Abernethy Lecture
Middlebury College, 29 April 1957
Typed manuscript, x p. RBMS / C-4 / Cook, Reginald Lansing, 1903 – 1984 / Verbatim, vol x. Transcibred by Juanita Cook.

I'm home again. I vote up the hill here. I've had my justification by my old friend. I don't have to justify myself anymore tonight except to read to you, do I? But I'm going to say a few words first, ah, I, ah, we talk about symbols all the time, you know; till nobody knows what we mean, and, uh, as if it wasn't the oldest thing in all, all language, all, everything is metaphor. That's just another word for metaphor, everything is, is saying one thing to mean another, all the time. But I think it would be kind of fun to pretend that there's a little tiny thing in poetry that is the symbol of it all, a symbol of metaphor itself. A metaphor is a coupling, is a putting two things together, isn't it. And it'd be kind of fun just, ou know, in passing, I never say anything finally, but just in passing to say that, that the couplet, the rhyme couplet is a symbol of the whole business. And that the funny little pleasure you take in a good rhyme couplet, even in the middle of a longer thing, when it comes a nice pair, you know, when it pairs pretty, is the, a symbol, maybe, of the whole thing. I, I just thought, thought of that. I, uh, I, I've been fascinated always to notice a pair that w—uh, a coupl—a couple of lines that went together. And, uh, nothing I enjoy more than making a little pair like that. I, I might get too fascinated with it, I think, you know, and just get ingenious about ma—throwing off little couplets, little [laughter] pairs with no, the same as you blow smoke rings. And, uh, I, uh, uh, one might get so, you know, to be, get to be a kind of virtuoso in couplets, just making little ones.

And, uh, I look back over what I've done through the years, and, and, uh, I'm aware right in the middle of, of, of a poem, right in the w̬uh, in the middle of it, that I've got a couple together, you know, that m—you might just as well use for the whole poem. I can tell by the way people take it, and just, uh, and there I launch out into the first poem I'll say to you. [Laughter] [unclear] up here, depend on. Uh, suppose I say one called "One More Brevity."

…I'm almost, uh, uh, uh, uh, you know, uh momentarily beside myself with the pleasure of having made that little pair, you knnow, just the, [unclear], you can tell I'm fl—making a flourish, uh, I, I bet you can anyway. Uh, it's about dogs, as I say. I opened the door so my last look
Should be taken outside a house and book.
See, it begins with a couplet like that [laughter]. Uh, uh, I opened the door…. I could use that for my whole life, al—almost. That's sort of the last thing at night with me. I opened the door so my last look
Should be taken outside a house and book.
Before I go to bed. And that, uh, y—that doesn't mean as much to you as it does to me, it's just that's al—always been the way.

[Reads "One More Brevity"]

By now you noticed. I, I got you on purpose too much interested in the, in the little matter, uh, the great little matter of the rhyme couplet. And, uh, those aren't paired, you see, I broke that in writing a longer thing, you break 'em, you break sometimes, you have three lines, one, uh, uh, three lines together and there's two rhymed, and, and then the next, where the meaning starts, and something else the next is rhymed outside the pairing, see. But, uh, that, that, that, still, in that poem were three or four places, two or three places, where a couplet would stand alone, it's so good, so successful [laughter] from my point, from my, my point of view.

And then, uh, s—to show you some others. I've said here w—one of my, uh, one of my old ones that I've had lots of, uh, interest in, and trouble, uh, with. I—it goes like this. It's a, just, just all—a pair of stanzas long. It's, it's to the tune of "[Unclear], We Dance Round," you know, or "Ring Around the Rosie," or something like, just a little couplet:

[Reads an excerpt from "The Secret Sits"]

That's, you see [laughter] that's all by itself. And, one of the troubles I had with that, some radical friend of mine, years ago, up here at Bread Loaf. Said to me once, "I do not like that couplet of yours." I said, "What's the matter with it?" and she said, uh, she said, uh "Sits?" I said, "Sits, yes, sits. Sits in the middle and knows." And she didn't want it to sit there. She wanted it to progress there. She was a progressive [laughter]. She thought, too bad to have it sitting there, secret sitting in the middle and knows, and, uh.

