Robert Frost’s A Servant to Servants

“The worst that you can do // Is set me back a little more behind.”

Robert Frost’s poem, “A Servant to Servants” was the highlight of my morning reading today. The poem, published in 1914 in the North of Boston anthology, presented below in its entirety.

A Servant to Servants
by Robert Frost

I didn’t make you know how glad I was
To have you come and camp here on our land.
I promised myself to get down some day
And see the way you lived, but I don’t know!
With a houseful of hungry men to feed
I guess you’d find…. It seems to me
I can’t express my feelings any more
Than I can raise my voice or want to lift
My hand (oh, I can lift it when I have to).
Did ever you feel so? I hope you never.
It’s got so I don’t even know for sure
Whether I am glad, sorry, or anything.
There’s nothing but a voice-like left inside
That seems to tell me how I ought to feel,
And would feel if I wasn’t all gone wrong.
You take the lake. I look and look at it.
I see it’s a fair, pretty sheet of water.
I stand and make myself repeat out loud
The advantages it has, so long and narrow,
Like a deep piece of some old running river
Cut short off at both ends. It lies five miles
Straight away through the mountain notch
From the sink window where I wash the plates,
And all our storms come up toward the house,
Drawing the slow waves whiter and whiter and whiter.
It took my mind off doughnuts and soda biscuit
To step outdoors and take the water dazzle
A sunny morning, or take the rising wind
About my face and body and through my wrapper,
When a storm threatened from the Dragon’s Den,
And a cold chill shivered across the lake.
I see it’s a fair, pretty sheet of water,
Our Willoughby! How did you hear of it?
I expect, though, everyone’s heard of it.
In a book about ferns? Listen to that!
You let things more like feathers regulate
Your going and coming. And you like it here?
I can see how you might. But I don’t know!
It would be different if more people came,
For then there would be business. As it is,
The cottages Len built, sometimes we rent them,
Sometimes we don’t. We’ve a good piece of shore
That ought to be worth something, and may yet.
But I don’t count on it as much as Len.
He looks on the bright side of everything,
Including me. He thinks I’ll be all right
With doctoring. But it’s not medicine—
Lowe is the only doctor’s dared to say so—
It’s rest I want—there, I have said it out—
From cooking meals for hungry hired men
And washing dishes after them—from doing
Things over and over that just won’t stay done.
By good rights I ought not to have so much
Put on me, but there seems no other way.
Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.
He says the best way out is always through.
And I agree to that, or in so far
As that I can see no way out but through—
Leastways for me—and then they’ll be convinced.
It’s not that Len don’t want the best for me.
It was his plan our moving over in
Beside the lake from where that day I showed you
We used to live—ten miles from anywhere.
We didn’t change without some sacrifice,
But Len went at it to make up the loss.
His work’s a man’s, of course, from sun to sun,
But he works when he works as hard as I do—
Though there’s small profit in comparisons.
(Women and men will make them all the same.)
But work ain’t all. Len undertakes too much.
He’s into everything in town. This year
It’s highways, and he’s got too many men
Around him to look after that make waste.
They take advantage of him shamefully,
And proud, too, of themselves for doing so.
We have four here to board, great good-for-nothings,
Sprawling about the kitchen with their talk
While I fry their bacon. Much they care!
No more put out in what they do or say
Than if I wasn’t in the room at all.
Coming and going all the time, they are:
I don’t learn what their names are, let alone
Their characters, or whether they are safe
To have inside the house with doors unlocked.
I’m not afraid of them, though, if they’re not
Afraid of me. There’s two can play at that.
I have my fancies: it runs in the family.
My father’s brother wasn’t right. They kept him
Locked up for years back there at the old farm.
I’ve been away once—yes, I’ve been away.
The State Asylum. I was prejudiced;
I wouldn’t have sent anyone of mine there;
You know the old idea—the only asylum
Was the poorhouse, and those who could afford,
Rather than send their folks to such a place,
Kept them at home; and it does seem more human.
But it’s not so: the place is the asylum.
There they have every means proper to do with,
And you aren’t darkening other people’s lives—
Worse than no good to them, and they no good
To you in your condition; you can’t know
Affection or the want of it in that state.
I’ve heard too much of the old-fashioned way.
My father’s brother, he went mad quite young.
Some thought he had been bitten by a dog,
Because his violence took on the form
Of carrying his pillow in his teeth;
But it’s more likely he was crossed in love,
Or so the story goes. It was some girl.
Anyway all he talked about was love.
They soon saw he would do someone a mischief
If he wa’n’t kept strict watch of, and it ended
In father’s building him a sort of cage,
Or room within a room, of hickory poles,
Like stanchions in the barn, from floor to ceiling,—
A narrow passage all the way around.
Anything they put in for furniture
He’d tear to pieces, even a bed to lie on.
So they made the place comfortable with straw,
Like a beast’s stall, to ease their consciences.
Of course they had to feed him without dishes.
They tried to keep him clothed, but he paraded
With his clothes on his arm—all of his clothes.
Cruel—it sounds. I ’spose they did the best
They knew. And just when he was at the height,
Father and mother married, and mother came,
A bride, to help take care of such a creature,
And accommodate her young life to his.
That was what marrying father meant to her.
She had to lie and hear love things made dreadful
By his shouts in the night. He’d shout and shout
Until the strength was shouted out of him,
And his voice died down slowly from exhaustion.
He’d pull his bars apart like bow and bow-string,
And let them go and make them twang until
His hands had worn them smooth as any ox-bow.
And then he’d crow as if he thought that child’s play—
The only fun he had. I’ve heard them say, though,
They found a way to put a stop to it.
He was before my time—I never saw him;
But the pen stayed exactly as it was
There in the upper chamber in the ell,
A sort of catch-all full of attic clutter.
I often think of the smooth hickory bars.
It got so I would say—you know, half fooling—
“It’s time I took my turn upstairs in jail”—
Just as you will till it becomes a habit.
No wonder I was glad to get away.
Mind you, I waited till Len said the word.
I didn’t want the blame if things went wrong.
I was glad though, no end, when we moved out,
And I looked to be happy, and I was,
As I said, for a while—but I don’t know!
Somehow the change wore out like a prescription.
And there’s more to it than just window-views
And living by a lake. I’m past such help—
Unless Len took the notion, which he won’t,
And I won’t ask him—it’s not sure enough.
I ’spose I’ve got to go the road I’m going:
Other folks have to, and why shouldn’t I?
I almost think if I could do like you,
Drop everything and live out on the ground—
But it might be, come night, I shouldn’t like it,
Or a long rain. I should soon get enough,
And be glad of a good roof overhead.
I’ve lain awake thinking of you, I’ll warrant,
More than you have yourself, some of these nights.
The wonder was the tents weren’t snatched away
From over you as you lay in your beds.
I haven’t courage for a risk like that.
Bless you, of course, you’re keeping me from work,
But the thing of it is, I need to be kept.
There’s work enough to do—there’s always that;
But behind’s behind. The worst that you can do
Is set me back a little more behind.
I sha’n’t catch up in this world, anyway.
I’d rather you’d not go unless you must.

