Susan Siferd

Nov. 18, 1995

Robert Frost: The Development of a Poet

My Butterfly: An Elegy

(first published poem: The Independent, Nov. 8, 1894)
[Note: I've footnoted a few of the many variations between this text and that printed in Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson, eds., Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays . The Library of America, 1995. --SC]

Poem text removed at publisher's request

*   [P&R: "Tossed, tangled, whirled and whirled above"]
**    [P&R: "of my regret ... all the land"]
# [P&R: "Thou didst not know, who tottered, wandering on high"]
## ["That fate had made ..."]
% [In place of the three preceding lines, P&R print: "Nor yet did I. /
And there were other things:"]
%% [These two lines are omitted in P&R]


(last poem published in Frost's lifetime: Poetry , Oct.-Nov. 1962)

Poem text removed at publisher's request

I'm not sure if it's overly ambitious or merely naive to select Frost's first and last published poems as the basis of a study of his development as a poet. With almost seventy years between publication dates, are there any but remote connections between his first and last works? Can either one be said to represent Frost at his best? But I've always liked Frost for a variety of reasons--some of which have nothing to do with poetry--and perhaps because I'm a writer, too, feel that the first and last works of a poet have special significance in terms of both his life and his career. Selecting poems for a study of Frost's development as a poet isn't easy to do, anyway, since Frost carefully orchestrated the publication of his poems with the exact intention of shaping ̉the portrait of man and poet that [he] wanted to present" (Poirier 45). His first volume, A Boy's Will, published in 1913, "did not begin to represent the variety, much less the size, of his accomplishment up to the age of thirty-eight" (Poirier 46). A number of poems--famous ones like "The Death of the Hired Man" and "The Black Cottage"--published the following year in North of Boston, had been written as early as 1905 and 1906; Frost held them back, so that when they did appear in print, critics and readers would perceive a honing of his powers (Poirier 46). "An Old Man's Winter Night," "Range-Finding," and "The Subverted Flower" (among others), were written--or at least begun--in Derry between 1900 and 1911; some of the great sonnets were written during 1906-7: "The Oven Bird" and "Putting in the Seed." All of these were held until the third book, Mountain Interval, published in 1916 (Poirier 47). Date of publication, therefore, does not necessarily reflect the order in which Frost wrote his poems.

Finding Frost's first and last published poems wasn't difficult, however, although it was like the day when, as a child, I discovered I could span an octave on the piano: how amazing to see all the notes that fell between one end and the other. "My Butterfly" was published in The Independent, Nov. 8, 1894 (exactly one hundred-and-one years to the day before I first read it for this paper!); "The Prophets Really Prophesy as Mystics the Commentators Merely by Statistics" appeared in the fiftieth anniversary issue of Poetry, October-November 1962, and was printed in booklet form as Frost's Christmas greeting that year, mailed out in December, while he was in the hospital recovering--or trying to--from surgery; Frost died the following January.

In "My Butterfly," the speaker mourns in early winter the death of a butterfly which he recalls seeing the previous summer, when he was inspired to rejoice in both the butterfly and himself. The poet, now philosophical, asks, "And didst thou think who tottered maundering on high/ Fate had not made thee for the pleasure of the wind,/ With those great careless wings?" The butterfly had, in fact, been engaged in "airy dalliance" at the time; in short, he was mating. The heights which it attained provoked the envy of God (that Frost names both Fate and God in the same poem as the forces which rule the cosmos is consistent with his agnosticism). Frost then draws a parallel between the butterfly and himself; indeed, he was almost forced to draw the parallel when in summer the "reckless zephyr" blew the buttery against his cheek. The poet describes how the grasses had "dizzied me of thought," as if he, like the butterfly, "tottered maundering on high;" how "The breeze three odors brought"--[oh, no! not "three"]-- and "a gem-flower waved in a wand." These images seem to invoke a magic that he felt present in the glorious summer day, a magic which filled his heart to the brim with joy.

Or perhaps, given the sexual possibilities in the imagery throughout the early section of the poem, the poet is speaking metaphorically of a love affair of his own which, like the butterfly's, provoked a "conspiracy.../ Against my life." The discovery of the butterfly wing, now withered, gives the speaker a more sober understanding of life and of his place in the scheme of things. This poem was written before Frost had published any of his poems (except for a private printing of poems, which consisted of two volumes: one for himself and one for Elinor White, who refused his initial proposal of marriage). He did feel a certain hopelessness about both Elinor and his poetic career (Ingebretsen 208). While it is mere speculation, it's not unreasonable to see a possible connection between his life and the dismal metaphor of the butterfly as a frustrated lover and a failed poet. For Frost, "making" poetry was metaphorically a creative, sexual act.

