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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.

 

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When I was in high school, writing dreadful poetry, when I thought of sonnets as 14-line rhymed poems with ten syllables per line, I used to develop odd rhyme schemes. I wasn’t going to be constrained by Shakespeare and Petrarch, damnit. This is an embodiment of my younger self’s unserious attitude toward poetry, seeking greatness through pointless invention rather than simply learning my craft.

Happily, Washington Allston’s sonnets marry a similar playfulness about rhyme schemes with a level of craft my younger self wholly lacked. The Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry includes nine of his sonnets (plus one 15-line pseudo-sonnet). Here are their rhyme schemes:

ABABCCDDEFFEGG
ABBACCDEDEFFGG
ABCBCADDEFEGFG
ABBACDCDEFEFGG
AABCBCDDEEFFGG
AABBCCDDEEFFGG
AABBCDCDEFFEGG
ABBACDDCEEEFFC
ABBACDDCEEFGGF
ABABBCCDDEFEFGG

They are mostly variants on the Shakespearean sonnet (at least insofar as they end with a couplet), only with the occasional Petrarchan quatrain or heroic couplet. But the third is basically two Petrarchan sestets bridged by a heroic couplet, and the eighth is a Petrarchan octave with a sestet of Allston’s own devising.

But enough about the rhyme schemes—are the poems any good? I think so. Most are reactions to various works of art that he admired (think Keats on Chapman). Here, for instance, is Allston on Peligrino Tibaldi’s Aeolus:

On Seeing the Picture of Æolus by Peligrino Tibaldi, in the Institute at Bologna

Full well, Tibaldi, did thy kindred mind
The mighty spell of Bonarroti own.
Like one who, reading magic words, receives
The gift of intercourse with worlds unknown,
’Twas thine, decyph’ring Nature’s mystic leaves,
To hold strange converse with the viewless wind;
To see the spirits, in embodied forms
Of gales and whirlwinds, hurricanes and storms.
For, lo! obedient to thy bidding, teems
Fierce into shape their stern, relentless lord;
His form of motion ever-restless seems;
Or, if to rest inclined his turbid soul,
On Hecla’s top to stretch, and give the word
To subject winds that sweep the desert pole.

Allston praises Tibaldi for the way in which he captures Aeolus’ motion even in rest, and suggests that Tibaldi is able to do so because of a heightened perception of the “viewless wind” that lies behind the visible motion of leaves. (On this point, the poem pairs well with “Project” by A.R. Ammons.)

The octave sets this up nicely. It is not overly impressive on its own, though it reads well. Where the poem really succeeds is in the sestet, for here, to make his praise of Tibaldi believable, Allston must himself capture Aeolus. I think he succeeds, starting with his bold decision to enjamb line nine (“teems”) and then begin line ten with a trochaic substitution (“fierce into shape”). Aeolus is thus thrust abruptly into our “view”. The metrical substitution serves to make “teems” believable.

The sestet continues to impress from there. I find the move from “relentless” to “restless” evocative. And describing his soul as “turbid” plays nicely off the earlier description of the wind as “viewless,” suggesting that invisibility need not imply a lack of complexity. No, Aeolus’ inner life is as murky and unmanageable as anyone’s.

All in all, then, it is a fine sonnet, and one I have come to enjoy even more through writing this.

His other appreciations of specific paintings similarly succeed. I’ll look at just one other:

On the Group of the Three Angels Before the Tent of Abraham, by Raffaelle, in the Vatican

Oh, now I feel as though another sense
From Heaven descending had inform’d my soul;
I feel the pleasurable, full control
Of Grace, harmonious, boundless, and intense.
In thee, celestial Group, embodied lives
The subtle mystery; that speaking gives
Itself resolv’d; the essences combin’d
Of Motion ceaseless, Unity complete.
Borne like a leaf by some soft eddying wind,
Mine eyes, impell’d as by enchantment sweet,
From part to part with circling motion rove,
Yet seem unconscious of the power to move;
From line to line through endless changes run,
O’er countless shapes, yet seem to gaze on One.

Here is a case where I think the unconventional rhyme scheme aids the meaning of the poem. Specifically, I think it replicates in the experience of reading this poem something like Allston’s experience of seeing the painting, namely the combination “Of Motion ceaseless, Unity complete.” The first four lines are set apart, both a complete rhyme unit (ABBA) and a complete sentence. But, the next four lines, though also a complete sentence, introduce two unresolved rhymed (CCDE). This leads us past the period onward into the next part of the poem. Moreover, within these four lines, all but the last are enjambed, meaning that the heroic couplet does not stand as a compact unit, but bleeds into the rest of the quatrain. The final six lines are then a single sentence, carrying us onward to the end. The whole poem (except a little bit the first quatrain) feels like a complete unity, yet a unity that moves ceaselessly, over which our eyes “From part to part with circling motion rove, / Yet seem unconscious of the power to move.”