And then another one, that I made the other day, on purpose [laughter]. Uh, the, uh, uh, I haven't had a chance to tell you all, uh, see, I always say that, I've just come from Florida [laughter]. [Unclear] souther states. Some say that's no excuse. Uh, this, uh, uh, I was asked lately to consider a situation. Not necessarily do anything about it, cause I do nothing about situations much. Very nice man came to me from the U N. Uh, uh, he's Assistant Secretary down there, he's become a great, great good friend of mine, a Pakistani, uh, and he just wanted to tell me about something that might, you know, put something in my head, I suppose, he wouldn't say even that. He's just say, "We have met, I have no evidence, I have no mission." He was very nice. He didn't press me and push me against the wall or into a corner or any—corner me. And, uh, finally, this is what he had to tell me, that they have a great stone thing, uh, iron thing, a lump of iron in the U.N. on the ground floor, uh, has to have a new floor bui—new foundation for it it's so big, clear up from the bedrock of, of, uh, Manhattan. It weighs six to twenty tons, I don't know how many tons. It weighs tons, anyway [laughter], and it's pure iron, out of a great, uh, one of the most famous mines in the world. King of Sweden, I be&8212;has sent it to the U.N. And he hasn't sent it with any particular message. You have to think that out, just the same as I have to, and you have to. What does it mean? It's to stand there all alone in the meditation room. On a foundation of the bedrock from the world, you see. And, uh, it's, uh, so I been thinking about it and I made a couplet about it in the end, that they can use or not, as they see fit. And you know, when, when you make rhymed couplets like that, in, in Greek, in ancient times, you make—you, say something like the oracle, you know, you're supposed to say it so you're no better off for hearing it than you were before [laughter]. You can't, you don't know where you are, and, uh, if I, I hope I've left it that way, uh, you watch it. See, I'll say it to you twice, uh, Nature— It's, it's with the mind—the lump of ore in mind. It's absolutely, or pretty near absolutely pure. It's ninety percent ore, I believe. Uh. Nature within her inmost self divides
To trouble men with having to take sides.
That doesn't mean peace, you see, that means war. And they mean peace down there, but it could mean peace, maybe, I don't know [laughter]. But I think off hand, wouldn't you, I'd look at it first. Nature within her inmost self divides
To trouble men with having to take sides.
Now how does iron divide? Well it divides into tools and weapons, doesn't it. Right there is your trouble to begin with. You've got pure iron, but it's either, it—you don't know which it is, tools or weapons. And that's the way the poem is supposed to leave it.

And, uh, then, then, in, uh, uh, uh, in, in self-defense again, in the po—poem, the part where I have to say something, I always get up a couplet if i can, you see, my way. See, I just found this out, that it's my natural escape. Get up a couplet and leave 'em to thinking about it while I ge—make my getaway [laughter]. And, uh, i—the one I thought of the other day when I was dealing with an audience, I, I I thought of it. It takes all [kinds] of in- and outdoor schooling—
It takes all kind of in- and outdoor schooling<
To get adapted to my kind of fooling.
[Laughter] And that the whole case rests on that. That and the idea, uh, that the couplet's probably the heart of the whole thing, someways, the little pairing. I don't care whether it's in rhyme, but someway the, the metaphor is it. The, the two things together, and it—go into it deeper, deeper than the mere couplet. But the couplet is the symbol of that, that's all I'm saying. And when I wonder ,as you probably wonder, in dealing with yourselves and dealing with your students and dealing with your teachers, you wonder what an idea is, as is an idea. And I'm inclined to think that no idea is—amounts to a great deal unless it's got a fresh metaphor in it. Two things compared. That's uh, that is again in passing, I won't ma—you know, I don't, I'm not making a battle for that or anything like that. But when I've dealt with themes in wri—writing and talk and argument and everything, I always think what, what makes it is at heart, uh, not on the surface, not expressed, itpl—implicit, is a metaphor someway. Two things compared.

