Don Paterson on Robert Frost

May 4, 2011

Ed Herman: Welcome to Poetry Lectures, a series of lectures by poets, scholars, and educators presented by In this program, we hear Don Paterson offering a fresh interpretation of Robert Frost. Don Paterson was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1963. He first pursued a career in music, but after meeting poet Tony Harrison, Paterson immersed himself in poetry. He has since published six collections of poetry, and has won numerous awards and prizes including the T. S. Eliot Prize and Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 2010. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and teaches creative writing at University of St. Andrew's in Scotland, and he also performs as a jazz guitarist. In his talk, Don Paterson presents Frost as a metaphysical and philosophical poet who uses natural language to surprise the reader with complex ideas. To guide us in this interpretation, Paterson examines the text of three Frost poems. He begins with an in-depth reading of “West Running Brook”, and continues with a look at “Design” and “To Earthward”. Here is Don Paterson with a lecture entitled “Frost as a Thinker”, delivered at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival November 2010.


Don Paterson: Today I'm going to talk about two or three poems of Frost, probably two to be honest with you, because I always override. “Design”, "To Earthward", and "West Running Brook", and I'll get a close reading of each. I'm not going to confine myself just to the careful consideration of the text, I'm going to try and treat the poem as a piece of trustworthy discourse. It doesn't sound that radical, but I think it is these days. A place where ideas that are proposed should be engaged with as vigorously as the intricate surface of its speech. This means permitting myself a kind of subjective reading, and oneself, engaging with a poem as conversationalists and not just kind of experts. Because this is Frost's rhetorical conceit, that his voice is saying that he can be trusted, and that therefore any difficulties we encounter in his poetry are down to him saying difficult things, not withholding information. Because he wouldn't do that to you. And I see no reason not to take him at his word.

The two poems, maybe three if I have time, go about it in very different ways. "West Running Brook" is a semi-scientific, polemic, and quite explicit poem in its argument, but it kind of naturalizes ... It's a rather austere thesis through the natural speech of its interlocutors. And Design is more of a proof. To Earthward is a kind of argument as well, but it's made almost totally invisible by its lyricism. Just a wee word about close reading, which is more of a credo for me really. It's simply that interpretation isn't to be owned. I think an awful lot of literary interpretation is still in the grip of what you might call a kind of un-interrogated, post-religious paradigm, and suffers from a logical error that goes by a bunch of different names, but I always think of as a kind of theistic fallacy. Too often our interpretations turn out to be unconsciously predicated on the idea of the existence of a truth, which, given its demonstrable absence, presumably resides in the mind of some remote third party, who will confirm the accuracy of a brilliant analysis come the rapture. I don't think this is … It doesn't, and they won't, and there's nobody here but us chickens I'm afraid. And for that reason, nobody knows what anything means. We just make this stuff up, least of all in a poem of course, where meaning just isn't in residence anywhere. All we have is context and consensus. So we shouldn't talk about what poems or images mean so much as what meaning they generate. I think the greatest and truest value of poetic meaning really accrues within the dynamic flux of a reading and rereading. We should never forget that the poem is just a couple of monkeys talking to each other, we should never lose sight of that. It's about us, it's about the poet, as much as it's about the poem itself. And of course, we change, and so do our interpretations, so the text is really always airborne. What we have with an interpretation is just a snapshot of that flight. I guess I'm trying to also rebalance that inherited model of close reading that we get from New Criticism, and restore this crazy idea about what they call the effect of unintentional fallacies, basically what the author was feeling and what you feel when you read the poem, through a place as legitimate readings. Readings of ourselves, readings of the poet the poem allows us to make. So we end with a kind of humanist version of thick description in some ways. Or, if you like, an entirely serious take on Frank O'Hara's beautiful joke school of Personism, where he said, “It puts the poem squarely between the poem and the person, Lucky Pierre Style.” That's rude, by the way. And the poem is correspondingly gratified, the poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. But God forbid, of course, that the poem's idea should prompt an idea in the reader that they might wanna share. As I learnt this morning in The Observer, where I suffered one of these career building reviews. Anyway. Anyone who heard a kind of insane lecture I gave ... An insane two-hour lecture I gave in half an hour yesterday ... Will know that I'm interested in something called domain theory. It's complex, but there's a simple idea behind it, which is just that everything that's in a poem the reader knows is not there by accident. It's very hard to have a detail in a poem that's merely descriptive or evocative.

