Musings . . .

Robert Cotner


small gathering of Robert Frostís family and friends meet every September to remember the poet and his poetry. Itís an informal group, with no chosen leader although leadership emerges in a quite remarkable way during the time together. The quiet ones who brought the group together in the first place will bring the group together next year.

On September 23-24, 2000, the group gathered for the sixth time ó this year at the Special Collections Library of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 1999, it was held at Bread Loaf Center in New Hampshire; in 2001, it will be held at the University of New Hampshire. Caxtonian Peter Stanlis, who initially suggested such a gathering, launched this yearís colloquium with a background discussion on Frostís stay at the University of Michigan in 1921-22 and 1922-23, when Frost had appointments as Fellow in Creative Arts.

Peter selected two Frost poems, "Acquainted with the Night" and "Spring Pools," written while Frost lived in Ann Arbor, for opening discussion. Peter asked me to read the first poem to the group of 30 scholars and friends before discussion began. In his background comments following my reading, Peter observed that Frost told him the "One luminary clock against the sky" was, in fact, the clock in the tower of the Washtenaw County Court House in Ann Arbor.

But during the next 60 minutes, the conversation soared far beyond the Victorian clock tower. The poem, most clearly, some thought, reflects Frostís affinity with Dante. A terza-rima sonnet, it mirrors a Dante meditation in its circularity of structure and its dark tones and images. There is a foreboding sense of solitude ó in Hell or in prison ó in the Frost poem. "I have" is repeated seven times, a repetitive pattern extremely rare in Frost. Some felt the "I" is a masquerade ó it is Frost defying the Romantic tendency of his Emersonian heritage.

The meeting of the "watchman on his beat" suggests self-isolation ó "unwilling to explain." Some felt this circumstance in the poem insinuates the poetís own disaffection with society. "An interrupted cry" that "Came over houses from another street" hints at the speakerís extreme alienation, for it was "not to call me back or say good-by." But others sensed the poem echoes an Old Testament image, from Isaiah 53:3: "He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." Frostís "I" becomes some-thing of the Biblical "I," it was observed.

A few saw in the poem Gothic elements, in which the dignity of the sublime, as in Yeats, emerges in an elegant rhetorical pattern that leaves the speaker at the end of the poem precisely where he was at the beginning. Some were reminded of Shakespeareís Hamlet and others of Eliotís Prufrock. I suggested that the Frost sonnet has kinship with "The Windhover" ó a sonnet of Gerard Manly Hopkins ó in its meditative character and its extraordinary metaphoric extension.

Before it was all over, Peter reminded us that the line, "Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right" (which, as you must gather by now, could be said of our views of Frostís poetry) may have come from Frostís Irish friend and fellow-poet, George Russell ("A.E."), who was fond of saying, "The times are not right." The poem is, Peter concluded ó and few would disagree with him ó one of Frostís "dark poems," like "Design," "Once by the Pacific," "The Hill Wife," and "An Old Manís Winter Night."

In this fashion, the life and writing of the American poet, who, it seems to me, best represents the 20th Century, is celebrated among family and friends, on a given weekend each September, somewhere in America.

Frost would, I believe, were he not gone, smile, nod his approval, and say in his husky voice, "Itís very nice to be so remembered by family and friends!"v

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