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Birches by Robert Frost
Cavalry Crossing a Ford by Walt Whitman
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain by Emily Dickinson
i was sitting in mcsorley’s by E. E. Cummings
Leda and the Swan by William Butler Yeats
To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time by Robert Herrick
Piano by D. H. Lawrence
Queen-Ann’s-Lace by William Carlos Williams
There’s a Certain Slant of Light by Emily Dickinson
To My Dear and Loving Husband by Anne Bradstreet
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows-
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
THE CRITICAL ANALYSIS
Robert Frost’s most well liked and admirable poem is “Birches”. However, like many of his poems, there is far more incidents within the poem itself than first appears. “Birches” was first published in the Atlantic Monthly. This poem with its structural excellence, its animosity of the internal and external worlds, and its sporadic dry wit reflects the durable aspects Frost’s writings. The central imagery of the poem is sequences of birch that have been curved down so that they no longer stand up straight but rather are arched over. While the poet quickly maintains that he perceives the exact reason that this has occurred—ice storms have weighed down the branches of the birch trees, causing them to bend over—he chooses instead to ruminate that something else entirely has happened: a young boy has went up to the top of the trees and dragged them down, riding the trees as they bow down and then coil back up over and over again until they become curved over. This rigidity between what has indeed occurred and what the poet would like to have happened, between the real world and the world of the fancy, moves all over Frost’s literary works and provides the poem rational dimension and meaning far greater than that of a simple pondering on birch trees. When the poet returned to the United States, North of Boston was published there and became a great accomplishment, bringing him fame on the spot. From then on, Frost settled into a career of writing and teaching, holding jobs at several major universities. He rapidly became celebrated as one of the most important American poets of the twentieth century. He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry four times. In 1961, he was invited to read one of his poems at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Frost’s personal life, in contrast to his professional success, was often painful and bitter. Only four of his six children survived to adulthood; one of his daughters died after giving birth, another was institutionalized for mental illness, and his son committed suicide. His marriage was often stormy, and Frost has been accused of being cruel and domineering to his family. He strongly disliked leftwing politics and programs, such as the New Deal, which earned him the distrust of many literary critics. He was disappointed that he never received the Nobel Prize for literature. Robert Frost died at the age of eighty-eight on January 29, 1963, in Boston, Massachusetts. “Birches” has been viewed as an important expression of Frost’s philosophical outlook as well as a transitional poem that signaled a significant change in his literary development. Critic Jeffrey Hart, writing in Sewanee Review, terms “Birches” a “Frostian manifesto” due to the poem’s skeptical tone regarding spiritual matters. Hart draws attention to the first part of the poem, where Frost presents the fantastic idea that the trees were bent by a boy, then discredits this thought with a more rational explanation regarding ice storms. In this manner, according to Hart, Frost casts doubt on the irrational aspects of the spiritual realm and upholds the value of earthly reality. “Birches,” the critic writes, “asserts the claims of Frost’s skepticism and sense of human limits against the desire for transcendence and the sense of mysterious possibility.” A similar conclusion is reached by Floyd C. Watkins in an essay published in South Atlantic Quarterly. Watkins explains that Frost “contemplates a moment when the soul may be completely absorbed into a union with the divine. But he is earthbound, limited, afraid. No sooner does he wish to get away from earth than he thinks of ‘fate’— rather than God. And what might be a mystical experience turns into fear of death, a fear that he would be snatched away ‘not to return.’” John C. Kemp, in his book Robert Frost and New England, notes that “Birches” was written at a time when Frost’s work took a new direction. In 1913, the poet was completing work on North of Boston, a collection that is considered one of his finest. “Birches” was also composed in 1913 but was withheld from North of Boston. Kemp believes that Frost made this decision because he “evidently knew that he had done something different in [‘Birches’], something not quite appropriate to the tone and dramatic impetus of the other poems” that were published in the volume. In specifying what that difference is, Kemp argues that the poems in North of Boston often reflect the observations of “perplexed and uncertain” outsiders as they observe rural New England life. “Birches” on the other hand, expresses the “confident, affirmative, and dominating” voice of the “Yankee farmer.” The farmer is a self-assured native who delivers pronouncements and wisdom based on his experiences in the countryside. Frost’s later poetry continued and intensified this attitude, according to Kemp, making “Birches” a precursor of Frost’s subsequent work. The critic also contends that this change in direction ultimately harmed Frost’s poetry. “By adopting the stance of the Yankee farmer,” Kemp writes, “Frost committed himself to conventional poses and slighted his original, imaginative impulses.”
