While I write this review, I am going to read the good poem I am reviewing. You come too.
“The Pasture” by Robert Frost
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long. – You come too.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long. – You come too.
And that is it. You have read a good poem, one which you may already know. Now consider reading it with your family. Being a good work of literature, it can prepare a person for the great works: the Bible, the Iliad, the Summa Theologica. But more relevant to the question, why read it with your family, “The Pasture” is a work that can be appreciated by a human being at any stage of human development, and a family is a small world containing human beings at all different stages. In his portrayal of the seven ages of man, William Shakespeare gives us characters to walk through the pasture with Robert Frost.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Start by considering “The Pasture” for the infant. The rhymes are clear as a bell, as in the best poems for infants from Mother Goose. The repetition in the last lines of the two stanzas (“I sha’n’t be gone long. – You come too”) is exactly what appeals to a baby; consider the infants you have known and their stamina for repeated peekaboos. The words are simple, important, and have a good sound to them (such as “water” and “mother”). Finally, the images have the potential to elicit the all-engrossing interest of a child, because they involve animals and babies. It’s easy to imagine the focused attitude of a child standing safely behind her father, watching the calf be licked by her mother.
As a child grows older into the school-boy, he may leave behind Mother Goose for a while, maybe even consider it just “baby stuff.” Simple rhymes and repetition no longer have the enjoyment they once did; or rather, children are so enamored with learning the particularities of the outside world and soaking in facts and impressions that they have less time. They are eminently practical. But “The Pasture” is still a perfect poem for such children. Children like jobs, as long as they get to decide what, when, and how to do them. Necessary jobs freed from an adult’s perspective are preferably performed with peers, whether building a fort or, in this instance, clearing a stream. Then these jobs have to be appreciated, and then it is time to move on to something else. “I sha’n’t be gone long. – You come too.”
This last line will also resonate with adolescents, though on a deeper chord. More likely it would be said in the context of inviting one friend instead of a pack. Returning in a way to the introspection of the baby, the teenager, the lover, surpasses it as well, searching not only for sights and sounds, but beauty for its own sake. Here, it is the beauty of clear water and the affection between the cow and calf. Considering this poem from the point of view of adolescence, it presents another theme: impulsiveness harnessed to useful activities. It is very easy to imagine a few high-school girls or boys walking by a blocked-up stream and deciding to do something about it right then or there. Too readily, we think of adolescence itself as a liability; too impulsively we dismiss impulsiveness. Adolescence may be a dangerous time, but everything that is used for heavy work is dangerous, such as dynamite or a backhoe. To return to Frost’s poem, there is a constructive impulsiveness in the poem that will appeal to teenagers.
Though impulsiveness is one note of the poem, there is also one of regular duties. Perhaps we can more readily imagine the son of the owner of the stream striking out to clear it on a whim; but perhaps it is the owner himself, a young man who has not left behind the passions of adolescence so much as strengthened, steadied, and governed them. In any case, the spring is owned by someone, and that owner has to maintain it. Someone has to be ready to take care of the spring, or the livestock, whether he feels like it or not, year in and year out. Shakespeare characterizes the young man as a soldier; soldiers have at the same time the spirit of a teenager and a settled-ness of purpose beyond the teenager’s.
To refer again to Shakespeare’s division, he separates the soldier with his resolve (“even in the cannon’s mouth”) from the “justice,” the middle-aged man. It might seem artificial to discern such a distinction in Frost’s poem; indeed, the context is farm work, and farm work is perhaps the kind of work that grows a man most quickly. The lines between a soldier and justice seem to blur in the farmer. He often marries early, at the age of the soldier and duty-doer, but by virtue of his marriage and acceptance of family duties, he becomes the duty-discerner as well.
Regardless whether there is a distinctly middle-aged voice in the poem, it does speak to the middle-aged. Here it is appropriate to point out that earlier phases in life are not left behind, but remain part of the human being, like early growth rings in a tree. The parents, the people in charge, are reminded by this poem where they have been in life and are encouraged to keep those places fresh within them. They are the same human beings they were when babies; the ancient thrill of watching barnyard animals is part of who they are. True, they are providers and leaders now, but they used to be and still are lovers. One mark of lovers is spontaneity, “I sha’n’t be gone long,” seen in the context of marriage as the pointing out of a blue jay while getting the dishes done or deciding to sit outside to watch the snow fall for a few minutes before going to bed.
Moving on to the final two stages of life, we consider the “pantaloon” or retiree, and the aged. Frost’s poem has something to offer these as well. For one, we all have known retired men and women who seem to have more life than most of the people we know; these men and women have cultivated well the secret fire of wonder and enthusiasm that is contained in this poem. In addition, this a time of increasing contemplation, and with this contemplation comes an increase in the ability to fully see. “The Pasture” is a poem about fully seeing.
Finally, while Shakespeare may speak true in describing the last stage as one of “second childishness and mere oblivion,” it is a rich though painful second infancy. The repeated last lines in Frost’s poem hold a deeper meaning for the person at the end of his life than they did for the baby; perhaps it is old men and women of this stage who most appreciate and take consolation in the thought that their friends and loved ones won’t be gone long, and that they’ll come too.
“The Pasture” is a poem that nourishes everyone in the family, whatever the age or perspective. The good works prepare us for deeper knowledge and faith, and a good book or a good poem that feeds the minds and hearts of everyone is perfect for family reading. Take your family out into the pasture.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Ring of Roses” painted by Frederick Morgan (1847 – 1927).