Book: A Boy’s Will
Poet: Robert Frost
Text: at archive.org (PDF)
I read Robert Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will, at perhaps the perfect time. As the title suggests, the poems here come from a specifically youthful perspective (though Frost was not himself young when he published it). And this means a certain combination of doubt and braggadocio, of exuberance and overeagerly embraced sadness, that I recognize—not so much in myself (though they are not wholly absent) but in the person I was between, say, 18 and 22. (I am 26 now.) Why is this the perfect time? I cannot wholly enter these poems, yet I remember the version of myself that could, and as I read, I am reading not just the poems but also my past, with my own combination of enthusiasm and nostalgia.
Here, for instance, is the first poem of the volume, “Into My Own”:
Into My Own
One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.
I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.
They would not find me changed from him they knew–
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
The narrator romanticizes isolation, and regrets a world that does not afford it. It is not that he is isolated (the trees are, after all, the merest mask of gloom, no more), but that he imagines that he might become so. And if he did (the youthful hope)—and if he did, others would find him “only more sure of all I thought was true.” The youth feels his precarious position, feels the blows of an external world that would bend him to its demands, and protests against this corruption by dreaming of escape.
This recourse to such dreams, I know well. I look on it now with a more mature (I do not say ‘mature’ without qualification) eye, recognizing that this fantasy is something effete, unreal—mere dream in just the way the trees are the merest mask of gloom. Yet this is not an unkind judgment: I begrudge neither myself nor Frost’s youth our vanities.
Sorrow, like isolation, is equally romanticized by the youth, as in “My November Guest”, the volume’s third poem:
My November Guest
My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
…Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
…She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Her pleasure will not let me stay.
…She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted gray
…Is silver now with clinging mist.
The desolate, deserted trees,
…The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
…And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know
…The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
…And they are better for her praise.
Where the last poem is easier to “dismiss” (that is not quite the right word) as merely a youthful fancy, this poem sticks, by which I mean that I still find myself able to enter into it somewhat naïvely, and make myself the speaker. The speaker who formerly dreamed of physical isolation now (I imagine) finds himself still in society, but nonetheless isolated, and so sorrowful. (In my own case, at least, the dream of physical isolation is often a wistful hope to escape the isolation I so often feel in crowds.) And yet he embraces this sorrow, and finds that in its own way it enhances the beauty of a certain sort of gloomy day. (On this point, Frost is entirely correct.)
What makes this poem something more than mere youthful faux-misery is the youth’s guile, as seen in the last stanza. It is not just that the sorrow makes the days beautiful, but that Sorrow, personified, praises them. And even though he has come to understand her praise, he hides this from her, does not let her know that he has been persuaded, so that she will continue to praise the “bare November days.” It is this image of the youth struggling with his sorrow, trying to outwit her and to subvert her to his own benefit, that escapes youth. I, at least, have not found the need for such guile to diminish with age. (But then, I am not old.)
One last poem to illustrate what I find so rewarding about this volume:
Love and a Question
A Stranger came to the door at eve,
…And he spoke the bridegroom fair.
He bore a green-white stick in his hand,
…And, for all burden, care.
He asked with the eyes more than the lips
…For a shelter for the night,
And he turned and looked at the road afar
…Without a window light.
The bridegroom came forth into the porch
…With, ‘Let us look at the sky,
And question what of the night to be,
…Stranger, you and I.’
The woodbine leaves littered the yard,
…The woodbine berries were blue,
Autumn, yes, winter was in the wind;
…‘Stranger, I wish I knew.’
Within, the bride in the dusk alone
…Bent over the open fire,
Her face rose-red with the glowing coal
…And the thought of the heart’s desire.
The bridegroom looked at the weary road,
…Yet saw but her within,
And wished her heart in a case of gold
…And pinned with a silver pin.
The bridegroom thought it little to give
…A dole of bread, a purse,
A heartfelt prayer for the poor of God,
…Or for the rich a curse;
But whether or not a man was asked
…To mar the love of two
By harboring woe in the bridal house,
…The bridegroom wished he knew.
The poem and its beauty speak for itself. What I want to point out is simply what I take to be an important element of it: that the narrator is not married. I suppose I do not know this, but the emphasis on isolation in the volume suggests it. In any event, if we accept that the youth is not married, then we are forced to conclude that this poem is sheer imagination: the youth is inventing the scene of his wedding night, and is worried that it will be interrupted by the various sorrows he feels. As someone who is happily married, I can say that the fear is a justified one. The sense of isolation can strike even when one is among the closest and most trusted of friends.
Reading the poem, I get a sense of self-absorption on the part of the youth. I say this without judgment (lest I be judged). The bride is left in the background, neglected, while the youth is occupied with his care. Even though he says he “wished he knew” whether or not to admit this guest, he does not really have a choice: he has already invited him in, has neglected his bride for the sake of his care.
What we get with this poem, therefore, is a youth imagining a scenario about which he knows little firsthand (marriage) and placing into that scene a character—the only character—about whom he knows a great deal (himself). The result is a mix of fancy and realism, not exactly accurate, but believable enough, and a reasonable fear. It is this mix that so attracts me to the poem. The youth still knows little enough of the material realities of life to invent these realities after his own image, and so we learn the contours of that image—as does he.