Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Changing Times

Notes on the Poetry of Robert Frost

"They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.” 
― Robert Frost, A Boy's Will

I commented earlier this month on Robert Frost's poem "Mowing" that was included in his first published collection, A Boy's Will.  Another poem in  the same collection, "Pan With Us," acknowledges a changed, modern world with a little more nostalgia for the old mythological creatures of poetry.  Pan was the son of Hermes and Penelope (later married to Odysseus) in some myths and the son of Zeus and the nymph Callisto in others. He is the god of flocks and shepherds. He is mostly human in appearance but, with goat horns and goat feet. He is an excellent musician and plays the pipes. He is merry and playful frequently seen dancing with woodland nymphs. He is at home in any wild place but, is favorite is Arcadia, where he was born. He is always in pursuit of one of the nymphs but, always rejected because he is ugly.

In Frost's poem Pan is represented by grayness in the second line—almost a cinematic dissolve of the old pipe-playing, sexual, half-animal creature—justifies and animates the grammatical inversion of the following line: "The gray of the moss of walls were they,".  Note the other contrast as Pan comes "out of the woods" and stands "in the sun".  While looking over the valley and hill one may wonder that his eyes may be somewhat blinded by the sun.  A reference that conflates the early Greek myth of Pan with  Plato's later myth of the Cave.  This betrays Frost's own philosophical background as he was taught by Santayana at Harvard and read the classics.  Nonetheless there is also a sense that the poem is partly a lament for old ways and partly a parody of them.  In spite of his sense of peace, since "He saw no smoke and he saw no roof.", there was something new, "The times were changed from what they were."  Thus he found it too hard to teach his old pipes a new song.  The world "has found new terms of worth" and he laid down with his pipes in bemusement.

Pan With Us

Pan came out of the woods one day,—
His skin and his hair and his eyes were gray,
The gray of the moss of walls were they,—
…And stood in the sun and looked his fill
…At wooded valley and wooded hill.

He stood in the zephyr, pipes in hand,
On a height of naked pasture land;
In all the country he did command
…He saw no smoke and he saw no roof.
…That was well! and he stamped a hoof.

His heart knew peace, for none came here
To this lean feeding save once a year
Someone to salt the half-wild steer,
…Or homespun children with clicking pails
…Who see so little they tell no tales.

He tossed his pipes, too hard to teach
A new-world song, far out of reach,
For a sylvan sign that the blue jay's screech
…And the whimper of hawks beside the sun
…Were music enough for him, for one.

Times were changed from what they were:
Such pipes kept less of power to stir
The fruited bough of the juniper
…And the fragile bluets clustered there
…Than the merest aimless breath of air.

They were pipes of pagan mirth,
And the world had found new terms of worth.
He laid him down on the sun-burned earth
…And ravelled a flower and looked away—
…Play? Play?—What should he play?


Brian Joseph said...

I am really enjoying these posts James. I believe that I have previously read just about all of Frost's poetry. Coming back to few poems through your posts is fun and enlightening as I find that I get so much more out of poetry the second or third time around.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you enjoy the posts on Frost. I love to read and reread many of his lyrical poems.