The Vantage Point

Who knows what to take from Robert Frost? I’ve heard good things and bad, but my curiosity was recently piqued by finding “Out, Out”, in an essay on Seamus Heaney. That poem caught my attention as it probably would yours, but before I could make an approach to the man himself, I recoiled from criticism which appeared to slam Frost as little more than a baggy batch of yesterday’s news; sentimental wordplay for a generation of Americans now gone to seed or planted underground.

So, undecided, I bought a collection of Robert Frost’s poetry from a junk shop in Glasgow. It was eighty pence and raining outside, and trying to reverse a downward trend of thought I walked to see the cathedral. Sure enough, it lay exactly where I’d left it in March 2019, black as a bunker. It’s not a big building or a truly lovely one, but you can breathe in a place like that. You can shut your eyes and let the beads of desperation run down off your back like syrup to pool and set again on the old, cold slabs.

And the cathedral was closed. “It’s Monday”, the caretaker said, and anyway “You have to book a slot”. Then he went off jingling his keys through gravestones devoted to all the other slot-bookers without a wink of irony. So I sat alone in the portico in the fading light and I started to read Robert Frost’s poetry. I would not usually have leaned my weight into such an untested quarter, but I had no more bones to roll. And he was both good and bad to me as the darkness grew. I curled my lip at most of his early stuff. We’ve heard enough from lone, enraptured men on “the road not taken”. That’s just gloating, but parts of his later work were silly too in that dreadful, playful way that old men have that dries your teeth with sympathetic smiling.

However, there was some value in a middle section, which after half an hour was soaked and pulping in the rain. The pages sopped like kale at their edges, but there were sparks of undiluted truth in there; snappy vignettes of people at work, and better, people hurting. I read two stories in verse about witches, sitting back to back with an old cathedral. The first one really pleased me, and for a moment I was somewhere else. It’s hard to see whether literature is really consolation or just a rope-ladder dropped from a cloud. Maybe its strength lies in linking you home to everyone else in the world, and thinking this I looked beyond the busy tombs to flats and kitchens where other people were getting ready for the evening. 

I sat for a while in curiosity and watched a man frying something in a square-lit window. It occurred to me how often I’m alone in my own house at this time of night. I could never imagine somebody near enough to see me at ease. The light outside my kitchen fades with the day as if light itself had ceased to exist and everything with it, because that’s how I like it. Downstairs from the frying and four across sat a man with his back to the window, tossing and catching a ball in the air. He seemed to have a hell of a lot to laugh about, and I wondered if the two men knew each other. Then fearing that friendship would buoy them, I hoped that they didn’t.

Folk passed chatting. Cars slashed in the guttering camber, and someone blew their horn. Listing badly in the midst of this clatter, I stood to leave and a phrase of soothing music came down amongst the city’s rush hour. A song thrush was singing from a treetop in the necropolis. Normal rules do not apply to urban birds, and by my reckoning this is more than a fortnight early for the first thrush of the year. But hang the rules, because hearing that, I could suddenly see what I am again from the edge of losing sight. The rain fell upon me in flat and placid lines; the worst of me began to run like makeup onto the grass.

My copy of Robert Frost’s poems is still in that portico if you want it. Drop it on the radiator overnight and the paper will dry up curly in a manner more becoming of stuff that used to be wood. For me, I bought a new and extended edition of the same book this morning. Because I’ve only just started to wonder what I should take from Robert Frost.

The Vantage Point

If tired of trees I seek again mankind,
Well I know where to hie me – in the dawn,
To a slope where the cattle keep the lawn.
There amid lolling juniper reclined,
Myself unseen, I see in white defined
Far off the homes and men, and farther still,
The graves of men on an opposing hill,
Living or dead, whichever are to mind.

And if by noon I have too much of these,
I have but to turn on my arm, and lo,
The sunburned hillside sets my face aglow,
My breathing shakes the bluet like a breeze,
I smell the earth, I smell the bruisèd plant,
I look into the crater of the ant.

From A Boy’s Will, 1913

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