And I always think, uh, that my own steps in life, my steps forward, are, are s—out of some comparison I make. Very often it's in sports, something in, in athletics. Somebody says to me about a child just born to him, uh, he says, "I don't know," he says, "It's, it's something to me," he says, "but I don't know that anyone ought to bring a child into a world like this." See. Well, what you going to say to this? I just say, "Well, it's just the same as c—bringing him onto the tennis court. He doesn't come onto the tennis court to see whether it's a good tennis court. He comes onto a tennis court to see if he's any good at tennis." It isn't a matter of whether it's a good world or not. See, and I get out of it. It's a m—metaphor, from the sports, same as we a—we're always using the sports in one way or another. I sometimes think there's no justice in a man's mind, no clarity of mind. If he hasn't this power of making clear, clear metaphors, and, and if they aren't uh good, uh, goo, good deal deal of them will be based on the way you play the game in the world. Play the game is, is, is one of them, isn't it.

Uh, I, see if I can think of another. One I, now one that, uh, just let's before I turn from this and read to you. Uh, uh, uh, one that I didn't couple up, one that I left sort of. It has the idea of uh, uh, the coupled idea, but I didn't couple it in form, and I always been a little sorry I didn't. It's the only one in, I've, I've got it in my book—because it's, uh, it's got this doubleness that I like. Uh, somebody said to me one evening after we'd been talking all sorts of ways, lady said to me, "N—you've said all sorts of things this evening," she said. "Tell us which you are, now, a radical or a conservative?" [Laughter] And, uh, see again, up against it [laughter]. And, and, and, and, I wish I'd had it in a couplet but I didn't quite. I just said, I never dared be radical when young
For fear it would make me conservative when old.
Too bad that "young" and "old" don't rhyme [laughter].

Now that's, that's that's what I wanted to talk to you a little about. Just this, course it's a great school consideration. All our theme work and all our s—science work, whatever it is, to havin—have, uh, an idea, as is an idea. I like to say it that way: an idea as is an idea. And what if that is? That's another in a long story, a delightful long story, you wonder and wonder about it. Somebody says to one of the, um, famous figures of speech [unclear], uh, when the la—when the wife of the mayor of New York, you know, said to the Queen of England, uh, "You've said a mouthful, Queen." [Laughter] And then she said, "An idea as was an idea, that's all."

And, and, uh, that we're looking for all the time. And with each other, uh, You want to know what [Fermi thought of] that set us on this way, of, you know, with the atom, inside the atom, that he thought of. Figure of speech, you can be sure. [Bohr] his, his description of the atom, what was, uh, going on in the atom is just a figure of speech, just a comparison, a metaphor, a fresh metaphor. And, uh, some of them are worth nothing, but some of them have, uh, lots to go on. They will all, uh, uh, all are going forward [unclear[ on, on, uh, uh, good ones, valid ones, something with fresh vitality in them.

Now I'll say some other poems to you. See, uh, uh, here's one that speaking of bombs and atoms and the end of the world and all that sort of thing that you're sitting here waiting for [laughter], you know. And, uh, uh, some—uh, you might as well cry as laugh about it, or cry—uh, and, and, and it, uh, uh, you see, it, and the other way to turn it is you might as well laugh as cry about it, see. I'm indifferent about that, do as you please. One [laughter], have it as tragedy or as comedy, either way, way you want. But here's a little poem thinking about it long—uh, some years before all this, 'bout thirty years ago, before we heard of this end that's awaiting us.

[Reads "It Is Almost the Year Two Thousand."]

[Laughter] That was [unclear] before it was as immediate as it seems right now. But I was being cheerful about it, laughing it off.

