Robert Frost, "Hyla Brook"

In order to do political philosophy, one has to actually know something practical.

Robert Frost, "Hyla Brook"

On Political Philosophy

In order to do political philosophy, one has to actually know something practical. Not just assume that, say, "the government" is "too big" or "too liberal," or rely on media that deals in lies and aims for outrage. You need to be able to cite a fact, explain how you got it, and work through its significance. And you need to be prepared for this: plenty of people deal in bad faith, holding that if politics remains a debate club, they don't have to be accountable for anything. I feel like my job isn't to win the debate, but know better so I can act on the opportunities and situations which inevitably occur.

I'm learning a lot from Protean Magazine, a leftist publication with a really beautiful print version. A representative passage from KJ Shepherd, who in "Who Counts?", looks closely at our failure in counting the homeless:

Los Angeles County’s PIT numbers, at around 59,000, do not capture the real dynamics of homelessness, as nonprofit research has revealed. Over the course of a year, people are constantly sliding into homelessness, while others filter in and out of housing. The number of people who were homeless at some point in the year, according to an analysis by the Economic Roundtable, was closer to 102,000. This constant tide is obscured by the once-a-year count.

I'm just amazed that we refuse to count properly in what constitutes a crisis. A crisis not just for individuals, but government and society. There's no sense of "What will people think, that the richest country on earth can't house its own citizens?" No shame whatsoever. Instead, there's a refusal to count them.

The fact alone seems to constitute political philosophy. Look at how people are in denial about an obvious problem; we can see class, race, morality and even nationalism (i.e. American exceptionalism) involved. But it is important to look for theoretical knowledge separately, too, even if there is a danger that it can be too remote, too useless. I've known plenty of people who've read a few (very good) books and turned themselves into complete cranks.

Below I've written on Robert Frost's "Hyla Brook," a poem which addresses pastoral poetry. It's easy to say there's no political philosophy or theory at stake here. No mentions of law, no hint of political life. However, pastoral poetry is a vision of what's truly beautiful in nature, sometimes giving not so subtle hints about what the world-to-come ought to be. Calling "Hyla Brook" political philosophy is ridiculous, but it does engage themes which could help one understand certain attitudes and emotions which we see in politics. Sometimes they are the end of politics.

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Robert Frost, "Hyla Brook"

Frost's formality suggests classical studies in painting. His rhyme and meter, which could invite consideration of other modes of expression, more or less serve to establish elaborate but conventional verse. By contrast, his poem demonstrates a most suggestive sense of balance. "Hyla Brook," as a portrait, is a series of smaller pictures given approximately equal weight in the body of the poem. Those pictures do not present a brook disappearing throughout the year as much as its own experience, imagined. In this way, a brook "in song" is made concrete in multiple aspects. Time itself is illustrated, given various, lively colors to wear.

Hyla Brook
Robert Frost

By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)—
Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat—
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.

A full, rushing brook, surrounded by lush green, life flowing all around. You notice in spring that it has been slowing. Not much later: "By June our brook's run out of song and speed." Before, it was an unmistakable image for you. The snow, a killer not just of life but the conditions for life, melted on the sides of mountains and descended. It flooded villages, not without consequence, but with greater promise. Non-life, you believe, set the stage for life. Accordingly, the brook, a testament to this wonder, was "sought for much after that."

A brook slowed to a trickle, but in the midst of a thoroughly soaked ground. At night, the various plants and animals reflect moonlight. Glows of green and white and dark blue, as if one were seeing the brook itself underground, an underworld of "Hyla breed" in the "mist," "ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow." How is life so commanding at this moment? A whole world about to disappear, therefore it occupies both experience and imagination. It is remembered as it is seen. "We love the things we love for what they are." In love, is a mind completely conquered by an object, unable to distinguish between past, present, and future?

Frost details two more scenes, I believe. A dry, dirty landscape dotted with "jewel-weed." No substance, just "weak foliage" bent by the merest whiff of wind. Nowhere near as mystical as a glowing small world, but suggestive in a different way. One cannot tell from the picture alone if life is beginning or ending. We know the answer because of the rest of the sequence. Alone, the image speaks however it is taken.

Finally, a riverbed that is "a faded paper sheet / Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat." No life. Only ugly heat, beaten colors, and no way to tell what was. "A brook to none but who remember long." There are those who sing of blissful, natural experiences. A lake isle in Innisfree, or a cabin by a lake, or a country estate ignored by armies during a civil war. They implicitly suggest that experiences both sacred and natural should be desired and pursued. Frost's meditation on love and being may be a bit overwrought, but its central theme acts a counterweight to that idea. "We love the things we love for what they are." The being of the brook encompasses its becoming. How from rushing mountain waters life grew and flourished. How the waters slowed, leaving nothing more than a dry gash upon the earth and some refuse. All of it is the brook. Frost, I suspect, does not himself realize how radical is the notion of love he depicts in this poem.