Monday, December 19, 2016

Three poems (Frost, Thomas, and Yeats) and a Fourth I Cannot Recall

Over on Facebook, people keep posting a link to Robert Frost reading one of his more famous poems, "Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening" (1923), which I think I can get away with reproducing here:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.   
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.   
    The only other sound’s the sweep   
    Of easy wind and downy flake.   
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
 
I remember when I was doing poetry reading in high school speech meets that I considered doing this as part of my repertoire (along with "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" (1937),  "Easter 1916" (1916), and something else that I forget).  What, you ask, was the unifying theme of these poems?
 
Well, from the first time I read Frost's poem, I thought it was being spoken by a man considering suicide--the darkest evening, the dark and deep woods, the isolation, the silence (except for the harness bells).  Dylan Thomas's poem, written (famously) on the death of his father, is a cry of anguish against death:
 
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
 
And Yeats's poem is also, famously, about the deaths of men struggling, in the best way they knew (and if immediately unsuccessful, eventually their cause triumphed) for freedom.  Terrible, yes...I'm somewhat less sure about the beauty.
 
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wing├Ęd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?   
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born
.
 
Four poems (I forget the other one) about death--a potential suicide, a death from old age, deaths as a by-product of a failed revolution...
 
Anyway, that's how it seemed to me.  And today, hearing Frost read his own words, reading those words again, I wondered...why did that man, stopping in the woods, momentarily want to die?  Was it the harness bells that dissuaded him?  And did he, after those miles in front of him, actually sleep?

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