But immediately, because these are the terms of the contract, the reader starts to read in. This seems culturally unadvisable to me. Whatever Frost puts in a poem, he puts in for a reason. It'll propose a wider context, a wider argument, something I call a thematic domain which becomes the slowly forming subject of the poem. And it forms in the reader's mind, and then a wonderful thing starts to happen there. We see a kind of a feedback loop. On rereading the poem, things that were merely propositional of a theme start to read as if they're symbolic of that theme, as if from the details having proposed the theme we now see the theme having proposed the content and altered the way in which we read it. This is another identical dynamic to another interest of mine, which I may have mentioned at the reading the other night, which is the whole business of something called emergence and autopoiesis, and it's just the idea that structure and material content in the universe are engaged in a kind of dialectic that gives rise to their own self-generated order. This is exactly the subject apropos of "West Running Brook", which I'll look at first. I'll read the poem, even though it's slightly long and it'll waste four minutes. Hardly four minutes wasted really, but ...


West Running Brook


'Fred, where is north?'


 'North? North is there, my love.

 The brook runs west.'


 'West-running Brook then call it.'

 (West-Running Brook men call it to this day.)

 'What does it think k's doing running west

 When all the other country brooks flow east

 To reach the ocean? It must be the brook

 Can trust itself to go by contraries

 The way I can with you -- and you with me --

 Because we're -- we're -- I don't know what we are.

 What are we?'


 'Young or new?'


 'We must be something.

 We've said we two. Let's change that to we three.

 As you and I are married to each other,

 We'll both be married to the brook. We'll build

 Our bridge across it, and the bridge shall be

 Our arm thrown over it asleep beside it.

 Look, look, it's waving to us with a wave

 To let us know it hears me.'


 ' 'Why, my dear,

 That wave's been standing off this jut of shore --'

 (The black stream, catching a sunken rock,

 Flung backward on itself in one white wave,

 And the white water rode the black forever,

 Not gaining but not losing, like a bird

 White feathers from the struggle of whose breast

 Flecked the dark stream and flecked the darker pool

 Below the point, and were at last driven wrinkled

 In a white scarf against the far shore alders.)

 'That wave's been standing off this jut of shore

 Ever since rivers, I was going to say,'

 Were made in heaven. It wasn't waved to us.'


 'It wasn't, yet it was. If not to you

 It was to me -- in an annunciation.'


 'Oh, if you take it off to lady-land,

 As't were the country of the Amazons

 We men must see you to the confines of

 And leave you there, ourselves forbid to enter,-

 It is your brook! I have no more to say.'


 'Yes, you have, too. Go on. You thought of something.'


 'Speaking of contraries, see how the brook

 In that white wave runs counter to itself.

 It is from that in water we were from

 Long, long before we were from any creature.

 Here we, in our impatience of the steps,

 Get back to the beginning of beginnings,

 The stream of everything that runs away.

 Some say existence like a Pirouot

 And Pirouette, forever in one place,

 Stands still and dances, but it runs away,

 It seriously, sadly, runs away

 To fill the abyss' void with emptiness.

 It flows beside us in this water brook,

 But it flows over us. It flows between us

 To separate us for a panic moment.

 It flows between us, over us, and with us.

 And it is time, strength, tone, light, life and love-

 And even substance lapsing unsubstantial;

 The universal cataract of death

 That spends to nothingness -- and unresisted,

 Save by some strange resistance in itself,

 Not just a swerving, but a throwing back,

 As if regret were in it and were sacred.

 It has this throwing backward on itself

 So that the fall of most of it is always

 Raising a little, sending up a little.

 Our life runs down in sending up the clock.

 The brook runs down in sending up our life.

 The sun runs down in sending up the brook.

 And there is something sending up the sun.

 It is this backward motion toward the source,

 Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,

 The tribute of the current to the source.

 It is from this in nature we are from.

 It is most us.'


 'To-day will be the day....You said so.'


 'No, to-day will be the day

 You said the brook was called West-running Brook.'

 'To-day will be the day of what we both said.’


