposition is not the point. Perhaps Frost cares more about the felt effect of complicity than about any basis for it in persuasive argument. But of course we want to be the sort of readers Frost can depend upon to stipulate that, well, no one but a humanist cares how sound a poem is if it is only a sound. Evoking that sensation may be a goal. Frost leaves us with the highly dubious feeling that we are capable of understanding him. There’s mischief, and not a little flirtation, in his style. Better to call this “un-Ciceronian” than “anti-Ciceronian.”
But let no one assume that Frost is ridiculing the sort of aesthete who writes and reads poetry merely for the sounds poems make—merely for “pure” sound. In fact, there’s no disagreement as to ends, here. The stated object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from one another. Any disagreement has to do with means, not ends. Frost is as pure as the purest humanist in that regard, if “humanist” is the right word. “Theme,” “subject matter,” “meaning”: by no means are these the “end” or “purpose” of a poem. They are merely three more resources among the many a poet has at his disposal for making “sounds.” Harmonized vowels and consonants, meter, rhyme—these just aren’t enough. So whatever the beef with “humanists” is, it cannot be that they care too much about sound—about “the gold in the ore.” Which leaves me, as I say, in suspension as to the argument I’m supposed to have with humanism, and with all other “modern abstractionists.” Because Frost is a very refined abstractionist. Nothing in “The Figure a Poem Makes” qualifies, let along contradicts, what he tells John Bartlett in a 1913 letter: “The sound of sense, then. You get that. It is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound—pure form. One who concerns himself with it more than the subject is an artist.” And so we arrive at the point where theme and technique merge—at the point where the “subject” and the “enterprise” of poetry merge; the point where what the poem is about and how the poem works amount to the same thing; in short, at the point where the “subject matter” of a poem becomes merely another resource for making it sound different from every other poem ever written. Who knows? Maybe Frost is a “humanist” after all. He wants the gold in the ore. He wants “pure sound—pure form.” It’s just that he sees, practical poet that he is, how the only way to the gold is through the “ore” of “context—meaning—subject matter.”
Except that the matter is not so simple. Something queer happens. “The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited meter are endless,” says Frost. “And we are back in poetry as merely one more art of having something to say, sound or unsound. Probably better if sound, because deeper and from wider experience.” Now, “sound” means something like “sane” or “wise,” and sanity and wisdom most certainly have to do with “meaning.” Not even the most arrant humanist could object to a concern with meaning. Which leaves me asking: Is poetry or is poetry not an art of “having something to say”? There is something Sibylline (in the O.E.D. sense of “oracular, occult, mysterious”), something feline, about Frost. He is as reassuring and accessible in manner as he is recessive and subtle in thought. Frost is past-master at what I like to call “mock reasonableness.” “There now, you see? What could be clearer? Poetry is simply the art of having something to say—preferably, something sound and deep to say, but I won’t insist on the matter.” Who could object to that? What saves us, here, from platitude? And I’m not sure the punning is fair play. We have been trying to sort out the proper relation of “sound” to “meaning.” Now, the central term of the discussion is used intentionally to confuse the two things—“sound or unsound.” On the other hand, the point is that the “soundness” of wisdom is, after all, merely a “resource” for making “sounds” in a poem. The circuit of content and form is closed. How better to illustrate the idea than with a pun? However that may be, Frost relies much more on wit, play, irony, and intimation in this essay than on argument.
