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Dead on a Side Track: On Frost’s “War Thoughts at Home”


ISSUE:  Fall 2006

 
Abandon hope of sober analysis here: a new Frost poem has surfaced. There is something new in the old voice, another song in a stanza-form packed with salt and built to last, another note struck upon war broken out far away and near while another war breaks out far away and near: it’s a giddying moment for one who reached a point of such identification with that voice that he could no longer write in anything but, and trod the lanes of Amherst helplessly trying to compose in it, who did his own impressions of it at his own open mike in the woods, who wrote one last witless parody of it as some kind of shot at good riddance.

A new Frost poem has surfaced? Truth be told, the feeling’s not unfamiliar. Possessing the kind of shortish magpie memory that when called upon serves up frantically anything bright it has to hand in its chaos of a nest, I can never open the Collected Poems without thinking I’ve found one that wasn’t there before. In what passes for this poet’s emotional truth, “Desert Places” was only discovered around 1994. But I can always put that down to me; I can usefully lose things. I daresay I’ll discover hundreds of new Frost poems when I’m old and—I was a redheaded kid—white. Had I not been informed otherwise I could easily have found “War Thoughts at Home” on a magical page 99, between “The Self-Seeker” and “The Wood-Pile.” Hey I never noticed this one . . . But in our unsupernatural world I’ll settle for Mr. Stilling’s remarkable find.

Time may or may not worship language, as Auden said. Personally, I think the tone is wrong: I tend to think time throws up its hour, minute, and second hands in exasperation, all pointing different ways, and lets language pass. We know the effects are strange. Strolling past a ruin one is always a child and yet simultaneously suddenly aged, for the ruin has barely begun its life span—rather it leaves you stranded with the words life span like a horseshoe of flowers round your throat. Though maybe that’s an experience more European-Asian than American: after all, when something makes no sense in the Old World—and not just ruins but ruinous attacks on us—we keep digging until it does make sense; if it makes no sense in the New you tend to think it’s aliens.

So it’s doubly strange to happen upon an American artifact full-formed like this, scribbled in a book, datable. I’m young because there’s that voice again; I’m old because it won’t change now and I will. I’m unborn because they’re fighting in the trenches again, my granddads Maxwell and Powell alongside Owen and Thomas and Rosenberg; I’m gone because my grandchildren will wonder what I’m on about. Trebly strange that it’s not a fragment. It sounds finished, and yet it can’t be because it was never framed and shown to be finished, so it’s, as Mallarmé says, abandoned. Not a ruin, but abandoned. There is a house that is no more a house. Not work-in-progress, because he’s gone. After half an hour or so he’d always give up if he didn’t think he was “getting his way.” We’re all standing around that wooden work-tray he fashioned, wondering should we wait, should we have ourselves a look: some figures a poem makes. And he just said something new so he’s come back. He’s come back anyway. Time is staggering down the lane. I rode in a taxi through Times Square lately and saw there was breaking news about Judas Iscariot. Perhaps time does worship language, if only because it’s like the best people in the best religions—thoroughly, serenely, beatifically baffled.

War Thoughts at Home. This title depicts an invasion force. Home is where poets are when they write—wherever else they are—at home in the long warm woolly vowel, at zero, at the helm, at the blank page, at the full-screen whiteness with not yet a trace of Times New Roman Bold 14 Heading Two Formatting to mark the day. Home is a hope (softened from that word so as not to alert the authorities), a hope of time slowing down, it’s a word we hold against time in our little leather quiver, and it’s confronted here by the very topical, that great force of uncontrol: War.

And for a poet to use the word “Thoughts” or indeed “Lines” in a title is the very sound of a deep breath, a reluctance overcome: it’s all supposed to be thoughts or lines on something, isn’t it? Our bones are creaking if we say so, now we’re going to have to have some. The probability that the title arrives last doesn’t alter this: time has long conceded the field, and the poet determines the new chronology with gleeful abandon, like Phaëthon at the reins, about to really light things up. Here are some thoughts I said I was going to have!

