And things like that
May look like nonsense
But there is
I know, I know… it’s not formal verse, but it’s one of my favourite pieces.
With a lantern that wouldn’t burn
In too frail a buggy we drove
Behind too heavy a horse
Through a pitch-dark limitless grove.
And a man came out of the trees
And took our horse by the head
And reaching back to his ribs
Deliberately stabbed him dead.
The ponderous beast went down
With a crack of a broken shaft.
And the night drew through the trees
In one long invidious draft.
The most unquestioning pair
That ever accepted fate
And the least disposed to ascribe
Any more than we had to to hate,
We assumed that the man himself
Or someone he had to obey
Wanted us to get down
And walk the rest of the way.
At a poetry reading in the Library of Congress, Robert Frost apparently described “The Draft Horse” as a poem “that nobody knows how to take“. That’s one way to look at it. Another way is that everyone who reads it seems to quite confidently take it in a different direction.
It has been called an allegory of the atom bomb–but, though first published in 1962, it was actually written in the 1920s, long before the bomb.
It’s been called an allegory of American expansionism.
It has been suggested as “a metaphor for the lives of ordinary citizens in totalitarian states, such as Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and West Germany.” (West Germany. Really.) “Then the man could be an agent of the government, who does what he deems necessary and then disappears again.“
Again, “In many cultures, the horse is traditionally a symbol for power. The horse has played a large role in American history. Robert Frost’s The Draft Horse may be a reflection of the power struggles he saw around him and the senseless actions he perceived in the conflicts.“
How about “One analysis of the poem is that fate is unavoidable. Why struggle to stop or question fate when by its very definition it cannot be stopped?“
Here’s the complete commentary from one blogger: “I’m on a bit of a poetry moment right now. The Draft Horse by Robert Frost is possibly one of the best poems ever written and well worth sharing with anyone willing to read writing at it’s highest art form.” (“it’s”, sic. Also, he miscopied one of the lines as “Any more than we had to hate,” thereby losing the meaning.) A more extensive commentary is in a comment posted to that blog:
I love this poem ! i think it is a great description of postlapsarian life. Laterns wont burn buggies are frail, the horse is too heavy.the night is so dark …
amidst all that a fellow deliberately stabs your horse.
People of good will are always hesitant to blame problems on hate.
and any way walking is a fine way to get there
And then there’s this thesis towards an M.A.:
“WHY I KILLED THE DRAFT HORSE:
THE GOLDEN BOUGH, ROBERT FROST, AND “PROGRESS”
by Eugene Charles McGregor Boyle III
The absence of criticism on Robert Frost’s “The Draft Horse” suggests that it is a challenge to Frost scholarship. This reading views Frost’s strange and neglected poem as a return to a monomyth offered by James Frazer’s hugely influential The Golden Bough. In “The Draft Horse,” Frost reconsiders the concept of ceremonial sacrifice that undergirds Frazer’s encyclopedic study of world culture and, by performing ceremony as a kind of modem poesis, Frost complicates the hero/sacrificial object role and critiques the progressive ideology that grounds Frazer’s account to fashion a troubling epic for modern America that implicates its national readers in a kind of savagery.“
(Supported with references not just to Frazer’s “Golden Bough” and Eliot’s “Wasteland”, but also Dante’s “Inferno” and Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu”, among others.)
Here is another take on it: “This is a very simple, straightforward story, but the reader cannot just leave it like that. Why would Frost have written this poem if he had only wanted to say “a stranger killed a horse”? The reader is therefore faced with the fact that “The Draft Horse” is a symbolic poem that must be read at another level, otherwise it has no purpose.“
Well, why does it have to have a “purpose”? It’s a poem, for god’s sake. Maybe the poem “means” exactly what one or other of the above-quoted commenters thinks… but maybe Frost just had a strange dream. Or maybe someone had told him of an incident. Maybe the rhymes and images just floated around in his head. Who knows? Who cares? It’s a poem and, for some reason, it resonates (differently) with a lot of people. It’s an odd poem. Enjoy!
Some who would teach
But speech cannot reach
As far as silence.
Even the stars perhaps are noisy, but, far as they are,
We hear their silence, not their sound.
Words are not for teaching, adding or changing.
Words can only express
What is already known
To one who already knows.
