At Mead Chapel, Middlebury. College Wednesday Evening, May 10, 1950. Transcription of Lecture-Reading via tape-recorder.
You sound as if you knew me. Interesting to be right back where I vote, you know. I vote right up here in the next town. And I'm really practically at home here. I'm a little unfaithful to the region lately. I've been wandering around; been at one college or another about this size: Bowdoin, Amherst, and various places. One rather larger—out at Cornell, too. And here I am home; close to where I belong. I feel more and more a Vermonter. I used to say I didn't feel sure I was wanted in Vermont. I came over here from New Hampshire, you know. [Laughter] That's an enemy state. That isn't as bad though as coming from New York, is it? (Loud laughter.)
I'm going to do as usual… Going to talk to you a few minutes and then read to you.
I've been interested lately in a king and a prince that abdicated at the same time. I don't know whether you ever heard of 'em. I like to say before I begin to tell about them that it's hard to keep from being a king if it's in you and in the situation. Now historical evidence of that is Julius Caesar and George Washington. See Julius Caesar—it was in him to be a king, and it was in the situation. And nothing could stop him but stabbing. Brutus had to stab him. And it was in George Washington and in the situation. But George Washington stopped himself. If he hadn't stopped himself there was a poet around at that time who didn't like him very much. His name was Freneau, and I suspect he would have stabbed him—if he hadn't stopped himself.
And then you only have to look at the modern world that we're living in to see how hard it is for men who have it in them to be king, and when it is hard for them to keep from being king. There are people who have stopped we know—some that have stopped just this side of it in our country and in other countries, in England, and in France, and these men who haven't stopped this side of it, men who've gone ahead, having it in them to be king, and seeing it in the situation they've accepted the responsibility.
This little story I'd like to tell that illustrates how hard it is to keep from being king when it's in you and in the situation. You may know the story.The father of the King said to his son, the Prince: "I'm getting sick of this. I've had enough. I'm getting out. You can have the throne." And the Prince said: "I've been watching you. I don't like the looks of it. I'm going with you."
So the two set out on the road together. And the father said to the son: "You and I haven't had much practical experience in the world. Perhaps I'd better stay king. But I was weary of the human race. I wanted to get away, don't know what we'll do for a living though, unless you sell me into slavery and raise enough money to set yourself up in business."
So they stood the King up in the—the old King, the ex—King, the fugitive King, the runaway King—they set him up in the market. And a buyer came along and looked him over and thought he didn't look bad. Pretty good looking slave. But he thought he was a little old. And he said to him: "What are you good for?" And the runaway King said: "I'll tell you about me. I'm good at some things. I know the quintessence of food. And I know the quintessence of jewels. And I know the quintessence of horses. and I know the quintessence of men."
Well, that's all anybody needs to know for our purposes.
The buyer bought him and took him off to another king in another kingdom. And they put him in the kitchen, and he hadn't any chance to show what he knew for awhile. But one day the cook was sick. (You may know this story. I take a chance to tell it over in my way, to give it its twist, my twist.) And one day the cook was sick and the runaway king had his chance; he got the dinner; he got the banquet, he got the feast, whatever it was. He did it so well that the king on the throne exclaimed: Where did this come from? Nothing like this was ever cooked before.” And they said: "An old man out in the kitchen did it. He says he knows the quintessence of food and that's why he did so well." The king an the throne said: "Feast him, Give him part of this. See that he's not neglected. See that he's not left out."
And soon after that someone came to the court with two pearls to sell. One, a small one, he wanted a thousand dollars for and a large one he wanted (to) give (a) hundred for. And that puzzled the king that the larger one should be cheaper than the smaller one. And someone suggested the old man again out in the kitchen. He came in and said, "The little one is worth the thousand dollars. The large one is worth nothing; it's hollow. My head for it! Break it open. They broke it open and they found a toreador inside it. The king said: "How did you know that?" "Oh: I know the quintessence of jewels that's why. But anybody could have told that. It had a warmth of its own. I knew there was something alive in it he replied. "Feast him," the king said. "Treat him well. See that he's fed."
The king was unhappy—the king on the throne—and one day he sent for the old man. And he said: "You showed that you know the quintessence of-everything. You say you know the quintessence of man. Tell me about me. Tell me about myself."
And the fugitive said—looked at him—said: "You're not of royal blood. You're the son of a baker." And the king said: "You die for that." No, you ask your mother." [Laughter]
He asked his mother and said: "Yes, dear. True: But I'll tell you about that sometime. [Laughter] Not now."