War Thoughts: It may be apologetic in some way. There’ll be more of everything soon, but I’m afraid there has to be this right now. Poets everywhere at this moment are affixing some poem to a wall or a fridge as another family’s home ignites on television. My first war was the first Gulf one, or was it the second, the Bush one, or was it the first Bush one, or the first elder Bush one . . . Nice to have a father and son running things, we had that here—in other words we had the Pitts and now you do—anyway the one where Kuwait was dressed up as Belgium, but with oil inked in for freedom.

You probably didn’t catch this one in America but my first war was technically Britain’s Falklands War with Argentina in 1982: if you didn’t, the grisly Junta went raiding for a tiny South Atlantic islet dotted with sheep; Admirals Drake and Nelson were invoked in the defence of Empire, and most of the Royal Navy set sail from Plymouth to the cheers of widows-to-be. Elvis Costello wrote “Shipbuilding” about it. I was nineteen and sentient so it counts. I even wrote a rotten poem which I sure as hell ain’t writing on someone’s flyleaf. But it also didn’t count, because it was, as Borges said at the time, “two bald men fighting over a comb,” and because it was how Margaret Thatcher escaped from the worst ratings a British Prime Minister had ever had—and from certain humiliation at the polls after one miserable term of office—and because it was shameful and embarrassing and I couldn’t care less (or “could” care less, as you Americans say for some reason).

No, my first war was the Kuwait oil-well one—the movies are just coming in now—and I remember staring at the new thing called CNN, live from the roof of some hotel, the fuzzy green coverage, vaguely realizing that fuzzy green was going to be my generation’s sepia, and thinking, with that articulate profundity common to poets at times of crisis, Wow this is big. CNN of course got bigger than any of it, and I was privileged last week to hear Ms. Zahn of the great news channel say something like: “After the break, is this the End Time predicted in the Bible?” Well at least it’s not fair and balanced.

The point is—sorry but the word War has made me run rabbitlike into the headlamps of several different ones—I felt in 1990 an overriding need to have a poem stuck on the wall somewhere, but it wasn’t Frost I turned to, it was an Englishman saying this in 1915:

“In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’”

            I
Only a man harrowing clods
      In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
      Half asleep as they stalk.

            II
Only thin smoke without flame
      From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
      Though Dynasties pass.

            III
Yonder a maid and her wight
      Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
      Ere their story die.

The word cloud there has a convulsive effect on my gut and throat which somehow heats my eyes to water—it just did it again—and it certainly did in 1990. Not wishing to break up my lines to weep (as Yeats said, in “Lapis Lazuli,” not even King Lear does), I only say that because other versions have “fade,” so it’s another reminder to young poets to keep sitting there forever until you realize why “cloud” is better than “fade.” (Note to scholars: if you tell me actually Hardy changed cloud to fade, then I’ll tell you Hardy should have sat there longer.)

That little parenthesis is merely part of gathering up courage to say what’s wrong with “War Thoughts at Home,” as things must be wrong with it: it isn’t in a book, he didn’t get his way with it. The gentleman most responsible for withholding the poem seems to have done so out of politeness; Frost’s reasons are likely to be colder and harder, and it must be a once-in-a-life experience—as time gazes wearily on—for a devotee like me to stand shoulder to shoulder with the master and agree there are problems here. I hope that helps to explain this general atmosphere of joyful incoherence: as I read this poem I’m aware—as he isn’t—that it isn’t quite going to come off. About bloody time it was that way round.

On the back side of the house
Where it wears no paint to the weather
And so shows most its age,
Suddenly blue jays rage
And flash in blue feather.

A friend asked me, apropos this discovery, How do they know it’s real? Hadn’t even crossed my mind. And regardless of handwriting and provenance and forensics and so on, I’d wave it through on the strength of this first stanza alone. The awareness here, the alertness to the processes of sight and thought, defies imitation. I know that, I tried defying the defiance.

The first three lines are the sound of the poet cranking up, watching something with a confidence that useful thought will arise from getting it right. War may well be on his mind, but he’s just staring at a house. There’s a little dusting of personification, not unusual—“back side,” “wears no paint,” “shows most its age”—which could be trailed back either to the poet sitting there working with that familiar self-consciousness you get at the start—“Here I am, the poet; got my coffee, got my pens, work is about to begin”—or to the woman who may or may not be consciously planned at this point. (About the woman-to-come—it’s easy enough to speculate that this is Helen Thomas, the only war widow Frost knew well, but I find it even easier—how easy we all find it!—to speculate that he had no idea at all where this poem was going, and that the fine observation that the house “wears no paint to the weather” is actually what triggers the image of the woman inside. You can almost hear the tinkle of two cents coming to rest.)

