Monday, April 12, 2010

Choose Something Like a Star by Robert Frost

Following yesterday's poem selection, A Man Said to the Universe by Stephen Crane, I considered posting something from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass that begins "A child said 'What is the grass?'", but it turns out I posted that as part of this series already, on April 2nd of last year. I toyed with posting a second Crane poem ("In the Desert"), but opted instead to go with a poem that - at least on its surface - addresses communication by a speaker on earth with a body out in space. It is a partial reprise of a post I did in January of 2009 about the dialogue between poets - in this case, Keats and Frost and, as you'll see, T.S. Eliot as well.

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 be 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 previously, and rest assured, that is no coincidence.

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's Prufrock, "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.

I once performed a lovely choral setting of this (music and arrangement by Randall Thompson. You can hear a performance of it by the Harvard University Choir at YouTube if you're so inclined.

Kiva - loans that change lives


Anonymous said...

Very interesting and enlightening. The chorus I'm in is singing the musical version, and I was wondering if by "the fairest one in sight" and "not even stooping from its sphere" Frost was referring to the North Star...
Also, I believe the correct wording is "But to be wholly taciturn," not "But to the wholly taciturn."

Kelly Fineman said...

The musical version is gorgeous - I sang it in high school twice (once in my school, once for district or regional chorus). And you are correct about the typo - and thank you for telling me about it so I could fix it!

The North Star is as good a star as any to fix on, I think. And it certainly was supposed to be the most fixed in the sky, so why not think of it as the subject of this poem? Poems often work on many levels, after all.

Fiona said...

I sang it in chorus too! It is such a beautiful song. I still remember how to sing it 15 years later.

I always thought of the conversation with the star as a bit like the star was being evasive or dismissive. "I burn."

And then the response from the questioner is really trying to pin down what the star was saying; get it to explain itself. He needed something less vague and open to interpretation.

Kelly Fineman said...

Like you, I can still sing it and it's more than 15 years later. (eep!)

My belief used to be identical to yours, by the way, and it is not at all incorrect. But as I learned more and more about Frost, I was able to get at some of the other layers of meaning.

Dave said...

Thank you for the terrific analysis.
Thought you might enjoy comments posted at Literature Network Forums

Kelly Fineman said...

Thanks for the comment and the link!

Anonymous said...

The North Star is "fairest" but dependent on planet location ! @ lower latitudes ... Faint! Don't need clouds. Gotta go back to building my barn, now.