And the king said: "How did you know that?
"Well," he said, "You notice that everytime I did anything for you and you remember the time I picked you out a horse called Safety—third, lineal descendant of Safety First [laughter]. And told you. I told you that that was a horse that would always save you. You could change its name to Security if you wanted to. No matter what happened you could lose all the battles you wanted to you could always get away safely. and isn't that true? Hasn't it worked? And he said, "Yes, I lost one battle and I got away safely."
"What did you do? You rewarded me with a feast. If you had been a king, you would have made me your prime minister for all these favors. 0r, if you'd been the son of a nobleman you would have given me an estate or something. But I knew from the fact that you were always thinking of food that you were the son of a baker. And I'll bet you five dollars, he said, in foreign money [laughter]—I bet you five dollars— that's all you think of for your people—comfort and food. That's why you're unhappy."
He said: "Yes, maybe there's something to that. I've noticed in my country the people all seem confused and from a headache they seem to have. Maybe I'm taking too much care of 'em. It gives them a confusion and a headache."
He said "But don't you think that the noblest thing anybody can do is to give?"
"Yes:" the fugitive said, "to give, yes, but if I were king—if I were in your place—my object would be to give people not food but character. To give, yes, but character."
That's quite a story. We won't go into that now.
And the one on the throne said: "What's your idea of ruling?"
"Oh! he said, "it's to make people happy as you think is good for them—not without consulting them somewhat."
"It sounds to me as though you'd been reading books."
He said: "Not I've just been a king myself. I've had to think of these things."
The other one said: "Well, you know in my kingdom we've had a lot of trouble lately with one word. Everybody's been talking about freedom. Freedom He said: "Do you know anything about that?"
"Oh, yes," he said. "I have a son who writes free verse. [Laughter] And we've thought a lot about freedom. I'll tell you more about that sometime." [Laughter]
"No, you won't. You've degraded me, you've debased me, I'm getting out—myself. You take this throne or you die—right now."
And the other one said: "Well, it seems to be hard to keep from being King when it's in you and in the situation."
He got on the throne. And the other man disappeared. I don't know where he went. He went off to look for the prince, I guess. He knew all about free verse.
I just thought I'd tell you that story [laughter] to see if you'd recognize it. There are two ways of recognizing it. One is by having actually seen it somewhere. The other is by its style, you know. If you'll notice it's not my style. I got it from a—. Never mind where. [laughter]
Now, I've always said or I've often said in teaching that the best kind of criticism I know is not in abstractions—in that kind of thing—it's in narrative. That's why I used that—that story is kind of political criticism. And I do it better in a story than I do it anywhere else. It's a very Vermontly story. You may not notice it. But that's because you haven't been long enough in Vermont, some of you.
One of the things I used to say when I was teaching: you can do your best criticism of literature, of art, of politics, religion, in narrative—my idea of it. And I used to say also that I liked people who could tell a story without seeming to be for or against what they were telling about. I like somebody for instance who can write a book about Jimmy Walker, the one-time mayor of New York without seeming to scold, you know, or find fault, but just tell it as it is—just so.
And now I'm going to read you to begin with a story I haven't read very much lately, but it's a good example of telling about somebody because he is so. And I tell it as if I were neither for nor against him, I hope.
I've got to have a little more light. Does this bother other people? [laughter]
This one is a true story. A veritable tale, and it's called "The Star-Splitter."
I'm tempted to linger over something in that other story but I won't. [Laughter]
For instance, last night where I was, at another college, someone said to me:"Why are all the modern poets so unhappy and so confused?" And I said: "Are they?" And he said: "Aren't they?" [Laughter] I knew what was coming. I wonder if you do.
He said: "The Christian world seems unhappy and confused." I knew, you know, what was coming next. "People have nothing to believe in," he said, meaning you and me. So I said: "Mr. Eliot has something to believe in—he's very Anglican. Seems perfectly unhappy about that, but he's Anglican." [Laughter] And I said: "As far as belief is concerned, tell me somebody that has no belief. "Oh," he said, "the whole Western world." See where we're getting. We were getting to Russia. That's all. I left him there. Russia."
But this confusion, this headache, I spoke of (in the other) is that kind of thing that is going around, the talk that we don't know where we are and that the only people who know where they are and what they want is the Russians. Well, here I might get prejudiced if I said much more, I might show prejudice.