But the chief glory of the stanza is, well, stanzaic. To illustrate that, simply pull out the third line. Now what we have is a deadbeat ballad. Put the third line back in and enjoy afresh the sight of the blue jays suddenly there—the rhyme brightens the world, seizes the attention. Rhyme is for something, you know, sorry to keep saying. The diminishing energy of the first three lines—the day is as it is, slowly declining—is turned into the cause of all color and action and violence—that wasn’t meant to sound like 1914, it just happens to—as if the birds erupt out of an open vowel. Actually it’s two open vowels: “And so shows most its age.” To play three long o vowels adjacently is to make a line feel almost hour-long, but it’s the long a that follows which the jays seem to relate to: That’s our vowel! Someone’s having a go at us! Fight! That’s how nature feels when it’s quiet: Who’s going to cause something next? Must be me. We all get solipsistic when it’s just us there.

And how quickly they seize and damage and cut back that vowel—“jays” “rage” “flash” “blue” “feather.” “Blue feather,” which is ornithology but could also be aftermath, comes and dabs a period on the rhyme scheme, establishes the quality and strain of the moment now lit up by action. (Assignment for young writers of free verse: give me that combination of stillness, violence, timelessness, and revolution in so many words, and make sure it can be memorized forever in ten seconds.)

Silence bookends the moment, space bookends the stanza, and this particular silent space is the perception widened in sight (to the sky) and memory (to the hour). Every stanza break in Frost has him shifting position, of stance, of posture, of attitude in the widest sense: they are eloquent as the stanzas. Try reading him without them. You will no longer be anywhere, you won’t be outdoors, you won’t feel the breeze or hear birdsong, you won’t be seated or standing or walking: you’ll be in a stuffy room reading an old poem. At best you’ll have a podium.

     It is late in the afternoon
No.
     It is late in an afternoon

This may not be what happened in terms of composition, but it still sheds some light. An afternoon. To describe it as an “afternoon / More grey with snow to fall / Than white with fallen snow” is to have contemplated it as an afternoon among many afternoons. It allows for the afternoon to have been long, and for a succession of afternoons to have been long. It makes the speaker seem alone, obliged to go nowhere, and with little to pass the time. It extends time all around and makes it hard to pass at all. It may—it may—be what makes the speaker want to disappear and replace himself with someone very lonely, who is missing someone else very much, a soul in solitude for whom time has almost become synonymous with suffering.

More grey with snow to fall
Than white with fallen snow

Chiasmus-spotters will be happy to have spotted a chiasmus, just as poetry-loving blue jay fans are already in a transport of delight; I myself am reduced to silence and wonder, I’m afraid—I mean glad—at the compression of all, actual/ideal, seen/imagined, now/soon, hope/expectation. I really can’t say any more about those lines without thinking my occupation’s gone.

When it is blue jay and crow
Or no bird at all.

Again the blue jays, again on the ledge of the fourth line. To write a stanzaic poem is to establish a rhythm of perception, a framework, a psychological tone or color. Where the first stanza looks up and sees, this one flutters between what’s seen and what’s imagined. Afternoon as it is now, as it may be soon, birds when they’re there, birds when they’re not. Yet still the birds rise up at the time they like. If the martial is on Frost’s mind, it can be seen quietly rallying its troops here: a bird is a blue jay, a crow, or nothing; friend, foe, or dead. How briefly that last line tolls.

And the suddenness with which he alters light—not to mention the presence and absence of birds—calls to mind the poem “Come In,” published during the Second World War and, as Robert Stilling mentions above, distributed to the troops by the Council on Books in Wartime, so: Frost’s only bird-war poem until this discovery.

“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 mean not even if asked,
And I hadn’t been.

Two of the thousand things worth saying about this here are obvious enough: birds seem to stand in for human society, and explicitly relate to light and hope—Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” is singing somewhere behind this, as are maybe all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, how do I know?—but also look how Frost will drain an entire poem of light and hold blind human words against the darkness, how often the profile he strikes against time in the end can, as does Edward Thomas in “Old Man,” see nothing.

