Saturday, July 21, 2012

Robert Frost: Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length

One point to make about this title is that it certainly grabs my attention.  Usually I glance over the title, perhaps consider it for a very short time, and then move on to the work.  Not this time, for I really stop and contemplate it at length.  Why did Frost create such a long and unwieldy title?  It almost beats me over the head as  it says, "This is the moral, the theme.  I don't want you to miss it and, therefore, not understand the poem."  The intensity of  happiness overcomes its brevity is the meaning, or so it seems to be saying.  Anyway, here's the poem.

Enjoy



Happiness Makes Up In Height For What It lacks in Length


O stormy, stormy world,
The days you were not swirled
Around with mist and cloud,
Or wrapped as in a shroud,
And the sun's brilliant ball
Was not in part or all
Obscured from mortal view--
Were days so very few
I can but wonder whence
I get the lasting sense
Of so much warmth and light.
If my mistrust is right
It may be altogether
From one day's perfect weather,
When starting clear at dawn
The day swept clearly on
To finish clear at eve.
I verily believe
My fair impression may
Be all from that one day
No shadow crossed but ours
As through its blazing flowers
We went from house to wood
For change of solitude.


I find the syntax of the first seven lines very tangled.  Then  when "Were days so very few" appeared, I had to stop to go went back to work out just which days those were.  Each line is simple and straightforward in itself,  but the flow is rather murky at first.


Frost really stresses the point of this being, perhaps, one of those rare clear days in the following lines:

When starting clear at dawn
The day swept clearly on
To finish clear at eve.

 
The point seems to be that summer weather isn't quite as perfect as he remembers, and he may have been misled into thinking so because one perfect day overshadows many stormy, cloudy, rainy days.  It certainly seems as though that's what the poet is suggesting.  But, the problem is that this is Robert Frost and it's seldom as simple and straightforward as that.

"No shadow crossed but ours
As through its blazing flowers
We went from house to wood
For change of solitude."



As usual with Frost, the last lines of the poem frequently bring up questions or bring into question what appears to be the overall theme.  Frost tells us here at the end that there are two of them, something not even hinted at earlier.   "No shadow" suggests that it was a clear day and also that they were alone.  They did not go into the wood for solitude but for a "change of solitude."  They went for a different type of solitude, the kind found in the wood which was different from the kind found in a house.  And again, as usual with Frost, he leaves it up to us to discover or even perhaps to create those differences.

18 comments:

  1. I committed this poem to memory soon after I first read it, decades ago. I do not find the first lines murky. Nor any of the lines. It is nearly perfect. Frost is talking about experience, how mixed it is, and how we remember the moments of happiness, in spite of the vast majority of moments spent in confusion, groping for meaning or transcendence. The truly clear, splendid moments are few, and when they occur, they are almost too brilliant for us -- we cast about for a change of solitude. It is too perfect for us at those moments. But the memory of them resonates in our memory. The moments of happiness "make up in height" for what they lack in length.

    We are a dissatisfied, struggling lot, and we find peace and beauty, occasionally, in the tumult of worry and care.

    Frost has layered meanings, but they are always recognizable.

    My thought anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous,

    You have greater insight into Frost than I have. Frost has, as you say, layered meanings, but I'm not always able to grasp them.

    The last four lines still pose problems for me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, I'm not sure what you mean, but I would agree that the last four lines are sad. My personal interpretation: No matter how much we wish to extend the happiness, the sudden, unexpected clarity, it dissipates. And there we are seeking a little relief, a shift in our sole/soul space. We know he had a difficult life, and it comes through. . . . I find him brilliant, but I can only take so much! (ha -- there you go, the brilliant ball gets swirled around with mist and cloud)

      Delete
    2. The last stanza he seems to be talking to the sun, as if it left to take a break. He's expressing how those bright days might not always be there but, we need to remember the warmth even when days are dark and gloomy, physically, mentally, and especially emotionally.

      Delete
    3. Anonymous,

      It is strange that this poem is not one of his best known poems, yet it is the one on my blog that attracts the most visitors and comments. It has something that holds people's interest and brings them back again and again.

      Perhaps he has tapped into something that many people recognize--the happy, bright days may be fewer than that dark, sad ones, or even the mixed days, but those are the ones we remember.