And I will end by leaving, without further comment, Allston’s 15 line pseudo-sonnet:

A Word: Man

How vast a world is figured by a word!
A little word, a very point of sound,
Breathed by a breath, and in an instant heard;
Yet leaving that may well the soul astound,—
To sense a shape, to thought without a bound.
For who shall hope the mystery to scan
Of that dark being symbolized in man?
His outward form seems but a speck in space:
But what far star shall check the eternal race
Of one small thought that rays out from his mind?
For evil, or for good, still, still must travel on
His every thought, though worlds are left behind,
Nor backward can the race be ever run.
How fearful, then, that the first evil ray,
Still red with Abel’s blood, is on its way!

Poem: [No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief]
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins


A few days ago I published a reading of this poem, trying to show how Hopkins deftly modulated the rhythms of the poem both to accommodate his heavy use of alliteration and to enhance the power of his imagery. The only difficulty was: the poem is in sprung rhythm, and at that time I had no real idea how sprung rhythm works. I then read a fine paper by Jeanne Levasseur, from which I came away with a sense of how to scan Hopkins. This post is my attempt at a scansion of “No worst, there is none…” I should say at the outset that I am aware that the precise nature of sprung rhythm is controversial, and I have no doubt that some scholars will take exception to Levasseur’s interpretation. I am not competent to judge whether she is faithful to Hopkins’ vision. What I can say is that, after applying what I learned from her to this poem, I feel I have a better sense of how to read it.

A brief introduction to sprung rhythm, as Levasseur presents it, is in order. She discusses nine principles of sprung rhythm, derived (with modification?) from an earlier paper by Edward Stephenson. This latter I have not read, though I look forward to doing so. In any event, the nine principles are:

  1. Sprung rhythm is always a falling rhythm, meaning that each metrical foot begins with a stressed syllable.
  2. The feet in sprung rhythm are of variable length. There are four basic feet: the (stressed) monosyllable, the trochee, the dactyl, and the first paeon (a stressed syllable followed by three unstressed syllables). The trochee and dactyl are carried over from standard metrical theory.
  3. Each foot is approximately isochronous (i.e. of equal duration), regardless of the number of syllables in the foot. This effect is to be achieved by stressing (which can naturally lengthen a syllable), as well as by pauses.
  4. Sprung rhythm makes heavy use of dipodic rhythm. Dipodic rhythm emerges when a foot contains two accented syllables, one of which contains a primary stress, the other a secondary stress.
  5. Sprung rhythm makes use of clashing accents, in which two or more stressed syllables occur in a row (i.e. with no intervening unstressed syllables).
  6. Sprung rhythm makes occasional use of rove-over lines, in which the last metrical foot in a line spills over onto the next line. (This will occur wherever a line begins with unstressed syllables.)
  7. Certain syllables, called outrides, may be treated as extrametrical and are not counted in the scansion. (I confess I am not sure when a syllable counts as an outride, though I make use of them in one place in the scansion below.)
  8. Alliteration, assonance, and rhyme provide clues to the proper emphasis of the line.
  9. In some cases, rests may substitute for the primary stress of a foot.

In scanning “No worst, there is none…”, I will make use of the following symbols:

/ = primary stress
\ = secondary stress in a dipodic foot
u = unstressed syllable
o = outriding syllable

With these preliminaries out of the way, here is my attempt at scanning the poem:

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-8-37-02-pm

With the exception of the ninth, all Stephenson/Levasseur’s principles can be seen at work in this poem. Some examples:

  • Variable length: here we can find monosyllables (grief; line 1), trochees (pitch of; line 1), dactyls (comforter; line 3), and first paeons (mother of us; line 4).
  • Dipodic rhythm: at least one dipodic foot can be found in each line of the poem, with the exception of lines 3, 4, 8, and 12. The first foot of the poem (No worst) is dipodic.
  • Clashing accents: there are three instances of clashing accents in the poem, in line 3 (where, where), line 8 (fell: force), and, most extravagantly, lines 12-13 (deep. Here! creep, / Wretch,). Note that in each case punctuation enforces a pause between them.
  • Rove-over lines: found in lines 4-5 (-lief / My), lines 6-7 (sing — / Then), lines 7-8 (ling- / ering), etc. Interestingly, more than once a dipodic foot roves over, as in lines 5-6 (chief / Woe) and lines 11-12 (small / Durance).
  • Outrides: I could not find any way to scan line 6 that (a) contained only five primary stresses and (b) preserved isochronicity without treating “on an” as outrides. I am not sure this is correct, but I gain confidence when I consider that they follow a semicolon. That forces a pause that allows me to treat “on an” as a brief interlude before the next foot begins with “age.”