A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands,
They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun--hark to
the musical clank,
Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop
Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture, the
negligent rest on the saddles,
Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just entering the
Scarlet and blue and snowy white,
The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.
THE CRITICAL ANALYSIS
“Cavalry Crossing a Ford” was first published in 1865 in Drum Taps, a collection of poems Whitman wrote during the Civil War, and was later incorporated into Leaves of Grass. The specific inspiration for this poem is not known, but Whitman did work as a nurse during the Civil War and may well have written this piece upon witnessing a cavalry troop crossing a river. Unlike the majority of poems Whitman penned during the Civil War, “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” does not use the first person “I” to put the scene it describes into a particular context. Instead of filtering the scene through a first-person narrator, the speaker of the poem journalistically presents a series of images and entreats the reader to “behold” the scene as though he or she were the first-person observer. It is as if the speaker imagined his reader standing beside him and seeing exactly what he sees as he sees it. Perhaps the most interesting facet of the poem concerns the perspective from which the scene is observed and presented. The panoramic quality of the images suggests that the observer (implicitly, the reader) is viewing the scene from some distance. The whole of the cavalry troop is seen at once, as though the reader were looking down from some great height. However, from this vantage the reader is ultimately unable to distinguish the particulars of the scene from the larger whole. Each individual soldier becomes merely part of the “they” that makes up the entire cavalry, and no particular individual is given special attention or distinction in the scene. The climax of the poem then comes in the last line, when suddenly the focus is on the “guidon flags.” While the reader has thus far been unable to distinguish the individuals who make up the cavalry troop, now the relatively small flags and even the particular colors they contain are described in detail. Such flags ultimately suggest political allegiance and serve to distinguish the two opposing forces of the battle. In turning attention to the flags, the poem presents a specific manner of viewing the world, one in which individual human beings are no more than their political allegiances. This mindset was no doubt prevalent during the Civil War, a time when people were compelled to choose sides, and self-preservation depended upon distinguishing one’s comrades from one’s enemies. That the
“guidon flags” are seen to “flutter gayly” implies that the approaching cavalry troop poses no threat. The poem ends here, leaving the reader with the impression that attention to the scene is no longer necessary; the speaker has conveyed what is important. “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” is in many ways indicative of Whitman’s shorter poems, especially in the vivid description of the scene. The poem differs in the manner in which the speaker situates himself on the periphery of the scene. While the majority of Whitman’s work is written in the first person, and usually the “I” of the poem is the center of the action or scene, in “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” the first-person “I” of the poem is merely implied and serves solely as a distant observer. This is particularly important in light of the fact that Whitman’s biggest critical proponents argue precisely that what distinguishes his poetry is his self referential, egocentric outlook on the world. As John Updike explained in his essay “Whitman’s Egotheism,” Whitman’s poetic egotism is “suffused and tempered with a strenuous empathy” and serves to recognize “each man’s immersion in a unique and unexchangeable ego.” In other words, Whitman espouses not only his individuality but
the individual nature of all persons. Yet in “Cavalry Crossing a Ford,” the individual characters observed in the scene are never quite distinguished from the larger military group. In slight contrast to this interpretation of “Cavalry Crossing a Ford,” Cleanth Brooks and Robert
Penn Warren, in their book Understanding Poetry, suggest that the original unity of the cavalry as depicted in the first line “dissolves into details.” They point out that each person and each group of people is given a sense of individuality if only in that “each” is “a picture.” Brooks and Warren argue that in line 5, the speaker of the poem recognizes each man’s individuality. What follows is then a reassembly of the parts back into the whole. As Brooks and Warren explain, the speaker of the poem, “having fractured his general impression into these individual ‘pictures’ . . . then begins to reassemble the whole. Again we begin to get a sense of the column as a unit, its head emerging on the far bank, the rear entering the stream. But still the scene has not come into sharp focus. It is only when our eyes fix on the guidons fluttering ‘gayly’ that everything is drawn together . . . we get a feeling of how the men who, for a moment, had become individual, just men watering their horses as casually and lazily as a farmer after a day in the field, are jerked back into their places in the unit, losing their identity in the whole.”