Till it gets so empty there has to be something. Back to this new poem he and I are working on:

So someone heeds from within
This flurry of bird war,
And rising from her chair
A little bent over with care
Not to scatter on the floor

The sewing in her lap
Comes to the window to see.
At sight of her dim face
The birds all cease for a space
And cling close in a tree.

Just when the poet is absolutely in his stride he stops and makes a choice. Roads diverge etc., etc., and he does something a little unusual: he decides to place a woman at the heart of this. Maybe the great grey weight of the afternoon, the absence, the fact of wartime and what it demands of home, demands this of him. In the quiet wood a rage of birds brings forth a single human presence. Up until this point the poet himself could still be that presence, for plenty of Frost poems withhold that certainty till some way in. But he vanishes into us, becomes as we are, observers without form. The one here, the “someone”—a word which acts out the uncertainty of determining who exactly is the shadow at a window—is revealed, as we approach that light, to be a woman.

Four consecutive open vowels—“war,” “chair,” “care,” “floor”—literally bring the war home, while animating the woman’s own uncertainty, drawn out by being slung across the stanza break. Slowness is there, clumsiness is there: “And rising from her chair / A little bent over with care / Not to scatter on the floor,” and so, in that gap of space and silence, is a delayed exhalation, the knock-on effect of physical stress. There also is our impatience: how long can this take? “Comes to the window to see.” It’s taking ages; people do, when they’re not us. I might just predictably add that in free verse everyone has to move at the same speed as you, because you’re the only thing moving.

And one says to the rest
“We must just watch our chance
And escape one by one—
Though the fight is no more done
Than the war is in France.”

As one of the earliest commentators on this poem—I’m sorry, but saying that makes me feel I’m smoking a pipe and met Mr. Pound once, what a queer fellow, at Lascelles Abercrombie’s . . . it’s otherwise indescribable . . .

As one of the earliest commentators on this poem, I should probably lay my cards down at this point so that those who go next can lay down better ones. So:

I think this is where the poem derails. By Frost’s standards—actually, mine too—it derails here. By way of illustration I shall for a third time introduce my friend Mr. Hardy, whom I believe I met at Lascelles Abercrombie’s:

“Channel Firing”

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe cow drooled. Till God cried, “No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:

“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

“That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening. . . .

“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”

So down we lay again. “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”

And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

Hardy does this sort of thing. He no more believes in a Deity watching the action than he believes that skeletons are still chatting in the wee hours of a unearthly sleepover, so he knows how to get there straightaway: “That night your great guns, unawares, / Shook all our coffins as we lay.”

Frost, however, hasn’t made any movement at all in the direction of the cartoon supernatural in “War Thoughts at Home,” and the accuracy of his depiction of light that afternoon, of what it’s like to be thinking of that afternoon, of the slow motion of a sorrowing woman to a window that afternoon, all this militates against such a move. It is or at least feels entirely natural for the birds to “cease for a space” and “cling close in a tree” “at sight of her dim face”—but even Frost can’t change the materials of art, the instruments he’s playing, in a stanza break. It’s one thing to pretend the birds are discussing the war—why not, everyone else is—but to animate and voice them like this feels wrongly energetic and capricious in the woman whom he’s shown so far. It sounds like the woman is imagining it, but it doesn’t sound like she would. It sounds like what Frost would do. It sounds like what Hardy would do, but he might have started here and they’d have gone on longer.

The speech of this bird peters out quickly, and it’s the dullest stanza here—it sounds a bit like Hardy being dull—it’s really just Frost realizing (as I’ve realized and he does now) this isn’t the sort of thing he does well. What happens next is he rather violently retracts the multilingual listening device by which he could hear the birds, and imagines the woman again.

Than the war is in France!
She thinks of a winter camp
Where soldiers for France are made.
She draws down the window shade
And it glows with an early lamp.

