Tuesday, April 15, 2008

For Once, Then, Something - a National Poetry Month post

Being in New England - and particularly in New Hampshire - puts me in mind of one of my favorite poets, Robert Frost. He worked not far from here, about an hour north near Franconia Notch, close to the shadow of the Old Man of the Mountain before he slid to his doom. I visited there a few summers back, and posted about his house and the property surrounding it, as well as providing the text of one of my favorites of his poems, "The Pasture.

Frost is sometimes seen as a nature poet: someone who writes about what he sees in the natural world. Simple poems that describe in simple terms what was visible to Frost's eye at some point in his life. While nature and its imagery form an integral part of his work, to write him off as simple would be a mistake. Conscious imagery and metaphor exists. In the poem The Oven Bird, for instance, Frost asks "what to make of a dimished thing?" (or, how to view life and its living in the aftermath of the horrors of the first World War).

I first read today's poem as a college student, and somewhere the sheet of paper printed in purple ink is tucked inside my Norton Anthology of American Literature, still smelling faintly of mimeograph fluid. Today's selection was published in Harper's Weekly in 1920, later appearing in Frost's collection, New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes. In the poem that follows, Frost directly takes on his critics. "I do not merely skim the surface," he says in his way, "but perhaps you do not know how to see what is really there."

For Once, Then, Something
by Robert Frost

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.

A quick scan of the end words will show that this poem is not written in a particular rhyme scheme. A counting of the syllables in each line, however, will yield the knowledge that each line contains eleven syllables. This is not a typical English form, my friends. I have it on good authority that it is a Latin form, as Frost (who studied Latin) would have known. It is, rather, a Latin form known by the ponderous name of phalaecean hendecasyllabics. The use of this particular form was common to a Roman poet named Catullus, who earned himself a reputation for scathing put-downs of his critics. The most notable of them was written in (say it with me:) phalaecean hendecasyllabics. Frost is not the first poet writing in the English language to send missiles towards his critics using this form; Tennyson shot back at his critics using the form in a poem entitled "Hendecasyllabics".

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