Poetry at the Olympic Games

Amanda Katz reminisces on the early Olympic games, which featured competitions in music, painting, and poetry:

Nine days into the Olympic Games of summer 2012, we’ve all been reminded that this event is not, in fact, a simple series of sports competitions. It’s an international, hallucinatory carnival of dancing horses, Coca-Cola, terrifyingly strong teenagers, Paul McCartney singalongs, badminton scandals, rude commentators, bodies doing the nearly impossible—and, of course, poetry.

Poetry? Yes, from every quarter. A quotation from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” has been carved into a wall at the Olympic Village. Canadian writer Priscila Uppal is in London as an Olympic “poet in residence,” posting new poems daily about the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Earlier this summer, a weeklong festival called the Poetry Parnassus brought hundreds of poets to London, one from each of the competing Olympic nations. Of course, there is a long association between poetry and the Olympics: At the ancient Greek Games, poets such as Pindar wrote famous odes in honor of the winners.

In recent history, however, the relationship went still deeper: For some decades, literature was actually an Olympic medal event. Today, the strange story of the event’s debut 100 years ago—and the florid, slightly unsettling poem that won—have been almost forgotten. But together, they offer a fascinating glimpse of the spirit of the Olympics at the time.

In 1906, the International Olympic Committee began discussing a proposal from the French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the man credited with launching the modern Olympics in 1896, to include arts competitions in the Games. Eventually, the committee announced that the 1912 games in Stockholm would include not just sports but also five unprecedented events: competitions in architecture, music composition, painting, sculpture, and literature. The rules called for entries to be unpublished or unexhibited works, “directly inspired by the idea of sport.”

Here is the winning poem titled “Ode to Sport” that won the gold medal at the 1912 Olympics:

O Sport, pleasure of the Gods,
essence of life, you appeared suddenly
in the midst of the grey clearing
which writhes with the drudgery of
modern existence, like the radiant
messenger of a past age, when
mankind still smiled. And the glimmer
of dawn lit up the mountain tops and
flecks of light dotted the ground in the
gloomy forests.

II.
O Sport, you are Beauty! You are the
architect of that edifice which is the
human body and which can become
abject or sublime according to whether
it is defiled by vile passions or improved
through healthy exertion. There can be
no beauty without balance and proportion,
and you are the peerless master
of both, for you create harmony, you
give movements rhythm, you make
strength graceful and you endow suppleness
with power.

III.
O Sport, you are Justice! The perfect
equity for which men strive in vain in
their social institutions is your constant
companion. No one can jump a
centimetre higher than the height he
can jump, nor run a minute longer
than the length he can run. The limits
of his success are determined solely
by his own physical and moral
strength.