Now I'm going to read you some other kinds of things too. Here's, here's an old one of mine called, uh, uh, "A Tuft of Flowers." And, uh, it goes way back to the nineties. And it's a, a haying time one. And it's n—I was speaking in it as a boy. I wrote it when I was very young, and I—my work, uh, w—was to come after the mower and toss the grass out to dry. And he mowed it in the dew or, usually v—when he mowed it by hand, and I came and carried it out when the sun was up. I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

Now just let me say to those that don't know me: that was my job when I was young, to turn the grass after the mower. We called it "just turning it." It [unclear] scattered it a little to the sun. He mowed it in the dew and I, and I scattered it to be dried. I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.
The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the leveled scene.
I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been—alone,
"As all must be," I said within my heart,
"Whether they work together or apart."
But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a bewildered butterfly,
Seeking with memories grown dim o'er night
Some resting flower of yesterday's delight.
And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.
And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.
I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;
But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,
A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.
The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,
Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.
The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,
That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,
And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;
But glad with him, [I—]I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;
And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
"Men work together," I told him from the heart,
"Whether they work together or apart."

See, I say it both ways in th—in it, say it, first I say it, uh, uh, all, all must be alone, whether they work together or apart, and then I say th—mu—they're al—always together whether they're, uh, together or apart. I wrote that a long, long time ago, and I think the height of it for me i—is in, in something you might not notice as you go by: [The,] the mower in the dew had loved [the flowers] thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us
Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,
Not to draw one thought of ours to him, he wasn't, he wasn't exhibiting, see. See. Not to draw one thought of ours to him. He left it "from sheer morning gladness at the brim." See. From delight, he left it. And that's the heart of all, all poetry, and, uh.

Then ano—another kind of thing, uh, "An Old Man's Winter Night." In blank verse, without any rhymes at all, this one. But in meter.

[Reads "An Old Man's Winter Night" followed by "Desert Places," "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same" and "Provide, Provide."]

Then, th—this, I'm going to say, one, oh, let's see what time I have. I, I think I s—do a longish one. This, this one is called "The Witch of Coös." See, uh, now she's another witch. I just mentioned one, you see, "The witch that came, (the withered hag)." We use that word "witch" so many ways, uh, the witching hours of night, and all that. And this, this, this is a real witch, uh [laughter] this, th—she's what you call a, a cla—clairvoyant, uh, and a transmedium, and names like that. She was practically professional [laughter], and she earned her living by telling partly by telling where they'd lost anything, p—telling people where they'd lost anything, a knife or child or anybod—thing, friend or anything. She'd tell 'em just where it was. Uh, and she does the talking, she's an old thing, uh, and I, uh, try to make her as old as I can.

[Reads "The Witch of Coös" followed by "Mending Wall" and "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening"]

I won't go into the m—these things that are d—[unclear], you know. There's a lot, lot of, lot comes o—uh, lot of trouble I get into about some of them, [laughter] uh. Just, I'm tempted to say there, if, here we are in the, uh, in the state of the Morgan horse, you know. Vermont is the Morgan horse state. And, uh, spread over the country there's more members of the Morgan Horse Society out in Iowa than there are here, now [laughter]. It's all over the country. But it's still the Morgan horse.

So people think about horses though they don't see 'em on the streets anymore, you know, they're back in these back hills—on the back roads. And they're all around us here. And all over the country that way, in paths, bridle paths, and no—where there are no paths. The deserted roads is the best of it. And, uh, but the, uh, some people don't know what a horse's like, what—they don't read in, really need to know. They—it's the same with a dog. Somebody said to me after hearing that poem, "Can a horse ask questions?"