What happens here is a second reason the poem never gets published. I place it somewhere between honesty and tact. To hedge my bet about this, knowing I will never gain or lose what I tender, I believe he balks at trying to describe what it’s like to be a woman missing a man at war—either because he doesn’t think he can do it, or he doesn’t think he ought to. He’s done it all right, in New Hampshire’s “Not to Keep,” but in that poem the man appears, a friction of encounter sparks the poem. Here there’s no one. He allows her the bleak simplicity of the thought: “She thinks of a winter camp / Where soldiers for France are made.” That’s a forcing of the underbrush—and that’s all. He lets her do what Fred says his wife does in “West-Running Brook”—“take it off to lady-land.” He doesn’t go there, not once the window shade comes down, which is what I mean by tact. Because this might be about the Thomases, and they aren’t there.

Then it’s about the lamp seen from the darkness, its lonely short vowel “lamp” among so much that’s gloomy and drawn-out, a dot of comfort in the depths of none. That’s what so much of Frost is about, what a man sees—if anyone were there to—in the late afternoon in villages in winter. The poem ends with what we see, and, as we and the poet are standing in for no one, what no one sees:

On that old side of the house
The uneven sheds stretch back
Shed behind shed in train
Like cars that long have lain
Dead on a side track.

One has to allow poets to be mystical about how they arrive at things (by which I mean you have to allow me to be), and my private formulation is that a poem is worth publishing if it arrives at “the third thing.” I did say mystical and I allow it’s a cover for vague and unhelpful. I mean: The first thing is to get the light right. The second thing is to get the words to play together. The former is silent and the latter is babble: only together do they make what we know. The third thing is, I guess, their happy cohesion into something we suddenly always knew. This may or may not be what Mandelstam means in “Conversation about Dante” about poetry being “the crossing of two lines.” Either way, that document has for me the force that scripture has for Bible people, so I believe I don’t have to get it all.

I would humbly suggest—and for a poet who knows his roots, everything is humble, even arrogance—that Frost doesn’t quite find a third thing here. Visually there’s nothing wrong with a trail of old sheds behind a house being like a trail of cars along a track, and the lines are effortlessly memorable, with a bass note from “Ozymandias,” “the lone and level sands.” But these elements don’t seem to me to make anything new. Similes can be so close they’re double exposures: disused sheds, disused cars, they almost are each other. Having withdrawn from the contemplation of the woman in the cottage, we are left with stillness and disuse, and having brought war and France and the news of the world into the poem, the poet seems somehow cornered. If he’s not going there, there’s nowhere, and the scene fades quickly from view.

After all that, is there anything here for the biographers—or any other kinds of birds clinging hungrily in the trees—is there an attitude struck here? I sense only sorrow, and a fair slice of that is sorrow he couldn’t make the damn thing good enough. Giving war to animals makes it seem natural, but giving it to small beautiful animals that scrap with each other makes it pathetic, pitiful. It’s not a poem that’s going to halt the onward march of the denigrators, flying “The Gift Outright” as their banner:

“The Gift Outright”

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

I don’t have complex feelings about this. From the man who wrote “Acquainted with the Night” or “The Silken Tent” or “Directive” it just isn’t that good a poem. “Vaguely realizing westward” is beautiful if you think of California, but only until you yourself start vaguely realizing, like children at school with Old Glory propped in the corner, how you got California. So yes it stinks, but to say so illuminates history more than it illuminates Frost: it wasn’t then, and isn’t now, lamentably, an unusual way of looking at American history. (Just as knowing that Washington was a slaveholder—and, heaven forfend, a foxhunter!—says more about history than about him.)

As it happens, “The Gift Outright”—like “War Thoughts at Home” (and “Acquainted with the Night,” “The Silken Tent,” and “Directive,” for that matter)—first appeared in this journal, and its last line read: “Such as she was, such as she might become.” Not very different, but different. Of course, at the Inauguration, when Kennedy asked Frost to read “The Gift Outright,” he wondered if the poet might change “such as she would become” to “such as she will become.” That would make it more optimistic, the President felt.

“I suppose so,” said the poet, and he did. Now that does say more about Frost than about history, and it isn’t pretty.

But let’s not end like that. Let’s return to our senses, let’s celebrate the poetry there is in a new poem that will never be quite finished, let us heartily thank Robert Stilling for finding that treasure. And let’s have this one instead, that’s got birds but is not about them, that’s about itself, goes itself, as Mr. Hopkins said, will never be gotten rid of, and will always be the same, as Mr. Hardy said, though Dynasties pass.

“Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same”

He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds’ song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.

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