The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems.

Author:Clark, Sherman J.
Position::Book review

THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST: THE COLLECTED POEMS. Edited by Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Henry Holt and Co. 1969. Pp. xx, 521. $37.50.


Why should lawyers read Frost? First of all, of course, it can bring great pleasure. As Robert Pinsky put it, poetry brings pleasures "both intellectual and bodily" and can provide "a satisfaction central to life." (1) And this is particularly true of Frost, whose poems are both accessible and enjoyable. This does not mean that there are no challenges in his poems. Frost does make us work. Indeed, as I hope to explore in this Essay, the work he asks us to do is essential to what we can learn from his poems. But this work is itself engaging and invigorating--like the exhilarating challenge of rock climbing. Or, for those inclined to more grounded pleasures, it is akin perhaps to the satisfaction one can get from the hard, rewarding work of splitting wood, which Frost, through his narrator in "Two Tramps in Mud Time," describes this way:

You'd think I never had felt before The weight of an ax-head poised aloft, The grip on earth of outspread feet, The life of muscles rocking soft And smooth and moist in vernal heat. (p. 276) Both intellectual and bodily indeed.

But along with these essential pleasures, what can we get and learn from Frost? Granted that we may want to read Frost, why might it be a good thing for lawyers, in particular, to do so? It is not because Frost's poetry teaches lessons about the law in any direct sense. Frost wrote poems, not lessons--let alone lessons for lawyers. His poems are true pictures of life and the world, not fables with easy morals. As a result, what we can learn from Frost comes less from the poems than through them. It comes through reflection on the things he shows us so honestly and well. And, more deeply, it comes through the very experience of reading the poems. Here, I consider some of the ways in which we might be enriched by both the things Frost shows us and the ways he helps us see. I hope to suggest that the enjoyable challenge offered by Frost can engender capacities and habits of mind that can be valuable, even ennobling, both in our lives and in our work.


    But why lawyers? Given that a thoughtful person should want to see the world as well and clearly as possible and that reading Frost can help, why should lawyers in particular seek out and embrace this experience? I hope in this Essay to provoke thought about this question, not dispose of it at the outset; but I might begin with these lines from the same poem:

    But yield who will to their separation, My object in living is to unite My avocation and my vocation As my two eyes make one in sight, (p. 277) One hears much talk among lawyers and others about "work-life balance," but "balance" may be a limiting and misleading way to frame the question. We do not talk about a balance between left eye and right eye because we recognize that what matters is how the two work together. Nor is it simply a matter of "doing what you love," such that work and play would be one and the same. No; the depth perception afforded by having two eyes comes through the slightly different perspective provided by each. Understood in this way, the aim is not so much balance between life and work but the right sort of connection between the two.

    Let this, then, be a starting point: lawyering well and living fully are, or can be, closely related and mutually illuminating endeavors. Both are about seeing as well and fully as possible. For thoughtful lawyers, work and life are both ongoing efforts to make sense of, impose order on, and ultimately find meaning and dignity in our world and ourselves. Granted, the daily concerns of much legal work can seem far removed from the deeper concerns of life, but that very distance is part of what allows each to add perspective to the other--how these two eyes might make one sight.

    Thinking about how this might be the case calls on us to think about what it means to see well. What gets in the way? In what way is it potentially ennobling? Frost does not resolve these questions in any didactic sense but rather shows us how irresolvable they are, even as he illuminates and deepens our understanding of them. And that, too, is an essential part of the experience of reading his work. To read Frost is to be shown real and vital things with great depth and clarity while at the same time being confronted with our inability to resolve them, and the tensions within them, with any comforting certainty. Consider a short poem that both describes and provides this experience:

    "A Passing Glimpse" To Ridgely Torrence on last looking into his "Hesperides" I often see flowers from a passing car That are gone before I can tell what they are. I want to get out of the train and go back To see what they were beside the track. I name all the flowers I am sure they weren't: Not fireweed loving where woods have burnt-- Not bluebells gracing a tunnel mouth-- Not lupine living on sand and drouth. Was something brushed across my mind That no one on earth will ever find? Heaven gives its glimpses only to those Not in position to look too close, (p. 248) In our lives and work, we are rarely able to stand still long enough to look closely enough to see things well enough to understand them as well as we might wish. Like Frost's most quoted traveler, we too "have promises to keep." (2) As a result, what might be opportunities to get at something worthwhile pass by too quickly; they brush across our mind and recede. Lawyers will recognize this experience. Our work constantly presents us with issues that might reward deep engagement with worthwhile insight. We encounter people--clients, colleagues, students, even adversaries--whose views, had we time and capacity to appreciate them, might reward our attention with valuable perspective. But we rarely have that time. And, perhaps as a consequence, we often also lack the willingness and capacity to even try to see our work, and our world, as well and fully as we might.

    "A Passing Glimpse," emblematic of Frost's poetry generally, not only describes but also provides this experience: when you read the poem, you first get a clear picture, a little story--neither obscure nor, on the surface, particularly difficult. But you also sense that there is more, some deeper insight beneath the surface. You wish you could pause, read it again, and try to get at what has brushed across your mind. And perhaps you try to do so. But the more you look, the more you realize you still have not gotten to the bottom of the thing. And life calls--other more pressing thoughts demand your attention; and the train rolls on.

    The final couplet of "A Passing Glimpse" is suspiciously Aesopian, and thus should give us pause. Perhaps the narrator is simply reassuring and consoling himself for having been denied a closer look? Or can we take it at something like face value, as suggesting that fine things--heaven, happiness, true beauty--are often only accessible through various forms of indirection? Uncertainty about the status of our glimpses is part of what this poem demands we recognize, rather than something we can simply resolve. What the poem does not do, however, is end in cynical resignation or narrowness masquerading as pragmatism. What we can do--what the poem perhaps encourages us to do--is look out for the glimpse.

    In his work, Frost tries to slow the train for us briefly and give us a chance to look more carefully at what our world has to show. He offers, as he put it, "a momentary stay against confusion." (3) It turns out, however, that even when we can pause and look at things with care, we are often still not able to resolve difficult questions with finality.


    Consider another poem on the theme of elusive insight--this from the perspective of a narrator who has time to pause and look with care but who still cannot see all the way through:

    "For Once, Then, Something" Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs Always wrong to the light, so never seeing Deeper down in the well than where the water Gives me back in a shining surface picture Me myself in the summer heaven, godlike, Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs. Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb, I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture, Through the picture, a something white, uncertain, Something more of the depths--and then I lost it. Water came to rebuke the too clear water. One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom, Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness? Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something, (p. 225) As with a pool of water, there are at least two reasons why we might be unable to see the bottom of a poem, even when we...

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