Don Paterson: Really does make you wanna give up, doesn't it? One of the reasons I wanted to focus on this poem was my annoyance at reading a comment by the critic Richard Poirier, who died last year, a fine critic in his way, but a bit of an old New Critical, who dismisses the poem's famous and acclaimed status and calls its mise en scène “holy, tiresome premeditation,” excuse me, “and threads big speech as a large-minded mythy reading of the wave.” I think a judgment that can only be arrived at by a critic determined to put the medium before the message at all costs. Poirier's preference is for those poems of Frost whose sense could be distrusted, meaning he can do some critical work on the text. That's not my preference. Mine is for those poems that can wholly be trusted, but whose sense is very strange. That means I can do some work on the sense, not on the poem, which strikes me as the point. I don't love poetry because I like doing literary analysis. I also here by this dismissal of its popularity a sort of contempt of the general reader that I think would have worried Frost. Anyway, the poem's no longer popular, and I'm not convinced it could be properly read until recently. Because Frost is a genius, and in his way as much of a prophet as Rilke was, meaning what sounded 50 years ago like mystical vorticism turned out to be true. “Fred, where is north?” Well, we start with a question. Where are we? We have to get our bearings here, this poem is about getting your bearings within the whole cosmos, so it's a good question. So we start off kinda lost. North? North is there, my love. The brook runs west.” “West-Running Brook then call it.” Here Frost is immediately declaring the sort of yin/yang nature of the dynamic. It's a bit sexist, isn't it? Really, it's a bit of its time, it's a bit too quick to caricature the woman as passive/receptive/imaginative and the man as this steady, mast-like center of phallocentric wisdom, holding forth. But see how the woman names the brook, and names it in a kind of adamant way. “(West-Running Brook men call it to this day).” This is a brilliant example of Frost's control over what you call his didactic space, the when and the where and the who's speaking. He's a genius at subtly qualifying that sort of “where we are” space in ways we barely notice. But what he's doing with this “to this day” is historicizing the event. When the hell is this conversation happening? And indeed the third time we read it, it starts to take on quite a primeval note. We're here on an ancient evening, when things are settled and decided. “What does it think it's doing running west when all the other country brooks flow east to reach the ocean? It must be the brook can trust itself to go by contraries.” Introducing, quite slyly I think, the theme of the whole poem, which we don't really fully notice the first time around. That of contrary movement, movement against a larger tide, which Frost will eventually declare is the defining motif of human consciousness itself.          “Can trust itself to go by contraries the way I can with you -- and you with me -- because we're -- we're -- I don't know what we are. What are we?” “Young or new?” “We must be something.” We must be something, hard not to hear, not just a couple but I think the whole race in the “we”, especially given this kind of adamant, onomastic act of naming we've just witnessed. But contraries, especially the kind of paradox that Frost is about to enfold here, are really hard to name. But he adduces yet more local evidence drawn from the immediate environment of the poem, this is ... Frost is brilliant at this. Here, the very speaking couple themselves is proof of his wider thesis. They too are contraries, and they're about to demonstrate that by having an argument, the one driven by love and made, as Frost declares, in the spirit of trust. And they're newlyweds, and they're still harping at the terms of their own engagement with one another, argumentatively, but with a contrary passion fixed on arriving at a resolution, which they do. “We've said we two. Let's change that to we three. As you and I are married to each other, we'll both be married to the brook. We'll build our bridge across it, and the bridge shall be our arm thrown over it asleep beside it.” That's really beautiful I think. The bridge has become this ... Sorry, the brook has become a sort of intercessor, the spirit that unites them. But they'll also tame it's contrary, barbarous running nature between the two of them, bridge this paradox, live with it, sleep with it, love it. And that will lay their arm through and over it and sleep beside it, is a great example of Frost's syntactic daring. It's barely grammatical. But it really just echos how people speak, which to say with much force and tactic variation and subtlety of emphasis than most poets manage, but he listens to that. "Look, look, it's waving to us with a wave To let us know it hears me.” It's as if the brook has heard all this and it's