Ultimately, I think my main rhythmic insights from my previous post survive this exercise, though they need to be expressed differently. To give just one instance, in that post I scanned line 11 as two trochees (durance deal with) followed by three iambs (that steep or deep. Here! creep). That scansion fails on two fronts. First, it massively violates isochronicity, because it forces me to tree “small” in line 10 as a monosyllable. In fact, however, the rhythm of the poem forces me to proceed directly from “small” to “Durance” without a pause, leaving “small” (if treated as a monosyllable) markedly shorter in duration than any other foot in the poem. Moreover, such a scansion forces me to understress “Here!”, despite contextual clues that it takes a heavy stress (the exclamation point being the most obvious such clue).

Numerous other errors in how I was reading the poem found correction in this exercise, not least because scanning it as iambic pentameter forces it into a rising rhythm. Thus, for instance, I had earlier treated “No worst” as an iamb almost by default, when in fact it sounds much more natural as a dipodic trochee. In general, I can say without question that, having scanned the poem in this way, I have a much better feel for how it must be read.

Poem: [No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief]
Poet: Gerard Manley Hopkins

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling–
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.


It is difficult to explain the genius of this poem, not because this genius is subtle or hidden, rather quite the opposite: it is so obvious, proclaims itself so loudly, that it is hard to see what there is to do besides point at it: “Look, just look!” But I shall try.

To begin with a formality, let us simply admire that this is a successful, wholly proper Italian sonnet, not an easy feat to pull off in English, certainly vastly more difficult than a Shakespearean sonnet. (This I know from experience: I have written many Shakespearean sonnets, but for both of the two Italian sonnets I have attempted, I have found I needed to bend the rules.)

A second reason to admire the poem is its sonic density (this indeed is among the major reasons to admire Hopkins in general). Hopkins was a master of alliteration. To alliterate is easy; to do so without sounding corny is difficult. Hopkins had a delicate ear for it, and every alliteration here is sounded perfectly. In the first two lines, we have: no/none; pitched/pitch/pangs; wilder wring. We also have a slight consonance with “grief/forepangs,” which carries over into the next line (comforter/comforting) and, more importantly, sets up later developments. This sort of alliteration continues throughout the poem, but comes to a fever pitch at the end of the octet, spilling over into the sestet:

………………………………Fury had shrieked ‘No ling–
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.

Here both the ‘m’ and the ‘f’ alliterations are picked up: must/mind/mountains/man; Fury/fell/force/cliffs/fall/Frightful/fathomed. The density is amazing, and even more amazing in light of that density is the entirely unforced character of it.

How does Hopkins pull this off? I am not entirely sure, but I suspect that a major help comes from his use of rhythm. This poem is mostly in a standard iambic pentameter (though some lines make use of Hopkins’ notorious sprung rhythm, e.g. lines 5-6), but Hopkins pushes this pattern to the breaking point in a way that interacts with the alliterations. For instance, in the passage just quoted, though ‘fell’ and ‘force’ appear back to back, they are separated by a colon, giving a slight pause that makes the alliteration, for lack of a better word, quieter. This effect is enhanced by the fact that ‘force’ is the first syllable in an anapestic foot, and so is further diminished in emphasis since it must take a lighter stress than ‘must’.

Similarly, placing ‘fall’ and ‘frightful’ back to back is dangerous. Here, however, rather than mitigate the alliteration, Hopkins calls attention to it. They are separated by a line break, giving the sense of a fall. While in one sense this does separate the terms and so ought to have a similar effect as the colon between ‘fell’ and ‘force’, the actual effect is different. And here again a metrical substitution plays a role, in this case a line-opening trochee (‘Frightful’). This calls attention to the alliteration, making it inescapably obvious.

It works because this is the most heightened moment of the poem. The octet explaining (not in a detached, intellectual sense of ‘explain’) his painful mood has ended, and it seems the mood itself has ended (“Let me be fell: force I must be brief”). In this moment of mental clarity, Hopkins arrives at this terrible vision of the human mind and its “cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.” The heightened sonic and rhythmic effects are needed to give this vision its frightfulness. Hopkins succeeded: these are among the finest lines in English literature.

A similar modulation of the rhythm of the poem helps to explain the success of a different precarious technique Hopkins employs: the triple internal rhyme of line 12.

Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep

The line scans as two trochees (Durance deal with) followed by three iambs. The stressed syllable of each iamb rhymes, and little imagination is needed to realize how terribly wrong this could go. It is especially the third and final rhyme that is risky. How does Hopkins manage it? Not by a modulation of the meter—for it is a perfect iamb—but by a bold rhythmic modulation. By isolating “Here!” and punctuating it with an exclamation mark, Hopkins forces a tremendous stress on the word. It is further emphasized by the pause on either side of it, enforced by the punctuation. Thus, despite being only one word, it puts substantial distance between ‘steep’/’deep’ and creep’, and this distance makes the internal rhyme effective.

