Poet's Pick April 2
Robert Frost: "A Hillside Thaw"
Selected by Daniel Anderson
National Poetry Month 2015

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Daniel Anderson's Poetry Month Pick, April 2, 2015

"A Hillside Thaw"
by Robert Frost (1874 - 1963)

To think to know the country and not know
The hillside on the day the sun lets go
Ten million silver lizards out of snow!
As often as I've seen it done before
I can't pretend to tell the way it's done.
It looks as if some magic of the sun
Lifted the rug that bred them on the floor
And the light breaking on them made them run.
But if I thought to stop the wet stampede,
And caught one silver lizard by the tail,
And put my foot on one without avail,
And threw myself wet-elbowed and wet-kneed
In front of twenty others' wriggling speed,—
In the confusion of them all aglitter,
And birds that joined in the excited fun
By doubling and redoubling song and twitter,
I have no doubt I'd end by holding none.

It takes the moon for this. The sun's a wizard
By all I tell; but so's the moon a witch.
From the high west she makes a gentle cast
And suddenly, without a jerk or twitch,
She has her spell on every single lizard.
I fancied when I looked at six o'clock
The swarm still ran and scuttled just as fast.
The moon was waiting for her chill effect.
I looked at nine: the swarm was turned to rock
In every lifelike posture of the swarm,
Transfixed on mountain slopes almost erect.
Across each other and side by side they lay.
The spell that so could hold them as they were
Was wrought through trees without a breath of storm
To make a leaf, if there had been one, stir.
It was the moon’s she held them until day,
One lizard at the end of every ray.
The thought of my attempting such a stay!


* Daniel Anderson Comments:

I have always taken such pleasure in “A Hillside Thaw” largely because of the pure joy the poem derives from its own subject—a scene that dazzles the poet’s eye at the same time it enthralls his imagination with metaphor and meaning.

Frost tells us that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” It’s difficult not to read “A Hillside Thaw” in the spirit of this assertion. The poem’s opening temperament, in terms of both its tone and spry formal movements, is a buoyant one. It derives its momentum from a frenzied and ecstatic loveliness. It rides the velocity of its pentameter for a full one hundred and sixty-six syllables before the first caesura slows the poem down in the seventeenth line. Then there are the rhymes which are mischievously insistent even if they aren’t beholden to any particular pattern. What results is a kind of headlong, forward-lurching play of music and imagery. The poem’s first strophe is cut loose to flow as freely and swiftly as the very streams of snow-melt that capture its attention.

It may be interesting to some (to others, perhaps, not so much) to ponder the Apollonian and Dionysian ideals of art at play in the poem’s meditation. The first half is clearly under the influence of the Dionysian—all that rapturous, chaotic, and irrational gorgeousness running wild. The Apollonian influence—reason and rationality and order—enters with the moon, who possesses an equal and opposite magic of the sun. She has the power to enchant and arrest that previously rowdy and ungovernable pandemonium. She has the authority to make that beauty stay. And this is what seems ultimately to haunt the mind—the poetic mind, no less—that bears witness and records this hypnotic (and, one should add, briefly hopeful) late winter spectacle.

If “A Hillside Thaw” lacks, in its turn to wisdom, the deeper longing and alienation of poems such as “The Wood-Pile” or “Birches” or “The Thatch,” it isn’t free of anxiety. The unbridled exhilaration of its first half is ultimately balanced by an encroaching regret in the second, one that is crystallized by the poem’s final word. “The thought of my attempting such a stay!” It is an exclamation filled simultaneously with wonder and futility, and calls to mind another corresponding observation that Frost offers in his essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” that a poem “runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” The speaker who sees “the sun let go / Ten million silver lizards out of snow” knows well that this moment cannot last. He acknowledges his own helplessness in making such a beauty stay. It’s true, that is no labor for human hands. That is a labor for poetry and poetry alone.

About Daniel Anderson:
Daniel Anderson teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Oregon. His books of poetry include The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel, Drunk in Sunlight, and January Rain.  He also edited The Selected Poems of Howard Nemerov.

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