See, "He gives his harness bells a shake/To ask if there is some mistake," see. Well, you might ask, can a dog ask questions? Horses ask questions, I suppose. I was in Texas when I was asked that once, by a professor from New England, uh, from New England [laughter]. Uh, he said, "Isn't that what they call pathetic fallacy, giving w—giving things to animals that, uh, only human beings have?" You know. And so I didn't, I never argue, myself, I just turn to somebody else, a horseman, Frank Dobie, in fact, the great horseman, and Texas writer. And I said, "Can horses ask questions?" And Frank Dobie said, "Better questions than most professors." [Laughter]

How we stu—how we students do enjoy jokes on professors, don't we [laughter]. You know, it's natural. The, uh, and, and one of the great jokes on professors is supposed to be that they put, get more out of a poem than I put into it [laughter]. You see, and it isn't, it's, it, it, there's a lot to say about that. I, I, as years go on, I get more out of a poem I've written than I put into it. If it's more, if it isn't less, to get less out of it than the poet, person put into it, to m—demean it. To demean—that isn't a good word. But to deprave it, pull it down. That does all, all that [uncleaer] till you can do that—I've had that happen to that poem, that it, you see, what, what is the meaning? The meaning is, lies right there: The woods are lovely dark and deep
But I have promises to keep—
uh, lies right in those two lines, doesn't it? That's the heart of the poem, and the meaning part of it. And that's just the same as saying of an evening after you've had a pleasant time in company, you know, "This is all very lovely but I've got to be getting along to m—home. I've got to start work tomorrow at ten o'clock in the morning." [Laughter]. I used to come at ten o'clock but now you come at noon, the old song is [laughter]. The, and that's, that's getting, that's all right if they did things like that, made play with it.

And, uh, then I wanted to say one like this to you. I'm going to say this slowly 'cause this is a harder one. And there are degrees of these things. I know some are just meant for saying a—uh, aloud and some are meant a little less so and some are not meant for, to say aloud at all. See, they b—you want to see 'em as well as hear them. And this's one you ought to see, but I'm just going to say it to you, uh, in sp—anyway. Uh, it's called "Directive," and it's about these hills and about these, these mountains and all that, and the decline of parts of the life in them without prejudice to the state of Vermont or the state of New Hampshire or to New England. I, I, course I like it all. I, but this goes like this:

[Reads "Directive."]

And then, a couple about science and things, joking, a couple of jokes about science. Uh, uh, the, um, I, someone told me I w—I've just been at another college where they were, some of the young people afterwards said, "Did you realize that the president of this college is a c—is a scientist?" And I said [unclear], "Have I offended him?" And they said, "Well, you joked about science." Isn't it awful, uh [laughter]. And, uh, as if you can't joke about a thing—everybody jokes about poetry all the time [laughter]. I forgot about that; I should have said that. I was brought up on that. The, uh, uh, one, one, one great friend of mine, a kind of scientist he was, he never never dared to say 'em openly because I [unclear] because I, he was afraid of me. Uh, but he, he used to send me something in a, pasted onto a, a postcard, see, some little nasty, silly clipping about poets and poetry. He'd paste it on a postcard and I'd get it in the mail. So I got even in, in the end, though I won't tell you how [laughter]. This, I stood that for years from him. Uh, but he was a great friend of mine. C—gave me my job, kept me in it, see, so it's all right. But now this's about science.

[Reads "Why Wait for Science"]

And then another one [laughter]. [Unclear], this, uh, this, uh, this one, uh, uh, I, I've, there's a fellow named Volet, Volettelski, [unclear] I get his name wrong, I mustn't try for it. But he's written a book called Worlds in Collision and another wor—another one about wor—worldsWorld in Upheaval, or something like that, you know. Very, very picturesque reading, and it worries, that worries the scientists a good deal because he's, he's as, he's as wrong as any science fiction [RF laugs] but he, only the charm of him is he me—he believes it, see [laughter]. And they, they tried to suppress his books, the way they used to try to r—s—try to suppress heresy in the Middle Ages. The Church used to do it; science is doing it today, trying to suppress people like that. Uh, it's a funny world, isn't it. Comes around, intolerance comes around. Well, you know, one of the things he talks about in a very amusing way is his unbelief in evolution. And that's, oh, you know, so utterly heretical. And this poems begins, uh, uh, uh,

[Reads "Etherealizing"]

