Wednesday

Mar. 26, 2014

A Prayer in Spring

by Robert Frost

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.

"A Prayer in Spring" by Robert Frost from Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays. © The Library of America, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of playwright Tennessee Williams (books by this author), born Thomas Williams in Columbus, Mississippi (1911). In 1929, while attending the University of Missouri, Williams saw a production of Henrik Ibsen's play Ghosts and decided to become a playwright. His father pulled him out of college and made him go work at the International Shoe Company instead. There, Williams worked with another young man whose name was Stanley Kowalski.

Williams continued to write, even while he was working a variety of odd jobs. His plays began to be produced by small local theater companies, and they earned good reviews, but not much money. He was nearly broke when The Glass Menagerie (1944) was produced. It proved to be a big commercial and critical success, first in Chicago and later on Broadway. The play, like much of his work, drew heavily from Williams' personal history; Elia Kazan, who directed many of his plays, once said, "Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life." He won a Pulitzer Prize with his next major play, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), which included a character named Stanley Kowalski.

It's the birthday of the poet who said: "The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader." That's Robert Frost (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1874). After his father died of tuberculosis, Frost's mother moved the family to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where Robert's paternal grandparents lived. Frost went to Dartmouth, but left after a couple of months. He returned home and worked odd jobs, but he resented them all, believing that his true calling was to be a poet. After the publication of his first poem, he proposed to his high school sweetheart, Elinor, but she turned him down; she wanted to finish college. He made a surprise visit to her university to present her with a collection of his poems, but she asked him to leave. Contemplating suicide, he took a train south to the Great Dismal Swamp on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. But after walking 10 miles into the heart of the swamp, he met a group of duck hunters and paid them a dollar to take him out. Elinor graduated, he proposed to her again, and she accepted.

Frost enrolled at Harvard, but he had health problems that he mistakenly believed were symptoms of tuberculosis. His doctor recommended country living, so Frost left Harvard and moved with Elinor and their two children to a rented farmhouse. A year later, their three-year-old son, Elliot, died of cholera, and Frost blamed himself for not calling the doctor sooner. Frost was still worried that he had tuberculosis. His mother was dying of cancer, and he was unable to care for her. Their landlady was unhappy about their 300 White Wyandotte chickens, and when the Frosts got behind on their rent, she evicted them. Frost became seriously depressed. So behind her husband's back, Elinor spoke to Frost's grandfather. She asked if he would consider buying them a 30-acre farm in Derry, just across the New Hampshire border from Lawrence. It was a beautiful homestead, with a well-kept farmhouse, a barn, an apple orchard, pastures, and a big vegetable garden. The farm was a good bargain at $1,725, and the old man agreed.

When Frost's grandfather bought him the farm, he insisted that Frost accept a family friend, Carl Burrell, as a live-in farmhand. Burrell lived upstairs, milked the cows each morning, packed eggs, and tended to the apples. Frost was offended that his grandfather didn't trust him to farm on his own, and Burrell disapproved of Frost's tendency to sleep late, but the two men got along. When Burrell left after a couple of years, Frost did well enough to support his family, mostly raising poultry. He wasn't a very successful farmer, but then again none of his neighbors were doing very well either — it was a bad economy and the soil was poor. His neighbors thought he was lazy; he said, "I always liked to sit up all hours of the night planning some inarticulate crime, going out to work when the spirit moved me, something they shook their heads ominously at." On the other hand, when he took a trip to New York City to try to interest editors in his poems, he was too much of a farmer; he wrote: "I had mud on my shoes. They could see the mud, and that didn't seem right to them for a poet."

For the first few years, Frost farmed exclusively; then he supplemented his income with teaching. The children were homeschooled, and he spent a lot of time with them. They did farm chores together, or went for walks in the woods, where he tutored them in the names of plants and recited classic poems for them to memorize. The family played dominoes and dice, and read aloud. They didn't have much money, but they ate well — lots of eggs, as well as milk, fruit, bread, meat, vegetables, and maple syrup. Frost wasn't publishing, but he was writing constantly, often late at night at the kitchen table after everyone else was asleep. He liked to listen to the crickets, which reminded him of a metronome.

Frost sold the farm in 1911 and moved to England. Soon after, he published A Boy's Will (1913) and then North of Boston (1914), which sold 20,000 copies and made Frost famous. The majority of the poems from those two books had been written at the farm in Derry, and some from his third book too. He wrote in a letter: "The core of all my writing was probably the five free years I had there on the farm. [...] The only thing we had was time and seclusion. I couldn't have figured on it in advance. I hadn't that kind of foresight. But it turned out right as a doctor's prescription." Frost's other books include Mountain Interval (1916), New Hampshire (1923), A Further Range (1937), and A Witness Tree (1943).

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