“Most of the change we think we see in lifeIs due to truths being in and out of favour.”
– Robert Frost, from The Black Cottage
Please be warned. I am about to interpret poetry. And it’s not just any poetry, but Robert Frost’s poetry. That said, let me begin this essay fully recognizing the shortcomings of seeing in poetry that which may never have been intended by the poet. To make this point, I draw from one of Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant letters collected in The Habit of Being,
“Week before last I went to Wesleyan [University] and read ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’. After it I went to one of the classes where I was asked questions. There were a couple of young teachers there and one of them, an earnest type, started asking the questions. ‘Miss O’Connor’ he said, ‘why was the Misfit’s hat black?’ I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked pretty disappointed. Then he said, ‘Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?’…’He does not,’ I said. He looked crushed. ‘Well, Miss O’Connor,’ he said, ‘what is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?’ I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone. Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature.”
So, fully embracing Flannery’s label as, “an earnest type”, I venture forth unashamed. If you haven’t read Robert Frost’s poem, The Black Cottage, you can read it right here. My first exposure came when I was hunting down the source of the quote which began this essay.
“Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favour.”
For as long as I can remember, I have been entranced by great insights about Truth. Orwell, O’Connor, Waugh, Chesterton and Peguy have all written so eloquently on Truth. Now it seems I had found a keen insight by Robert Frost. But what was the context of this quote? Exactly how could a poem expand upon or provide edifice to such a penetrating insight? Honestly, my expectations were not very high. And then I read The Black Cottage.
The poem starts off simply enough. It was 1915. A pastor and a companion, presumably Frost himself, are walking in the woods when they happened upon an obscured cottage
Among tar-banded ancient cherry trees,
Set well back from the road in rank lodged grass
For a moment and in silence they take this cottage scene in. Then the pastor is moved to say something common, yet profound, which will make greater sense as I further explain,
With that, the pastor guides Frost (and us) to peer in through the windows and take in the cottage’s story. The small house, it so happens, is the property of a family long gone. The father had died too young in the Civil War leaving a bereaved widow to raise her sons alone. The widow has since died and the sons are long removed. Though the sons always intend to return, they are never arriving.
They say they mean to come and summer here
Where they were boys. They haven’t come this year.
They live so far away-one is out west-
It will be hard for them to keep their word.
In spite of the emptiness of the Black Cottage, signs of life still remain in the unmolested accoutrements still in place within: a buttoned hair-cloth lounge, a crayon portrait on the wall – a shrine memorializing the long dead husband for the once living wife. And while the dignity of the abandoned dwelling may be in question, the pastor had no doubt of it as he relayed the widow’s story and struggled to recall the battle which took her husband’s life,
He fell at Gettysburg or Fredericksburg,
I ought to know-it makes a difference which:
Fredericksburg wasn’t Gettysburg, of course.
I ought to know – it makes a difference which. The story matters. There is an ought. The Truth matters. And while the pastor, unconsciously, pays respects to the dignity of the now dead widow by getting her story right, he begins to meander into greater truths.
But what I’m getting to is how forsaken
A little cottage this has always seemed;…
…I mean by the world’s having passed it by-
As we almost got by this afternoon.
It always seems to me a sort of mark
To measure how far fifty years have brought us.
Why not sit down if you are in no haste?
These doorsteps seldom have a visitor.
The pastor considered the widow’s sacrificial loss in the Civil War not to be understood or justified as serving man’s politically constructed strategic ends or puffed-up platitudes. Rather, the sacrifice of her spouse transcended all the vain chatter that is the currency of the world and thus the world would find her incomprehensible,
She wouldn’t have believed those [political] ends enoughTo have given outright for them all she gave.
Her giving somehow touched the principle
That all men are created free and equal.
And to hear her quaint phrases-so removed
From the world’s view to-day of all those things.
At first, the pastor’s approach to the widow’s story seemed a respectful, sensitive, if not patronizing nod to her dignity. But soon this elective act of chivalry would not suffice. Her dignity demanded it. The pastor himself relayed how there was something wondrous yet inscrutable about this steady, little old lady in a bonnet which demanded accountability, honesty and integrity from those around her – especially those, such as the pastor, whose grave responsibility was nothing less than to convey Truth.
What are you going to do with such a person?Strange how such innocence gets its own way.
I shouldn’t be surprised if in this world
It were the force that would at last prevail.
Do you know but for her there was a time
When to please younger members of the church,
Or rather say non-members in the church,
Whom we all have to think of nowadays,
I would have changed the Creed a very little?
Not that she ever had to ask me not to;
It never got so far as that; but the bare thought
Of her old tremulous bonnet in the pew,
And of her half asleep was too much for me.
Why, I might wake her up and startle her.
It was the words ‘descended into Hades’
That seemed too pagan to our liberal youth.
You know they suffered from a general onslaught.
And well, if they weren’t true why keep right on
Saying them like the heathen? We could drop them.
ONLY-THERE WAS THE BONNET IN THE PEW
Such a phrase couldn’t have meant much to her.
But suppose she had missed it from the Creed
As a child misses the unsaid Good-night,
And falls asleep with heartache-how should I feel?
I’m just as glad she made me keep my hands off
And then as if the widow’s commitment to Truth had stiffened the pastor’s spine, he recognizes the indisputably perverse relationship the world has with the Truth. A casual, if not careless relationship. It is a courtship where the world promises to come to the Truth, but never arrives. It is a fickle relationship that relegates the Truth to the woods, lets the path grow over while its boards warp and the nails pull. And what goes sadly unrecognized are the inexhaustible treasures of Truth. If only… If only we would notice how “pretty” Truth is, sit down on its doorsteps which so seldom has a visitor and peer into its window to feel the warmth of love, hear the echoes of joy and bow low for the sweetest kiss of God. If only. Yes. If only. Wistfully, even the pastor longs,
As I sit here, and oftentimes, I wish
I could be monarch of a desert land
I could devote and dedicate forever
To the truths we keep coming back and back to.
So desert it would have to be, so walled
By mountain ranges half in summer snow,
No one would covet it or think it worth
The pains of conquering to force change on.
They linger for a moment longer – in the presence of something profound. And as they step away from the Black Cottage, from its warped boards, leaf-framed walls and overgrown path, one thing overwhelms all else. Sunset blazed on the windows. The Black Cottage – the Truth – had been seen in its sweet splendor.