The Generations of Men

Robert Frost - 1874-1963

A governor it was proclaimed this time,
When all who would come seeking in New Hampshire
Ancestral memories might come together.
And those of the name Stark gathered in Bow,
A rock-strewn town where farming has fallen off,
And sprout-lands flourish where the axe has gone.
Someone had literally run to earth
In an old cellar hole in a by-road
The origin of all the family there.
Thence they were sprung, so numerous a tribe
That now not all the houses left in town
Made shift to shelter them without the help
Of here and there a tent in grove and orchard.
They were at Bow, but that was not enough:
Nothing would do but they must fix a day
To stand together on the crater’s verge
That turned them on the world, and try to fathom
The past and get some strangeness out of it.
But rain spoiled all. The day began uncertain,
With clouds low trailing and moments of rain that misted.
The young folk held some hope out to each other
Till well toward noon when the storm settled down
With a swish in the grass. “What if the others
Are there,” they said. “It isn’t going to rain.”
Only one from a farm not far away
Strolled thither, not expecting he would find
Anyone else, but out of idleness.
One, and one other, yes, for there were two.
The second round the curving hillside road
Was a girl; and she halted some way off
To reconnoitre, and then made up her mind
At least to pass by and see who he was,
And perhaps hear some word about the weather.
This was some Stark she didn’t know. He nodded.
“No fête to-day,” he said.

“It looks that way.”
She swept the heavens, turning on her heel.
“I only idled down.”

“I idled down.”

Provision there had been for just such meeting
Of stranger cousins, in a family tree
Drawn on a sort of passport with the branch
Of the one bearing it done in detail—
Some zealous one’s laborious device.
She made a sudden movement toward her bodice,
As one who clasps her heart. They laughed together.
“Stark?” he inquired. “No matter for the proof.”

“Yes, Stark. And you?”

“I’m Stark.” He drew his passport.

“You know we might not be and still be cousins:
The town is full of Chases, Lowes, and Baileys,
All claiming some priority in Starkness.
My mother was a Lane, yet might have married
Anyone upon earth and still her children
Would have been Starks, and doubtless here to-day.”

“You riddle with your genealogy
Like a Viola. I don’t follow you.”

“I only mean my mother was a Stark
Several times over, and by marrying father
No more than brought us back into the name.”

“One ought not to be thrown into confusion
By a plain statement of relationship,
But I own what you say makes my head spin.
You take my card—you seem so good at such things—
And see if you can reckon our cousinship.
Why not take seats here on the cellar wall
And dangle feet among the raspberry vines?”

“Under the shelter of the family tree.”

“Just so—that ought to be enough protection.”

“Not from the rain. I think it’s going to rain.”

“It’s raining.”

“No, it’s misting; let’s be fair.
Does the rain seem to you to cool the eyes?”

The situation was like this: the road
Bowed outward on the mountain half-way up,
And disappeared and ended not far off.
No one went home that way. The only house
Beyond where they were was a shattered seedpod.
And below roared a brook hidden in trees,
The sound of which was silence for the place.
This he sat listening to till she gave judgment.

“On father’s side, it seems, we’re—let me see——”

“Don’t be too technical.—You have three cards.”

“Four cards, one yours, three mine, one for each branch
Of the Stark family I’m a member of.”

“D’you know a person so related to herself
Is supposed to be mad.”

“I may be mad.”

“You look so, sitting out here in the rain
Studying genealogy with me
You never saw before. What will we come to
With all this pride of ancestry, we Yankees?
I think we’re all mad. Tell me why we’re here
Drawn into town about this cellar hole
Like wild geese on a lake before a storm?
What do we see in such a hole, I wonder.”

“The Indians had a myth of Chicamoztoc,
Which means The Seven Caves that We Came out of.
This is the pit from which we Starks were digged.”

“You must be learned. That’s what you see in it?”

“And what do you see?”

“Yes, what do I see?
First let me look. I see raspberry vines—”

“Oh, if you’re going to use your eyes, just hear
What I see. It’s a little, little boy,
As pale and dim as a match flame in the sun;
He’s groping in the cellar after jam,
He thinks it’s dark and it’s flooded with daylight.”

“He’s nothing. Listen. When I lean like this
I can make out old Grandsir Stark distinctly,—
With his pipe in his mouth and his brown jug—
Bless you, it isn’t Grandsir Stark, it’s Granny,
But the pipe’s there and smoking and the jug.
She’s after cider, the old girl, she’s thirsty;
Here’s hoping she gets her drink and gets out safely.”

“Tell me about her. Does she look like me?”

“She should, shouldn’t she, you’re so many times
Over descended from her. I believe
She does look like you. Stay the way you are.
The nose is just the same, and so’s the chin—
Making allowance, making due allowance.”

“You poor, dear, great, great, great, great Granny!”

“See that you get her greatness right. Don’t stint her.”

“Yes, it’s important, though you think it isn’t.
I won’t be teased. But see how wet I am.”

“Yes, you must go; we can’t stay here for ever.
But wait until I give you a hand up.
A bead of silver water more or less
Strung on your hair won’t hurt your summer looks.
I wanted to try something with the noise
That the brook raises in the empty valley.
We have seen visions—now consult the voices.
Something I must have learned riding in trains
When I was young. I used the roar
To set the voices speaking out of it,
Speaking or singing, and the band-music playing.
Perhaps you have the art of what I mean.
I’ve never listened in among the sounds
That a brook makes in such a wild descent.
It ought to give a purer oracle.”

