Aug 21, 2011

Robert Frost, "The Draft Horse," William Logan, Literary Criticism and the Power of Thought

I write this in the wake of some schools’ (cowardly?) surrender to ignorant, cowardly parents (and, remarkably, one college professor) who have supported or caused the banning of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and/or Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnI assume such parents fear their children will be led to thought, among other disturbing experiences, like laughter, kindness, friendship, along with a distaste for hypocrisy, war and bigotry, both personal and institutional.

I also write this with thanks to William Logan (see this blog,  June 2, 4, 7, 26, 2011) and The New Criterion magazine for directing me to an intriguing Robert Frost poem I had never seen.  

 Frost's horse, Wilbur's ride by William Logan - The New Criterion

THE DRAFT HORSE by Robert Frost

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.

I’d think “The Draft Horse” would spark good classroom discussions, with questions pouring from teachers and students alike.

Who is this strange couple, who speak so dispassionately about such a traumatic, mysterious event? Do they represent more than their old-timey,  agrarian selves?

Why is the assailant so anonymous and motiveless to the victims, as well as the rest of us?  

Isn’t there the feel of third person point of view, even though first person plural (“we”) is made clear in the second line?  If so, how does Frost accomplish that feeling of an omniscient perspective, and what might it add to the poem? 

Can a grove be “limitless”?  Isn’t a grove a somewhat small cluster of trees?  Is “ponderous” an okay choice of words?  Who would use it, and therefore what does it say about the narrator? 

“In one long invidious draft”—isn’t that rhythm rather awkward?  And, like “ponderous,” isn’t “invidious” an word in a poem and speaker from rural America?  “Any more than we had to to hate”—that’s natural, even folksy speech, yet it’s likely to make a reader pause at “to to” (16).  Is that okay?

If “The Draft Horse” is as teachable as I suspect it is, why is it not included in more anthologies?  Is it so ambiguous that teachers (and editors)  don’t have a comfortable number of definitive answers for student questions?

Does the poem challenge mainstream, submissive, unquestioning behavior, such as we see in the victims, who squirm at any notion of hatred?  Would too many of us, including teachers, be forced to acknowledge that we are similarly “unquestioning”—so much so that we assume a horse-murdering assailant merely wanted us to walk instead of ride in our “frail” buggies?  Or that he was the agent of someone, or some force, too powerful to investigate? 

Are those questions too uncomfortable to inflict upon American teens and their teachers (and then their angry, litigious parents who might complain that a mere poem has agitated Jimmy and Susie, made them nervous or irritable table companions)? 

I suppose that’s far-fetched . . . .  

I highly, highly recommend William Logan’s analysis that surrounds the poem in 
The New Criterion. I don’t know if I’d go where he does on Christianity or the importance of horses in America, but his arguments are always an interesting, fine example of what’s good about high-caliber literary criticism. First, it chooses a subject that deserves careful attention. Then Logan avoids glossing over things; he looks at details and provides thoughtful responses to them. His language is professional, but not ostentatious or forbidding.

I don’t expect anyone to take me up on reading Logan, but for what it’s worth, I find it an extremely worthwhile, important kind of thinking, and I look forward to reading what he has to say about Richard Wilbur in the second half of the essay.

Frost's horse, Wilbur's ride by William Logan - The New Criterion



Brenda's Arizona said...

What a great unknown poem. Love Logan's line "Frost is good at telling more than we realize."
Logan is good at pointing out 'things' we/I missed in reading this poem. I agree with Logan that the 'couple's' reaction to the murder of the horse is hardly the point of the poem. It is an afterthought. And it requires 'more strength' than I can muster!!
What a great unknown poem. I want to know more...
Excellent as always, Banjomyn!

Brenda's Arizona said...

And as Logan points out, neither of the two people in the buggy were the wife in "Home Burial". What a dichotomy of characters!

Anonymous said...

The poem reads more like some historical narrative or a journal entry. I wouldn't have thought it was a poem, poem. I really enjoyed it but feel sorry for the horse.

Hannah Stephenson said...

Such an upsetting poem---point of view is bizarre in it.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, both the poem and where it led you. My first thought was that this has to do with religion and inability to ask the big questions once you give it all up for the lord. Let me think some more before I read the analysis.

(Grove looks limitless when you're in the middle of it. Also, your road photos are always superb.)

Rune Eide said...

Seems like censorship by another name. Just mention Charles Darwin to the same bunch ...

Jeff M said...

I can't tolerate Frost. He bores me. He tries to say so much and, in the end, says little --- if anything --- at all.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

What I'm impressed with is your ability to create connections between an event taking place in our agrarian past to a 21st century censorship issue. We may be living through a period of fear where events such as that taking place in the schools, become more frequent. When there is fear, it's always followed by a drive to reign in language and free thought.

the travelers and horse seemed voiceless in this poem

Banjo52 said...

I was on the road and let this go too long without responding. Thanks to all.

I'll say one thing: I don't mean to harp on Steinhem's "Everything political is personal," but it keeps bumping into me, and I cannot refute it. Nor do I wish to.

I was surprised that the poem's characters led me to the Vonn. and Twain controversies, but they have been in the news.

RuneE, I'm gonna let YOU mention Darwin to them. :)

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