The New York Times also had a recent piece on poetry at the Olympic Games:

For much of the 20th century, poetry was an official, medal-winning competition in the Games. The French visionary who revived the Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, always insisted Greek-style arts contests should be allowed alongside athletics. His dream was realized in 1912 at Stockholm, where literature, together with music, painting, sculpture and even architecture, became Olympic events in the so-called Pentathlon of the Muses, in which all submissions had to be “directly inspired by the idea of sport.” In seven Olympiads, writers — almost always poets — were awarded gold, silver and bronze medals alongside sprinters, weight lifters and wrestlers. The general literature category was then expanded in 1928, 1936 and 1948 to include specific contests for epic and lyric poetry.

Very interesting!

New Yorker Profile of Joseph Brodsky

In this month’s New Yorker, there is an interesting profile of Joseph Brodsky and the fortune of misfortunes.

If you aren’t familiar with Brodsky’s story and his exile from Russia, that piece is an excellent primer. I’ve previously profiled a conversation between Brodksy and a judge in this post (scroll down to the bottom), but this exchange (profiled in the New Yorker) was new to me:

Judge: Tell the court why in between jobs you didn’t work and led a parasitic life style?
Brodsky: I worked in between jobs. I did what I do now: I wrote poems.
Judge: You wrote your so-called poems? And what was useful about your frequent job changes?
Brodsky: I began working when I was 15 years old. Everything was interesting to me. I changed jobs because I wanted to learn more about life, about people.
Judge: What did you do for your motherland?
Brodsky: I wrote poems. That is my work. I am convinced. . . . I believe that what I wrote will be useful to people not only now but in future generations.
Judge: So you think your so-called poems are good for people?
Brodsky: Why do you say of the poems that they are “so-called”?
Judge: We say that because we don’t have any other idea about them. 

Of note is this paragraph about Brosky’s loneliness when coming to the United States:

Brodsky’s poems during his first years in the States are filled with the most naked loneliness. “An autumn evening in a humble little town / proud of its appearance on the map,” one begins, and concludes with an image of a person whose reflection in the mirror disappears, bit by bit, like that of a street lamp in a drying puddle. The enterprising Proffer had persuaded the University of Michigan to make Brodsky a poet in residence; Brodsky wrote a poem about a college teacher. “In the country of dentists,” it begins, “whose daughters order clothes / from London catalogues, . . . / I, whose mouth houses ruins / more total than the Parthenon’s, / a spy, an interloper, / the fifth column of a rotten civilization,” teach literature. The narrator comes home at night, falls into bed with his clothes still on, and cries himself to sleep…

I also thought the author’s conviction on Brodsky’s grasp of the English language was profound (I am reminded of Nabokov in this instance):

His [Brodsky’s] English was able to grant his parents a measure of freedom. But there was one thing it could not do: transform his Russian poetry into English poetry. Inevitably, Brodsky tried, and he wasn’t shy about it. Almost as soon as his English was up to snuff he began to “collaborate” with his translators; eventually he supplanted them. The results were not so much bad as badly uneven. For every successful stanza, there were three or four gaffes—grammatical, or idiomatic, or just generally tin-eared. Worst of all, to readers accustomed to postwar Anglo-American poetry, Brodsky’s translations rhymed, no matter what obstacles stood in their way.

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Hat Tip: @openculture

A Gradual Canticle for Augustine

I’m currently reading Stephen King’s On Writing, and while I generally don’t post reviews/quotes from a book until after I’ve finished reading, this poem within the book was too good not to share.

On pages 63-64 of the book, Stephen King describes how he met his wife, Tabitha Spruce. Stephen and Tabitha both attended a poetry workshop in the living room of instructor Jim Bishop’s house. Stephen King transcribes one of Tabitha’s poems, titled “A Gradual Canticle for Augustine”:

The thinnest bear is awakened in the winter
by the sleep-laughter of locusts,
by the dream-blustering of bees,
by the honeyed scent of desert sands
that the wind carries in her womb
into the distant hills, into the houses of Cedar.

The bear has heard a sure promise
Certain words are edible; they nourish
more than snow heaped upon silver plates
or ice overflowing golden bowls. Chips of ice
from the mouth of a lover are not always better,
Nor a desert dreaming always a mirage.
The rising bear sings a gradual canticle
woven of sand that conquers cities
by a slow cycle. His praise seduces
a passing wind, traveling to the sea
wherein a fish, caught in a careful net,
hears a bear’s song in the cool-scented snow.

Elegant and graceful. According to Stephen King: there was silence when Tabby finished reading. King describes the poem as exhibiting a “combination of crafty diction and delirious imagery.” I wanted to highlight this poem because it is the most vivid thing I’ve read all day.

In case you are wondering about the title: St. Augustine, the Latin-speaking theologian, wrote the Libertine’s Prayer, which goes “O Lord, make me chaste… but not yet.” In St. Augustine’s writing, he focused on man’s struggle to give up belief in self in favor of belief in God. And in the process, he sometimes likened himself to a bear.