Frost and Auden

Over the Christmas holidays my freshman year at Ohio Wesleyan, my parents gave me a copy of Robert Frost’s In the Clearing, a collection of poems published in 1962. Frost was scheduled to speak and read from his work on our campus in Delaware, Ohio, in February 1963. As a staff member of the university literary journal, I would get to attend not only his evening address but also a smaller discussion group in the afternoon. I looked forward to hearing him and perhaps getting my book autographed.

Unfortunately, Frost died of a heart attack on January 29 at the age of 89, but his friend and colleague W. H. Auden (age 56 at the time) agreed to come in Frost’s place and read from his work. I had not read Auden’s poetry at that point, but when I looked him up in the library (no Internet back then), I liked what I read, including Musee de Beaux Arts.

Often, through the years, when suffering or injustice didn’t shake the world the way I thought they should, I remembered Auden’s words, “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters: how well they understood its human position; how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Brueghel’s image of Icarus flying too close to the sun, then falling from the sky when his wings melted–“yet the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”

In that February 1963 discussion group, Auden spoke with us for some time about Frost’s work. One student journalist asked him about Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, saying she’d read that Frost was contemplating suicide as he wrote that poem. She wanted to know if Auden thought that was true. He smiled and said he had no idea, adding that it didn’t matter at all what Frost meant when he wrote it. What mattered was what the reader took it to mean when reading it. Through the years, I’ve remembered that so often when trying to discern the meaning of a poem.

The woods this time of year are lovely and deep but definitely not dark. At times they glow golden and ruby red, even at twilight. I’m older now than when I first considered Frost’s words about a woods. I’m older now, with fewer promises to keep. Yet, still, I hope, with miles to go before I sleep.

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