Writing and Ruminating

Thoughts on writing, reading, and poetry. With the occasional diversion, bien sûr.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Goodbye, And Keep Cold -- a Poetry Friday post

Last night it dipped into the single digits here -- a sudden temperature plunge compliments of Canada, I suppose, even colder than the forecasters warned us it would be. They'd predicted lows in the high teens, with windchills colder still; but the starting temperatures were closer to zero than they'd said, and the windchills were not a positive sort of development.

On such a frigid Friday morning, thoughts turn to frost -- and to Robert Frost, who in 1920 published a poem about winter in the July issue of Harper's Magazine. It's an example of one of Frost's agricultural poems more so than a nature poem. Here, he contemplates an orchard he's planted on a north-facing hill on a farm. He hopes the trees won't be stripped by local animals, and that the weather won't affect its output. As he departs the farm for another locale, he recognizes that, although he enjoys his orchard, once he is engaged in other pursuits, its care and keeping will be out of his hands -- and the orchard itself will be out of mind.

Goodbye, And Keep Cold
by Robert Frost

This saying good-bye on the edge of the dark
And cold to an orchard so young in the bark
Reminds me of all that can happen to harm
An orchard away at the end of the farm
All winter, cut off by a hill from the house.
I don't want it girdled by rabbit and mouse,
I don't want it dreamily nibbled for browse
By deer, and I don't want it budded by grouse.
(If certain it wouldn't be idle to call
I'd summon grouse, rabbit, and deer to the wall
And warn them away with a stick for a gun.)
I don't want it stirred by the heat of the sun.
(We made it secure against being, I hope,
By setting it out on a northerly slope.)
No orchard's the worse for the wintriest storm;
But one thing about it, it mustn't get warm.
"How often already you've had to be told,
Keep cold, young orchard. Good-bye and keep cold.
Dread fifty above more than fifty below."
I have to be gone for a season or so.
My business awhile is with different trees,
Less carefully nourished, less fruitful than these,
And such as is done to their wood with an axe—
Maples and birches and tamaracks.
I wish I could promise to lie in the night
And think of an orchard's arboreal plight
When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)
Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
But something has to be left to God.


Written primarily in rhymed couplets (two lines in a row ending in the same sound) and a very interesting use of meter. If this were music, it'd be in 12/8, with 4 sets of triplets to each measure (or line). Only many of the lines would start with a pick-up note.

ta-DUM-bump-bump-DUM-bump-bump-DUM-bump-bump-DAH

Until, that is, you get to the end, and everything winds to a slower stop. First, Frost departs from the rhymed couplet by adding a third rhyming line: "When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)", thereby extending that last rhymed couplet by a full line (or measure), in the way that Beethoven might have added a coda to the close of a musical piece. And I believe the use of the word "slowly" here is a direct cue to the reader to slow down, and that the pace is definitely changing. And then he adds another rhymed couplet that doesn't truly fit the earlier rhythm of the poem -- neither line has as many syllables as the earlier ones, for example, and the syllables it does have don't use the same stress patterns. The effect is not only to actually slow down the reading at the end of the poem, but to add weight to the closing couplet:

Its heart sinks lower under the sod.
But something has to be left to God.


And yes, you can force the last two lines to fit the DUM-bump-bump rhythm of the earlier bit of the poem, but if (or when) you do, you will think it silly to do so because it so diminishes the meaning of the lines.

So for this morning, Goodbye, and Keep Cold. Although truly, I hope you will keep yourself warm.

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