And, then, uh, you know, uh, there's something else that I thought of here. Uh, I guess not. Well, I'll say another, uh, time's about up. Uh, here's the one that I said here quite a number of times, getting to be an old one. But here this question of rhyming coming up again. Here's one where you can just see anybody having a good time, especially in the rhyme, forgetting everything else. Just having a net of a time, you know. Uh, out of it. It's called "Departmental." And, it's fun to watch anything like that to see how much the poem is just governed by the rhyme, whether the rhyme suggested the idea or whether the idea found the rhyme. Who's writing this poem, me or the rhymes [laughter]? And, uh, but this is about an ant. And ant—and the rhymes are close together and I'll emphasize them just for, for what the poem is.

[Reads "Departmental"]

…this one is called "Choose Something Like a Star." This has a sort of Horacian ending. You know, I was speaking—thinking how much a word to you in Latin, you know, just a word. I, I was interested to hear what a lar—lately, what large classes there are in Latin again in various colleges I visit. Even the Greek, and, and, uh, the, uh. And the reason is, you know, not because it's necessary to understand English or write English any better as they used to try to tell us. That was w—that was wrong. It's just because of the, the antiquity of it, the v—the value like buying antiques, you know, in the, in the side road somewhere up here [unclear].

It's very old, and very r—it's the past so rich, you know. You can't see how anyone would want to live without some of it. You know, I'd like to, more than anything in the world I'd like to own a niece of Inca gold, something that the Incas made, you know. You can't carry it out of the country, you know. You're not supposed to have any of it. Can't carry it out of Peru. But something old, you know, and you've this old stuff.

And I, uh, some of my thinking I find is, is in the pleasure of back there, and it's Horace, and it's Catullus. And I was thinking of Horace tonight, how, how one of the, one of the things of—when I was speaking about an idea, see, an idea. You got to have ideas, make poems or anything else. But you have to have emotional ideas to make poems. And Catullus says so. He speaks of men's, men's [unclear], see, right in a little line of verse. Just two words together like that that mean again the whole thing, the, the, some people translate that the thoughts of my heart, not the thoughts of my brain. See, the thought—'tisn't enough to be the thoughts of your brain, it must be the thoughts of your heart. See. Catullus says, and he just means that. I know, I talked that over with a Latin professor, and older ma—an old man the other day. And he says that has always been a problem, that phrase in there.

But that's what it means. It means that the, the emotional thought. And, and, now this poem I'm going to say to you has an end that's sort of, something I might have stolen, never mind wire—where out of Horace somewhere. Just this end. Watch the end.

[Reads "Choose Something Like a Star"]

Something far enough away so you're not bothered by today's politics. Something, a star or Catullus or Horace or Latin or Greek or history somewhere or that, that's what I think anyone would crave: to get out of this now, this now too much for us, you know. We got to live in this now, and the now is the big thing that you want somewhere to, to lift, lift above it. That's what, uh, uh, uh, pr—Mr. Cook, Reginald Cook just wanted me to say that poem to you, and that put all of that in my head. Uh, uh, so,

[Repeats the last stanza of "Choose Something Like a Star"]

Then, they, then you want, uh, one, one, two, one more, little one, while I'm here, uh, while I'm at it. Let's see. The, uh, uh, one… mmmm&hellip You want to say, Doc, you want to tell me what? What?

RC: They always have got time for one.

RF: What?

RC: "Come In."

RF: What?

RC: "Come In."

[Reads "Come In."]

…isn't it funny how we say that, you know, tone does it all. That's what I think is in poetry, too, this matter of tone. When I say it like that, that's a nice way to treat anybody, isn't it. See. And the answer is yes [laughter], it is a nice way. But it's meant to be wrong, isn't it? It's funny, the tone does the opposite from what it, uh.

Suppose I just do an absurd one, the, another like the "Departmental" to end it up. This one is m—the, there's no malice in "Departmental." That's without malice. This has malice in it [laughter]. Uh,

[Reads "A Considerable Speck"]

[Laughter and applause]