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Friday, June 3, 2011

Number 175: Robert Frost "Provide, Provide"

Provide, Provide

The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag,
Was once the beauty Abishag,

The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.

Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state.

Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone.

Some have relied on what they knew;
Others on simply being true.
What worked for them might work for you.

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard,
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!

-- Robert Frost

Hap Notes: Here, Frost has written one of the easiest poems to memorize in the English language. No one I know who has read it more than a few times comes away from it without a few verses stuck in the memory. Of course, Frost is obviously making a point about fame, Hollywood glamor and how industries who create it and the public, cast it aside when the star is used up, older and unusable for their purposes.

But this is Frost, remember, and he's poking at us with a bit of sly humor while he makes a devastating point. The sing-song rhythm makes the poem lighter than it really is and there's a slightly darker side to this poem beyond just the glimpse of a scrub-woman who used to be a beautiful movie star.

It's the name Abishag. What's up with that? Who could possibly be named that? We live in a culture where Puff Daddy can become P Diddy and now, Swag. Prince can become less than a name and more of an unpronounceable symbol and then become Prince again. People can take odd names like The Edge and Bono with relative impunity. The pop charts adore Lady Gaga. So why are you surprised at Abishag?

Because, you say, it's Frost and the one thing I've learned on this website is that Frost is never exactly what he seems. At least, that's what I hope you are saying. And you are right. Frost makes no casual selections.

"Now King David was old and advanced in years. And although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm." 1 Kings 1:1

King David (in the first book of Kings in the Bible) was getting old and his followers were worried about him. His circulation was bad and he was cold all the time and had to be in bed most of the day. So, they found a beautiful young woman from Shunam (or Shulam) named Abishag and she was charged with the duty to lie next to the king to warm him both from her body warmth and her beauty which was thought would increase his, uh, manly warmth. That was her job; look hot and and warm the king.

"Therefore his servants said to him, “Let a young woman be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on the king and be in his service. Let her lie in your arms, that my lord the king may be warm. So they sought for a beautiful young woman throughout all the territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite, and brought her to the king.” 1 Kings 1:2, 1:3

King David never "knew" her, as they say in the Bible, that euphemism for sex. He already had the limit of 18 wives and he was pretty well taken care of on that score (no pun intended.) Abishag was just there to provide warmth. I believe in the Talmud it says that Abishag wanted David to marry her but he was full up with wives and he neither had sex with her nor married her.

Okay, this is pretty weird but it gets weirder. It was pretty well known that King David's cold body temperature and weakness was heading him towards death. So his wife, Bathsheba (who we'll get to in a moment) was worried because one of David's older sons, Adonijah by name, had seized the throne. David had already pretty much decided that his son with Bathsheba, Solomon, should be the next king so David and his advisers put Solomon in the office of king before David died. This was a good idea because Adonijah had seized the throne and was feasting as David was lying around cold and weak. Abishag would have heard all the meetings going on between David and Bathsheba and his advisers who encouraged him to crown Solomon early.

Adonijah finds out that David made his brother king and the guests at his feast get up and run away. Solomon pardons Adonijah for his take over and tells him to go home and quit plotting.

After David's death, Adonijah asks Bathsheba to ask Solomon if he can marry Abishag. Solomon sees this as another sneaky plot by Adonijah to shake up the royal household and lay claim to the throne. So Adonijah is put to death.

Bathsheba, as you may recall, was the woman the young David saw bathing, desired and had her husband sent to war and killed so he could, uh...know her. He killed her husband, but he did marry her, anyway, and make her son king. She ends up pretty okay, biblically speaking.

We don't know what happens to Abishag. She just disappears from the Bible. She may have become part of Solomon's household. According to the Bible that 18 wife rule went right out the window with Solomon who supposedly had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Abishag, whatever she was, is not mentioned.

So the young and beautiful Abishag had the unenviable job of laying next to an old man as he lay dying (David was around 69 or 70.) We won't go any farther down that road except to say ewww! David, remember, was remarkably handsome in his day and he was king but still, eww! Her beauty was used, her very body warmth was used and she ends up as a wisp of a footnote in the remarkable story of King David. Jeez, Goliath gets a better deal than Abishag, sheesh!

So Frost is saying something very extreme about the way we use beauty and youth and Hollywood stardom. We literally suck the warmth right out of them. We use them as servants to our lust. We discard them. Sure, we knew that but the Abishag story is a literal shocker; young women used by old guys 5,000 years ago. Frost is implying with the name Abishag that this isn't just Hollywood- it's all through history.

David doesn't even give Abishag any affection, although it wasn't his idea to have a human bedwarmer. Who thought of that? I'm glad we don't know his name. Creep.

So, Frost cautions, if you get to the top- make provisions. It has been happening to women for thousands of years. Doesn't look like it's gonna stop anytime soon.

Just a little sly Frost-y twist to consider. The great poetry of the Bible, the Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon as it's often called, is considered by some scholars to be written about Abishag "the Shulamite" – the woman in the poem. Abishag may have inspired some poetry, eh?

Here's where we've talked about Frost before:

Frost is also poems 69, 90 and 128. The masthead today is the painting "David and Abishag" by Pedro Americo.