This one is called "The Star-Splitter." It is in blank verse. This young prince, that I speak of, that wrote free verse, the son of the fugitive king, he knew the difference between blank verse and free verse I found by looking into his case. This is in blank verse, not in free verse. [Starts to read "The Star-Splitter"]
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a life-long curiosity
About our place among the infinities.
He wanted to know where he was. For hugger-mugger farming I should have said 'submarginal'. [Laughter] Ripton's the town I'm fondest of—I carried a picture—I'm interrupting myself. I won't do this much longer. But I had a picture with me down in Amherst to show the people. A very fine thing by Mr. Arthur Healy, and it says under it: "A House in Ripton." And everybody says "Is that your house?" And I say, "No, no, that's not my house." And they say, from my tone: "Is it any house in Ripton?" And I say: 'Yes it's any house in Ripton." [Loud laughter] But it's a house that goes very well with sub-marginal farming. [Frost laughs spontaneously] That's all I'll say. I won't bother any more.
That's one ["The Star-Splitter"] I hadn't read for some years—until the other night. Someone asked me to read it and I thought I'd read it a few times around, to show how impartial I am. Now that's relatively a new one, written a good while ago but one I haven't dealt with in public.
I am going to say some short ones to you. This one is called "The Road Not Taken." [He next reads "Come In."]
Another is a familiar one to so many of you who have heard me before or read me at all. Reading me at all almost means reading this one. It's "Stopping By Woods" quite different in tone. I was thinking of that today, that there's a kind of a scale on which you could measure poems—one end of the scale is intoning, as some of my friends do with all poems, mine or anybody else's. They intone them, and take out the dramatic expression, and then, as the other extreme there are poems that almost forbid intoning, that have got to be almost dramatic expression. But some of my Irish friends, and some of my English friends, wipe out expression. With intoning. Think poetry should be read that way—with wave after wave of intoning. I don't know whether you've heard them or not. There's one [who has] been in this country this year, and people remarked at that he had that way of reading. It seems to be Irish. Yeats read that way. And "A. E.," George Russell, my friend, read that way.. Now this one ["Stopping By Woods"] that I'm going to say, it seems very hard to intone. You might intone that other ["Come In"] a little—the one I've just read. But this one you have to say, you have to talk. [Reads "Stopping By Woods"]
And another one ["Spring Pools"]. Now this would intone, would be easier to intone. I wouldn't know how to intone that myself ["Stopping By Woods"]. It would take an Irishman to intone that, an Irish poet. I mean like "A. E." This one is called "Spring Pools." And just have to say this one belongs strictly to this time of year when the pools are everywhere in the woods and the first flowers are coming around them and pools that aren't going to last. You know they won't be there in the middle of the summer. They are not as full of water this year. I've just been up to look. They are not as full of water as they are usually, right now. [Reads "Spring Pools"]
I'd like you to see that one twice, shall I say it again to you? I don't know where people's minds are nowadays with all this looser writing, free verse and all that, and what they notice about the shape of verses and the way the last line rings with the first line and all that sort of thing. They don't seem to care. Doesn't matter too much. They're doing something else. No grievance with me. Some of my friends do it. [Re-reads "Spring Pools"]
Another one of these short ones.
Here's one—that—oh, a little more. Every poem almost that I write is figurative in two senses: it will have figures in it, of course, if it's a poem; but it's also a figure in itself—a figure for something, and that is kind of—it's made so that you can get more than one figure out of it, I suppose.
But here's one that has a figure for our times in it, if you want it. I'll tell you about how some of the boys took it over in Dartmouth one time. It's called "One Step Backward Taken." I've been asked lately: "Does a poem need a title?" And I say "No, probably not." Emily Dickinson never put a title on a poem. She never got round to it maybe. She was busy housekeeping. There are no titles on Shakespeare's Sonnets. And Sonnets usually go without a title. They don't always. But this one for me there's a kind of fun putting a title on it. It's an after thing. And usually snatch it out of the poem somewhere—one word,one line, out of the poem. And that line is out of this poem. "One Step Backward Taken," I think I told you I called it. I've changed its name two or three times. I might change it while you wait. [Laughter]
[Reads "One Step Backward Taken"] I called it there "One Step Backward Taken." Once before when I read it, I called it something else. And I kept changing because of what people kept saying to me. When I said "One Step Backward Taken," I might change it, you know, to "I felt my stand point shaken'. And when I said: "I felt my standpoint shaken," Somebody says, "You've been reading Karl Marx, haven't you?" [Laughter] So I changed it to "One Step Backward Taken." Then somebody said: "You think we ought to recede about the bomb, don't you?" Then I told the boys about that over at Dartmouth. And they said: "Why not call it 'Bump heads together dully.'" [Loud laughter]
And you know the answer to all that is—the conclusion to all that is—that there are many things you can get out of a poem, and you mustn't blame teachers for getting things out of poems that you suspect a poet didn't put in because that's what I do with other peoples' poems. I'm very wayward with them. And very, very wanton with them. Wanton-wayward. That's what they're for.
