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On "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things"

Frank Lentricchia

I am claiming Frost as a central modern--as central as Wallace Stevens, though few would be ready to grant that much--and "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things" as a centrally modern poem; one of his subtlest treatments of the problem of personal salvation through the redemptive act of imagination.

The poem opens with the evocation of a familiar symbol and with an attempt by the speaker to suppress a pervasive funereal attitude toward his circumstance:

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.

The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place's name.

The effort to blend the emotions that attend the witnessing of a house's destruction with what one is likely to feel while watching a lovely sunset cannot be expected to succeed when the one attempting such a union of disparates is a figure in a poem by Robert Frost.

In the middle two stanzas the self in the poem indulges his memory of things past--specifically of the "teams that came by the stony road / To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs." His feelings appear to become excessive, for the moment, particularly in the lines about the barn that remains and the birds that live in it:

The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like a sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.

The speaker saves himself from sentimentalism by taking back his incipient romantic predication of interdependence of the human and natural realms.

For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.

But if skeptical and self-ironic treatment of romantic attitudes is what makes Frost's poem centrally modern, then perhaps we need not read far beyond certain well-enough known Victorian and fin-de-siècle expressions of similar attitudes toward man's relationship to nature.

There truly is a solid individual talent at work in "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things," but the whole performance is brought off with such deceptive ease that we tend to miss the display of virtuosity. Frost's tack in this poem is to manipulate (rather quietly) perspectives on nature and time. His major differentiation is between kinds of memory: it is only the human mind, he suggests, that is capable of the enormous leap backwards in time. The curse of human memory is that it alone is capable of recalling a past that can never return, that has been destroyed utterly and irrevocably by the fire. "Bird-memory" has little grasp of a human past. Human beings flash across the scene of bird-awareness but (blessedly) the grooves of impression are rarely made: only the larger features of a scene and the broad patterns of seasonal change are retained. The phoebes belong to a separate order of reality and "for them the lilac renewed its leaf."

Returning again to the poem's opening stanza, the lines "The house had gone to bring again / To the midnight sky a sunset glow" evoke the image of the dramatic persona as one who is consciously assuming something other than his human perspective, for it is from the perspective of the bird's awareness that the sudden redness in the night sky can be correlated to a sunset glow. Contrarily, in the penultimate stanza, the line "The dry pump flung up an awkward arm," though given from the perspective of the phoebe is actually the speaker's. In the first instance the speaker's attempt is to mitigate the facts of destruction by viewing them as a natural happening; while in the second instance he attempts to blend human and bird perspectives on nature by attributing to the bird humanizing powers. Both are acts of sympathetic imagination which may be modestly valued as acts which lead the self into the fictive world where no ontological discoveries are made, but where the precious state of serenity is restored, where enclosure is regained and the burden of the human awareness of temporality is lifted:

Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.

The self in the poem attempts to link human artifice and nature in a poetic figure. His comparison of the chimney with the pistil of a flower "after the petals go" raises the image of the rebirth of the artificial human enclosure: the house will come back even as the flowers shall bloom again. But such expectations cannot be satisfied, and one versed in country things knows that very well. The simile compels ironic consciousness: an awareness of the image of the destroyed house as transmuted in the figure and a simultaneous awareness of the impossible-to-traverse gulf between human artifice and nature's flowers. Destroyed houses regenerate themselves only in the illusions projected in the poet's language, not in reality; the value (and disvalue, as we saw earlier) of enclosures is guaranteed by an act of the mind or not at all, and this constitutes knowledge of poetic things.

From Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self. Copyright © 1975 by Duke University Press.

William H. Pritchard

"The Need of Being Versed in Country Things" tells of desolation, of a farmhouse which burned leaving only its barn, into and out of which the birds now fly through broken windows, "Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh / From too much dwelling on what has been." Yet, the poet corrects himself, the murmur is only like it, not the same as it. Birds do not grieve over what the human imagination finds desolate and sad; instead, nature seems to renew itself for them, lilacs, dry pump and fence post are still there, still carrying on in the way things do. In the final stanza Frost insists that

For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.

