Poetic Thought for the Day (9/2/2014): Robert Frost ~ Self, Poetry & Voice


Into My Own

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day
into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew–
Only more sure of all I thought was true. 

Robert Frost went against the grain of American tradition in the sense that he went against both Emerson and Whitman, and for the most part sided with that other tradition, Emily Dickinson. More explicitly, what Frost gained from Ralph Waldo Emerson, our Sage and Essayist, was the gleanings of a beautiful necessity in life and thought that he’d gathered from Emerson’s later work, The Conduct of Life. By that I mean a vision of life in which we are embedded in a field of forces that surround us as a great vastness, a realm of beautiful necessity, Ananke. 

This book of essays by Emerson began with titles such as Fate, Power, Wealth, Culture, Behavior, Worship, Considerations, Beauty, and Illusions. In that first essay on Fate Emerson would ask: “How shall I live?” By what conduct of life shall a man or woman live? He would explicated: “We are incompetent to solve the times. Our geometry cannot span the huge orbits of the prevailing ideas, behold their return, and reconcile their opposition. We can only obey our own polarity. ‘Tis fine for us to speculate and elect our course, if we must accept an irresistible dictation.”

It’s in that last sentence that Emerson, a champion up to that time of Will & Freedom would finally begin to see that maybe, just maybe we were not so free as we like to believe, and most of all that this so to speak notion of Free-Will, so touted by Utilitarian’s like John Mills and others might be just a grand illusion; or, as he says, we might be controlled not by free-will but by some “irresistible dictation”.

In the above poem Frost describes two notions that would stay him against the time’s ruins for the remainder of his life: the vastness of things, and the stability of Self in the face of all that vastation. In our time the notion of Self seems an almost quaint and trivial thing as far as philosophers and neuroscientists go, but for poets it is primal and alive, and unchanging core of what we are. And, to be honest, it has nothing to do with what those philosophers or scientists attack as Self & Identity. No. The Self & Void (vastness of things) that Frost spoke of is something in us that is old and unswerving, something that exists as a dark rock at the bottom of our being which through poetry begins to become aware of itself, to rise up from its dark hollow and trek off into the dark forests of existence never looking back.

So what is it that is real in us that is unchanging and essential, and goes against all odds of such postmodern nihilists as Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida, and others who say the Self is illusion? Is the Self the great mystery of existence, or just a biochemical reaction to the brain’s impulses? Do we observe the Self in behavior and action, or is it an intangible essence that cannot be described in words that touch only the surface of things not their hidden life? Is it like Zen, can we only point to the moon, use thought or feeling as a bridge to the inevitable truths that surmount such descriptions? Do we return to such spiritual and meditative practices as the Greeks and Hindus, Sufi Dervish and Mountain Taoists describe? How to know the Self that is unchanging and yet living in our midst?

Poetry leads one into that dark forest, shows you the way into that vastness, but it does not offer you an answer other that the only answer there is: your own life in time and space, your Self and the magic of this exploration into its mysteries. Only you can solve the mystery of Self for yourself, no one can give you a book, poem, or philosophical disquisition that will explain it like some automobile mechanic who could explain the complete mystery of an engine. No. The Self is not something you can take apart and put under a microscope to investigate at leisure like some lab technician. The Self is human capacity itself, it is the combined knowledge and wisdom of life in motion as it lives and explores the mysteries of the Great Outdoors of Being. One cannot put it into a grain of sand, else as Blake once affirmed:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.
A Dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A Horse misus’d upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fiber from the Brain does tear.

He who shall train the Horse to War
Shall never pass the Polar Bar.
The Beggar’s Dog and Widow’s Cat,
Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.
The Gnat that sings his Summer song
Poison gets from Slander’s tongue.
The poison of the Snake and Newt
Is the sweat of Envy’s Foot.

A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent.
It is right it should be so;
Man was made for Joy and Woe;
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go.

Every Night and every Morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight.
Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night. 

Blake being a shrewd poet, and wise, succinctly tells us in that last stanza that we are all bound on the wheel of beautiful necessity, and there is no god measuring out in teaspoons our fates. Instead some are born into misery, some not; there is no answer to such things, no absolute hidden behind things to give meaning to such dark imponderables. There is only sweet delight and endless night.