Frost remarks in a talk at Bread Loaf in the mid 1940s: “I once ventured to put in prose this sentence, that nobody but a humanist cares how sound a poem is if it’s only a sound. I defended it. I went into a class one time and the humanist teacher had written this sentence on the board. He told me to defend it. When I got through one hour of trying to puzzle him, he said to me, ‘You’re a humanist.’ Does wisdom matter? Does it matter whether you’re right or wrong? Does that make any difference in poetry? The important poem is one that performs on a high plane of wisdom-unwisdom. It’s up there where the big things are. It only matters that it’s wisdom-unwisdom. Your wisdom is my unwisdom” (cf. The Collected Prose of Robert Frost, page 295). Frost by no means clearly distinguishes himself from the “humanist” he appears to chide. Say what you will about him, Frost is cagey in his positions. Give him the chance and he’ll spend an hour trying to puzzle you. “Does it matter whether you are right or wrong?” he asks. The answer appears to be that it doesn’t matter. Frost has a way of keeping all his irons in the fire. My point? The reader is forgiven if he has a hard time “placing” Frost in “The Figure a Poem Makes.” Frost operates on “a high plane of wisdom-unwisdom,” or of “humanism-unhumanism,” where in any case opposed terms merge: content is form, sound is sense. In philosophy, of course, we call this style of thinking “dialectical”; in other contexts we speak of paradox. Frost continues:
Then there is this wildness whereof it is spoken. Granted again that it has an equal claim with sound to being a poem’s better half. If it is a wild tune, it is a poem. Our problem then is, as modern abstractionists, to have the wildness pure; to be wild with nothing to be wild about. We bring up as aberrationists, giving way to undirected associations and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper. Theme alone can steady us down. Just as the first mystery was how a poem could have a tune in such a straightness as meter, so the second mystery is how a poem can have wildness and at the same time a subject that shall be fulfilled.
I have spoken of the “colloquiality” of Frost’s style. In this paragraph we hear again what distinguishes this colloquiality: the ingredient in it of a phrasing by turns oddly formal, and by turns ever so slightly archaic. For example, here is a sentence heard as in animated conversation: “Then there is this wildness whereof it is spoken.” Frost catches perfectly the tone of knowing impatience. Yet the effect depends on the way the colloquiality of the remark inhabits a grammar elevated ever so slightly above the conversational: the “whereof”; the polite disinclination, marked by a passive construction, to specify the party who speaks so tediously, it would appear, of this “wildness.” And then he says this: “We bring up as aberrationists, giving way to undirected associations and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper.” “We bring up as”: I do not believe I have ever encountered this construction; I have certainly never encountered it often. “Bring” should be transitive; so should the phrase “bring up.” “Come up” is the idiom felt here, I think; anyway the sense is that we “bring ourselves up,” “bring ourselves out,” “bring ourselves forth.” Curiosities of phrasing such as this occasionally led editors to correct Frost’s prose; but when they did, he corrected them back. He wanted the savor of something slightly odd in his prose. And what can it mean to say that we “bring up as aberrationists”—that is, in the way that “aberrationists” “bring up”? “Aberration” is from the Latin “aberratio,” “to stray.”
But we might as well call “aberrationist” what it is: a novelty, an aberration from usage, coined for the purpose of suggesting that some poets make a cult of their own aberrations. (Frost makes the same point somewhat differently in the preface he wrote for E.A. Robinson’s King Jasper.) “Kicking ourselves” is almost ambiguous in grammar, meaning in the first instance, of course, “propelling ourselves,” but in the second instance—and more figuratively, in illustration of the futility here imagined—“booting ourselves about,” as we might a tin can. All these things together impart a slight air of strangeness to Frost’s prose. But the essay with which he here have to do soon becomes stranger still. “The second mystery,” Frost says, “is how a poem can have wildness and at the same time a subject that shall be fulfilled.”
It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion. It has denouement. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood—and indeed from the very mood. It is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last. It finds its own name as it goes and discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase at once wise and sad—the happy‑sad blend of the drinking song.
I often pass over the first of these sentences without noticing how odd its grammar actually is. “It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can.” That first “it” is what linguists call an “ambient pronoun,” as when we say “it rains.” The antecedent of the second “it” is “poem.” But exactly who or what “tells” how a poem can be at once wild and fulfilled of its subject? “It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell.” Neither the poem, nor the pleasure, but something “of” the pleasure does the telling. I am not sure what that means, whether the poem somehow takes pleasure in telling us what it somehow knows, or whether part of the pleasure we take in poetry lies in the telling of how it has its subject fulfilled.
