By Lawrence “Mack in Texas” Hall (Rated G)
Here along Beer Can Road and County Dump Extension y’r ‘umble scrivener has set himself to reading all of Robert Frost in a third-hand Library of America edition.
In school we all studied “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Road not Taken,” “Fire and Ice,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and other of Mr. Frost’s more familiar pieces, and they stay with us. They stay with us because they are good, both in form and in content.
Mr. Frost crafts smooth, flowing iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter, sometimes rhyming but sometimes not. That he makes rhyme work so well demonstrates the excellence of his art; there are only five – arguably six – vowel sounds in English, which rhymed through the pen or keyboard of a learner usually ends in clunkiness or unintended comedy.
Most modern poetry is free verse, which is not poetry at all but only prose lazily sorted out into artless broken lines. As Stephen Fry says in his foreword to The Ode Less Travelled, free verse is like a child who knows nothing about music simply beating on piano keys and calling it music.
As for content, Mr. Frost writes about everything except himself, thus sharing Creation with us. Most modern poetry is a closed loop of endless self-pity and self-reference:, “I, I, I, my, my, my, me, me, me, poor me, nobody understands me.”
“But it’s from the heart” is no excuse for this sort of thing in any art.
One of my, my, my recent discoveries is Mr. Frost’s “The Lesson for Today,” a speech given before Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society in the summer of 1941. Mr. Frost gave his address in blank verse with the occasional end rhyme. That his presentation was in verse was not only appropriate for a professional poet but which could be, and often was, accomplished with some skill by the ordinary high school graduate whose curriculum was predicated upon civilization.
And then came Sputnik.
“The Lesson for Today” is a meditation on mortality, eternity, and purpose. Mr. Frost’s daughter died in 1934, his wife died in 1938, his son died in 1940. The Second World War had been going on in China since 1933 and in Europe since 1939. In “The Lesson for Today” Mr. Frost sometimes has a little fun, but the arc connects all these sorrows without directly mentioning them.
The speaker of the poem, perhaps Mr. Frost himself, has a dialogue with Alcuin of York, the Master of Charlemagne’s palace school, in order to “Seek converse common cause and brotherhood” in exploring life during personal and cultural crises. The poet, best known for his rustic works, considers the minor goddess Dione (within the context of a line of iambic pentameter, pronounced as die-ON-ney), the Emperor Charlemagne, Alcuin of York and his concept of the Memento Mori, God, the Paladins (the twelve champions of Christendom), Roland, Olivier, the Battle of Roncesvalles, and the brevity of life:
There is a limit to our time extension.
We are all doomed to broken off careers,
And so’s the nation, so’s the total race.
The earth itself is liable to the fate
Of meaninglessly being broken off.
In conclusion, the speaker – or Mr. Frost – says to Alcuin:
I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
In one of his last speeches, President Kennedy, who survived Mr. Frost by less than a year, said at the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library, “In [a] free society art is not a weapon, and it does not belong to the spheres of polemics and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But in a democratic society the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist, is to remain true to himself…” *
And truth sometimes leads to a lover’s quarrel with the world.
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