Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Lovely Woods

In 1943, fifty thousand copies of a poem were printed and sent by the Council on Books in Wartime to U.S. troops fighting overseas - as a "morale-builder." Here is the poem:


I came to the edge of the woods,
Thrush music - hark!
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.

Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing.

The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush's breast.

Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went -
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.

But no, I was out for stars:
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked,
And I hadn't been.

Try to imagine a soldier on the move with his unit in Italy or North Africa, or a marine on some Pacific island he never heard of, opening the envelope containing this poem by Robert Frost, and reading it during some pause in the fighting, sitting against the blown-out wall of a house or against a palm tree in the sun. What would they have made of Frost's poem? Would they have found it "optimistic," as the people who chose it believed Frost intended? "What's this?" I can hear them querelously asking. "A bird telling some guy to come in?" I can see my father, an Army MP in Bizerte, Tunisia in 1943, wondering why the hell somebody thought to send him a poem in the middle of a war.

Or would my father, or some of the other soldiers and marines who got the poem, have noticed that Frost is walking alone at dusk, the gathering shadows at end of the day, and would he have known what that unseen thrush was doing in the seductive dark of the woods? Wouldn't he have heard that thrush - or something like it - himself sometimes? And how many of the men who stuffed the envelope containing the poem into their pockets were found dead, having once said yes to the call?

There is something within the woods - something other than a thrush - that calls out to Frost walking at the edge. The thrush's song was a last thrilling tribute to the light, before the night falls. The man knows this, but acknowledges the invitation to come in from the dusk to the dark. "But no," he demurs, "I would not come in." And he shrugs the moment off, saying that he wasn't really asked to come in, but wouldn't have done it even if he had been.

Frost never tried to correct the popular image that most readers had of him as "the poet of the countryside, of rural settings - as a folksy, crusty, wisecracking old gentleman farmer, generally of positive disposition."(1) So, when the people at the Council on Books in Wartime in 1943 chose "Come In," because they saw it as an "optimistic" poem, optimistic because the poet said "no" to the invitation, Frost didn't try to disabuse them of the what the thrush's invitation implies.

The poem is directly reminiscent, although he wrote it much earlier, of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", from his fourth collection New Hampshire:

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.

Along with the darkness of the wood in "Come In," there is the cold that gives the void an extra dimension. It's probably Frost's most famous poem. It is famous for being delicately simple. Only the strange repetition of the rhyme (DDDD) in the last stanza, and the ultimate line repeating the penultimate, makes ripples in its delicate surface. And yet, like some of Frost's better-known poems, as well as many of his lesser-known poems, it is deceptively simple. It's simplicity is actually a surface effect. When examined closely, it betrays depths that are both ambiguous and, to use Lionel Trilling's characterization of Frost, "terrifying."

It may come as a surprise to all those who admire the poem for its "picture postcard" prettiness that what Frost is alluding to in his imagery, if one looks just a little bit closer, is death. In his close examination of "Come In," the Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky certainly knew what Frost was talking about in the poem. "The twenty lines of the poem constitute the title's translation. And in this translation, I am afraid, the expression 'come in' means 'die.'"

"Stopping by Woods" was John F. Kennedy's favorite poem, by his favorite poet. I wonder if he, too, was beguiled by the seductive loveliness of the dark and deep woods. The many miles he had to go before he slept didn't let him forget that moment by the woods.

(1) Joseph Brodsky, "On Grief and Reason," The New Yorker, 26 September 1994.

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