Poetry: Read More/Blog More — Robert Frost

Back in 2012, Regular Rumination hosted a regular poetry event, Poetry: Read More/Blog More.  The premise was simple–write about poetry once a month.  I’m a semi-regular reader of poetry–one or two books a year–so I happily joined in, a couple of times.  Below is a post I wrote for my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.  about Robert Frost, who really is much better than you probably think.

My class recently finished reading S.E. Hinton’s, The Outsiders which features a poem by Robert Frost, so I thought he would be a good place to start.  Here’s Ponyboy Curtis’s favorite poem:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Robert Frost has really grown on me over the years.  Obviously he speaks to young people; he spoke to then 16-year-old S.E. Hinton enough for her to build much of her novel around his poem.  The thing with Robert Frost is that he looks so much simpler than he really is.  For years I concentrated on the last two lines of this poem, the glory of dawn subsides to the ordinary day, it’s a wonderous explosion of color, a memory.  This year I looked at these lines: “Then leaf subsides to leaf/So Eden sank to grief.”  Leaf subsides to leaf.  One thing leads to another.  Things go on in their ordinary way. What’s more ordinary than a leaf?  And this is how paradise is lost.  One little thing after another in a way so ordinary you don’t even notice it until it’s over.  Man.  That’s good.  Was that there all these years?

I used to use “Dust of Snow” with my students.

The way a crow 
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued. 

Two stanzas of four lines of four words each.  32 words doing a lot of work.  A crow in a hemlock tree.  Should we read this as a sign of death to come, something foreboding.  But it doesn’t hurt the speaker of the poem at all.  It shakes snow down on him, like it’s playing a joke.  A joke he appreciates.  We assume the change of mood is a good one.  How much power does that final word have?  Rued?  Rue is a word associated with threats and curses, “You’ll rue the day….”  It’s also an herb.  But put it with hemlock.  What does that mean?

One night, many years ago, I was walking in San Francisco’s Jackson Square.  Too early for the movie I was going to, I was in a foul mood after a long, frustrating day.  It was approaching sunset when the parrots arrived.  There’s a flock of red-headed conures who live in San Francisco.  They spend the day feasting in the palm trees along Dolores Street and the nights safely tucked in among the leaves of Jackson Square.  That night, their arrival saved some part of a day I had rued.  I still remember them, but I’ve no idea what the movie was.

Mr. Frost’s most famous work is probably “The Road Not Taken” which concerns choosing which path to take when faced with a fork in the road.  It’s the final stanza that concerns me today:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

For years I thought the speaker had made the right choice.  He took the road less traveled, went his own way and was the better for it.  Triumph of the individual; do not follow the crowd; be true to yourself. But none of that is in the poem.  All the speaker says it that taking the road less traveled has made all the difference, not that it was the right choice.  

What are we to make of the sigh in the first line of the stanza? What does the sigh mean?  He doesn’t say what kind of sigh it is nor offer a clue to its motivation.   What does it mean that the speaker is still young as he refers to ages and ages hence?  

All this time I thought I was reading Robert Frost, when he was reading me.

Stay gold, Ponyboy.



3 thoughts on “Poetry: Read More/Blog More — Robert Frost

  1. This is a lovely post. As many times as I was taught and subsequently read Robert Frost I never thought about the road being travelled not being the right decision. You’re right, it only made a difference but we know not what. I am seeing it quite differently now. i guess that what a lot of poems are about.

    1. Thank you. I’ve been surprised by just how “deep” Robert Frost can be. I think it’s very American to see the “less-traveled” road as the right choice. Though nearly everyone follows the herd most of the time.

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