Words feathered together
Can lift aloft
Any body of men.
Opinions are pinions
With which men fly.
But they come down again
And with their descent
What was meant
Is often lost, or is known
To have never been known.
For a word is a wing
But a body’s a thing
And the body is always the body
But the wing only is when it flies.
Therefore not by talking but being
Does one teach how to be,
And words are for singing–
A song sung
By those knowing their winging as being but having no meaning.
And the best words
Come from birds.
I wrote this, but do I subscribe to the ideas? Did I ever? Not in any absolute sense, but as a rejection of all noisy preachers of faiths, and a rejection of those who put academic lectures ahead of experiential learning. In that sense this (early) poem prefigured my 25-year career teaching business finance through the Income-Outcome interactive games we developed for global clients like Beam Suntory, Michelin and hundreds of other companies and universities.
In another sense this poem is just about the enjoyment of words and songs, regardless of any meaning that the words may have.
It was published by Anima Magazine in the UK, unfortunately quiescent since 2018.
Jumbled in the common box
Of their dark stupidity,
Orchid, swan, and Caesar lie;
Time that tires of everyone
Has corroded all the locks,
Thrown away the key for fun.
In its cleft the torrent mocks
Prophets who in days gone by
Made a profit on each cry,
Persona grata now with none;
And a jackass language shocks
Poets who can only pun.
Silence settles on the clocks;
Nursing mothers point a sly
Index finger at the sky,
Crimson with the setting sun;
In the valley of the fox
Gleams the barrel of a gun.
Once we could have made the docks,
Now it is too late to fly;
Once too often you and I
Did what we should not have done;
Round the rampant rugged rocks
Rude and ragged rascals run.
In January 1941, W.H. Auden had been living in New York for nearly two years. The Second World War had started, but not yet in the US. Auden had fallen in love with Chester Kallman who was now turning 20 and was too young to want to be sexually faithful; Auden had also returned from atheism to the existential Christianity that is common in the Anglican/Episcopalian church. It was a period of change, backgrounded by the widening war.
Regarding the poem from this time, I choose to imagine Auden rambling, reminiscing, muttering to himself: “Around the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran… Nice metre as well as alliteration and, for people with difficulty pronouncing their Rs, a twuly tewwible tongue-twister. Rhythmic, memorable. Nonsense; not meaningful, but not meaningless; nonsense and nursery rhymes are right on the border. And it splits in two, you could easily rhyme it: rocks, box, blocks, brocks, cocks, cox, clocks, crocks… ran, Ann, ban, bran, can, clan, cran… or easy to change to run, or runs. A lot of rhymes, anyway. Run them out, see what transpires.
“Once we could have made the docks, / Now it is too late to fly; that adds another rhyme, not a problem, maybe a 6-line stanza. Once too often you and I / Did what we should not have done; and into the last two lines, have to fill them out a bit to maintain the metre, keep the alliteration of course: Round the rampant rugged rocks / Rude and ragged rascals run… So that’s all right, that would make an ending.
“Then of course we can have more stanzas leading up to it. Flick a bit of paint at the canvas, see what sort of patterns we can find to elaborate on. Time, decay, trepidation, warnings… out come the words and images around the rhymes, and suddenly it’s all as evocative and semi-coherent as a reading of tarot or yarrow or horoscope. Hm, tarot or yarrow, I hadn’t noticed that before, wonder if I can use that somewhere else…”
(Remember, this is a fantasy analysis, presupposing the poem to have been written with full skill to capture both rhymes and a mood, but without any serious intent beyond that. For a completely different intellectual analysis, you can always try this…)
There flows in my veins the most ancient of ardours:
not power, or love, nor yet worship of God;
the fight that each tiniest baby fights hard as
fought earliest man: “Understand!” Pry and prod
with unquenchable flame of the world-disregarders
for Truth! – be it complex, destructive or odd.
If this fire is from Heaven, then Heaven I’ve earned;
so write on my grave: “This stone too shall be turned.”
This teasingly paradoxical little poem was originally published in the Shot Glass Journal, a thrice-a-year journal of 20-30 American poems and an equal number of international ones. Why the name? Because this is a journal for short poems, none over 16 lines. Most of the material they publish is free verse, but they like to have a full range of styles in each issue… which is good news for formal poets.