GEOGRAPHY OF THE MIND
A couple of summers ago, while studying in England and feeling vaguely homesick, I made a book-lover's pilgrimage to Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford. One volume that particularly attracted me was a small paperback selection of Robert Frost's poetry -- odd, since I hadn't read Frost for several years. I quickly read old favorite poems, and found captivating lines from poems I did not know. At eighty pence, the book was a good investment. Not until I was heading home on the bus, however, did I open the book at the beginning -- to find "The Pasture," an old favorite poem that I'd forgotten. I'm going out to clean the pasture spring; I'll only stop to rake the leaves away (And wait to watch the water clear, I may); I shan't be gone long -- you come too. I'm going out to fetch the little calf That's standing by the mother. It's so young It totters when she licks it with her tongue. I shan't be gone long -- you come too.
This is probably one of the best-known poems in English. Its simplicity, its gentle, precise imagery, enables it to engage children as well as adults. I first learned it, I'm sure, in grade school. Perhaps its greatest charm is its invitation -- "you come too" -- and the implied love behind that invitation. Who but a loving and thoughtful soul would describe a simple trip to the pasture spring in such detail? And who but a loving soul would blend such description into an offer of companionship?
As I read through "A Boy's Will," finding observations native to New England and to the world at large, I suddenly recalled a passage from an early letter of Ezra Pound in which Pound reported his "discovery" of Robert Frost to Harriet Monroe, editor of "Poetry" magazine. "Have just discovered another Amur'k'n," he wrote. "VURRY Amur'k'n, with, I think, the seeds of grace" . . . It seemed to me, at that moment, that I was finding a kind of grace which I had sought. Not simply the grace of metrical polish and exact vocabulary, but rather the grace of ideas which meet one on one's own ground, and carry one farther.
I felt immediately at home with Robert Frost. As I was enjoying the sense of an American landscape, I was also convinced that Frost offered insights to engage the full geography of the mind. The mowed field in "A Tuft of Flowers," for example, is a definite place, carefully described; yet the subject of the poem is doubtless familiar to people of many lands (after all, Frost himself spent the years 1912 -- 1915 in England, where he published his first two books). And the moment of discovery or realization in the poem is worth a rural or urban reader's meditation. This moment comes with Frost finds that the previous mower of the field has spared "a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook." He writes The mower in the dew had loved them thus, By leaving them to flourish, not for us, Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.
Frost interprets the other mower's reprieve as an exhuberant, unselfish affirmation of life. The power of that affirmation remains to touch Frost deeply; he feels "a spirit kindred to my own,/ So that henceforth I worked no more alone." In his conclusion, Frost envisions himself holding "brotherly speech/With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach"; and he says "Men work together," I told him from the heart, "Whether they work together or apart."
A great deal of critical attention has been focused on Frost over the last twenty years or so, and "grace" seems to have become a word less and less associated with his work. Critics from Malcolm Cowley to George Nitchie have echoed Louise Bogan's lamentation that Frost gradually adopted "the role of self-conscious homespun philosopher." There is no doubt that, among the later poems especially, affected simplicity and sentimentality appear. Yet in that later work, the "seeds of grace" remain to flower amid the miscellaneous weeds, and in "Directive," Frost offers neither sentimentality nor untempered nostalgia , although he opens the poem with the furious "Back out of all this now too much for us."
The "you" of the poem is afoot in dangerous territory. Both the recent and the distant past possess a ghostly power in the present; the coolness of an Arctic glacier still haunts the scene, and "forty cellar holes" keep watch over travelers. Amid such uncertain surroundings, the "you" of the poem must resort to composing "a cheering song" -- alone. Only when this aloneness is overcome -- when the "I" of the poem enters -- can the "you" make himself at home. The two characters of the poem then turn their attention to a ruined farm, where shattered dishes from a children's playhouse lie under a pine. The real house is "only a belilaced cellar hole,/Now slowly closing like a dent in dough." Here , if anywhere, Frost risks sentimentality. But he composes carefully, and his final sources of inspiration -- "a brook that was the water of the house," and a "goblet from the children's playhouse" -- invoke both mythological hope and tender, personal solace. Frost invites his companion to "drink and be whole again beyond confusion," using the hidden goblet from the playhouse. This goblet is not meant to suggest some sterotypical childish innocense. Rather, it is meant to command a realization of children's trust in their own perceptions, their own stories, their mythologies. Like the Grail legend referred to in the poem, the mythologies of children are usually based on fundamental principles -- love, truth, protection in forays against vivid evils.
Frost certainly was searching for the idea of a home -- not simply a physical home, but an understanding of the human presence and power in the world. Central to his efforts were the power of love, and the trauma of its absence; and the challenge of all kinds of darkness, against which the human spirit must find armor after armor to discard and adopt. Frost's greatest themes were, indeed, great themes. Their impact is not regional but, I think, universal.