You might object that I am quibbling, or finding a problem where none exists. “The figure a poem makes” has to be the subject of which the next sentence is the predicate; it is not that a poem begins in delight, but that “the figure a poem makes” does. Frost lays down the antecedent of the pronoun “it” in the form of a clause: “the figure [that] a poem makes.” The poem makes a “figure” that begins in delight. The point is that “figure” here means something almost athletic, something that transpires in time, as the “figure” an ice-skater “makes” does. The strangeness of Frost’s phrasing, which has about it the air of a peculiarly deliberate sort of musing, startles us, or should, into a freshened awareness of what we might mean in speaking of the “figure” of poetry. The deliberation we feel in the plain statement “The figure a poem makes,” placed in our hands, as it were, to be weighed, pondered; the musing we feel in the queerness of what goes before and comes after. Among other things, we have to un-tether ourselves from the usual sense given “figure” in talk about poetry: “figure” as idiom, or as “figure of speech”; or as metaphor (as in the word “figurative”); or as design, pattern, or motif (as when we speak of the “figure” in a tapestry, or of a pattern of “imagery” so-called in a poem or a play). We have to open ourselves up to the athletic and diachronic meanings of the word (“figures” unfold in time; “No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place”); and also to the idea that the “figuring” in poems is also a special from of thinking, or cogitation—an effort opening out, in time, toward understanding, toward “clarification.”
Frost might have said all these things as I am saying them now. But of course he didn’t; he said them better, in a way more faithful to the experience of discovery engaged in but never fixed. He prefers—if I may borrow again the words of Morris Croll—“the forms that express the energy and labor of minds seeking the truth, not without dust and heat, to the forms that express a contented sense of the enjoyment and possession of it.” I borrow those words from an essay about 17th century English prose, but they apply as well to Frost’s.
“The Figure a Poem Makes” is an account of the psychology of discovery; it also affords its reader the experience of discovery. Notice how the paragraph moves, less by logic of argument than by accretion and addition. The central idea is six times restated, each time with slight differences in terms and in emphasis: a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom; it begins in delight and inclines to the impulse; it has denouement; it has an outcome both unforeseen and predestined; it is but a trick poem if its end was conceived with its beginning; it finds its own name. This is a movement we have seen already in Frost’s prose: layered re-description takes the place of sequential argument. The paratactic structure of the paragraph is here as much a matter of thought as of rhetoric. There is paradox: a poem must be both unforeseen and somehow already contained even in its “original mood.” There is equivocation. Or, as I should instead say, nuance: the end of the poem is first said to be “wisdom,” then “a clarification of life” that is “not necessarily a great clarification,” then something as modest as the satisfaction afforded us in the happy-sad blend of a good drinking song. I am hard pressed to say whether very great claims are here made for poetry, or very small ones. The idea seems to be that the lesser satisfactions are, at any rate, all we really have in this veil of tears: “momentary stays against confusion.” For me, that is the height of the essay: Frost redefines “wisdom” negatively as a “momentary stay against confusion,” and then he equates it with a drinking song. Frost’s charm and ease has led many a reader to mistake just how much he is willing to give up of the larger sorts of certainties on which our sects and cults are founded. There is consolation in poetry, but not of the sort religion ever offered. The figure a poem makes is the same as for love, after all; it begins in “ecstasy” and “rides” on “its own melting,” as Frost says. The analogy to sexual consummation is obvious. Lawrance Thompson reports a 1959 conversation on the question of what it means to say that the figure a poem makes is the same as for “love”: “[Frost] said he remembered saying to F.S. Flint in England, long ago, that there was something wrong with a writer who couldn’t get into his subject and screw it to a climax: if you were going to find metaphors for the artistic process in the functions of the body, that was the way you ought to do it. He remembered hearing AE (George Russell) say that all poems were love poems, and he could see how that might be said in the sense that Frost made that remark to Flint, but not otherwise. Of course love was important, but how many different forms love took.” (Cf. The Collected Prose of Robert Frost, page 296.)
