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Our attentions, in “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” are directed away from the befuddled old man and toward the shape Frost gives to the poem that describes him: a graceful, perfectly managed stretch of blank verse.

January 10, 2010

Randall Jarrell, photograph by Paul Bishop, 1956.

Cover of the expanded edition currently in print (University of Florida). Originally published in 1953 by Alfred Knopf.

A relatively short entry, for a change, pertaining to one of the most accomplished lyrics Frost ever wrote in blank verse: “An Old Man’s Winter Night.” In Poetry and the Age, Randall Jarrell, for what it is worth (a great deal), singles this poem out in a short list of lyrics by Frost that everyone ought to know, but that—at the time Jarrell was writing—relatively few people knew, and almost no anthologists had apprehended. I have in mind the following passage from his essay “The Other Frost,” from which I shall quote at length, simply for the good of it: “Besides the Frost that everybody knows,” Jarrell begins, “there is one whom no one even talks about. Everybody knows what the regular Frost is: the one living poet who has written good poems that ordinary readers like without any trouble and understand without any trouble; the conservative editorialist and self-made apothegm-joiner, full of dry wisdom and free, complacent Yankee enterprise; the Farmer-poet—this is an imposing private role perfected for public use, a sort of Olympian Will Rogers out of Tanglewood Tales; and, last or first of all, Frost is the standing, speaking reproach to any other good modern poet: ‘If Frost can write poetry that’s just as easy as Longfellow you can too–you do too.’

William Penn Adair "Will" Rogers (1879–1935), Cherokee-American cowboy, humorist, social commentator, and actor.

It is this ‘easy’ side of Frost that is most attractive to academic readers, who are eager to canonize any modern poet who condemns in example the modern poetry which they condemn in precept; and it is this side that has helped to get him neglected or depreciated by intellectuals–the reader of Eliot or Auden usually dismisses Frost as something inconsequentially good that he knew all about long ago. Ordinary readers think Frost the greatest poet alive, and love some of his best poems almost as much as they love some of his worst ones. He seems to them a sensible, tender, humorous poet who knows all about trees and farms and folks in New England, and still has managed to get an individualistic, fairly optimistic, thoroughly American philosophy out of what he knows; there’s something reassuring about his poetry, they feel–almost like prose. Certainly there’s nothing hard or odd or gloomy about it. These views of Frost, it seems to me, come either from not knowing his poems well enough or from knowing the wrong poems too well. Frost’s best-known poems, with a few exceptions, are not his best poems at all.” “It would be hard,” Jarrell continues, “to make a novel list of Eliot’s best poems, but one can make a list of ten or twelve of Frost’s best poems that is likely to seem to anybody too new [as of 1953, when this essay first appeared] to be true. Nothing I say about these poems can make you see what they are like, or what the Frost that matters most is like; if you read them you will see. ‘The Witch of Coos’ is the best thing of its kind since Chaucer. ‘Home Burial’ and ‘A Servant to Servants’ are two of the most moving and appalling dramatic poems ever written; and how could lyrics be more ingeniously and conclusively merciless than ‘Neither Out Far Nor In Deep’ or ‘Design’? or more grotesquely and subtly and mercilessly disenchanting than the tender ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’? or more unsparingly truthful than ‘Provide, Provide’? And so far from being obvious, optimistic, orthodox, many of these poems are extraordinarily subtle and strange, poems which express an attitude that, at its most extreme, makes pessimism seem a hopeful evasion; they begin with a flat and terrible reproduction of the evil in the world and end by saying: It’s so; and there’s nothing you can do about it; and if there were, would you ever do it? The limits which existence approaches and falls back from have seldom been stated with such bare composure.”

I address myself today to “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” described well here, by Jarrell, as at once “grotesquely and subtly and mercilessly disenchanting” and also “tender.” Following is the text. I have color-coded it for purposes explained in the commentary that follows.

“An Old Man’s Winter Night”

As printed in "Mountan Interval" (1916)

ALL out-of-doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off;—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.

A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.

He consigned to the moon, such as she was,
So late-arising, to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept.
The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man—one man—can’t keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

Cover of the 1916 edition, published by Henry Holt & Company.

This poem, from Mountain Interval, may concern senility and incompetence. But it is carried off with a virtuoso ease and grace, despite its demanding Miltonic qualities: 8 strong enjambments (highlighted in red) in 28 lines (for a ratio of about 29%). I speak of “Miltonic” qualities, but that’s not exactly correct. Note that second sentence highlighted in blue, the most complex in structure in the poem: a hypotactic affair, a suspended sentence drawn out over 5 and 1/2 lines, with 2 strong enjambments. That much is “Miltonic”: the hypotaxis, the enjambments, the handling of the sentence within the lines. What certainly isn’t Miltonic is the diction, with its faintly dismissive colloquialisms (“such as she was,” “in any case”). The sentence sounds rather like speech, and then again rather does not; the diction is demotic, and the structure complex in the way of things uttered extempore. But there are odd touches that rise above the demotic (“broken moon,” e.g., which means, I suppose, a moon “on the wane,” as is also, of course, the old man).

