Write Team: Private post-Easter thoughts by Robert Frost

Robert Cotner, Write Team

A while back, I was committing to memory a Robert Frost poem that had struct my fancy. The structure of the poem had interested me in particular. It was 13 lines long, one line short of a standard sonnet. Why hadn’t the poet created a 14th line and made it a legitimate sonnet? If asked, the poet would have, with his wry smile, said “I said everything I wanted to say in 13 lines – I didn’t need a 14th.”

But most significantly, Frost had written the 13 lines of the poem as a single sentence – and created one of the most remarkable sentences ever written in the English language. Let me recite that poem for you:

She is as in a field a silken tent

At midday when the sunny summer breeze

Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,

So that in guys it gently sways at ease,

And its supporting central cedar pole,

That is its pinnacle to heavenward

And signifies the sureness of the soul,

Seems to own naught to any single cord,

But strictly held by none, is loosely bound

By countless silken ties of love and thought

To everything on earth the compass round,

And only by one’s going slightly taut

In the capriciousness of summer air

Is of the slightest bondage made aware.”

But what so often happens when you commit a poem to memory, you move to a higher level of understanding of the text, and its meaning greatly expands. I realized that the opening line in structure and theme paralleled lines in the “Book of Proverbs” from the Bible:

“She is like the merchants’ ships;

She bringeth her food from afar.”

What Frost does is create a poem on his version of the ideal woman, which derives from Jewish Wisdom Literature.

My mind moved to his “Masque of Reason and Masque of Mercy,” delightful biblical renditions; I thought of “Fire and Ice” and “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” poems with biblical allusions; and I was reminded of “Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Road Not Taken,” and many other Frost poems, which move toward profound wisdom.

These thoughts reminded me of a conversation with Robert Frost on an afternoon visit with him in his Ripton, Vermont summer home on June 3, 1962. As I was leaving, we talked of John Kennedy and his inauguration. “What do you think of ‘Profiles in Courage?’” I asked.

“A great book – one every American should read,” he replied. He stood facing the setting sun, arms folded across his chest. “Kennedy shows us that to achieve greatness” – and here he raised his arm above his head and made a grasping motion with his fingers – “we have to grasp what we call the ‘Divine’ and make it a part of our lives.” He brought his hand to his chest and touched it. It was one of those rare, lovely moments in life.

I told this story to Frost’s biographer, Lawrence Thompson, who had just published his second volume of his Frost biography and had won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Unfortunately, Thompson died before finishing his third volume and this story was never used.

It is appropriate, it seems to me, that, since I am now the exact age that Frost was when he said these words to me, I share them with you for this Easter season.

Robert Cotner spent 25 years as an English teacher that include serving as Fulbright lecturer in English at the University of Liberia. He concluded his career as an executive at The Salvation Army and Shriners Children’s Hospital-Chicago. He now lives in Seneca.