Poet's Pick April 20
Robert Frost: "To Earthward"
Selected by Carol Moldaw
National Poetry Month 2017

Letter from the Editors

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Carol Moldaw's Poetry Month Pick, April 20, 2017

"To Earthward"
by Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of—was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Down hill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they’re gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

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.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.


* Carol Moldaw Comments:
What I first loved about this poem, when I read it young, was the way the initial lines tumbled and waterfalled down the rhymes, the first two stanzas setting an exhilarated pace; the next two slowing down, as if to capture in slow motion “the swirl and ache/from sprays of honeysuckle” and the sting of rose petal. Is there a better description than these four stanzas provide of the exquisite sensitivity of youth, that takes so little to become enflamed and can’t tolerate more? When, in the fifth stanza, at the halfway mark of the poem, the perspective shifts to the present, the lightness is replaced by a gravitas: the lines, though in the same meter, no longer tumble; the words enter the ear one by one as if accompanied by the stab of a walking stick (though it is not a matter of their being largely monosyllabic—so was what came before). Joy now is not lost, but not so easily provoked, nor ever again unmixed or simple. I love the images that follow this change, “... the aftermark / Of almost too much love, / The sweet of bitter bark / And burning clove.” In terms of placement, those lines, in the second stanza of the second half, correspond to  “... was it musk / From hidden grapevine springs / Down hill at dusk,” both sets engaging our sense of smell, the sweetness of grape musk now deepened into something darker, more complex, but still sweet. It is the fourth and last time that a variant of “sweet” is used in the poem, and its transformation takes “sweet” as far as it can go—before, at the end, it is transformed again, into another word altogether, “weight.”

Throughout the poem, there is a fertile cross-pollination of sounds and rhyme. You can trace the vowel sound in the rhymes “touch” and “much” as it is transplanted into the words “musk,” “honeysuckle,” “stung,” “enough,” and “rough”; in the 7th stanza, you feel the tautness, the bow being drawn for the poem’s final arrow, as “hand” is rhymed with “sand” but paired with an assonantal head rhymed partner “hard,”—itself rhymed with “scarred,” an assonantal and head rhymed partner to “sand.” To my mind, the lyric richness of this poem embodies and mirrors the sensate richness of life.

With hindsight, we know that Frost wrote this nowhere near the end of his life, and in fact it doesn’t seem like a poem of late age, of debilitation and impending mortality. While the stated longing at poem’s end is for death—“To feel the earth as rough / To all my length”—it is a death nowhere near at hand. We know that at this point in his life Frost already had suffered enormous losses and pressures; many more were to come. But “To Earthward” is a fully alive poem; its vantage point a moment when the sensations of both youth and old age are in sight, to be measured and compared, savored and only ostensibly—in  a death envisioned as sensual as life—let go.

Carol Moldaw:
Carol Moldaw’s new book of poems, Beauty Refracted,  is forthcoming from Four Way Books in January 2018. Her most recent books are So Late, So Soon: New and Selected Poems and The Widening, a short novel.

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