Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Bond and Free

Space is, like our world's oceans, an inhospitable environment for human beings, which is why we've had to construct special capsules and suits in which we can explore it, that supply us with air and the right atmospheric pressure. For more than a century, scientists have speculated that man will eventually have to leave the earth altogether in a few centuries - either because of some ecological disaster or a nuclear catastrophe - and colonize space.

I have always thought that the scientists seemed comfortable - if not delighted - by the prospect of visiting other planets, asserting that humanity will be able to adapt to a new and potentially hostile environment. While I admire the men and women - many of whom perished - who have volunteered to explore space, I have never envied them. Aside from simple curiosity, I have never been unduly interested in exploring the universe. (For the same reason, I suppose, I've never been interested in exploring the oceans.) My task has always been to find a way to live in the world that I currently live on.

The only valuable thing that the view of the earth from space has taught us is what a fragile place it is, upon which we have all been cast adrift in the universe. Such knowledge should also have imparted to us the importance of sharing our provisions equally with one another. Instead, man steals, hoards, and withholds what he has as never before. He will likely carry much of his ignorance with him when he embarks for other worlds. The last great age of discovery was motivated not by curiosity or courage but by greed and commercial competition. Will the next be provoked simply by self-preservation?

I won't be faced with the choice of leaving the earth or staying, assuming there will be such a choice. But when the last rocket ships are taking on evacuees before the earth expires or becomes uninhabitable, I am confident that I would decline the offer. Robert Frost's poem "Bond and Free" confronts just such a prospect. It was published in the collection Mountain Interval (1920), which also contains the Frost masterpieces "Meeting and Passing" and "The Road not Taken". In another poem from the collection, "Birches", Frost wrote:

I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.

Bond and Free

Love has earth to which she clings
With hills and circling arms about -
Wall within wall to shut fear out.
But Thought has need of no such things,
For Thought has a pair of dauntless wings.

On snow and sand and turn, I see
Where Love has left a printed trace
With straining in the world's embrace.
And such is Love and glad to be
But Thought has shaken his ankles free.

Thought cleaves the interstellar gloom
And sits in Sirius' disc all night,
Till day makes him retrace his flight
With smell of burning on every plume,
Back past the sun to an earthly room.

His gains in heaven are what they are.
Yet some say Love by being thrall
And simply staying possesses all
In several beauty that Thought fares far
To find fused in another star.

I think Frost would also choose to stay. But he would probably also half-regret the choice, as he did in "The Road Not Taken". Many readers continue to think Frost was saying something about taking "the road less traveled by", going his own wayward way in the world, and finding some victory in the choice But what he was actually addressing was the terrible necessity of having to choose at all. He would rather have not had to choose, or go both ways just to see where each ends up. Only then would he really know if he went the right way.

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