Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall - some Frost prosody

What is in North of Boston (1914)?  It begins and ends with lyrics, including an epigraph poem that looks like a possibly deceptive statement of purpose:

The Pasture

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 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.

Yep, just a simple country poet, gazing upon nature and chronicling acts of agriculture.  Thus poems about repairing stone walls, picking blueberries, picking apples, unloading hay, chopping wood, and so on.  I do appreciate Frost’s invitation.

The book does not sound much like this, though, except in the number of feet.  Much of the book is in dialogue, and almost all of it in a loose and flexible blank verse, with two additional exceptions, “Blueberries,” odd eleven-syllable lines of rhyming couplets and triplets (but I just notices this one, so who knows what I have missed), and “After Apple-Picking,” which is mostly blank verse but occasionally collapses into shorter lines, matching the conceit of the poem, which is that the speaker is too tired:

For I have had too much
Of apple picking.  I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the apple-cider heap
As of no worth.

“Stubble” then rhymes with “trouble.”  The rhyming is irregular and subtler than this passage suggests, as if the poet is too tired to keep to a single scheme.  I have suspicions that this is a poem about writing poems.  But it is also a poem about harvesting apples.

More typically, there is a lot of this:

‘You needn’t smile – I didn’t recognize him –
I wasn’t looking for him – and he’s changed.
Wait till you see.’

                               ‘Where did you say he’s been?’

‘He didn’t say.  I dragged him to the house,
And gave him tea and tried to make him smoke.
I tried to make him talk about his travels.
Nothing would do: he just kept nodding off.’  (from “The Death of the Hired Man”)

Lots of lines that do not look like anything special by themselves, do not look poetic, whatever that might mean.  Plain speech, except always rhythmic.  Language that has been heightened or energized, but just barely, so it still registers as ordinary as well as poetic.  This voice, simultaneously plain and not, seems like one of Frost’s great discoveries.

No one would put up with this at any length is it were not for Frost’s gift as a storyteller.  “The Death of the Hired Man” could have been a fine short story.  But this post is about prosody, dang it.

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