I began worried it would be difficult to explain the brilliance of this poem. But I have not found it hard. I have not found it hard precisely because I have mostly stayed away from the meaning of the poem, looking at it from a purely technical level. When I think about the meaning of it, I find myself again at a loss for how to articulate it. It describes a mood, and if you have ever been in it you will know that Hopkins describes it perfectly. The final lines characterize almost too well the feeling of being a wretch clinging to a wretched comfort: “all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.”

It seems worth noting that the poem is not understood if this last line is taken to express a suicidal thought. Hopkins does not desire to die, but he is comforted by the fact that this existence is not permanent, that the recurrence of this mood shall one day come to end. It makes those recurrences before one does die, more bearable. Moreover, the line expresses two comforts, and this is the lesser of the two. The second comfort, that “each day dies with sleep,” is the main. Once again I must appeal to personal experience. When this mood comes, the day can feel lost, and the only comfort available is that when I wake the next morning it may be gone.

The basic genius of this poem is that Hopkins took a mood ugly and wrathful and made of it something of astonishing beauty. And with that, I have said what I can say. All that remains is some friendly advice: look, just look!

Poem: [Who stands, the crux left of the watershed]
Poet: W.H. Auden
Link: http://www.thebeckoning.com/poetry/auden/auden1.html


There is much to admire about this poem. I want to hone in on one particular feature of it that I find especially effective, an series of ambiguities that Auden deftly exploits. Let us start at the broadest scale, with the overall motion of the poem. The poem has two stanzas. The first begins impersonally—

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing floors,

—while the second opens with a direct address—

Go home, now, stranger, proud of your young stock,
Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed…

Immediately we must ask who the stranger is. Three options present themselves: the stranger is the reader, the stranger is the poet himself, and the stranger is some unnamed, private reference, not meant for us to know. The poem, as I read it, sustains each interpretation, indeed the poem, as it seems to me, rather asks to be read in each of these ways. I want to explore especially the possibilities of the first two readings: stranger as poet and stranger as reader.

The poem opens with an image of the decay of an industry (lead mining): “An industry already comatose, / Yet sparsely living.” But, just as the poem as a whole transitions from impersonal to personal, so the decay transitions from inhuman to human:

And further here and there, though many dead
Lie under the poor soil, some acts are chosen
Taken from recent winters…

This brings us to the death of a worker in a storm. What is curious here is the choice. Though many are dead, only some are chosen—only the one death makes its way into the poem. This creates a second ambiguity in the poem: who makes the selection? Is it the poet who selects this particular death for description, or is it the one who, standing by the watershed, recollects the death?

It is easy to see that this ambiguity intertwines with the first ambiguity. Perhaps the poet himself is the stranger standing by the watershed. The image that results from this reading is of the poet addressing himself. So now we have the poet observing the lead mines (call this the first order poet) and the poet observing (and describing) himself observing (call this the second order poet). Either may make the selection. Perhaps the first order poet is recalling one who died here whom he knew. Or perhaps the second order poet is bringing up one of the many who died, doesn’t matter which, to justify the warning command with which the second stanza begins. Once again, the poem sustains either reading.

In one regard the stranger-as-poet reading is the most natural. But because of the use of a direct second-personal address, the reader is invited on reading to take up the position of the stranger, to observe through the poet’s description. (Doubly so since the poet’s readers are primarily strangers in a literal sense.) Then it is the reader who is warned away, perhaps because it is too private, cannot be shared. (This is the fundamental tension and paradox of poetry, which tries to communicate what cannot be communicated: oneself.)

However it is read, the selection of the one dead man from among many must be understood in the light of lines that occur later in the poem. I juxtapose lines from both the first and second stanzas to make the basis for comparison clearer:

And further here and there, though many dead
Lie under the poor soil, some acts are chosen,
Taken from recent winters; […]

This land, cut off, will not communicate,
Be no accessory content to one
Aimless for faces rather there than here.

That these lines should be considered together is signaled by the inverted repetition of “here and there.” The description of the stranger as “aimless for faces” suggests an arbitrariness in the selection, that any face would do. If we understand the stranger as the poet, then this is a bit of self-reproach. Perhaps the story of his death in the storm is itself a poetic fiction, something the poet imagined, stimulated by the decay he was viewing. Such a death, he imagines, would be appropriate, regardless of its reality or lack thereof. On the other hand, if we understand the stranger as the reader, then this heightens the sense of private significance to which we readers are not privy.

As I said above, I think the poem invites each of these readings. The ambiguity, the shuffling between these different significances, is part of the delight of reading it. This is the first Auden poem I have read (I will be reading all of Vintage’s edition of his Selected Poems, and will post about some of them), and it is a fine introduction.