Robert Frost, "The Pasture"

...there's real value for real people in creating things which do not strive for immortal status.

Robert Frost, "The Pasture"

Happy New Year!

Apologies for being quiet throughout December. I honestly am not sure what happened. I'm journaling through it, and I have a plan for providing you so much more this year.

Separately, I'm writing out a research plan for myself right now. I'm still working on the paper on Plato's "Hipparchus," incorporating comments I received from other scholars. I know the question raised in that dialogue about "love of gain" is something we should be talking about not just as scholars, but as a society. After that paper is done, I want to comment on Nietzsche, Heidegger, and aesthetics. The presentation of philosophy itself is an aesthetic matter, and Nietzsche addresses this directly, receiving criticism from Heidegger. After that, I want my career to focus on questions of political philosophy and aesthetics. My interest in part comes from seeing people who can't stand to spend a minute looking at a painting or a poem. I get it, it's kinda lame. I also see now, in a way I didn't before, how this points to a problem for those of us hoping for a richer and more compassionate civic life. Practicality only exists with regard to an end.

Below, I've discussed a short poem by Robert Frost, "The Pasture." When I first read this poem, I loved it. I wanted to close read everything, and this opened up quickly when playing around with what images mean, what repeated phrases indicate, how to develop questions about an internal speaker and audience. Now I'm more puzzled by it than anything else.

Robert Frost, "The Pasture"

Introductions are hard. They have too much to do; as a result, they can be magnets for anxiety. "Too much," to be clear, means contradictions and impasses which make the explanation of anything a small wonder. To wit: an introduction should give an overview of the territory covered, but also establish what's at stake. If it says too much, it is no longer an introduction, but if it fails to convince of the subject's importance, it risks the whole project. While navigating these tensions, an introduction must grab attention but be recognizable as the opening act.

Over at Shenandoah, Andrea Siso speaks of Robert Frost's "The Pasture" as an "introductory poem." It means to "express the intent" of his North of Boston, a collection which is about nothing less than "renew[ing]" and "refresh[ing]" the "worn souls" of readers. Accordingly, "The Pasture" uses imagery which touches on "purity" and baptism to achieve this.

The Pasture
Robert Frost

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha'n't be gone long.—You come too.

I'm going out to fetch the little calf
That's standing by the mother. It's so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha'n't be gone long.—You come too. 

There are introductions which are too good. "The Pasture," I believe, serves as an example. It presents two simple, striking images. Someone raking leaves from a source of water, "watch[ing] the water clear." Then, "a little calf," so little it could fall over when licked by its mother. Each image could be a Rockwell painting. Not the ones featuring cheery comedy, but more like "Freedom of Worship," where the seriousness of those grappling with the unknown is on full display. A man, upright, standing over a spring, watching water itself become water. A calf, fragile, bewildered and overwhelmed by the fact of being in the world.

These images have metaphysical weight. A grand tradition asserting the purity and complexity of the natural world attends them. Human beings can be cleansed of sin through recognition of the moral law, which entails understanding one's own nature. How one fits into a natural order, in other words. In this space, rationality, morality, and mysticism are in continuous and affirming dialogue. The "little calf" I find most arresting. It cannot physically handle its own mother's touch. Nature is so complicated that human action cannot be strictly divorced from it. The calf has to be fetched, the leaves must be raked, and the pasture, an enclosure defined by humans, is where nature, as we see it, thrives.

For a number of readers, this poem depends on a seductive nostalgia, a selective reading of American history. Rural, New England farms are not Jefferson's agricultural vision for the nation, except when they are. The Americana gives the poem a gravity far beyond anyone's capacity to assess, making it seem nothing less than a description of redemption. Classical tropes also conspire in this. Consider the theme of the purity of country life over city life. Letting the land speak for itself as opposed to creating centers of commerce, cosmopolitanism, and empire. As if despots or monopolists don't have small farms in their vast estates, where they do farmwork for fun. Or as if raking leaves and watching water clear could actually substitute for visiting prisoners. The nostalgia sets the stage for the moral vision, but the nostalgia is deeply compromised. Frost as poet, unfortunately, knows what he is doing.

The response will be that he is in dialogue with someone like Wordsworth, who might see the natural world as uncritically redemptive. I don't feel like fighting to establish that some debates have priority over others. I'm more interested in the grotesqueness of introductions. Of the value of stumbling over one's words. The mistakes, the problems, the lack of connection—there's real value for real people in creating things which do not strive for immortal status. I like "The Pasture" as a poem because of the heavy-handed "You come too," the fragility of a calf surrounded by love, and the absurdly stoic "I'm going out to clean / to fetch." Frost created a strange, awkward narrator who seems to have one way of telling people he wants to spend time with them. He asks them to accompany him while he does yard work. This bit of nostalgia, I imagine, we can all relate to.