Transcript: Robert Frost's Contrarieties
The following is a transcript of a portion of a lecture on Robert Frost presented for the Academy of American Poets by Stanley Burnshaw on October 9, 1990.
Contrarieties, opposing goods, opposing truths: they are everywhere in [Frost's] art; you will find them lurking in most of the poems, sometimes so subtilely as to pass unseen, but at other times in so bold a way as to make one less than sure what the poem conveys, in the sense of resolving the action portrayed. I say "action," because every poem is a dramatized act of speaking. And with Frost, this is so brightly clear that it cannot surprise us to hear him state, without any maybes or buts: "everything written is as good as it is dramatic." And what is drama, but portrayals of opposing goods, opposingly valid positions? To limit ourselves to some well-known poems, consider "Mending Wall" and "The Death of the Hired Man."
What goes on before the eyes and ears of a reader? We have two contradictory speakers, each one right in his or her way, and only when the points of view are joined is the poem resolved. Yet the resolution is not tied up in a neatly restful way. On the contrary, it is open-ended, that is, we are left with two points of view, but although they have clung to their differences, they have made a species of truce, and the poem concludes, concludes in an open-ended way.
"The Death of the Hired Man," as you'll recall, begins as the wife informs her husband that Silas, the hired man, "is back...be kind." He answers: "when was I ever anything but kind to him? / But I’ll not have the fellow back." Many lines later, after the sketched-in background, the key exchange occurs. "Warren," she tells her husband, "[Silas] has come home to die: / you needn't be afraid he'll leave you this time." "Home," the husband mocks gently, "home." "Yes, what else but home?" she answers:
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.
To which the husband answers: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in." But she cannot agree: "I should have called it / Something you somehow haven’t to deserve."
Their talk goes on for forty lines, trailing off till the husband, having gone out to look at Silas, comes back to her. "Dead," is all he answers. The poem, as you see, doesn't try to choose between two opposed conceptions of home. We are faced with both—the poem pulses with both—and we somehow accept them both.
Frost's "Mending Wall" is by now so familiar that I need say little, because the opposing views are phrased by the same speaker who isn't quite sure which view is right. Or, rather, seems to believe both may be right. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," the speaker declares, and knows as he walks with his neighbor to set the wall in place. Why must they set the wall? Because, the neighbor insists: "good fences make good neighbors." But the speaker asks himself:
Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out…
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.
But the men can't agree. The neighbor, I quote, "will not go behind his father's saying, / And he likes having thought of it so well / He says again, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'"
End of poem. Open-ended conclusion, which calls to mind Frost's interview with reporters the day of his flight to Israel. What troubled him, he said, was the boundary right in the middle of Jerusalem. It was 1961 when that wall, long since taken down, marked the division between Jordan and Israel. Frost explained that throughout history, "fences are always being set up and falling down." And as for his line, "good fences make good neighbors," he paused for a moment, then added, "it's the other fellow in the poem who says that. I don't know. Maybe I was both fellows in the poem."
Maybe? Not maybe at all. He was both speaker and neighbor, just as he was both husband and wife in "The Death of the Hired Man," and in "Home Burial" and in "West Running Brook," to note two other poems of contrarieties, of opposing goods, opposing truths—poems which, although they provide no neat conclusions, no one-way answers, somehow leave the reader at rest, for having lived both sides of a troubling encounter.