The diminished thing, so often celebrated in Mountain Interval, can be viewed here in the way the phoebes persist in their housekeeping, and to recognize this persistence for what it is one needs to be versed in country things. It is a nice stroke that Frost does not end the poem with the positive security, potentially complacent, of being so versed, as if the speaker were a wise know-it-all. Rather, the last line reaches out to what one would believe if one were deluded. That possibility is strongly there in the stanza's first line -- "For them there was really nothing sad" -- where the "really" acts as a check on the equally strong impulse (and a traditional poetic one all the way back through pastoral poetry) to believe that the birds are responsively grieving at the spectacle of human loss. Thus, in the last line, "Not to believe" doesn't cancel out the impulse to believe. After all, the poem's last word is "wept."

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William Pritchard.

George F. Bagby

"The Need of Being Versed in Country Things," serves a function roughly analogous to that of "Design"; it reads a natural lesson the point of which is the potential uncertainty of natural lessons. The poem presents an interesting contrast to Promethean pieces like "Wild Grapes" and "There Are Roughly Zones." In each of those poems, an apparent natural lesson suggesting the limitations on human desire is cast aside in favor of a transcendent lesson reasserting the primacy of aspiration. "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things," on the contrary, deduces first an apparent lesson which implies the centrality of human concerns, and then a corrective lesson which insists that the heart's desires are not so central after all.

The first descriptive portion of the poem (lines 1-14) paints a somber natural emblem: a burned-out house, no longer occupied by humans, and a deserted barn now inhabited only by birds, which "At broken windows flew out and in." The preliminary, mistaken lesson of this scene, implicitly drawn in the next two lines, sees natural melancholy at the passing of human presence: the birds' "murmur" seems "more like the sigh we sigh / From too much dwelling on what has been." Such excessive "dwelling on" or living in the burned-out shell of the past would obviously be an un- Thoreauvian lesson, however; indeed, as the first poem of "The Hill Wife" group reminds us, it represents an essentially neurotic view of natural solicitude.

The poem, consequently, traces a second movement in its last two stanzas. There, as the poem's perspective broadens, the scene, though emptied of human activity, is perceived as no less hospitable to the phoebes, to life in the broad sense, than it has always been. In these lines personification, ironically, not only assures us that the birds do not weep for the loss of human companions ("they rejoiced in the nest they kept"—always a double-edged verb in Frost). It also suggests that the nonhuman world—not only the "aged" elm, but even the inanimate pump which "flung up an awkward arm" and fence post which "carried a strand of wire" to provide convenient perches—manifests just the sort of solicitude for the phoebes which the phoebes do not manifest for the departed humans. Thus even a scene of human desolation, perceived in a sufficiently broad natural context, is an emblem of continuing vitality (and nonhuman community). That true lesson has been hinted at as early as the poem's opening quatrain, where the submerged metaphor suggests a Thoreauvian kind of springtime renewal out of apparent autumnal death. "The house had, gone to bring" a glow to the sky, but the chimney is left standing "Like a pistil after the petals go"—like the reproductive center of the faded flower, bearing the seed of another generation.

As its structure and title imply, however, "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things" is not primarily about natural resilience and regeneration; it uses that lesson chiefly to illustrate a larger concern: the dangers of a too narrowly human perspective-not unlike that parodied in "The Most of It." The poem does not suggest that natural wisdom is inaccessible to the human observer (the true lesson, after all, waits to be read in the scene); but it does chasten what might be called the Blakean tendencies of the imagination and warn us of the dangers (not to mention the emptiness) of finding only our immediate selves in the natural text. The legitimate use of personification here is to represent something like solicitude in the natural world, not for us, but for itself.

from Frost and the Book of Nature. Copyright © 1993 by The University of Tennessee Press.

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