answering back. She's kind of evoking the pathetic fallacy here and credits the brook with some agency, however playfully. But as the arch-materialist he is, he's about to dismiss all this as sentimentality. So we see the tension and the two temperaments immediately and this kind of lights the fuse of their argument. And he says, "Why, my dear, That wave's been standing off this jut of shore.” And then we get this amazing description from Frost in the voice of the omniscient narrator here about the wave itself. The meticulous expansion of the central image and the twisted, kind of muscularity of it's syntax. You know, when he says, "Like a bird White feathers from the struggle of whose breast Flecked the dark stream.” It's like he's trying to wrestle a steer to the floor here in the syntax. And enact a kind of sinewy dynamic of this contrary wave. And the image of the wave again the in the third or forth reading becomes almost wholly symbolic. But you want to feel just the physical truth of this. To know that this has come from something observed in the world, not placed there by a poet's fancy. It's as if the lucidity of the description were testament to it's physical reality. It's a standing wave, you know to borrow an analogy from physics. You have these because the medium's traveling in one direction and the wave's coming the other way. But, the white wave is only a wave because this sunken rock literally gives rise to it like a deep feature of physical structure, a law however, accidentally present that underlies a sort of manifest and visible forms. It might put us in mind of the phenomenon of resonance, if you know anything about that, it's quite a similar description.And while I'm not here to stand doing the beauties of Frost, it's a terrible temptation. And draw attention to every lyric felicity. I mean, you have to point out a line like, "In a white scarf against the far shore alders.” Isn't that amazing? I mean, it actually just anagrammatizes three of four sounds and unites it's sense so deeply in it's song, the line just turns into a single indivisible word. Anyway, Fred manages to wrestle his speech back from the poet. And he says, "That wave's been standing off this jut of shore Ever since rivers, I was going to say Were made in heaven. It wasn't waved to us.” That I was going to say is really funny and I think if you miss that, you're really missing a lot. It's metatextual. Of course Fred means, As I was going to say before bloody Robert Frost, you know, steamed in with this pretentious, bloody description about the wave. Frost knows he's banged on too long and he makes a joke of it, yeah? Ever since rivers were made in heaven is deliberately cheeky given the materialism on display here from Fred. The wave was waving long before we were here for it to wave to. Long before we were around to think this world's somehow made or designed it to our own purpose, but she corrects him. "It wasn't." "Yeah, It was." "Not to you." "It was to me."And the annunciation. I mean, who the hell can deny the reality of an individual perception? It was to me. They are wee philosophical at best here, and it's not Frost's intention, but I hear it clearly. The line, does propose the idea that this place is also anthropic, which is to say the universe really appears by a trick of perspective as if it were built for us. And we've conjured this vision of the universe for reasons of evolutionary necessity. It has no basis in reality, other than our own minds. But to deny the reality of our minds is to deny the only reality that we know. And if we are creatures of the universe and we see waves waving to us, who's to say they're not? She calls it an annunciation. You know, I think this is kind of her using her own sarcastic rhetoric against his, with all this made in heaven stuff. And she knows it will get a response and of course it does. "Oh, if you take it off to lady-land As't were the country of the Amazons We men must see you to the confines of And leave you there, ourselves forbid to enter,- It is your brook! I have no more to say.” Just raising the emotional stakes here. And it's playful and it's sexist. I'll be honest. But it's, you say, fine, it's waving to you. But this place of primal femininity, this Amazonia where all the world is connected and all things speak to everything else. That's something we hard-nosed pragmatists, materialists you know, can't go ... I have nothing to say. Yes, you have to. Go on, you know, you thought of something. Just teasing him. And what's revealed in this line is intimacy. She's up-to-speed in all his conversational strategies. For the lovers, for all the fake aggression and contrariness, these two are never in danger of really misconstruing the other at all. There are relationship with every argument, no matter how trivial, stakes the whole relationship on it's outcome. You've maybe been in one of those yourself. They either fall apart in a week or the couple resolve never to argue again and then never