Poetry Friday: 1942

It’s been a busy Friday, and will be a busy weekend, so this will be a shorter Poetry Friday than most.  In 1942, America’s most beloved (and possibly greatest) poet, Robert Frost, published another collection of his work.  From that book, entitled A Witness Tree, I offer this very brief poem for your consideration: this is “A Question”, by Robert Frost.

“A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.”

Rather than dissect this too much with my own interpretations, with a poem this short, I’m more inclined to ask questions and see what responses you might have.  Is it simply obvious that the voice is “God” or at least some kind of divine being?  Or is it possible the questioner is not responsible for our predicament—a voice (whether from within or without) that is asking us a question it cannot answer?  I’ve seen religious interpretations of this poem, and I wonder whether that’s where you think Frost is taking us.

I also wonder what you think Frost’s answer is: Frost’s then-well-hidden but now-largely-well-known struggles with depression and suicide inhabit a lot of his poetry, though certainly not all of it.  Is the poem intended to make us wish we had indeed never been born?  Or is it a challenge we can answer—an opportunity for us to affirm trial and pain and sorrow for the sake of the joy of living?  Ultimately, is Frost inviting our pessimism or our resilience?  Does the poem invite something different than he intended?

Lastly, and related to the above, what do you think the voice’s motivation is for asking?  After all, it’s not a poem in which a human wonders if he/she should give up, or wishes he/she had never been born.  It’s a poem in which a voice addresses humanity (I’m reading “men of earth” inclusively, anyway, though you don’t have to) and asks for an answer to a question, but what will the voice do with that answer?  Why does it want to know?

That’s all I have this week.  Next week’s Poetry Friday, though, will be a doozy—I’m bringing to a close our series on T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets with 1942’s incomparable “Little Gidding” (so important a poem for me, I’m thinking of breaking it into two parts, like they do with the last volume of over-rated children’s fantasy movie series).  Thanks for your comments below, and for dropping by this little corner of the Internet on Friday night for some poetry.

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5 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1942

  1. Camilla P. says:

    Well, I don’t know Frost’s poethic as much as I’d like to – I’m not American and in my country we don’t study this poet in school (in fact, I doubt many persons know who he is, but that’s another story). Anyway, I’d like to try and give my two cents.
    I’m not surprised it received a religious interpretation, but honestly I think it’s a voice from within the poet himself – just transposed outside to create a dialogue and the possibility to receive an answer. If I’m talking to myself, I already know I don’t know how to answer to my doubts; if I speak to something outside me, whatever it is, I can still imagine he/she/it holds an answer.
    So, as you can imagine from what I’ve written, I believe it is “a challenge we can answer”, to use your words. With struggles, indeed, but I still haven’t found anything worth that can be reached without suffering a little bit.
    I don’t know what Frost intended, but for me it has a sense of fight, of resistance, perfeclty blended with a scient of melancholy and weariness.

    Your questions about why the voice ask this to humanity are really intriguing and I’ll have to reflect on it. Now, I don’t think I can answer properly; I’m going to think about it.

    Thanks for these reflective moments and for sharing such a beautiful poem!

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Camilla, thanks for your comments—Frost is almost universal in American classrooms. It would be hard to graduate from high school in America without having read at least one of his poems, and probably several: only Shakespeare is, I think, more widely assigned. I’m curious: which poet or poets would be that widely known in your country? It’s always interesting, for me at least, to learn this kind of thing.

      I think there’s certainly a lot to be said in favor of your interpretation: it does seem to me more like Frost’s alter ego asking the question than it does God (or a god). I like the tensions you see in the poem, and I hope they’re there too. I wonder, though, if Frost had that kind of optimism available to him. Despite how often we put his verse in front of children, I think his work is often a bit pessimistic about the world, although I can frequently find peace in it despite that pessimism. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

      • Camilla P. says:

        I’m from Italy, so let’s say that graduating without knowing Dante and Petrarca would be nearly impossibile – as well as many other poets (for example, Ariosto, Leopardi, Montale – just a few names, there’s plenty more). We had a much more intense and wide production in verses than in prose, during the centuries. I’m not saying that there isn’t any (very good) prose in Italian literature, though 🙂

        Well, not knowing Frost’s life, that was what I supposed. Learning what his life had been, with all the depression issues, changed my mind a little bit – even if I still feel that kind of tension I talked about. I didn’t know he’s an author frequently proposed to children, it’s an interesting fact to me.

        It was a pleasure, thank you for sharing your posts!

        P.S. this comment may be a little nonsense, since I’m having a faver. I’m sorry for that.

  2. SilverSeason says:

    I did not know the poem, so this was a first reading for me.

    I had no feeling of God in the voice until you mentioned that possibility. This voice seems more in the spirit of the Greeks, who certainly asked this sort of question. In The Iliad, the gods discuss various interventions in the on-going war, but all recognize that even Zeus cannot go against Fate. Fate is not described or defined; Homer assumes that we all know what Fate is. So I can ask the question now: Is Fate the very nature of things, a system that precedes gods and men? In Frost’s poem I hear this unknowable Fate asking me whether it is worthwhile to be alive. That is a question for a time of leisure. We do not have the energy to ask it when we are struggling to survive. We just struggle, acting out of the deepest instinct we have.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      It was new to me also, Nancy, which is rarer and rarer for me with Frost, these days—it’s nice to realize how large a catalog of unread works still lie in front of me. It’s interesting to me that you see this as Fate’s question (and that you envision Fate as a single being—not the three weavers of Perseus’s myth). I think there’s something fascinating about the idea of it being Fate—wondering, perhaps, for the first time about the consequences of what it has willed. Do these fragile mortal beings regret being brought out of nothing? Your interpretation implies that the questioner really wants an answer, I think: I, at least, see Fate in this scenario as being uncertain of the answer and unable to get it by any other means. Your point about leisure is a good one—the kind of angst that leads us to wonder “is it all worthwhile?” does seem like a more modern affliction; a preoccupation of those whose lives are comfortable enough to give them space to ask the question. Does that make the question less important, then—the sort of navel-gazing we can expect of the bored and the wealthy? Or more important, because only humans freed of the almost animal struggle to survive can reach a place where the question is possible? You’ve given me plenty of food for thought—thanks!

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