"The Prophets Really Prophesy as Mystics" is a wry look at the futility of science to answer our most probing questions about the mysteries of the cosmos: those which might shed light on the meaning of life. It's almost impossible to describe the plot of this poem without discussing style, so I beg off for now. Suffice it to say that, unlike "My Butterfly," which describes two particular actions which involve the speaker, "The Prophets" describes no particular action, but merely speculates in metaphorical terms. In both poems, the subject is philosophical; in fact both poems are concerned ultimately with the same issue--although the tone of the speaker and the angle is different in each. In the earlier poem, the tone is ironic, but somber; in the later poem, the tone is amused and mildly satirical. In the earlier poem, the speaker is brought up short after a moment of gladness to consider the fleetingness of life and the insignificance of a single butterfly--or of a single man--in the scheme of things. The speaker is "immersed" in withered leaves and immersed in the action of the poem. In the later poem, the speaker seems almost detached, as if he were observing the confusion (one of Frost's favorite words) of his fellows from a distance. In fact the poem places the reader at a distance from the planet, where we observe with the speaker, the futile antics of the human race. It's tempting to conjecture that Frost adopted this stance because he knew he hadn't long to live, but that is mere speculation.

In theme, therefore, both "My Butterfly" and "The Prophets" are really pessimistic, or sober (despite the surface levity of the later poem); yet the seriousness of the subject does not exclude a certain playfulness in the poet, which is characteristic of Frost. This playfulness comes in "My Butterfly" in the straining of credibility: there is little likelihood that the speaker could single out one butterfly among "all the dazzling other ones" for his particular admiration, just as it is hardly possible that he could pick out a single "wing withered" from a pile of "withered leaves under the eaves." Yet Frost insists on the particularity of this butterfly: "My Butterfly," not "The Butterfly". The poet is serious in his theme, but is pulling the reader's leg in his imagery ("Be careful I don't spoof you," he often said).

We recall how Christ promised that God sees every sparrow that falls. And yet the image of the butterfly's withered wing among all the withered leaves suggests the impossibility that even God could pick out the wing from the leaves.

The playfulness in "The Prophets Really Prophesy" is much more apparent, and it comes in the imagery: first in the image of science personified hurling Promethean defiance at the "Divine Safe's combination lock"; then in the image of the planet as a willful child or stubborn animal who can be taken "by the scruff" and made to behave; finally in the image of the earth as a ship with unmoored hawser floating to either a "scientific sky" or to Heaven.

Frequently in Frost, it is not religion or philosophy, but imagination which is found to be the only possible redemption, and "dutiful performance of an economically necessary task in a 'workaday world' . . . yields an unanticipated return in the form of an 'earned' enhancement of experience--the perception of something having a beauty of meaning irrelevant in practical terms. The two--labor and its imaginative reward--are interdependent" (Borroff 75). In "My Butterfly," the speaker who in summer lolled in the lush grasses, is now apparently cleaning the leaves from under the eaves. While performing this task, it is certain that he has not found the withered wing of a deceased butterfly, but it is just as certain that, in the act of clearing out the withered leaves, he saw the metaphor for the butterfly. The poem, therefore, becomes a redemptive act of imagination. Again in "The Prophets Really Prophesy," it is the poet who is engaged in the work of imagination, and the poet who may "save the ship" as it floats unmoored into the unknown. "Have I not as prophet prophesied[?]" he asks in stanza two, and in stanza six he repeats with more emphasis: ("Have I not prophesied and prophesied?)"

"I tried to tell you," Frost seems to say, "But would you listen?" A Biblical allusion is implied: that "no prophet is acceptable in his own country" (Luke 4:24). But acceptable or not, it is the prophet's job, his sacred vocation, to prophesy; and Frost has been true to his vocation.

As in theme, these first and last poems seem on first glance to be quite different, as far as form is concerned, and yet both are carefully structured. Of course, this isn't enough to identify either poem as "typical" of Frost, even though he is often quoted for having said that writing poetry without form is like playing tennis without a net (perhaps the least important remark anyone could impute to Frost, but here I am, repeating it). "My Butterfly" is one stanza, with ragged margins on both the right and the left (The left margins are so ragged, that trying to type the poem for this paper was a nightmare.); the intention is perhaps to imitate the flitting motion of the butterfly. The meter is a somewhat irregular iambic, and lines range between a single foot to six feet in length. Like the meter, the rhyme scheme is irregular. Perhaps this, too, is intended to evoke a feeling of randomness, of unpredictability. The reader can't count on the meter, can't count on the rhyme, can't count on the butterfly, can't count on God. "The prophets Really Prophesy" consists of nine four-line stanzas of iambic pentameter, written in rhymed heroic couplets. Perhaps, in contrast to the earlier poem, Frost is saying that, if we can't count on science, at least we can depend on poetry.

