Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Rose Family by Robert Frost

Yesterday's poem was "O My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose" by Robert Burns. Where to go next when the talk is of roses? To Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet? "What's in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet." (Act II, sc. 2.) To Gertrude Stein's "Sacred Emily", which contains the line "a rose is a rose is a rose"?

No, I opted to go with Frost:

The Rose Family
by Robert Frost

The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple 's a rose,
And the pear is, and so's
The plum, I suppose.
The dear only knows
What will next prove a rose.
You, of course, are a rose-
But were always a rose.

This 10-line poem is written primarily in trisyllabic feet known as anapests (an-a-PEST or ta-da-DUM), although the first, sixth and seventh lines have only 5 syllables (an iamb followed by an anapest (ta-DUM ta-da-DUM). Unlike most rhyming poems, this one has one end-rhyme only. Every single word rhymes with "rose", a word which appears at the end of six of the ten lines.

I'm nearly positive that Frost started by thinking of Gertrude Stein's "A rose is a rose is a rose", a phrase from her poem "Sacred Emily", written in 1913 and published in a book in 1922. It is most likely a dig at Stein (and by extension, other "modern" poets), since he didn't like folks who thumbed their nose at classical form to such a wild extent, and didn't go in for gibberish (oops - did I say that? My bias is showing). Frost's poem was first published in his collection, West-Running Brook, published in 1928 (of which I own a first edition, which I scored in a used book store for a mere $10 – SQUEE!) It is possible as well that Frost was simply utilizing a known parlour-game form, since as far back as the early 19th-century, Jane Austen, her mother, sister, and sister-in-law entertained themselves of an evening by writing verses to rhyme with "rose", and I rather suspect it wasn't entirely a game of their own making.

Getting back to the idea that Frost was tweaking Stein, "a rose is a rose is a rose" uses an iamb plus two anapests, so the anapests then naturally follow. Frost's cleverness is very interesting to me. On the one hand, this is a metaphor poem; on the other hand, the take-home message is "only you, dear, are genuinely a rose". And assessing it as a dig against Stein, I suppose the conclusion would be that only Frost is actually a poet. That's a lot of clever punch packed in what appears at first to be a simple, simple rhyme.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic! Thanks

Kelly Fineman said...

You are very welcome! Thanks for reading!