communicate and then years later, in miserably conjoined silence or separate silence. This isn't one of those relationships. Now understand proportionality, they never deviate from discussing the matter at hand, for all their wee, ad hominem jibes. Now a subplot here is how people in love talk to each other. And knowing how she loves, she allows his to do that thing that he loves, which is give pompous speeches. Which is handy, because so does Robert Frost. And he's a very [inaudible 00:20:42]. And he sets up Fred as a rhetoric fall-guy. Again, this is the sort of thing that really annoys critics like Poirier and it's obviously this. But it's not Arthur Miller, okay? We're allowed to use simply strategies here. Speaking of contraries, he knows he's like this. And he knows she knows. And we have to suspend disbelief a little here, because this speech itself doesn't have that much verisimilitude. But what we're getting out is a sermon on neutral monism, which the idea that the spiritual and the material are indistinguishable. "see how the brook In that white wave runs counter to itself. So, it's the very medium that's turned against itself. "It is from that in water we were from Long, long before we were from any creature.” This is extraordinary. What is the most defining human quality in us before we found ourselves incarnated through biology, is from that very inbuilt contrariness in the material structure of the universe itself. A flaw in the weave, an inner turn, a natural Volta that the material seems to carry within it. "Here we, in our impatience of the steps, Get back to the beginning of beginning, The stream of everything that runs away.” And he's saying in this, contemplating this, this contrariness we can honor our own and patience. Get back to the start. The start being the beginning of entropy. Everything burns away. Now people think of entropy as a kind of force that drives everything apart, runs everything down until the universal has reached a horrific, sterile, cold, almost empty equilibrium. It's more a measure of disorder in a dynamic system, which kind of increases, but it's kind of a one-way ticket. It seems connected with the arrow of time. And that's they way Frost is talking about it here. There actually are objections to that idea, but that's another talk. "Some say existence like a Pirouot And Pirouette, forever in one place, Stands still and dances, but it runs away, It seriously, sadly, runs away To fill the abyss' void with emptiness.” Some say, well they might do, but no one's said it like this before. I mean I have no idea what pirouot means. Did look it up in the Google and it seems to be something to do with an Alouette, you know the skylark in French. But, I have no idea. It's presumable a counter spinner to pirouette, which keeps existence in this position of standing still on dancing, yeah? But it's not existence that does that, Frost says. Existence being something that runs away with the stream itself. And what a staggering tautology we get in to fill the abyss' void with emptiness. That fills a void-void with more void. That's a whole lot of void. Existence itself is an emptiness that runs on an emptiness towards an even greater emptiness. This is even beyond Buddhism. And it's where we start bleakly nihilistic as he often does. "It flows beside us in this water brook, But it flows over us. It flows between us To separate us for a panic moment. It flows between us, over us, and with us.” What a statement. Existence as it flows on, flows around us and I always catch my breath when he says, "To separate us for a panic moment." The strange ether of existence that rides on the back of physical law with entropy can also be the thing that separates us. We're thwarted in either fact that horrid, physical law is what keeps us apart ... keeps us from melting into the one that we desire to become. Keeps us from the other. Although mercifully, we often feel it as a bonding medium too. Note that Frost is not saying that existence is us. Crucial point. "And it is time, strength, tone, light, life and love- And even substance lapsing unsubstantial;” That's just Shakespearian, isn't it? Substance lapsing unsubstantial. And for that reason you can't paraphrase it. "The universal cataract of death That spends to nothingness …" Again, nothing he hasn't said, and it's pure rhetoric, but it's great rhetoric. It's what we'd call an accumulatio, if you were in my boring grad's ed classes, we would call it. It's just a repetition, in other words. And he goes on "- and unresisted, Save by some strange resistance in itself, Not just a swerving, but a throwing back, As if regret were in it and were sacred.” And now we're getting to the strange heart of it. It's all hopeless. Nothing can resist this cataract, plunging us on towards the heat death of the universe, except for this, except for some strange resistance in the river itself. And this resistance is sad, regretful ... a throwback, a nostalgia, as if with some regret but in