This is provocative; the knowledge we come by through poetry is like “carnal knowledge,” as the language of the English Bible has it. The meaning of that idea is obscure, but two things are clear: first, Frost takes us down out of the mind, out of the heaven of pure reason, and into the body, into “the thinking of the body,” as Kenneth Burke might say, in an essay published in his Language as Symbolic Action; and second, Frost asks us to suppose that the satisfying clarifications of our wisdom are never any more permanent than the satisfaction we might take in this or that act of love-making. Our climaxes are also always falls. Our appetite for “knowledge,” carnal and otherwise, can’t be satisfied, nor should we prefer that it be. Committing yourself to a particular idea, Frost suggests, is like making love only once. Few men and women are willing to go that far.
One more word about that “drinking song”: I can’t avoid the suspicion that Frost has a particular drinking song in mind—namely, Thomas Hardy’s “Drinking Song.” In that poem, which is, indeed, modeled on drinking songs, Hardy considers, by turns, every notion on which we in the West have founded our “sects” and “cults,” from antiquity on down; and as he does this he ticks off the serial revolutions that have always thrown us back out of our certainties and into confusion—as when Copernicus de-centered the cosmos, or David Hume exploded the miracles of the New Testament, or Darwin showed how “apes and men” are “blood brethren,” or as Einstein declared that there is “no time, no space, and no motion,” but just “a sort of bending ocean.” Now, what does Hardy say, here, but that all our stays against confusion are momentary, and that we should never ask of any “clarification of life” that it offer secure ground for “sects and cults”? The refrain of this wise and sad “drinking song” is perfectly in harmony with Frost’s intimations in “The Figure a Poem Makes”: “Fill full your cups, feel no distress, / ’Tis only one great thought the less”; “Fill full your cups, feel no distress / At all our great thoughts shrinking less.”
After all, isn’t Frost on record as to that? “The background is hugeness and confusion shading away from where we stand into black and utter chaos,” he says is his “Letter to The Amherst Student”; “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 cups, feel no distress. I have gone about as far into the thinking of the essay as I am prepared to go. But there remain a number of things to discuss about its style.
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing. The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time when taken, and the conclusion is come to that like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere. The line will have the more charm for not being mechanically straight. We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick. Modern instruments of precision are being used to make things crooked as if by eye and hand in the old days.
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” Frost says, and what follows concerns, to be sure, a becoming exchange between the two. I think I understand Frost when he speaks of remembering something he didn’t know he knew, though there is something strange, here, about the idea of “knowing.” The strangeness only deepens. “I am in a place, in a situation,” Frost says, “as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows.” It would be hard to overstate just how odd this notion of materializing from cloud or rising up out of the ground actually is. The ways of memory and thought are so highly idiosyncratic as to defy communication. Here, Frost recurs to the sort of language we use to talk about our dreams: “I am in a place, in a situation,” and “the rest follows.” “The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time when taken, and the conclusion is come to that like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere.” This sentence enlarges the claim, extends it, opens it out to include and implicate us all. The exacting personalism of the account so far given of composition; the weird idiosyncrasy of Frost’s “rising out of the ground”;—all of this resolves itself through an elegantly passive construction (“the conclusion is come to”) into the first-person plural. Frost socializes his art: “like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with.” And yet this too is a passing strange thing to say. Are we really “giants” “hurling experience” ahead of ourselves? Really? And to “pave the future with”?
Let me suggest that Frost has all along been getting at something paradoxical: the poem somehow knows as much as the poet about its purposes; the poem is as much of an agent as the poet. The poem “finds its own name.” The poem “makes the figure.” The poem is wild and tame, irrational and logical, undirected in its associations and directed. How can a poem be both wild and have a subject that shall be fulfilled? asks Frost. “It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can.” Frost’s phrasing is obscure, with its double “of’s” and its reflexive construction (“of the pleasure of the poem itself”). But the obscurity has less to do with any confusion on Frost’s part than with the complexity of the thing described. The difficulty lies in knowing who or what is doing the telling, or who or what is calling the shots. The poet serves at the poem’s pleasure. Let the poem itself speak for the poet, because the poet cannot tell us much about purposes he was unaware of, or about things he didn’t know he knew. He “kicks himself” to his own destinations, his own fulfillments. The revelations of the poem are in fact the poet’s own; the poem gives him over to himself.
