Sunday, February 24, 2008

Frost at Midday

Massachusetts got as the locals like to say 'pounded' with snow Friday, starting after 6 a.m. and continuing through early morning Saturday. I worked from home in the third floor guest bedroom, converted into an impromptu office thanks to Comcast broadband and a wireless router. Through a narrow window I could watch the flakes swirling down and around the historic Marblehead rooftops - like a Longfellow poem, updated with telephone wires. Probably something like 10 inches, but cold light flakes and sunny weather made for a relatively painless cleanup Saturday. Today, Sunday, I have a different but equally New Englandy view from my desk in the downstairs family room. Looking out at the backyard, I see the odd succession of elongated holes - like a careful giant's footprints - that Casey made as she galumphed across the deep layer of white. Periodically the wind sends a clumpy dust of snow down from the big pine tree at the end of the yard, bringing to mind Robert Frost's jauntily glum ditty -

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And changed some part
Of a day I rued.

If I were still a literature teacher I would set my students to pondering the fine blend of the playful and the stately in these short rhymed lines, particularly the concussion of 'mood' and 'rued'. Poor Frost - he couldn't even talk about being happy without thinking about regret. As a genuine countryman, however, he was more careful about projecting his moods onto the natural landscape than Coleridge, in 'Frost at Midnight':

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud--and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
’Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

Sitting inside by fire is obviously more conducive to pathetic fallacy than tromping around in the woods. But Coleridge too discovers a change of mood in his own internalized landscape, blessing the sleeping manchild next to him - as only a citified English Romantic poet can do - with the promise of a daily heaven on earth:

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

What a turn of phrase - 'the secret ministry of frost'. Enough to give you chills, sitting warmly indoors on a sunny weekend morning. I love Robert Frost but I'm more temperamentally aligned with Coleridge, leaving aside his addictive penchant. Still I'll have to face crusty New England nature a little more directly when I start jogging next week. Nothing secret about the ministry of frost on the roads of the North Shore in February.

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