Poetry Friday: 1930 (part 3)

You’ve been very patient with Poetry Friday, since I haven’t trotted out the one poet all Americans love in almost a year—I think you deserve a reward, then, of another moment with Robert Frost.  In this poem, first published in 1930, I think there are a lot of the elements that are considered classically “Frost”, but in a poem you may never have read.  So, I wonder (and hope a couple of you will speak up)…why does this work?  What is it about Robert Frost that gets to so many Americans of all ages and attitudes?  Let’s see if we can find it here in “On Looking Up By Chance At The Constellations”:

You’ll wait a long, long time for anything much
To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud
And the Northern Lights that run like tingling nerves.
The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,
Nor strike out fire from each other nor crash out loud.
The planets seem to interfere in their curves
But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.
We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.
It is true the longest drouth will end in rain,
The longest peace in China will end in strife.
Still it wouldn’t reward the watcher to stay awake
In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break
On his particular time and personal sight.
That calm seems certainly safe to last to-night.

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3 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1930 (part 3)

  1. Paul Hamann says:

    You know, James, I haven’t thought of it before, but Frost is all about the “right now, things are calm, but inevitably there will be some sort of change, perhaps cataclysmic, which I can anticipate but not prepare for, but which I know is coming and am somewhat at peace with as long as I have this moment.” Poets LOVE that moment…it’s “emotion recalled in tranquility,” except the emotion is in the future.

    Frost poems of this oeuvre:

    “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”
    “The Road Less Traveled”
    “Fire and Ice”
    and now, this one.
    All of the below

  2. I am no expert on Robert Frost, but I do know political economy. How could this possible be relevant, you may ask? Let me explain.

    I recently finished a book that investigates what makes the UK and US so good at capitalism. How have our societies endured, even embraced, such jarring changes over the last 300 years? Why does the US have such an emotional attachment to capitalism even after enduring a great depression and coming inches away from experiencing another?

    In the end, the author argues that it’s in our religion. This type of argument certainly is not unheard of, but this author did an especially good job of giving concrete examples to support his argument. One such example was an excerpt of an Anglican hymn by William A. Percy:

    The Peace of God it is no peace
    But strife closed with the sod
    Yet brothers pray for but one thing:
    The wondrous Peace of God.

    So, it seems Frost’s poem is indeed getting at something profoundly American- that the Peace of God is no peace at all, but continual struggle. I think this is a useful way (though, probably not the only way) to conceptualize the American psyche because it can help us understand some of our most important social movements. The civil rights movement- a profoundly Christian and American movement, at its core- would seem to be one of these examples (one thinks of King’s optimism based in thoughtful struggle: “And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”)

    All of this could be completely off base, but I’d like to thank you for posting this poem as an opportunity for me to not only think about one of America’s most treasured authors, but also about what it means to be American.

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