Frost is always ready to assume a more or less total responsibility for his destiny. Already at age eighteen, when he began writing what ultimately would become “The Trial By Existence,” collected in his first volume, A Boy’s Will (1913), he told himself that life held nothing for him on the wrack but what he “somehow chose.” His assumption of power is providential, as only befits a giant hurling experience ahead of himself to pave the future with. Frost speaks with Nietzsche‘s Zarathustra: “To re-create all ‘it was’ into a ‘thus I willed it,’” Nietzsche says, “that alone should I call redemption.” Frost’s “unforeseen outcomes” are, he asks as to suppose, “predestined from the first image” of the “original mood” that gave rise to them. As I say, this is difficult, paradoxical. In keeping with the principle laid down that the writer’s tears are the reader’s also, Frost renders his thinking in prose of knotty condensation. Earlier I suggested that Frost—like the great 17th century writers in the “baroque” vein, as Morris Croll describes them—is more faithful to the “energy and labor of minds seeking the truth, not without dust and heat,” than he is to a “contented sense of the enjoyment and possession” of the truth. Like those writers he sometimes obtains “effects of contortion or obscurity” which he hardly regards as faults. “I tell how,” Frost writes, “there may be a better wildness of logic than of inconsequence. But the logic is backward, in retrospect, after the act. It must be more felt than seen ahead like prophecy. It must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader. For it to be that there must have been the greatest freedom of the material to move about in it and to establish relations in it regardless of time and space, previous relation, and everything but affinity.” Frost speaks of a “wildness of logic” that is “better” than the “wildness of inconsequence.” And to be sure, it is hard to see how things follow in these sentences—hard to see just what the “consequence” is. Let us try, for example, to fix pronouns to their antecedents. The “logic” he “tells” must be “more felt than seen ahead like prophecy.” This “logic” must be a “revelation,” or “a series of revelations.” But then, does the “logic” reveal, or does it get revealed? After all, the logic Frost speaks of is only available in retrospect, and the poem is what makes the revelations. Frost moves uncertainly, it would appear, from a feature of the poem—its “logic”—to the poem itself; which is, in fact, a logical error of the sort that treats a part of a thing as the whole, a subset as the set. Is the poem its “logic”? And the wonder (or confusion) only grows, as it becomes very hard indeed to say precisely what “it” is: “It must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader. For it to be that there must have been the greatest freedom of the material to move about in it and to establish relations in it regardless of time and space, previous relation, and everything but affinity.” Here, the “material” of the poem moves “freely” about in the “logic” of the poem, as by its own volition, and establishes relations there “regardless of time and space”—regardless of “everything but affinity.” We have to do here with what I might call a careful looseness of grammar. And if it is not appropriate to the purposes of clear exposition, it is nonetheless appropriate to the curiosities of how a poem makes its figure—to the better wildness of a logic that is more felt than seen ahead—to a mystery the “telling” of which must be “of the pleasure of the poem itself.” The “most precious quality” of a poem “will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it,” Frost tells us in concluding the essay. “Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.” Notice the slight equivocation in the grammar: the poem must “run itself,” as if it were somehow automotive, self-operating, self-moved. And it doesn’t have a meaning so much as “a sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went,” which is to say also, as it “departed,” as it left. Its acutest presence inheres in its vanishing; it “rides on its own melting,” he says, perhaps awakening the colloquial sense of “depends on” latent in the idiom “rides on.” Its ecstasy never stays, and so always bears repeating. Which is to say, after all, that the figure a poem makes is the same as for love.
Where do we find ourselves, then? Taking a cue from Frost’s own remarks, we have traced his style in the prose back through Emerson to the “baroque” or “anti-Ciceronian” writers of the 17th century. The better to understand their enterprise we considered for contrast a few representative passages in the Ciceronian and “euphuistic” veins—prose that is orderly and balanced; highly patterned and neatly subordinated; expansive; well suited to recitation and oratory, and also to the presentation of complete and well-rounded arguments. The Ciceronian style is perfectly adapted to “sects and cults”—to borrow Frost’s phrase;—to public and communal occasions. By contrast the “baroque” style I associate with Frost is private and intimate in its shadings. It resembles conversation more than oratory. It tends toward brevity and condensation, even to the point of obscurity. It has more to do with experiment and discovery than with results. It courts a certain looseness in its grammar and logic. Its clauses and sentences are coordinate, not subordinate (paratactic, not hypotactic). Variety of mood and mode is the rule, and it favors figures of wit such as paradox and metaphor.
