Friday, May 18, 2012
Don't you wish the phoebes wept?
The Need of Being Versed in Country Things
by Robert Frost
The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.
This morning's Writer's Almanac verse fits me like a glove, even though there's been no fire, no farm home devoured. It's a Robert Frost poem, so one can expect subtle and truthful sleight of hand. That last simile is like him, isn't it?--the stand-alone chimney left post-holocaust resembles, he says, the pistil of a flower once petals are shed. He likes to mix nature almost alarmingly with what seems to perfectly human images, chimneys with pistils.
The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place's name.
The wind is whimsical, as is God himself often in Frost. It could have taken the barn by spreading the flames across the yard, but such destruction seemed not to have been "the will of the wind." So now, all that's left is a barn "to bear forsaken the place's name." Seems quite Siouxland-ish. Frost loved Vermont, but this one fits us too. I could show you a dozen abandoned places in a couple of hours.
No more it opened with all one end
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.
There's something ghostly about abandoned farms, something inescapably human. Despite the skeletons, they seem yet to hold something of their owner's aspirations, to be flush with life that's gone. They're unmarked graves, and when you come upon them in the country, it seems you're walking into novels you've never read. Old barns are almost useless, but still a shame to bring down because with their fall history goes too. I know a very successful farmer who simply can't bring down the wreck of a barn on the homeplace--just too many memories, he says.
The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.
And here's a hint of the hairpin turn that often marks Frost's careful thought. The birds are still there, even if human activity long ago ceased; and their sighing, Frost says--their real life perception of things--is like ours, not when we go all nostalgic about what was and will be no more, but when instead we grudgingly tell ourselves that life must go on, that there's no great use in crying over spilled milk or abandoned farmsteads. Life must go on. And it will.
Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm:
And the fence post carried a strand of wire.
Some things don't change, he says--lilacs still lend fragrance and the old elm still shadows lovingly. Even some of the farmer's own wares sentry the place--the pump's arm (but the image has death in it) and a single strand of barb wire on what seems a single fence post. Still there. Not gone. "For them," Frost says, for the birds that still nest in the old barn.
For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.
And here he is, Frost himself, in all his fetching complexity. For those birds, those phoebes, who keep nesting in the old barn, despite the end of human activity--or maybe because of it--"there was really nothing sad." After all, they still had home and hearth and even, post-fire, some remnant tatters of the old neighborhood. Life goes on.
But still, Frost says, when you see an old barn, when you stop to look at some abandoned farm place, you just can't help imagining what once was, and what will, sadly enough, be. The only way not to grow weepy, he says, is steel yourself, "to be versed in country ways."
I think there's almost a touch of horror in that confession, and absolutely nothing of Robert Kinkade. Don't expect nature to care!--typical Frost. If you don't want to dissolve into sweet nostalgia, then you better learn some things from "country ways," he says, because in the country, like it or not, life goes on, sister.
But then, the poem is not about country ways at all, it's about us--the darling sentimentality we feel for what once was versus the very real business of life, the necessity of change. Classic human pain rises from the dissonance between what we feel in our hearts and know in our heads. Even though they rejoice in their nests and even though lots of things, for them, don't change, even with the house gone and the barn abandoned, it's still really, really hard for us humans, who should know better, "not to believe the phoebes wept."
That's why I stop along the road at abandoned places, and I'm not alone because I, like Frost, really want to believe those birds cry too.
The photo is mine. The barn wasn't. In my files, I've got it from a lot of angles during a dozen dawns. Last year someone took the place down down. Nearly broke my heart. This year it's all corn. Country ways.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:06 AM