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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Number 291: Robert Frost "Ghost House"

Ghost House

I Dwell in a lonely house I know 

That vanished many a summer ago, 

And left no trace but the cellar walls,

And a cellar in which the daylight falls,

And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow. 

O'er ruined fences the grape-vines shield 

The woods come back to the mowing field;

The orchard tree has grown one copse

Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops; 

The footpath down to the well is healed.

I dwell with a strangely aching heart

In that vanished abode there far apart

On that disused and forgotten road 

That has no dust-bath now for the toad. 

Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart;

The whippoorwill is coming to shout

And hush and cluck and flutter about: 

I hear him begin far enough away

Full many a time to say his say

Before he arrives to say it out. 

It is under the small, dim, summer star.

I know not who these mute folk are 

Who share the unlit place with me-- 

Those stones out under the low-limbed tree

Doubtless bear names that the mosses mar. 

They are tireless folk, but slow and sad,

Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad,-- 

With none among them that ever sings,

And yet, in view of how many things,

As sweet companions as might be had.

-- Robert Frost

Hap Notes: Well, I suppose everything is open to interpretation but after reading a good deal of summaries of this poem in books and online I have to point out something that I think is perfectly clear in the first two verses of this poem that each interpretation fails to see: The speaker in this poem is dead.

"I dwell" present tense. "That vanished" past tense. I guess the speaker could be living in a ruined exposed cellar next to a graveyard but this seems highly unlikely considering that Frost wrote the poems of "A Boys Will" (his first book of poem published in 1915) about New England – a place where one could not live in a wrecked open cellar for very long once the winter hit (although the poem is set in summer). The speaker is certainly giving us a metaphor for life in this poem but the word "dwell," on the surface, at least (ah yes, we'll get to the next layer in a moment), implies residency. (And remember the title of the poem.)

Now, there is another meaning to the word "dwell" which means to mentally linger, to think on – almost to obsess– about something. This has its place in this poem but not on the surface. The speaker in the poem gives us far too much information about the current state of the area for us to assume he is just "dwelling" there emotionally; the bats coming out at night, the very detailed account of a whippoorwill calling from a distance, the one dim summer star overhead. One who is merely thinking dwells ON something, not in it.

The nameless quiet folks in the graveyard have, among their number, a young girl and a boy, though none of them sing like the whippoorwill does, or speaks. Why do you think Frost says they are "tireless"? Why does he particularly point out the boy and girl?

There is a devastating loneliness in this poem; the empty ruined cellar, the one bird, the "healed" path, the one dim star. And only the bird, the living creature, tries to assert himself with his voice. And if you've ever heard a whippoorwill, you know that it's an insistent song. Here it is: The whippoorwill is nocturnal and calls mostly at dusk so we also know this poem is set, with it's one dim star, in a gloomy sunset.

What, in this poem, is Frost saying about life and human company in this poem? What happened to the house? The speaker? Why does the speaker's heart ache? How much do we ever get to know about a person? How does this poem depict human life and its transitive frailty?

We've done a lot of Frost, here are a few of them:



1 comment:

  1. The speaker aches for the place he left. And life goes on.