A Witness Tree

New Poems by Robert Frost. Henry Holt and Company. $2.00
A Witness Tree is Robert Frost’s seventh volume of poems. He is not prolific, his method is his own secret, and he never explains his poems. The poems are enough. Phrases, figures, and meters are beguilngly natural and yield much on first hearing. But one cannot reread even the early pieces which one has almost by heart without discovering new information.
We are told by the ‘Moodie Forester’ that the Witness Tree is a great beech which has been deeply wounded by a spike once driven into it to mark a boundary of land amid the wood. It
Has been impressed as Witness Tree
And made commit to memory
My proof of being not unbounded.
Thus truth’s established and borne out,
Though circumstanced by dark and doubt —
Though by a world of doubt surrounded.
According to the interpretive mood of modern criticism, we might begin looking for ‘symbols’ and secondary meanings. We should he wiser to contemplate certain individual words together with their derivations — impressed and circumstanced, for example. The symbol-hunter would ask what the beech represents. Nothing, I should say, except itselt. When Frost names things and tells facts, they are what he means. He lacks the contemporary fad tor duplicity. But naturally poetry has a meditative application as well, and when Frost strikes deeper into meaning, he tells us so. The first halt of the familiar ‘Birches’ is straight exposition and picture; the second halt states the philosophical theme unmistakably. The fact remains natural throughout the metaphor. Frost never goes ‘sailing to Byzantium.* The only attitude demanded of the reader is companionable attention.
His poems are dialogues. Frost expects a listener and an answer. When he foresees agreements, the tone is grave and intimate; he points out things in Nature when ‘we’ are together. When he wishes to argue, he spins a glittering web of irony to entrap the unwary. There are the husband and wife in ‘The Death of the Hired Man’ and ‘West-Running Brook.’ ‘You’ are addressed frequently in A Witness Tree.
I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
There is no other poet I know of who finds in the world a sufficient companion to his dialogue.
There is so much to be said about individual poems, and so much that has to be left unsaid. ‘The Silken Tent’ boats in air more delicate than the substance of its title. ‘The Discovery of the Madeiras’ is a strange narrative — strange in itselt and new in its manner. In ‘The Wind and the Rain’ we find an important warning of the dangers of invoking misfortune by dramatizing it in an adolescent dream. The poem stands in contrast to Housman’s melancholy ‘Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure’ or Hardy’s ‘A Young Man’s Epigram upon Existence.’
Oh, should a child be left unwarned
That any song in which he mourned
Would be as if he prophesied?
It were unworthy of the tongue
To let the halt of life alone
And play the good without the ill.
And yet ‘twould seem that what is sung
In happy sadness by the young
Fate has no choice but to fulfill.
Again and again we run across single couplets which, in their unexpected twist of a word or phrase, remind us of some of Marvell’s exquisite surprises: —
We went from house to wood
For change of solitude.
‘The Lesson tor Today’ is an important poem in the epistolary style. It is occasionally marked by ironic self-contradiction, as in the line: ‘The groundwork of all faith is human woe.’
A Witness Tree represents Robert Frost at his best. He has taken a yet further range in his stride. His work develops in his own way, which has been his way from the beginning. He is the experimentalist within the great tradition. He cuts his way through the underbrush of familiar truth, a territory so much more arduous than the imaginary jungles of pure fantasy. He is a master of the unforeseen. Sometimes when he seems to be aiming at us, we hear the explosion in another county. A Witness Tree is a wonderful book, for this age— tor any age. ROBERT HILLYER
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