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading—treading—till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through—
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum—
Kept beating—beating—till I thought
My Mind was going numb—
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space—began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here—
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down—
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing—then—
THE CRITICAL ANALYSIS
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” was first published in 1896. Because Emily Dickinson lived a life of great privacy and only published a handful of poems in her lifetime, the exact year of its composition is unknown; most scholars agree that it was written around 1861. Like many of Dickinson’s other poems, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” explores the workings of the human mind under stress and attempts to replicate the stages of a mental breakdown through the overall metaphor of a funeral. The common rituals of a funeral are used by Dickinson to mark the stages of the speaker’s mental collapse until she faces a destruction that no words can articulate. As the metaphorical funeral begins and progresses, the speaker’s “mind” grows “numb” until her final remark stops in mid-sentence. The poem is a staple in Dickinson’s canon and reflects her ability to replicate human consciousness in a controlled poetic form. Like her poems “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—”, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—” and “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—”, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” uses concrete language and imagery to explore abstract issues. The event that the funeral is used to describe, however, does not have to be interpreted as a mental breakdown. The poem allows for other readings of what constitutes the “funeral,” such as an individual’s being assaulted by an idea that threatens to destroy all of his or her dearly held assumptions or a mind’s inability to cope with the pressures placed upon it from the outside world. The poem’s ambiguities allow for multiple readings, all of which, however, converge in the idea that the speaker’s brain is ceremoniously “laid to rest” by the poem’s conclusion. While some authors’ reputations ebb and flow according to the times and critical caprice, the reputation of Emily Dickinson has only grown stronger since the posthumous discovery of her poems. Most critics would agree with Dickinson’s recent biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff, who (in Benet’s
Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature) calls Dickinson “certainly America’s greatest woman author and possibly its greatest poet of either gender.” Generally, critics are fascinated by Dickinson’s ability to present various states of mind through the use of different images that convey complex mental processes to her readers. Writing in the Introduction to Modern Critical Views: Emily Dickinson, Harold Bloom, one of the twentieth century’s most preeminent critics, states that Dickinson presents her readers with “the most authentic cognitive difficulties” formed in “a mind so original and powerful that we scarcely have begun, even now, to catch up with her.” The number of articles and books being written about Dickinson today is a testament to the truth of Bloom’s remark. “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” has fared equally well among critics. In his important study of Dickinson’s tragic poetry, The Long Shadow, Clark Griffith praises the poem for its embodiment of “emotional and psychological states in a hard, specific language” and concludes that the poem foreshadows “the principles and techniques of modern symbolist poetry.” In his book The Art of Emily Dickinson’s Early Poetry, David Porter states, “On the experience of psychic breakdown, perhaps no poetic expression surpasses the aptness of metaphor or the psychological authenticity of the progression of mental collapse” as Dickinson’s poem. John Cody, a psychiatrist whose book After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson offers a psychoanalytic reading of the poem, calls it “powerful” and praises Dickinson for her ability to make the reader “feel each tormenting increment of a gathering depression until vitality reaches a nadir, and reason gives way to a numb and psychotic state of reality severance.” Finally, the aforementioned Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in her extensive critical biography Emily Dickinson, praises the way that the poem “taunts with its invitations and frustrations, and ultimately forces us to ask what we know, how we know—whether ‘life’ and ‘death’ are susceptible to understanding.” These critics and many others thus praise the poem for its sharp insights into what happens to a mind facing its own destruction.
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