One more thing. There is a good deal of political talk in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” and I want to address it in closing. “We prate of freedom,” Frost says. “We call our schools free because we are not free to stay away from them till we are sixteen years of age. I have given up my democratic prejudices and now willingly set the lower classes free to be completely taken care of by the upper classes. Political freedom is nothing to me. I bestow it right and left. All I would keep for myself is the freedom of my material—the condition of body and mind now and then to summons aptly from the vast chaos of all I have lived through.” Frost un-moors the word “freedom” from its accustomed meanings. He puts us in a new relation to it. “Political freedom is nothing to me,” he says, by which he means that it is not his concern as a poet. He has “given up” his “democratic prejudices” and sets the lower classes free to be taken care of by the upper. Most people will see in this a libertarian swipe at the modern welfare state, supposing Frost to regard it as incompatible with liberty. But Frost’s highly personal style—a style private in its bearings, as I say, even to the point of obscurity—is less in keeping with that idea than with the scorn he expresses here for politics of all kinds. What Frost’s style everywhere suggests is this: “I have no stake in public affairs, no stake in the public as such”—which might seem strange, given that he courted the public more than any other poet in the 20th century, but so it is: he knew how to inhabit a public forum & yet “forbid encroachment” (as he once said of E.A. Robinson): “I am an individual actor and have nothing whatsoever to do with larger enterprises.” Frost isn’t interested in getting up, or in getting on, any teams. He never addresses us in the “team spirit,” so to speak; never addresses us in our role as “members” of a “team,” whether “national” or of any other kind. We find in Frost’s writing the very antithesis of the “public” or civic” spirit.
I take Frost at his word. “Political” freedom as such really is nothing to him. The only freedoms he values—the only enterprises he values—are the private ones. “No forms are more engrossing, gratifying, comforting, staying,” Frost said in 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, in his “Letter” to The Amherst Student, “than those lesser ones we throw off, like vortex rings of smoke, all our individual enterprise and needing nobody’s cooperation; a basket, a letter, a garden, a room, an idea, a picture, a poem. For these we haven’t to get a team together before we can play.”
Writers on the left did not take this sort of thing well in the 1930s. Frost struck them as provocative and selfish in his contempt for the more “public” enterprises. They charged him with fiddling while Rome burned. But then again, why wouldn’t the leftists resent him? They are (let us say) Ciceronian in spirit. They are “sectarian” in the best sense of the word. Their concern is with collective action and common goals. They get “teams” together before they “play.” They address the reader more as a “citizen” than as a private person, which, again, is a perfectly Ciceronian thing to do. They move quickly and inevitably from the private realm to the public, from the personal to the political. Whereas Frost always heads the other way, back into privacy, more deeply into personality. And isn’t there an Epicurean turn to “The Figure a Poem Makes,” with its worldly-wise (if understated) air of sensualism—with its investment in the keen (and deeply personal) value of “ecstasy” and “delight”—with its feeling for our origins in “chaos,” and for our “happy-sad” end in “confusion” and “melting”? “More than once I should have lost my soul to radicalism,” Frost says, “if it had been the originality it was mistaken for by its young converts. Originality and initiative are what I ask for my country. For myself the originality need be no more than the freshness of a poem run in the way I have described: from delight to wisdom.” He would privatize everything (though certainly not in the George W. Bush fashion). The freedoms he values as a poet can never really be shared, except perhaps with a lover. That, I take it, is one implication of his resolution of poetry in the more fleeting (and bodily) sorts of ecstasies. “The figure is the same as for love,” he says again, in closing the essay, lest he be misunderstood. Everything rides on—everything depends on—its own melting.