Today Robert Frost would have been 143 years old. I remember him well as the celebrated elder statesman of American poetry. He could fill a football stadium. So could T.S. Eliot.
When I was young many academics paid scant attention to him, dismissing him as some sort of country bumpkin farmer poet. But one, Prof. Arthur Mizener, paid close attention to Frost in a class and taught us to look for the complexity and craft in such ostensibly simple language.
Here’s a significant contrast to John Milton; Frost gives us a sonnet and not an epic.
“Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same”
“He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds’ song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.”
The coming of Eve and her voice has changed the sounds of the songs of nature; these sounds will be forever mediated by human sensibility. Readers are accustomed to the great bird songs of poetry that change their listeners: Keats’s nightingale, Hardy’s thrush, Shelley’s skylark, Yeats’s indignant desert birds. Birds have been the ur-poets and singers and their song has come down over centuries. But Frost reminds us that the “oversound” of birds can have taken on a certain eloquence of the human voice. Traditionally Eve is thought of as the weak tempted female, besotted by sin, giving way to an apple and that feminine love of carbohydrates. Here we have Eve as an important influencer of the birds.
The poem uses intriguing words that seem to either undercut or add to the complexity by their own lack of declaration: “would,” “could,” “Admittedly,” “could only,” “Be that as it may,” “Moreover,” “probably”. Is this Adam a complex thinker? Somebody whose mind is roiled about with interpretive possibilities? I think so. And did any poet make so much of simple monosyllables in that devastating final line: “And to do that to birds was why she came?”
The poem is also wistful: if Eve has changed bird song for the better, there’s also the irretrievable fact that we can no longer hear the bird song that existed previously; something has been lost to us and nostalgia for what we cannot have known pervades the sonnet.
Frost is among the least-self indulgent poets I know of, by which I mean that he does not stand on a ledge above his readers and tacitly proclaim that there’s no room for you up here, reader. His poetry is filled with music we can all appreciate and it also invites us to dig deeper into the various moods that pervade his work. Apples can be joyful and also can lead to confusion. Birch trees can be beautiful and also their branches can trail to the ground confounded by the works of winter. He invites us into a world of speculation in which both delight and depression can co-exist as needful companions. In an early poem, “The Pasture,” Frost extends an invitation: “You come too.” He’ll keep us from obstructions and from falling on our feet.