Then we have that verb “consign,” which can mean, as the O.E.D. tells us, anything from this: “I. To seal, sign. 1. trans. To mark with the sign of the cross, as in baptism or esp. confirmation; spec. to confirm,” to this: “II. To hand over formally. 6. trans. To deliver under one’s seal or signature. Obs. 7. To make over as a possession, to deliver formally or commit, to a state, fate, etc. 8. To hand over to another for custody; to entrust or commit to another’s charge or care.” The last two definitions doubtless give us the sense of “consign” primarily at work in the poem. It is as if the old man were “willing” his “snow” and “icicles” to the moon. But then, how could they be “his” to give in the first place? (I suspect the poem plays not simply on the old man’s lack of self-possession, but on his lack of possessions: a certain poverty is implied—poverty of fellowship, of course, but poverty also of that other, more immediate kind.) A faintly legal aura hangs about the word “consign” in English, as the O.E.D. indicates. And so in this single long sentence conspire the colloquial and the not-quite colloquial; the idea of “waning,” applied to both moon and man in their queer kinship; and the intimation of willing one’s possessions off, humble though they be, to the custody of another, well, entity: a “broken moon.”

Note that the subject of the sentence—”He”—takes two objects (“snow” and “icicles”), the first of which is deferred, after the main verb “consigned,” some 25 words for resolution; and that the subject also takes two verbs (“consigned” and “slept”). The first clause is 40 words in length, the second is two (“and slept”). The relation of sentence (or clause) to line varies wonderfully across the whole of the poem. There are eight grammatically independent units in the poem, by my count, and these vary from some 6 lines in length (two instances, again, highlighted in blue), to 1 line (highlighted in amber).

The “gathering” of the “frost” on the pane in the “empty” (and therefore unheated) room appears “almost in separate stars,” we are told: which brings the over-hanging sky, with its “broken moon,” somewhat down in close to the old man. The fanciful extravagance of the first line (“All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him”) devolves into the ever so slightly farcical notion that the lamp the old man carries keeps him from “giving back the gaze”: he is unequal to the match in any case. But then the whole poem is about being unequal to the task, whatever task it is. For at the poem’s end, the old man’s “incompetence,” which is uncertainly the object of detached amusement throughout, is, with something of a shock, made much more general (“One aged man—one man—can’t keep a house”): the implication, here, is that no man, not just the “aged” one described here, can “keep” a house, a farm, or a countryside. Maybe the former two, the house and the farm—and for a few good decades. But the third? No. Who is equal to “keeping” something like a “countryside”? (Cf., here, O.E.D. sense 1 for that noun: “1. A side [e.g. east or west side] of a country, one side of a river-valley, of a hill-range, etc.; hence a district, region, or tract of country having a kind of natural unity.”) Any practiced reader of Frost can make a small anthology of poems on the theme of the impossibility of “keeping” houses and farms from decay, from “Ghost House” and “Storm Fear” in his first book, A Boy’s Will (1913); to “Home Burial” in his second, North of Boston (1914); to (beyond “An Old Man’s Winter Night”) “The Hill Wife” in his third, Mountain Interval (1916); to “The Birthplace” in his fifth, West-Running Brook (1928); to “Directive” in his eighth, Steeple-Bush (1947); to “Closed for Good” in his last, In the Clearing (1962)—and indeed to the last poem in his last book:

Frost, in his later years.

In winter in the woods alone
Against the trees I go.
I mark a maple for my own
And lay the maple low.

At four o’clock I shoulder axe
And in the afterglow
I like a line of shadowy tracks
Across the tinted snow.

I see for Nature no defeat
In one tree’s overthrow
Or for myself in my retreat
For yet another blow.

And as for “keeping” “a countryside”: well, I, anyway, cannot help but recall what Frost writes 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.” Against this “background,” we can at best invest our hopes, our prospects, in what Frost next calls “any small man-made figure of order and concentration.” A poem, for example, for that is in fact what Frost offers up in his 1935 “Letter” as at least one way to lay hold on the “chaos”—a poem, say, like “An Old Man’s Winter Night.” The fine figure, the form, of “An Old Man’s Winter Night” is exactly such a “small man-made figure of order and concentration” as this. And yet as we also know from reading “The Figure A poem Makes,” all any one poem can offer is “a momentary stay against confusion.” No poem “keeps” our “house” in order for very long.

