Robert Frost, for me, is the kind of writer that I really don’t want to like—rather, I want to hate him—and the further I am from my most recent read of any of his stuff, the more successful I am (unfortunately, the opposite, as we shall soon see, is also true). So late last night, or early-early this morning, as I sat uncomfortably and picked up the above-pictured book for distraction, I was annoyed when I stumbled upon some notes from Conarroe that lauded the old country boy. The notes drew up my curiosity—and my unrighteous indignation—and I turned to Frost’s section of the collection. (See, here’s the thing, the very reason I so badly want to hate Frost is the same reason that I just can’t: he is so good. Almost too good, really.) One of the following poems is my new favorite of his, the other, not so much, though it gave me some significant cause to think, especially about stuff, particularly the apparently bad stuff, that’s happened over the last year—well, year-and-a-half or so. I say apparently bad, because … well … you’ll see.
For the first of the two, I need to go through a typical deconstruction; however, as Conarroe does an excellent job in his notes (to which I flip duly back), I’ll simply quote him at length.
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth –
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth –
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a frothm
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall? –
If design govern in a thing so small?
And Conarroe’s breakdown:
What a scary little dance of death this is! It is, of course ostensibly nothing more significant than a couple of insects, yet in Frost’s artful handling we are exposed to a dramatic moment that suggests something ominous about the “design” of nature. The poem is a sonnet, its first section setting up a situation and the final lines offering a comment on that situation. (“A true sonnet,” Frost said, “goes eight lines and then takes a turn for the better or worse and goes six lines more.”) The work itself is a “thing so small,” with its design revealed by the orderly meter and rhyme, as well as by the series of contrasts that gradually emerge—between whiteness and darkness, life and death, innocence and depravity, morning and night. Al this in fourteen carefully plotted lines.
The situation could hardly be more ordinary: the speaker, walking along a country road, notices a spider on a flower holding a dead moth, a signed we’ve all seen. From the beginning, though, this telling suggests that there is something more than usually unsettling about this. For one thing, the spider is “dimpled,” “fat,” and “white,” words that taken together in this context somehow sound obscene. The repetition of “white,” a word associated with purity, is clearly ironic, as is the reference to “satin cloth,” which suggests, among other things, a bridal gown. Ironic too are the kite (a child’s harmless toy) and, of course, the incongruously named “heal-all,” which, usually blue, has inexplicably turned white. There is cynicism in the phrase “mixed ready to begin the morning right,” which conjures up a homey breakfast of fresh coffee and orange juice and not a ghastly little daybreak repast. “Froth,” suggesting foaming at the mouth, reinforces the unwholesome atmosphere.
The speaker is moved to speculate about this depraved scene—depraved, at least, in his morbid telling—asking, for example, why the usually blue “heal-all” is an albino, and hence “kindred” to the murderous spider, and what agency “steered” the moth to its seemingly predestined liaison. The implication is that if some overriding natural design is responsible for so insignificant an event, what hope has any of us. This fatalistic point of view may express the poet’s own sense of things during a period of personal despondency, but whether or not it does is less important than the fact that he makes us believe it does.
Whatever the possibly grim biographical implications, the poet could not resist engaging in wordplay—Frost like to make language dance to the “whack of his quip.” I had read the poem many times before I realized that “appall” has as its root meaning the idea of “making pale.” This related not only to the bleaching of the “blue and innocent heal-all,” which becomes implicated in the death, but also to all the other references to white (and blight) that make up the poem’s own design. I also realized, again only after many readings, that “govern” has a secondary meaning of “steer,” which adds a final irony to the speaker’s expression of revulsion. What, after all, has steered him to this grisly ballet?
Pretty good, huh? So, begrudgingly, I flipped through the Frosties for shorter pieces that I could dig into without too much commitment. Naturally, as I’m left handed, and as I was flipping, rather than turning, the pages, I started with the very last poem of the section. It’s fairly typical Frost: folksy, country-ish, and Yankee, and it included a piece of apparently (there’s that word again—told you we’d get back to it) random and brutal violence.
The Draft Horse
With a lantern that couldn’t burn
In too frail a buggy we drove
Behind too heavy a horse
Through a pitch-dark limitless grove.
And a man came out of the trees
And took our horse by the head
And reaching back to his ribs
Deliberately stabbed him dead.
The ponderous beast went down
With a crack of a broken shaft.
And the night drew through the trees
In one long invidious draft.
The most unquestioning pair
That ever accepted fate
And the least disposed to ascribe
Any more than we had to to hate,
We assumed that the man himself
Or someone he had to obey
Wanted us to get down
And walk the rest of the way.
I don’t want to beat home the point of this one. Like I said before, it’s not my favorite, nor do I think in any way does it even compete with the best, of Frost’s stuff. But it made me think. And it’s still making me think. Here’s the basics of it, I guess: a couple years ago I lost my job. It felt a little bit like that great ponderous horse pulling along my family and me had been killed. Well, we’ve done a lot of walking since the death of our beast, and I’m sure glad we’re where we are now, rather than where we were before its end.
Happy New Year – may you be granted some piece of perspective.