it for departing from the unity it once was before the big bang. And having him backed in this lunatic, time-driven entropic turn, driving us towards the incognated, inseparable spite of human life. Frost is close to suggesting that we are ourselves, composed of the universe as regret. That us and our world and our sun are really just the nostalgia trip of physics and it's all a little feedback loop. So its has this throwing backward on itself, so that the fall of most of it is always raising a little, sending up a little, as a strange inner turn. So they even know it's all falling into the chasm, it's going to be sending a bit back up. And that little turns out to be all that we know of ourselves. All we know of order within this universe. But remember, he's saying order in the universe is founded on a principle of nostalgia. And all of that repetition of throwing back there as well. "Our life runs down in sending up the clock. The brook runs down in sending up our life. The sun runs down in sending up the brook. And there is something sending up the sun.” Magnificent. The largest thing runs down, the smaller is sent up. And the thing running downs sends up order, poetry, clocks, rivers, suns, us. Frost stops at the sun which is the limit of Fred's knowledge, but you feel the whole thing going on like a Russian doll there. "It is this backward motion toward the source, Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in, The tribute of the current to the source. It is from this in nature we are from. It is most us.” The tribute of the current to the source, a lovely play on tributary, but a backwards running tributary. One that heads back to a universal source. And wherever we see as humans this inverted motif, like the wave, that's where we most strongly identify our own defining characteristic. We're not the flow of existence. We're the contrary movements against it. To adapt Frost's own description of the poem, we are ourselves, momentary stays against confusion. "To-day will be the day....You said so.” Even she's impressed with the speech. THere's no irony here, but he knows it's a speech that she's inspired in. Naming this river that justifies and underlies everything, we can sort of note, nothing. "No, to-day will be the day You said the brook was called West-running Brook.” It's generous of him, you know. But it's the wrong place to end, because in the end this is a poem about how a loving colloquy, we should find between reader and poet, of course, that is itself nothing more than the product of some weird cosmic, nostalgia that goes on with the work of finding order where there was none. Harmony where there was none. Resolution where there was none. So, No. "To-day will be the day of what we both said.” We need to speak it. So, amen to that. I mean, I'd love to talk to Frost about this more recent idea, I mentioned before of autopoiesis, beautiful word, which again is this conversation between material structure and function of just the kind we see in this poem. Where the poetry rises from the dent of relation of it's own poetic material and it's own poetic conditions and ends as a kind of self-sustaining whole. Some have given this idea quite a solid solipsistic interpretation and it's quite interesting. Indeed there's a way of reading this stuff that's going on as a weird self reflexivity to the nth degree and it's been dismissed as a desolate theology and ends with nothing real and kind of chimes with Frost's own nihilism. But others like the complexity theorist, Stuart Kauffman, see it as an opportunity to reintroduce the idea of sacredness into our thought again in the form of a simple astonishment that all this could be the case. That such a natural miracle could simply arise. Now others are inevitably going to see the hand of god doing this sending up. And I should say that the hand of god for me is really the ultimate failure of imagination, so. But that's just me. One of the things that I hope I'm emphasizing here is Frost's constant awareness of the cosmic frame. There's no detail in Frost that does not have somewhere lurking at the back of his mind, the perception of not only Earth's diurnal round, you know, diurnal course rolling around, but of the outer planets, of the sun, of the vast rolling galaxy itself. Itself being kind of incompressibility tiny against the infinite abyss of space and all it's other galaxies. And somewhere within this, he shows this monkey who's convinced that his dreams and desires are somehow crucial to the scheme of things. I think his alleged nihilism stems from ultimately from the very simple knowledge that it's really just realism, but terrifyingly qualified than any kind of spiritual negativity. That's the serious ... that nihilism is just correct. We are nothing and we should remember it. But nonetheless, within that he cites wonder. In "Design", we see wonder at horror however, and I don't think anywhere else do we see the indifference of our own universe more explicitly stated …


