Writing and Ruminating

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

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Keats and Frost and song

Believe me when I say that the title of this post is 100% accurate as to content today. The long story version is that I've just read an interview (from which I will be quoteskimming come Sunday), in which Keats was mentioned. And I thought (as I so often do) "F*ck me, I love Keats", which happens to be a line spoken by Hugh Grant's character in the first Bridget Jones's Diary movie, but also happens to be true. My next thought was "Why not share some Keats today?", and I fumbled about and came up with this sonnet, usually referred to as "Bright Star". But during the reading of it, the little man in the upstairs fileroom started to clamor about Robert Frost and choral music since, twice upon a time, I've been in choruses that have performed choral settings of certain Frost poems (known as Frostiana, music by Randall Thompson, by the by).

Today, you get Keats's Shakespearian sonnet - a love poem that is entirely swoon-worthy on its own, plus Frost's "Choose Something Like a Star" in both poem and choral form. Plus discussion in analysis. I am totally the Crazy Eddie of poetry this morning: Everything must go!

Bright Star
by John Keats

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite*,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No— yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever— or else swoon to death.


*Eremite: a hermit, particularly a religious recluse who lives alone in the wilderness

Discussion of the Keats poem

In this single-sentence sonnet, Keats fixes his attention on a star in the sky, wishing that he had the ability to be as steadfast and watchful of the woman he loved (almost certainly Fanny Brawn at this point in his life). Keats is such a drama queen that he wants to lie with her forever, "pillowed on her breast" or else swoon to death. The poem, which is written using the Shakespearian sonnet form, uses iambic pentameter and the ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme. The volta or "turn" in the poem comes at the start of line 9, when Keats turns his attention from the star up in the sky to describing how he wishes to be able to have that star's immortal constancy in order to stay with his beloved.

Note how Keats begins the poem by addressing the star in the sky, but when he reaches the volta, he pretty much ceases to address the star, and talks to himself. Were this a performance on the stage, the actor might start his recitation by looking up to the star and gesturing, but he would almost undoubtedly turn his attention from the star to a more inward performance by the start of the 9th line, or else he might have a conveniently placed woman on a chaise lying about with whom to conclude the recitation.

I should note that this poem is sometimes referred to as "the last sonnet", because it was for quite a long time believed to be the final sonnet Keats wrote before his death. Some dispute as to whether that is correct exists, but it does appear to be one of the last poems he completed before his death, even if it was drafted earlier than first believed.


Choose Something Like a Star
by Robert Frost

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to the wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, 'I burn.'
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.


This 25-line poem is written in iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line), and uses a complicated nested rhyme scheme (AABAABCBDEDEFGGFGHIIHJKKJ), although one could fairly characterize the final eight lines as stanzas set in envelope rhyme. The starting 17 lines use a nested rhyme technique that is quite similar to what T.S. Eliot used in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", posted here the other day, and rest assured, that is no coincidence.

Discussion of Frost's poem

Frost specifically references Keats's poem within his, both by addressing a star in the first place and by specifically talking about the steadfastness of the star and "Keats' Eremite". Were this poem to be performed on the stage, there'd be no fainting couch around, and the speaker would essentially be arguing with the star for a good 17 lines. Because it's not until the final 8 lines of this poem that Frost stops addressing the star directly. Yet there, at the start of the 18th line - "And steadfast as Keats' Eremite" - is a volta, where the poet stops hollering at the star and turns to his audience to address them directly.

Now, Frost's poem is actually quite lovely on its surface. It purports to be about a star in the night sky, and the speaker asks it questions, seeking answers, and the star tells us precious little about itself. "It says 'I burn'./But say with what degree of heat./Talk Fahrenheit. Talk Centigrade. Tell us what elements you blend." The speaker wants facts and specifics, something he can wrap his head around.

But, to quote Eliot from the other day, "That is not it at all,/That is not what [he] meant, at all." Frost, you see, told at least one of his classes that the "star" to which the poem is addressed was a contemporary star in the world of poetry: T.S. Eliot. Frost is being his usual cantankerous self, criticizing Eliot for his highbrow ways and for combining elements (Sanskrit, Hebrew, mythology, pop culture and more) in his poems in a way that many average folk found incomprehensible. In "On Extravagance: A Talk", Frost doesn't straightaway acknowledge Eliot, but gets around to it. In discussing this poem, he says

By that star I mean the Arabian Nights or Catullus or something in the Bible or something way off or something way off in the woods, and when I've made a mistake in my vote. (We were talking about that today. How many times we voted this way and that by mistake.)

And then see little personal things like this.... (Do you know the real motivation probably of it all...? Take the one line in that, "Some mystery becomes the proud." Do you know where I got that? Out of long efforts to understand contemporary poets. You see, let them be a mystery. And that's my generosity--call it that! If I was sure they meant anything to themselves it would be all right.)

On the one hand, Frost is challenging other contemporary poets to speak more plainly in their writing. On the other, if one wants to be "generous" (and I sincerely doubt that Frost was being generous, but let's play along): he's saying at the start of the poem that Eliot is pretentious and proud and obscure. That's Eliot's choice and he's welcome to it. But Frost goes on to challenge Eliot (and possibly other contemporary writers) to "say something to us we can learn/by heart and when alone repeat." After flinging out the challenge a second time, the star says only "I burn", and doesn't elucidate further. Frost says, in essence, that that is a telling response. Dispensing with the clever use of intertwined rhyme that Eliot frequently uses, Frost turns to the reader for the last eight, settled lines. Referencing Keats, a master of the sonnet form, and using what is essentially two quatrains of envelope rhyme, Frost settles into a more staid form himself to present the argument that choosing his sort of poetry (more formal in the traditional sense than that of some of his contemporaries), one can stay their minds "and be staid."

He's a curmudgeon, but man can he turn a phrase.

To hear a lovely choral setting of the Frost poem sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and with amazing images from the Hubble space telescope, check out this video on YouTube. (Sorry - the owner disabled embedding so I couldn't make this easier on you.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Phil Willis said...

Is it drawing too long a bow to say that "loftiest" is an anagaram of "F TS Eliot"? ;)

10:41 PM  
Blogger Kelly Fineman said...

I'm sorry to say I think the answer to your question is "yes", because that would be so awesome. How clever of you to have figured that out!

10:17 AM  
Blogger Prof. Askey said...

excellent post! I am singing "Chose Something Like a Star" on Feb 27th and have been asked to reflect on the poem. As I am not an English literature or poetry scholar (German lit, thankyouvermuch), the Eliot reference was totally new to me!

8:13 PM  
Blogger Kelly Fineman said...

I love that song setting. It's so great.

9:23 PM  
Blogger revdoc1 said...

I sang this in All State Choir years ago... breatakingly sacred ; hauntungly exact. Thank you for the reminder.

12:05 PM  
Blogger ejbisme said...

Very interesting interpretation, but what is the " it" that is referred to , that asks " of us a certain height"?

Will be conducting "Frostiana" next season and am trying to determine how Frost felt about musical settings. The stories vary - that he loved Thompson's setting and that he despaired of the misinterpretation he sensed in the music. Your explanation would fit the latter view, though I think Frost is expecting a lot of us not to read this as a kind of statement of faith.

11:21 PM  

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