Friday, April 23, 2010

How to read a poem

Here are two poems about people who inhabit or prefer the solitude of "untrodden" ways but differ in so many other ways as to be virtually incomparable—yet both poems are undeniably 'romantic' in some sense yet to be determined. I am not going to tell you who wrote these poems because that's information that you don't need to know; the biographies of these poets—and of most poets if they are any good—is irrelevant to their poems.  Everything you need to know in order to read poems such as these intelligently is contained in the poetry—words, meter, rhyme, grammar, syntax. But of course you have to know what the words mean and how they are being used.

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove.
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love;

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!              
Let us begin with the first of these, #1, about a young woman, or "maid," who leads a life of nearly absolute seclusion without family or neighbors (or even a house for all we know), praised by none, loved by few—and is not even given a name, 'Lucy,' until she dies—or rather ceases "to be," as if the verb 'die' were almost too active for such a passive existence as hers: so passive indeed, so secluded or cut off from human contact that the poem compares her to a violet by a mossy stone or a single star implying that she'd be lost or indistinguishable in any group whatsoever. Strangest of all, in this very strange poem, is the vague, muted anguish of the poet at the thought of Lucy in her grave: "But Lucy is in her grave, and, oh, the difference to me." That "but" is intended, with but partial success, to enforce the contrast between the indifference of those who have nothing good to say about Lucy—and the few who love her—and the anguish of the poet who not only knew her but knows of her death: well, what difference has the death of Lucy made in the life of the poet? Not much, it would seem, despite his best efforts. Neither the life nor the death of Lucy, of whom we know so little, is of much consequence in this world—and that, it seems to me, is the point, or even the sting in the tail, of this poem. For most of the people in this world—and here I step outside the poem—lead lives not so very different in their anonymity from Lucy's. Whether this is a point that the poet intended to make is uncertain.                      

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

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.  

This second poem plays a trick on the reader at the same time that the poet is making fun of himself, and most of Frost's readers are taken in.

Two identical roads diverged in a yellow wood. The poem insists more than once that these roads were really about the same. The fact that one is chosen instead of the other is an accident, pure chance.

But the poet knows himself pretty well and he knows something about human nature: he knows that people will always try to find meaning in their lives even if they have to make it up.  We all need to think well of ourselves and we will. The poet knows how he will tell this story in the future, that he will romanticize himself, as a loner who goes his own way, takes chances, lives life on his own terms. That's how autobiographies are written. "I shall be telling this with a sigh," he says knowing that he will do so with melodramatic intent—you can hear it in that repetition of "I", which, not irrelevantly, rhymes with "lie," which is not what he is doing exactly; it's just that he is not quite telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth which is that there was absolutely nothing to distinguish the one road from the other.

Most lives are lived almost randomly, especially when we are young. We don't know what we're doing most of the time; it is only later, looking back on our lives, that we lay claims to wisdom. See, it all made sense we say, though of course none of it did at the time.

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