Emerson pondered other cultures and their notions of Self and Identity:

The early Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Xenophanes measured their force on this problem of identity. Diogenes of Apollonia said, that unless the atoms were made of one stuff, they could never blend and act with one another. But the Hindoos, in their sacred writings, express the liveliest feeling, both of the essential identity, and of that illusion which they conceive variety to be. “The notions, `I am,’ and `This is mine,’ which influence mankind, are but delusions of the mother of the world. Dispel, O Lord of all creatures! the conceit of knowledge which proceeds from ignorance.” And the beatitude of man they hold to lie in being freed from fascination.

Emerson in answer to this

There is no chance, and no anarchy, in the universe. All is system and gradation. Every god is there sitting in his sphere. The young mortal enters the hall of the firmament: there is he alone with them alone, they pouring on him benedictions and gifts, and beckoning him up to their thrones. On the instant, and incessantly, fall snow-storms of illusions. He fancies himself in a vast crowd which sways this way and that, and whose movement and doings he must obey: he fancies himself poor, orphaned, insignificant. The mad crowd drives hither and thither, now furiously commanding this thing to be done, now that. What is he that he should resist their will, and think or act for himself? Every moment, new changes, and new showers of deceptions, to baffle and distract him. And when, by and by, for an instant, the air clears, and the cloud lifts a little, there are the gods still sitting around him on their thrones, — they alone with him alone.

As one reads through the above a second and a third time the realization comes upon one that for Emerson the Universe is one vast clock-work mechanism in which everything is already set and the gods are great manipulators pulling the strings of their puppets at will and as part of some inscrutable game. Humans enter alone and in solitude, are given certain gifts and enhancements, provided illusions to allow them to play out their insignificant roles in the game, then once the game is over they are once again left without illusions confronted by their necessitous masters as in a great nightmare. This is Emerson at his most dark moment, after his wife, his son, and all those most dear to him were gone, dead beyond recall. This is Emerson confronting fate and necessity, the beauty of a murderous universe without rhyme or reason. This is Frost’s situation between gloom and doom.

Through all the fine rhetoric the question that must be raised and raised again, and can only be answered by one’s own confrontation with the “vastness” is Emerson’s:

What is he that he should resist their will, and think or act for himself?

This is the question of Job and his confrontation with the great and terrible force of his own illusions and the God they created. This is the question we will all have to answer, alone and in solitude. Between Self and Not-Self, Subjectivity and World lies the answer that cannot be defined by anything more nor less than one’s total confrontation of those powers of the universe itself.

That in one brilliant dark moment is what Frost means by

They would not find me changed from him they knew–
Only more sure of all I thought was true. 

When one knows and is known by what is oldest in one’s self, then and only then will this become an affirmation and a plenitude. This is what poet’s mean when they speak of finding one’s voice. This sense of finding one’s way back into the core of one’s being and of confronting things as a power who’s time has come.

When one thinks of such beings as Buddha or Christ is this not what they were after from different frames of reference? Were they not teaching what could not be taught? Sharing a truth that each person must find deep within the core of their own confrontation with the terrible powers of the universe? And, how far did we fall from their meanings when humans fell back into dark religions and built up grand illusionary systems of governance and power rather than an opening toward that “vastness” and uncharted dark forest of being?

Listen to Emerson at his most nihilistic moment:

When we break the laws, we lose our hold on the central reality. Like sick men in hospitals, we change only from bed to bed, from one folly to another; and it cannot signify much what becomes of such castaways, — wailing, stupid, comatose creatures, — lifted from bed to bed, from the nothing of life to the nothing of death.

Robert Frost in his dark moment in Design:

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth —
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth —
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

For Frost beautiful necessity, the order of things, the Lucretian world without God or gods was both a realm of beauty and horror that when confronted was and is totally indifferent to our cares or pleas; yet, in this order there is a hidden pattern, a design that is neither shaped nor formed by some creative being, nor is it founded on some knowledge that humans can contain or apprehend. Between that “design of darkness” or it’s opposite and reversal lies the confrontation to which every poet must come if he/she is to call herself poet.

That is my thought of the day!

For my next thought of the day I’ll ponder in reverse: What does change? What in us becomes and is in constant change? Against the core Self that is old and unchanging, there is the Soul or the changing element in the self that is evolving toward something else… to that my thoughts will turn next!

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