Take one—I'm always doing that with Mother Goose. She can't do anything about it. [Laughter] I said to—I was saying, you know—just watch me and see what I did. You ought not do a thing like this. I guess I got to tell you. I said: Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's psychiatrists
Couldn't put Humpty-Dumpty together again.[Laughter] And then I thought very carefully. I'd always been made very unhappy by that last line. It has an extra syllable in it. I'm very particular!, "Couldn't put Humpty-Dumpty together again." That isn't the way the rest of the metre is. Then I had to decide whether I'd call him Humpty or whether I'd call him Dumpty. And I thought I used great poetic tact in calling him Dumpty, if the psychiatrists couldn't put him together again. Don't you think so? [Laughter] If I can do that with Humpty-Dumpty, why can't others do that with my poems: The answer is they can. And they do. Sometimes—sometimes—to my sorrow. Not always! Sometimes very interestingly, amusingly. If they're poetical about it and go the poem one better, I'm pleased. But if they just grub around, you know, grub and grub, and translate it into other and worse English, that's what I [laughter] can hardly bear. That's called policing it.
I have to ask you to—those that have heard me say "Birches" here before— ask them to let me say it again for a good many who don't probably know it. [Reads "Birches"]
The metre-again, you notice, blank verse! And I have a little trouble sometimes not marking the blank verse with my finger, you know. I seem to want to keep the blank verse that way.
Something's going in my head. What's going in my head is the metronome. That's all! There's something like that going with all metre. And sometimes I'm tempted to mark it that way and sometimes I might be tempted to do it with my head almost, with my foot or something. That's all true! All true! Poetry down to the time of the free verse. And that's not saying what free verse is. I speak lightly of it—make a light matter. But it's something—it's something else, that's all.
Suppose I read another—one of the older ones.
No, I want to say some more short ones to you.
Here's one not very long. And this is for this time of year again. Only this time of year, this year's gone wrong. There isn't any real mud time out back here. I've just been up to see. And it disappoints me when there isn't any mud. I'm very much put [out]—I'm going to complain. I lived in a time, oh, I lived up, over here, down there, and all around New England. But I've lived in a time when it was up to the hubs—sometimes. But, of course, the whole world is getting concreted down anyway. There—you can't plant anything except in the cracks of the concrete. That's bitter, isn't it? Sounds awful bitter. I don't care.
This is called "Two Tramps in Mud Time." [Starts to read]
The basis of that—just that much of it—was one day in this time of the year—a little bit earlier—over in the mountains of New Hampshire-over near Franconia on a back road—where I lived a short time.
[Reads "Why Wait for Science"]
"Closed for Good." Where you go without being driven into ditches. I'm going to tell an archaeologist in Jerusalem [E. L. Sukenik] that I wrote it for him. I did as an after-thought. He's [the archaeologist] glad things grow but he's glad they were once there."
"Departmental." A lesson in rime. Suppose I say our lesson in versification. Who's writing the poem: the rime or me? Dante said no rimes led him around by the nose. How much was I led on by the rime? Well, I won't tell you. A trade secret. It's for you to suspect.
"The Runaway." This is what led me into [my] interest in Morgan horses. It was the way we used the word [Morgan] at home.
"Once By the Pacific." I'm really a Californian. I'm an American. All this talk of states amuses me. I'm fondest of New England. This one I fumbled with when I was in college. Then I dropped it. Later I remembered a line or two and I made the poem.
"A Peck of Gold." In New England if you drop a piece of bread butter side down, you picked it up and ate it.. This is to be philosophic—"eating your peck of dirt."
"The Witch of Coös." [Shorter than a one-act play he said jokingly of its length. "One crone, not dialect," he explained its language. When the audience broke into laughter, he said: "Go easy; don't interrupt me too much"]
"The Gift Outright." A patriotic one. My history of the United States in fourteen lines.