Saturday, September 13, 2008

"Come In" by Robert Frost

Robert Frost (1874-1963) is perhaps America's best loved poet. In popular perception he is the poet of the countryside and his poetry is indeed full of serene, bucolic imagery of strolls in woods, singing birds and majestic night skies. I too, long enjoyed Frost as a quintessential "nature" poet who evoked in me all the charm and beauty of the timeless New England landscape.

But that was until Joseph Brodsky opened my eyes to a completely different Frost, one who Brodsky quotes Lionel Trilling describe as a "terrifying poet". Joseph Brodsky was a Russian poet and essayist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. I have mentioned his collection of critical essays titled "On Grief and Reason" in a post before. The title essay is a discussion of two of Frost's well-known poems,"Come In" and "Home Burial". In this essay Brodsky persuasively shows Frost's remarkably dark vision and his contention that "nature for this poet is neither friend nor foe, nor is it the backdrop for human drama; it is this poet's terrifying self-portrait." I wish I could link to the entire essay as it is the best piece on Frost I have ever read but unfortunately it does not seem to be available on the web. I would encourage all those interested in Frost or poetry to find a printed copy of Brodsky's essay. It is well worth a read.

Here is the poem, "Come In", which appeared in the 1942 collection "A Witness Tree":

"Come In"

As I came to the edge of the woods,
Thrush music -- hark!
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.

Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing.

The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush's breast.

Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went --
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.

But no, I was out for stars;
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked;
And I hadn't been.

And here are some fragments of commentary by Brodsky about this poem:

When a twentieth century poet starts a poem with finding himself at the edge of the woods there is a reasonable element of danger -or, at least a faint suggestion of it. The edge, in its very self, is sufficiently sharp.
---
In "Too dark in the woods for a bird," a bird, alias bard, scrutinizes "the woods" and finds them too dark. "Too" here echoes-no! harks back to - Dante's opening lines in The Divine Comedy: our bird/bard's assessment of that selva differs from the great Italian's. To put it plainly, the afterlife is darker for Frost than it is for Dante. The question is why, and the answer is either because he disbelieves in the whole thing or because his notion of himself makes him, in his mind, slated for damnation.
---
Still, should you choose to read "Come In" as a nature poem, you are perfectly welcome to it. I suggest, though, that you take a longer look at the title. The twenty lines of the poem constitute, as it were, the title's translation. And in this translation, I am afraid, the expression "come in" means "die".

3 comments:

Barb said...

Fascinating analysis. I'll definitely read the article.

John in Missouri said...

I fear that the author of this blog and the author he cites are both victims of over-analysis. This poem is about choice, free will, consequences, and perhaps regret, no more, no less. And they are themes that Frost often considers in his poems (Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening are just two). There are dark poets in American culture and they should be given the respect and recognition their offerings deserve, but this poem does not deserve to be grouped with them. Though it's light is dim and subtle, it is nevertheless there.

Anonymous said...

I do not completely agree with John in Missouri. I acknowledge the fact that the theme is about free will and choice but I also believe that the poem has a dark tone; there really is no light in this poem. This poem is written dryly (I know that simple "American" language was what Frost generally wrote in but the way this poem was written contrasts with his other poems and, instead of a subtly or smoothly crafted metaphor between nature and the idea he is aiming to convey to the reader/listener, the metaphor is blatant) and mainly focuses only on the woods and the thrush music. This creates the image of a black forest and a blurred dark grey backdrop which does not hold importance in the essay. "Come In" focuses more on temptation, curiosity and the unknown into the poem, further emphasizing the dark tone and imagery, unlike the two poems "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening and Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood." This poem was written in 1942, during WWII as well. That event would probably have also affected the tone of this poem. This is my opinion of the poem. As for whether "come in " is equivalent to "die," that question is probably best left for Frost himself.