Friday, December 11, 2009

Not to Keep by Robert Frost

More U.S. troops are being deployed. Again. And the stories of soldiers who have done multiple tours on active duty continue to mount, as do the stories of soldiers injured and killed while on active duty. And with the holidays coming, deployment must be much more difficult for families to endure - all those husbands, wives, children, parents, and siblings left home to worry weigh on my mind. So when I was trolling about for something to post today and I saw this war poem by Robert Frost, which appeared in The Yale Review in November of 1917, I had to share it.

It's an early poem of his, but includes the story-telling quality that imbues some of his more mature poems, as well as a cynicism that most Frost readers will recognize - here closer to the surface than it sometimes is allowed to come, for as he matured as a poet, his ability to write on multiple levels improved as well.

ETA: Kevin Slattery () commented that the poem didn't display particularly well when viewed on his "Friends" page. If you're having the same issue, I hope you'll click on through and read it on my page.

Not to Keep
by Robert Frost

They sent him back to her. The letter came
Saying . . . And she could have him. And before
She could be sure there was no hidden ill
Under the formal writing, he was in her sight,
Living. They gave him back to her alive—
How else? They are not known to send the dead—
And not disfigured visibly. His face?
His hands? She had to look, and ask,
“What was it, dear?” And she had given all
And still she had all — they had — they the lucky!
Wasn’t she glad now? Everything seemed won,
And all the rest for them permissible ease.
She had to ask, “What was it, dear?”

“Enough,
Yet not enough. A bullet through and through,
High in the breast. Nothing but what good care
And medicine and rest, and you a week,
Can cure me of to go again.” The same
Grim giving to do over for them both.
She dared no more than ask him with her eyes
How was it with him for a second trial.
And with his eyes he asked her not to ask.
They had given him back to her, but not to keep.


The poem is written in iambic meter, meaning that the lines are composed of two-syllable "feet" composed of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one (taDUM). The vast majority of the lines are written in pentameter, meaning there are five iambic feet per line, but there are lines in sextameter (6), tetrameter (4) and, both obvious and interesting, monometer (1 foot), which is what the single word "Enough" at the start of the second stanza constitutes.

For any of you who are curious about the line "And still she had all — they had — they the lucky!", which has eleven syllables and ends with a "feminine" or unaccented syllable, you should know that the occasional "feminine" ending does not take a piece out of iambic meter, but is acceptable and part of a time-honored tradition. Consider, for instance, that most famous of questions posed by Hamlet: "To be or not to be, that is the question."

As always, you can reach the rest of today's Poetry Friday posts around the interweb by clicking on the green button:



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