      He's looking back and remembers the sun, the flowers, and the person--all of which combined to make it a rare day indeed which then colored his impression of the past.

      I verily believe
      My fair impression may
      Be all from that one day
      No shadow crossed but ours
      As through its blazing flowers
      We went from house to wood
      For change of solitude.

      Delete
  3. Strange juxtaposition of "We" and "solitude" in the same sentence.

    And also, looking for a "change of solitude."

    Yet, this may have been that day on which happiness was so great that it blotted out the sadness that surrounded it.


    "We went from house to wood
    For change of solitude."

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think it is a wonderful poem, because it totally captures, through the metaphor of nature, what life is like, when we have one of those special crystal moments, that are so few and far between. Anonymous expressed it perfectly. I've been noticing that modern poets are not using nature for metaphor. Too bad.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Pam,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Perhaps many modern poets are no longer in touch with nature, but prefer the urban/tech/cyberspace/virtual reality environment prevalent today.

    ReplyDelete
  6. At first, I thought the last four lines were sad, but I think there is another way to read them, as an expression of peace. The "we" of those lines are spending a beautiful day together, just the two of them, walking in high summer "through ... blazing flowers." They were together in the house; they will be together in the wood. But this being Frost, there is a tinge of uneasy foreshadowing in that "change of solitude."

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anonymous,

    "an expression of peace"

    Yes, but as you point out, there is that uneasy foreshadowing--"change of solitude."

    Frost frequently does that--a sudden change or shift in the last stanza, or even in the last line.

    Nothing ever seems settled with Frost.


    ReplyDelete
  8. If you would excuse my "horning in", my impression was that the poet discreetly alluded to sex, a solitude for two, weather permitting. This seems obvious to me, not just groping. I leave open the question of bugs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous,

      Interesting impression. I didn't see that. That "We" therefore seems to carry a lot of weight as that's the only reference to there being more than one involved.

      Delete
  9. John Clauson writing here. You are not "horning in" I am happy you chose to comment. As I made no notes of my comments my response may have some redundancy.

    I began by looking up when the poem was published, Happiness.....Length as far as I know made its public appearance in A Witness Tree (1942) and Frost would have been 67 or 68 then. I am the same age, 67. While I can look back fondly on a few times enjoying a spontaneous physical encounter on a woodland walk and thus do not rule out your take, my mind set is more an introspective look at life as it has passed for me and through his writing for Frost at the age he was when the poem became public. Of course one take does not negate or eliminate the other clearly.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This is classic Frost--always the twist at the end. The poem has 24 lines, and 22 of them suggest he's alone. That "we" suddenly appearing in line 23 adds a new layer to the poem--another person, which opens up the poem a bit.

    ReplyDelete
  11. John Clauson back again. To add a bit more, way back in the 1960's probably shortly after Frosts passing I bought a record, vynal type 33.3 LP, of Frost reciting his work. My focus at the time would have been mending wall, North of Boston, published in 1914 and he was at the time of publication living in England. It somehow spoke to the seventeen year old kid that was me at the time. The line that opens it just captured my attention, Something there is that doesn't love a wall. Then on line 26 he brings in through his companion in the mending endeavor "Good fences make good neighbors", Then the great closing starting with the playful, Spring is the mischief in me... I was brought up in New England and so he was writing about the countryside that was just a short few miles from my suburban door. A few years later I was a student at UMASS Amherst and working on a Master's. I remember walking over the Amherst Campus at which he spent some teaching time.
    So he has been a part of most of my life.

    ReplyDelete
  12. John,

    "Mending Wall" has always been a favorite of mine--especially those lines that you quoted. It's also one of several poems where Frost refers to himself as a disturbing or even destructive force, for good of course.

    ReplyDelete
  13. The title says it all and is so true. We will from time to time have an exceptionally happy event.what he is saying to me is to be sure to enjoy that time as it does not and will not last forever. It also says that we will lead more ordinary days then extremely happy ones, so again be sure to enjoy the moment. Lastly, I see the "we are us as readers.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Unknown,

    Yes, that does seem to be the main point: a extraordinarily good day can make us forget those many ordinary, perhaps blah days. Many times I have thought that I would like to capture this moment and relive it, and perhaps we do, in our memories.

    ReplyDelete