I really enjoy Chanukah and Christmas and knowing that once we've passed the solstice and it's officially Winter, the days are actually trending longer, even though they remain short for now. In recent years, I find myself using the time between the holidays of light and the new year to reflect a bit, take stock of life, and plan for the new year. A bit of looking back over this year, and over the course of my life as well; a bit of planning for the future. Things are in balance. Happy memories combine with bittersweet (and occasionally, painful) ones, and I push to remember to look at now, too, amongst all that looking back and forward.
And so it is that today, I'm sharing with you a somewhat melancholy but decidedly feeling poem by one of my favorite poets, Robert Frost. First the poem, and then the analysis and discussion.
by Robert Frost
Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air
That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of--was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Downhill at dusk?
I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they're gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.
I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.
Now no joy but lacks salt,
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain
Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.
Read the last two stanzas here.
Before moving to anything else, I'd like to take this moment to sigh. *sigh* And to pause and really let that one sink in, with all its weight and strength. It's dead sexy, I think, even though it speaks of sorrow. And not just because he's talking about his length and being stiff, although I do not believe those words were chosen idly.
About the form
It is written using eight cross-rhymed stanzas: ABAB, CDCD, etc. The meter selected is iambic, which was pretty common for Frost. The first three lines of each stanza contain three iambic feet; the fourth contains only 2. Folks familiar with hymnal representations of metre will recognize that this one would be written as 6-6-6-4, although it's not a highly common metre.
The poem splits in the middle, temporally at least. The first four stanzas are about the past. Whether it's long past or lost youth is up to interpretation, but it's clear that the first four stanzas are all about what the speaker thought "then". The latter four stanzas are about the present, what the speaker feels and believes "now".
"Then" was all about things that were sweet: kisses, scents in the air (honeysuckle, musk and more), the feel of a rose petal. Then, those sweet things were too much for him. The rose's petal was enough to cause a stinging sensation - not the thorn, the silken petal. The touch of a lip was almost overpowering. He was able to live off the scents in the air. One gets the sense of a young romantic intoxicated by the pretty, pleasant things of life.
"Now" is all about things that are salty. References to taste opposites (sweet vs. salty) are entirely intentional, by the way, as the poet works to engage all of his senses. Not content with the one so many poets rely on exclusively (sight), he's including smell, taste, touch and sound as well. He's seeking more complex, less straightforwardly beautiful things. He seems not to mind the salt of tears, if the tears are the aftermath of having loved too much. The scents he seeks out are no longer the sweet scents of honeysuckle, but include scents like bark and burnt cloves.
Now, the speaker sits on the ground, his hand pressed flat to the earth, leaning heavily on his arm, wrist flexed. When he stands, the pain and soreness he feels is not enough for him; he wishes he could feel the roughness of the earth along the full length of his body. Now, pain does not diminish his pleasure - and, in fact, pain appears to contribute to his pleasure. I don't think he's a masochist; he's a realist who accepts the complexities of the world, including the negatives along with the positives. It includes sensual details now that were lacking when he was a younger man, caught up in the pretty superficialities.
Throughout the poem, the speaker is interacting with the physical world, and not with another person. He focuses on love as represented by the gifts of the earth-- simple pleasures like honeysuckle, grapevines and rose petals, and more complex (one might say complicated) pleasures like burnt cloves, bitter bark and feeling the roughness of the earth along his length. Whether those last few lines refer to sexual desire or a longing for the grave is open to interpretation, and I am nearly certain any duality is intentional, particularly given some of the terms that Frost uses leading up to the concluding lines, which are, to my way of thinking, anyhow, a bit reminiscent of Whitman, if I'm being honest ("I sing the Body electric" anyone?)
This poem is spectacular, in my opinion, for looking back and looking at the now, and maybe, maybe looking forward. It suits my mood in this time between the holidays. And it makes me think - and I do so love to think.
In closing, I think I'll thank Jennifer Knoblock at Ink for Lit for the lovely Christmas present she gave me: a butterfly award. Thanks, Jennifer, for your kind words, and for the lovely butterfly.
Today's Poetry Friday is hosted by my friend Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect. I just checked her post to be sure my little Poetry Friday button works properly and lo! She has posted something from Robert Frost as well. Great minds, etc.