The heroic couplets, along with the wit and gentle satire of tone, and the personification in imagery, are all reminiscent of Pope. The very title of the poem: "The Prophets Really Prophesy as Mystics the Commentators Merely by Statistics" is epigrammatic, as are the lines "sick of our circling round and round the sun/ Something about the trouble will be done." The implication is that, whatever solution science may arrive at, it's likely to have disastrous consequences.

More often, however, the entire four lines of a stanza, two couplets rather than one, work together to produce the sense of balance and completion we get from a single heroic couplet by Pope: "Yet what a charming earnest world it is,/ So modest we can hardly hear it whizz,/ Spinning as well as running on a course/ It seems too bad to steer it off by force." Frost is ironic in the final stanza, calling our world "charming," "earnest," and "modest;" such adjectives better describe a bygone age; and he plays up the irony with words like "whizz," "spinning," and "running on a course," all of which evoke the frenetic "going nowhere" of so much of human activity. The kind of action Frost describes in these lines is the same trick my sister and I saw on television (Pinky Lee?) and tried to imitate, when we were children growing up around the same time when the poem was written: rubbing our stomachs and patting our heads at the same time--it was silly, pointless, and difficult to coordinate. Perhaps Frost intends to evoke a similarly ridiculous image of the planet in its orbit, spinning on its axis.

Frost's witty satire further recalls Pope, I think, for he is never vicious, but only amused. When he describes science hurling defiance at "the Divine Safe's combination lock," it recalls the same kind of hyperbole Pope employs in "The Rape of the Lock," where the items on Belinda's vanity are made to seem of almost mythological stature. But Frost's poem seems to be to turn our most cherished and long-held assumptions on their ear. To speak of the "Divine Safe" reduces the mysteries of God, of the origins of the cosmos, and of the meaning of life to a level near the ridiculous (I hear echoes of Stevens: "The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.).

Despite the "Popean" couplets, the classical allusions, and the personification, which further recalls the Augustan period, "The Prophets are Really Prophesying" evokes images appropriate only to the "space age." Naive science hurls defiance from "this atomic ball of rotting rock;" references are made to our new-found ability to defy gravity (Frost suggests that what we've come up with instead is "levity," and he surely adopts a similar attitude towards it.) and, in the eighth stanza, to the crashing of the sound barrier . And yet when we cast off "hawser," having been effectively unmoored by science, which is "tak[ing] the whole race for a ride," the image of the earth as it begins to rise is left to the reader's imagination. For me, that image is of a great, unwieldy hot air balloon, "tottering" like the butterfly of the earlier poem, in no direction whatever. How primitive, after all, is our mode of transportation. Will we arrive at our final destination at all, whether it be the "scientific sky" or Heaven? I wonder. Space age man, uncertain whether to put our trust in science or religion, is hardly equipped to venture far.

If "The Prophets Really Prophesy" contains stylistic elements which we often associate with the Augustan period, particularly with Pope, then "My Butterfly" contains language which, rather than forecasting the twentieth century, harks back to the cavalier poets. Archaic words such as "thee" (and in other passages, "I wist" and "'Twas"), and the "poetic diction" of words like "scarce" and "airy dalliance" (and in other lines, "emulous fond flowers" and "Snatched thee, o'er-eager, with ungentle grasp") don't sound--at first--like Robert Frost. Obviously he was not emulating American poets like Whitman or Dickinson. It is, therefore, surprising that Frost insisted that it was "My Butterfly" , "wherein he discovered his personal poetic idiom. Particularly, as he told a correspondent over half a century later . . . he valued it 'for the eight lines or so beginning "The gray grass is scarce dappled with snow" which was when I first struck the note that was to be mine" (Lathem and Thompson 207). Those eight lines are:

	      The grey grass is scarce dappled with the snow,
	Its two banks have not shut upon the river,
		But it is long ago,
	      It seems forever,
	   Since first I saw thee glance
	    With all the dazzling other ones,
		In airy dalliance,
	      Precipitate in love.
When he was (supposedly) twenty, Frost first realized that real artistic speech was only to be copied from life. He never claimed to be the first poet to arrive at this understanding, but found that "where English poetry was greatest it was by virtue of this same method in the poet" and "he illustrated it in Shakespeare, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Emerson" (Lathem and Thompson 259). Frost explained his method as follows:
What we do get in life and miss so often in literature is the sentence sounds that underlie the words. Words themselves do not convey meaning, and to [. . . prove] this, . . . let us take the example of two people who are talking on the other side of a closed door, whose voices can be heard but whose words cannot be distinguished. Even though the words do not carry, the sound of them does, and the listener can catch the meaning of the conversation. . . . [T]o me a sentence is not interesting merely in conveying a meaning of words. It must do something more; it must convey a meaning by sound. (Lathem and Thompson 261)
What Frost strove to achieve was what he called "sound posturing," or "getting the sound of sense" (Lathem and Thompson 259). As for his language, Marie Borroff argues in her essay, "Robert Frost's New Testament: The Uses of Simplicity," that Frost manages to use "simple" words in order to achieve "high style." Borroff analyzes certain of his early poems and discovers a statistically low content of both Romance and Latinate words, and a high content of words of native derivation--not to mention a preponderance of one- and two-syllable words. The effect of this is to lend Frost's poetry an apparently "simple" and informal speech.