Still, “An Old Man’s Winter Night” implies in its making, as against its content, that one possible response to “the outer night”—the one that shades off into black and utter chaos, and also into senility (a kind of “inner night”)—is simply to make form, the only kind of form we really can manage or “keep”: art. And any “keeping” done here is the “keeping” of poetry—the “keeping” of this beautifully managed lyric, as I have attempted to describe its figures. Our attentions are ultimately directed away from the befuddled old man and toward the shape Frost gives to the poem that describes him: a graceful, perfectly managed stretch of blank verse. That absorbs our attentions as much as the gruelly incapacities of the aged man. We hear Frost’s quiet, deft “feet” working within and across the iambic pentameter lines as much as we hear the clumsy “clomping” of the old man. Notice how in the second passage highlighted in blue in the poem, metrical variations lend lightness of movement to lines whose grammatical and syntactical complexity might otherwise embarrass the voice as we say them aloud. Frost manages the suspended grammar delicately, and with, as I have suggested, a colloquial indirection that sorts well, though unusually, with the Miltonic subtleties of the blank verse here. He tosses the lines off.

One more thing. Randall Jarrell speaks of the poem, as I indicated, as at once “grotesquely and subtly and mercilessly disenchanting,” and also as “tender.” The tenderness comes in the handling of the lines on the page, in the work of the poet; and also in the fellow-feeling we are compelled into when the implications of the old man’s incompetence are “generalized” to implicate just about anyone. We all end up mewling and puking in the public arms—in somebody’s arms anyway. Something of Jacques speech on the “7 Ages of Man” in As You Like It (2.vii) stands behind this poem, in the deep background:

Title page, from the First Folio of 1623.

DUKE SENIOR. Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.

JAQUES. All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing.

The old man may find himself rather mocked in the first half of “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” as in such lines as these, the first two pairs of which come in nicely balanced parallelisms, as if to set off further in relief the old man’s creaking incompetence:

What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.

This would be the “grotesquely and subtly and mercilessly disenchanting” side of the poem, as Jarrell memorably puts it. And the old man, as I say, may well be an object of mockery (of a sort). And yet there is the “tenderness” of which Jarrell also speaks, and of which I have spoken, too. We are all bound, as Jacques well knows, for just such an end as this: standing round in a room at a loss as to why we entered it. (I have enjoyed that experience a good many times already, at age 46.) All of which calls to mind another of the poems Jarrell lists as among those any reader of Frost must bear always in mind: “Home Burial.” Because, after all, though this old man does what he can to “keep” his home, there is, in Frost, always this note of savage bitterness, given to the wife in “Home Burial” to say:

Detail, cover of the first edition of "North of Boston."

The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.

And Frost’s “old man”—Frost’s man—is very much alone. No laughing matter, that.

N.B.: The first edition of Mountain Interval contains a misprint in “An Old Man’s Winter Night” at line 26: “One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house…” Frost corrected “fill” to “keep” in all subsequent editions. And as to what the word “keep” meant to Frost, I would refer the reader also to “November,” in his 1942 volume, A Witness Tree:

We saw leaves go to glory,
Then almost migratory
Go part way down the lane,
And then to end the story
Get beaten down and pasted
In one wild day of rain.
We heard “‘Tis Over” roaring.
A year of leaves was wasted.
Oh, we made 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.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Henry permalink
    January 14, 2010 7:45 AM

    It’s difficult not to be reminded of ‘Frost at Midnight’. In many ways this – which I hadn’t come across before – is anti-Coleridge. The Romantic moon full of significance – whereas here it is broken, hardly worth anything. The Romantic outside silent – here roaring. The old man’s light baffling any attempt to look outwards [which could mean having any kind of thought at all] – the Coleridgean fire intensifying his reflections. And, most importantly, the old man being kept from remembering – while Coleridge can do nothing but remember.

    I can’t help worrying that this is where Coleridge’s babe will end up – broken and alone. The Seven Ages of Man indeed.

    Tangentially – but I like it – here’s Robert Conquest’s poem on the subject.

    The Seven Ages of Man. First puking and mewling.
    Then very pissed off with one’s schooling.
    Then fucks, and then fights.
    Then judging other chaps’ rights.
    Then sitting in slippers, then drooling.

    As Larkin observed, if we judge the greatness of a poem by how many times we need to read it before it gets memorized, then this is a very great poem indeed.

    Henry

  2. January 14, 2010 9:54 PM

    Henry,

    That R. Conquest poem is a fine one. I’d never seen it.

    I’ll have to go back & read “Frost at Midnight.” I’ve not so much as glance at it since grad schools days, sad to say––i.e., 18 or 20 years a-gone. RF doubtless knew it very well, needless to say, though he tends not to talk about the Romantics. We know that when he was young (about 18-22) he read a lot of Shelley. And of course Willy Wordsworth. RF alludes, in an offhand manner easy to miss, to another of Coleridge’s poems in a late essay––tossing it off as if well acquainted w/ the body of work.

    See you tonight.

    Mark

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