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,

On a white heal-all, holding up a moth

Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--

Assorted characters of death and blight

Mixed ready to begin the morning right,

Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth--

A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,

And dead wings carried like a paper kite.


What had that flower to do with being white,

The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?

What brought the kindred spider to that height,

Then steered the white moth thither in the night?

What but design of darkness to appall?--

If design govern in a thing so small.


This is a horrible, horrible poem. I mean horrible, conscious of its etymology from harrier, meaning to bristle, to have the hairs stand on end. "I found a dimpled spider fat and white in a white heal-all, holding up a moth like a piece of rigid satin cloth." It was Randall Jarrell who first pointed out that dimpled, fat, and white are the kind of adjectives we apply to babies. Frost wants us to feel revulsion from the first line, and we see an unholy trinity of white things. The innocent hope of the white heal-all playing host to something that will heal nothing. This tiny fat, white monster brazenly holding up his dead quarry, like a flag, or as Frost says later, like a paper kite, like a plaything. You see that, "I found" as well, which is a nice touch. It implies he was looking, and implies he was low to the ground. So there's a sense of someone looking for evidence here. "Assorted characters of death and blight, mixed ready to begin the morning right." Well characters has a devil sense, as well as assorted players if you like. They're also written signs, algebraic signs of death and blight, dispel something timeless. Because it's law. And never was there a bleaker, more bitter line than that: "Mixed ready to begin the morning right." This is the way the planet starts the day. Not on a full English breakfast but death on a plate. And we're already starting to see Frost's thesis here, the title is "Design". Now if we believe in design, you know believe in the absolutely blind design of evolution, which is anything but random and only has the appearance of design. Or the design of an unseen hand, a God. Pretend nonetheless that God is a thing of wonder. Even if we keep god out of it, we're a wonder that the stars could form, that the eye could evolve. I mean slime mold, have you read about slime mold and what it gets up to? It's absolutely unbelievable. I mean gob smacking stuff, slime mold. We tend to underplay the fact that much of this design, when it's not empty, is horrible. It's ... And this is exactly what Frost is going to rub in our faces. Think, "The ingredients of a witches' broth, a snowdrop, spider, a flower like froth, and dead wings carried like a paper kite." Fairly straightforward with Frost as usual, compounding the horror in a oxymoronic beauty of his lyric weave that he uses to express it. Now a snowdrop spider, that's a crime against nature, you know? Now pretty sounding flower like froth is even worse, even the phrase makes your mouth foam. Randall Jarrell again points out a lovely thing here, which is just the quiet horror of this particular image by which I think he means it sounds like scum. Like froth in the mouth of the sick and fevered. But there's a lovely quote from him that I'll give, this Jarrell speaking about that line: "It always seemed to me the case of the absolutely inescapable effect, until a student of mine said that you could tell how beautiful the flower was because the poet compared it to froth; when I said to her, "But—but—but what does froth remind you of?" Looking desperately into her blue eyes, she replied: "Fudge. It reminds me of making fudge." It doesn't remind me of fudge. "What had that flower to do with being white? The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?" Well we see the kind of design that Frost means. A design wholly indifferent to its protagonists. This is a Daz white, this is so white it's blue this flower. And it's innocent of every attribute that's been forced upon it by a blind, a crazy, ineluctable power. "What brought the kindred spider to that height and then steered the white moth tither in the night?" Kindred to what? Just the flower? Or kindred to us? We almost feel he's going to use this standard collocation: kindred spirit. But then it's immediately subverted. The spider and that height is exquisite. The height is knee height, chin height, of course. But it's also the height of Darius, of Achilles, of Pol Pot, and every other murderous flag waving victor who finds his victim delivered to him by fate. And that line's beautiful: "Then steered the white moth tither in the night," is pure Blake. And it's pure Old Testament. But what mortal hand or I framed this fearful asymmetry? There can only be one answer. "What but design of darkness to appall?" How could it be anything else but a dark maker? Now if this had been the last line it would've been bad enough. If we're to see a non-blind hand in this design there is one who must, must delight in these miniature horrors. Who perhaps even delights in their capacity to appall the human viewer. Okay, Frost is saying so you want the argument for design? Fine, then you can have it. But if you have it you better accept that this place is been designed by a demon. So surely it can't get any worse? Line 14. "If design govern in a thing so small." This line is so scary I feel my stomach lurch. And this kind of affectedly throw away line Frost is saying that maybe design doesn't work at this level, maybe God doesn't sweat the small stuff? At least with the big stuff we have the sense there's someone taking an interest, even if it was a bitter or a malevolent one. But Frost is saying that maybe design's only for cool, big stuff like the horses and the sunsets and the forest, and the birth of our children? Maybe what we're seeing in this overlooked Lilliput and the undergrowth is nothing more or less than the nature of physical law. Unfortunately it turns out the nature of physical law, which this entire universe is founded, is amoral rebarbative, and utterly murderous. So we end up begging for the demon designer of line 13 to come back, rather than leave us alone in a universe founded on such catastrophic principles. "To Earthward", let's just look at it really quickly. Okay. It's a lovely antithesis, and I'll try and land this on time. Please read this in your own time for I have no time to. Oh this is beautiful.

Love at the lips was touch

As sweet as I could bear;

And once that seemed too much;

I lived on air


This is the bit that weightless constitution of youth and its ignorance of gravity and its infinite sensual porousness, where a kiss would kill ya and you'd be the except of that kiss. You'd sense this hidden meaning in its sign and its timing, and you'd be the connoisseur or its contours and its pressures and its lengths and its flavor. And its viscosity. You'd remember that? But we're kind of breatharians when we're 17. And we can sustain ourselves on nothing, of a ethereal manner came down to us.


That crossed me from sweet things,

The flow of—was it musk

From hidden grapevine springs

Downhill at dusk?


It crossed me from the other side. He's talking about super sensitivity here: what is that musk? And it comes downhill of course. So the direction's important, he's attuned to the heaven scent. The next stanza:


I had the swirl and ache

From sprays of honeysuckle

That when they’re gathered shake

Dew on the knuckle.

