Back when Robbo and I were new parents, I used to host poetry parties. I believed life was more than work, food, and sleep, and that our souls needed to be fed on poetry in the company of good friends. I asked everyone to bring a poem, but I memorized mine. “The Onset” by Robert Frost captured my dread as we fell inexorably into winter like a spacecraft into a black hole. Overly dramatic? You think I may be exaggerating? For me depression and shorter days pair like stupidity and lack of sleep. Do not look at Quickbooks entries made after 11 pm, and after November 1st do not look for my sunny countenance. I have packed it off to take a long rest.
Notice what Frost does so well: his detail makes us take notice of what we have experienced so incompletely, and he draws us to think about more than what our senses tell us. Frost never reduces reality to empirical data; he doesn’t simply describe. Reality is always more, he says; everything has meaning. His is a personal universe. The first verse is bleak with an apt description of that dark day when the first big storm of the season is nearly here. Yes, winter (or for that matter the news lately) sucks from me my life and courage, making me question if I am making any difference to anyone. Winter is a shadow of the future that comes to every one of us, and it whispers that nothing I do endures, just as the frozen gardens and naked trees have nothing to show for their summer’s work.
And then that lovely turn in the word “Yet”. Oh, my–this means so much more to me twenty years after I first learned it. I have over 50 years of experience with spring after winter, joy after tears, hope after despair. I am not sure if Frost’s last line is just a handy rhyme for “birch”, or if he, quietly and without banners waving, nods to the necessity of faith in God. Though he brings up the village and its church last, I think I will look to them earlier, and beat back the isolation of winter with warm fellowship, fine food, and poetry.
By Robert Frost
Always the same, when on a fated night
At last the gathered snow lets down as white
As may be in dark woods, and with a song
It shall not make again all winter long
Of hissing on the yet uncovered ground,
I almost stumble looking up and round,
As one who overtaken by the end
Gives up his errand, and lets death descend
Upon him where he is, with nothing done
To evil, no important triumph won,
More than if life had never been begun.
Yet all the precedent is on my side:
I know that winter death has never tried
The earth but it has failed: the snow may heap
In long storms an undrifted four feet deep
As measured again maple, birch, and oak,
It cannot check the peeper’s silver croak;
And I shall see the snow all go down hill
In water of a slender April rill
That flashes tail through last year’s withered brake
And dead weeds, like a disappearing snake.
Nothing will be left white but here a birch,
And there a clump of houses with a church.