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.