It's the sort of thing that has Frost haters, they love to hate this kind of thing, it's outrageous: the knuckle honeysuckle ring is really, you shouldn't get away with it. I don't know if he does, I think he does.


I craved strong sweets, but those

Seemed strong when I was young;

The petal of the rose

It was that stung.


And he's talking about a condition of oversensitivity that can't be sustained, however wonderful it was, because it's unnatural. Stings sting. Thorns sting, not petals. And here we feel the whole poem shift towards its grim inversion. I mean how could it be otherwise? We don't of course hear from the temper of middle years, when one's response was proportionate to this stimulus, Frost's intention is to shock and to move, and he needs to skip to the end of this terrifying compare and contrast.


Now no joy but lacks salt,

That is not dashed with pain

And weariness and fault;

I crave the stain


Of tears, the aftermark

Of almost too much love,

The sweet of bitter bark

And burning clove.

 No pleasure is properly season unless I can taste it unless it's now got a dash of pain, plain exhaustion, to the point I desire my tears, the bite mark, the burn mark of love's success.


When stiff and sore and scarred

I take away my hand

From leaning on it hard

In grass and sand,

He's saying now I am pain and carnage through the body's decrepitude, through life's own battle wounds, even hurt itself can't cut through the hurtful noise of it all. It must be intensified.


The hurt is not enough:

I long for weight and strength

To feel the earth as rough

To all my length.


 And the hurt must come as close to death without being death to feel the ultimate roughness of the earth or bury him, to use gravity, the downward prose means itself to still resist the feeling that death, the end of feeling sorry, that death itself will bring. And there's such a poignancy still, but just the right side still of this good earth and if we could feel enough to feel, maybe we can get upward again? Now I'll skip the next bit and my last minute reach for my conclusion. Well there's two conclusions. I conclude that my coming out point which was just to say the point I think is this, which is it's a truth so painful that I would have resisted had it not been so beautifully expressed. And I think it's an original statement. I get, as usual, Frost forces us to confront the hideous point as he often does, but uses a wholly Shakespearean tactic of finding a logic in the pain. And a comfort in the logic. And somehow draws his assuagement from the source of Agni itself. Frost treats the mechanism of poetic composition as a tool of philosophical concession, and as long as we are using speech and not algebra and mathematics, its beauty and clarity of expression are not strictly separate from its truth value. Style also carries information. Here he conflates two conceits, a lyric one and a Presocratic one. The first is the article of faith that beauty is truth, and that whatever aspires to the condition of song is also pursuing a parallel vector of truthful statement. And the second is that if something can be cleanly and concisely expressed, simplified to the aphoristic, to the demotic, to the plain speaking, it has a better chance of being true than something which can't simply by its insistence on un-emitting the extraneous, emphasizing the communicative foundation of language, and maybe most importantly leaving itself absolutely nowhere to hide. Frost goes on challenging us, not to deal with his poetry but with what it proposes. A poem is not primarily written to provide an excuse to have a conversation about poetry but as an emotional and intellectual provocation, to which we are challenged to respond in kind. Thank you.


Ed Herman: That was Don Paterson speaking at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in Suffolk England on November 7th, 2010. This recording comes from the Poetry Trust and is used with permission. The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival is one of many events sponsored by the Poetry Trust. Visit for more information about their year round programming. In edition to his six collections of poetry, Don Paterson has written three prose books, added to the collection of Robert Burns poetry and recently published a commentary called Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets. You can read an article about Don Patterson and some of his poetry at Poetry Magazine first published Robert Frost in 1914. Though he published his first book the year prior, at the age of 40, he would go on to write about a dozen books of poetry before his death in 1963. One of America's most celebrated poets, his work is widely available in many collections and anthologies. You can read an extensive biography about Robert Frost and many of his poems at Also at the redesigned Poetry Foundation website you'll find a wealth of information about poets and poetry, an online archive of more than 10,000 poems, the Poetry Learning Lab, the Harriet blog about poetry, and other audio programs to download. I'm Ed Herman, thanks for listening to poetry lectures from

In November 2010, Don Paterson delivered the 22nd Aldeburgh PoetryFestival's annual poet-on-poet lecture on Robert Frost. The lecture, titled "Frost as a Thinker," was co-supported by Poetry magazine and Oxford Poetry.This is an edited version of the live event, organized by The Poetry Trust. Enjoy more podcasts on The Poetry Channel at

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