Mar 28, 2013

FROST'S "MEETING AND PASSING": When It's Travel and When It's Only a Shuffling of Feet





Most Americans these days measure travel by the hundreds or thousands of miles, plus introductions to other cultures, languages, features of landscape and human morphology. On its face, that’s all fine, of course; one’s understandings and tolerances might grow because of such exposure.

Or they might not. Stories of rigid, dug-in, self-righteous American tourists are too familiar. The tour buses might as well be labeled Upper Middle Class American Caucasians, peering and aging.  Younger people with backpacks, staying in hostels or actually living in an-Other Place, on some kind of study or exchange program, might become spongier vessels, at least for a few years. 

I’m not ready to say tourists should stay home, but I’m also not jumping to the conclusion that they’ve achieved anything like charitable omniscience and empathy, especially those on the bus. I’m more interested in travel of the mind and heart, which can probably occur in a single chair. That’s an old notion (I think of Emily Dickinson’s “There is no frigate like a book”), but I don’t hear much talk about it.
So here is a Robert Frost sonnet I didn’t know until the Academy of American Poets     www.poets.org posted it as their poem for the day.  Like much of Frost, it feels so casual and general that we might overlook its potential to become The Poem about the nature of human encounters.  

As I went down the hill along the wall
There was a gate I had leaned at for the view
And had just turned from when I first saw you
As you came up the hill. We met. But all
We did that day was mingle great and small
Footprints in summer dust as if we drew
The figure of our being less than two
But more than one as yet. Your parasol
Pointed the decimal off with one deep thrust.
And all the time we talked you seemed to see
Something down there to smile at in the dust.
(Oh, it was without prejudice to me!)
Afterward I went past what you had passed
Before we met, and you what I had passed.


In the final couplet’s word play, I sense a purposeful incompleteness, ambiguity, open-endedness, something dangling. These two characters have talked in a seemingly friendly way. Their footprints have mingled in the dust as they cover more or less the same territory.

A lesser mind than Frost’s might have blissfully concluded that there’s been meaningful communication between the two characters, but I think he’s offering that what they’ve missed in terms of knowing each other is at least as significant as what they’ve shared. They’ve met, passed, shared paths, mingled “great and small”—but Frost’s sneaky enjambment demands that we keep going, to discover that what “mingled great and small” was their footprints, not their souls or hearts.  And the outline of those footprints is etched in dust, not moonlight and roses.

If we meet, we talk, we pass, and then sort of cover each other’s steps, like trackers, how much meaningful bonding has occurred? How much can occur?  I think Frost’s position here parallels his wonderful ambiguity in his more famous line, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  (“Mending Wall” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173530).  That need for boundaries is ambiguous because he puts it in the mouth of a less than wonderful character, the speaker’s neighbor. But isn’t there truth in his words? But isn’t it a sad truth?



14 comments:

Anonymous said...

If you're right, then I totally misread it. I thought it was the poet looking back on the first encounter with the woman in his life. They're flirting, a little shyly. He remembers how their shadows and footprints joined before they did. The "without prejudice to me," is when he thought it too good to be true that she smiled because of him.

Anonymous said...

If you're right, then I totally misread it. I thought it was the poet looking back on the first encounter with the woman in his life. They're flirting, a little shyly. He remembers how their shadows and footprints joined before they did. The "without prejudice to me," is when he thought it too good to be true that she smiled because of him.

altadenahiker said...

Don't know what's wrong with ye olde computer, but that was from me. Seems to be working again.

Banjo52 said...

Oh my, you could be onto something, Hiker. And from that point on, their footsteps mingle. I'll reread.

altadenahiker said...

"Decimal point: A period used to separate whole numbers from fractions." Whether or not the relationship amounts to anything is her decision.

Banjo52 said...

I think the crux lies in these tricky (impossible?) lines:

The figure of our being less than two
But more than one as yet. Your parasol
Pointed the decimal off with one deep thrust.

Does "pointing off" a decimal mean adding it on to a number or tossing it off? "Deep thrust" of a parasol sounds to me like adding in a decimal.

Also, is "pointing off a decimal" a term in math that I've forgotten or never knew?

Also: "(Oh, it was without prejudice to me!)." Her smiling clarifies that that's a good thing for the speaker, but what an odd way to put it.

So I find those four lines fairly impenetrable, plus the fact that the rest of the poem is fairly ambiguous. For me, the images of mingling in the dust can imply futility (something at least vaguely like dust to dust--we merge for a moment in that mortal dust; that's all we've done) or those images could imply the lasting union that Hiker speaks
of--a standing together against the dust, maybe.

Ambiguity is often a good thing in poetry, and one might argue that mingling in the dust means both thing--a transient meeting that leads only to a passing by of each other, or a union of footsteps that's temporarily nothing more, but someday will lead to a complete, lasting union. But in this poem I wonder if the ambiguity leads primarily to confusion rather than layered richness of meaning.

Ken Mac said...

Travel of the mind and heart. I am with you brother. Especially after reading your report. 100 cars? Geesh, I was on that stretch less than a month ago, thanks for remembering. And its all pretty wide open, you can see for miles, as the Who once said. Madness.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I'm with Altadena Hiker (aka Annonymous) here. The first couple times I read it, I thought he was describing an encounter with a possible mate.
Maybe it's the romance in "when I first saw you as you came up the hill" .
And the 'being less than two but more than one as yet" works a picture, too.
I have to re-read your answer. Maybe I went past what you had passed...

altadenahiker said...

Ambiguous? I didn't find it so. And poetry is an "odd way to put" almost anything, but we like it.

Stickup Artist said...

I often think that way about my photography when I can't get out of town. I actually almost berate myself for not being able to stay put, dig deep, and make my own moments in my immediate surroundings. "To see the world in a grain of sand..." In that context, the last 2 lines had the most meaning for me. I took the words "passed" to mean missed. I know that isn't really intended from the title, but that is what I walked away with: what one sees, what the other sees, what is ignored, considered insignificant or even ugly, being preoccupied, or taken for granted.

RuneE said...

I'm a simple soul so I have problems digging past the first layers, but I got a feeling that best can be described as a mixture of the two expressions " Passing like ships in the night" and "Like footsteps in the sand".

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Once again I find myself reading through the commentary to better my understanding of Frost...a favorite of yours? I don't think it's the first time his name has come up. And i'm glad to find myself in the company of one who understood the decimal point reference, because I sure didn't.

No, I was more like "anon" and more then a little bored - but once I saw how you saw it, it became much more interesting. Yes, this passing thing, but you have to admit, being a young woman, can you blame us for seeing this as a partial romance or passing attraction? I was also confused by direction - when he turned FROM facing the view (which i assumed was in the direction of across from down) wouldn't she have been coming down the hill while he was headed up.

On a positive note, I looked up wiki Frost and discovered he was a native to the golden state, and for that I now feel a kinship.

Banjo52 said...

Stickup, Rune, PA, I think your comments bring the vote to about 50-50 on whether this meeting and passing is a more positive or more negative experience.

PA, I tend to forget Frost was born in ? San Francisco. I've been brainwashed by all the talk about him as a quintessential New Englander--much of that talk coming from Frost himself, of course, in poems.

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