But Borroff maintains that writers and speakers adopt different modes of discourse for different purposes, and that diction and vocabulary are selected as appropriate for a particular occasion, from the "distinctly formal" to the "distinctly colloquial" (69). Between the two extremes, however, lies "the 'common' level to which most words belong.. Such words are 'common' to literary and colloquial use alike. . . . They are chameleon-like, standing out neither as conspicuously folksy or talky in literary contexts nor as conspicuously pretentious in colloquial contexts" (69). Such words take on a particular "air" of formality, or of informality, in a particular context. "[A] number of Frost's best-known early lyrics are made of a language from which distinctively formal words are largely excluded. But it is equally true and important . . . that the language of these poems is lacking in words and expressions of distinctively colloquial quality" (70). In addition, Borroff notes that in its Biblical allusiveness, Frost's language acquires a "high formality" that can be attributed to the dignity of tone which is imputed to religious subject matter in our cultural tradition (73).

Frost's language, therefore, cannot be adequately described as "simple" or as merely "common." Rather, "it dips occasionally to the distinctively colloquial level of everyday talk, as in the remark 'Spring is the mischief in me" . . . . It is embellished with an occasional poetic or biblical archaism of native derivation (o'er night and henceforth in "The Tuft of Flowers"), or archaic construction ("knew not" in "Mowing") or inversion of word order ("something there is" in "Mending Wall") (Borroff 72).

Frost's later poems generally contain less of the "simple" language Borroff analyzes his early poems for, but "The Prophets Really Prophesy" only partly bears this out. The whole subject of the poem is philosophical and, therefore, abstract. But the poem contains a preponderance of one- and two-syllable words: "simple" words. The choice of this simple diction seems to be a deliberate effort to reduce the "lofty" stuff of philosophy and science to manageable size. Frost's choice of a common term like "combination lock," an item well-known to most everyone in our culture, is an example of what he always did with language. Although some of the language of the poem is contemporary and "space-age," we can still hear the voice of the speaker of "Mending Wall." Here, instead of the image of the farmer's neighbor as a "old-stone savage armed," we have "naive science/ . . . hurling our Promethean defiance/ From this atomic ball of rotting rock." It's oddly the same image of primitive man.

Despite obvious differences which initially indicated little connection between "My Butterfly," Frost's first published poem, and "The Prophets Really Prophesy as Mystics the Commentators Merely by Statistics," the last poem published in his lifetime, a careful study shows the common elements they share. In theme, in a certain playfulness of tone, in an insistence on traditional form, and even in some of the language, we can see how both poems are the work of the same man, and trace Frost's development. Perhaps some critics might argue that in "The Prophets Really Prophesy" Frost is "playing too much to the audience," but that, too, was characteristic of Frost. What this study has also shown is how little there was in him of the "regionalist" in either his very early or his very late work. Interestingly, Frost resisted the label of regionalist, calling himself rather "a realmist" (sorry--can't find the reference). Missing from either work are certain major themes and motifs associated with his poetry: such as "the road" (in "The Prophets Really Prophesy," the road is replaced by the vast and vague outer space), and "home." What is to me perhaps the best discovery is that, to the end Frost remained an artist in full control of his gifts.

Works Cited

Boroff, Marie.  "Robert Frost's New Testament: The Uses of Simplicity." In
	Modern 	Critical Views: Robert Frost.  Harold Bloom, ed.  New York: 
	Chelsea	House, 	1986.  63-84.

Frost, Robert.  Poetry and Prose.  Edward Connery Lathem and Lawrance 
	Thompson, ed.  New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.

Ingebretsen, Ed. S.J.  Robert Frost's Star in a Stone Boat: A Grammar of 
	Belief. San Francisco: Catholic Scholars Press, 1994.  

Poirier, Richard.  "Choices."  In Modern Critical Views: Robert Frost.  	
	Harold Bloom, ed. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.  43-62.    

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