“It’s as you throw a picture on a screen:
The meaning of it all is out of you;
The voices give you what you wish to hear.”

“Strangely, it’s anything they wish to give.”

“Then I don’t know. It must be strange enough.
I wonder if it’s not your make-believe.
What do you think you’re like to hear to-day?”

“From the sense of our having been together—
But why take time for what I’m like to hear?
I’ll tell you what the voices really say.
You will do very well right where you are
A little longer. I mustn’t feel too hurried,
Or I can’t give myself to hear the voices.”

“Is this some trance you are withdrawing into?”

“You must be very still; you mustn’t talk.”

“I’ll hardly breathe.”

“The voices seem to say——”

“I’m waiting.”

“Don’t! The voices seem to say:
Call her Nausicaa, the unafraid
Of an acquaintance made adventurously.”

“I let you say that—on consideration.”

“I don’t see very well how you can help it.
You want the truth. I speak but by the voices.
You see they know I haven’t had your name,
Though what a name should matter between us——”

“I shall suspect——”

“Be good. The voices say:
Call her Nausicaa, and take a timber
That you shall find lies in the cellar charred
Among the raspberries, and hew and shape it
For a door-sill or other corner piece
In a new cottage on the ancient spot.
The life is not yet all gone out of it.
And come and make your summer dwelling here,
And perhaps she will come, still unafraid,
And sit before you in the open door
With flowers in her lap until they fade,
But not come in across the sacred sill——”

“I wonder where your oracle is tending.
You can see that there’s something wrong with it,
Or it would speak in dialect. Whose voice
Does it purport to speak in? Not old Grandsir’s
Nor Granny’s, surely. Call up one of them.
They have best right to be heard in this place.”

“You seem so partial to our great-grandmother
(Nine times removed. Correct me if I err.)
You will be likely to regard as sacred
Anything she may say. But let me warn you,
Folks in her day were given to plain speaking.
You think you’d best tempt her at such a time?”

“It rests with us always to cut her off.”

“Well then, it’s Granny speaking: ‘I dunnow!
Mebbe I’m wrong to take it as I do.
There ain’t no names quite like the old ones though,
Nor never will be to my way of thinking.
One mustn’t bear too hard on the new comers,
But there’s a dite too many of them for comfort.
I should feel easier if I could see
More of the salt wherewith they’re to be salted.
Son, you do as you’re told! You take the timber—
It’s as sound as the day when it was cut—
And begin over——’ There, she’d better stop.
You can see what is troubling Granny, though.
But don’t you think we sometimes make too much
Of the old stock? What counts is the ideals,
And those will bear some keeping still about.”

“I can see we are going to be good friends.”

“I like your ‘going to be.’ You said just now
It’s going to rain.”

“I know, and it was raining.
I let you say all that. But I must go now.”

“You let me say it? on consideration?
How shall we say good-bye in such a case?”

“How shall we?”

“Will you leave the way to me?”

“No, I don’t trust your eyes. You’ve said enough.
Now give me your hand up.—Pick me that flower.”

“Where shall we meet again?”

“Nowhere but here
Once more before we meet elsewhere.”

“In rain?”

“It ought to be in rain. Sometime in rain.
In rain to-morrow, shall we, if it rains?
But if we must, in sunshine.” So she went.

 

More by Robert Frost

Birches

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay 
As ice-storms do.  Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain.  They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust--
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer.  He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground.  He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return.  Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Home Burial

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him.  She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again.  He spoke
Advancing toward her:  'What is it you see
From up there always--for I want to know.'
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time:  'What is it you see,'
Mounting until she cowered under him.
'I will find out now--you must tell me, dear.'
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn't see,
Blind creature; and awhile he didn't see.
But at last he murmured, 'Oh,' and again, 'Oh.'

'What is it--what?' she said.
					'Just that I see.'

'You don't,' she challenged.  'Tell me what it is.'

'The wonder is I didn't see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it--that's the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill.  We haven't to mind those.
But I understand:  it is not the stones,
But the child's mound--'

				'Don't, don't, don't, don't,' she cried.

She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the bannister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
'Can't a man speak of his own child he's lost?'

'Not you!  Oh, where's my hat?  Oh, I don't need it!
I must get out of here.  I must get air.
I don't know rightly whether any man can.'

'Amy!  Don't go to someone else this time.
Listen to me.  I won't come down the stairs.'
He sat and fixed his chin between his fists.
'There's something I should like to ask you, dear.'

'You don't know how to ask it.'

					'Help me, then.'

Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.

'My words are nearly always an offense.
I don't know how to speak of anything
So as to please you.  But I might be taught
I should suppose.  I can't say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With women-folk.  We could have some arrangement
By which I'd bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you're a-mind to name.
Though I don't like such things 'twixt those that love.
Two that don't love can't live together without them.
But two that do can't live together with them.'
She moved the latch a little.  'Don't--don't go.
Don't carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it's something human.
Let me into your grief.  I'm not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out.  Give me my chance.
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother--loss of a first child
So inconsolably--in the face of love.
You'd think his memory might be satisfied--'

'There you go sneering now!'

					'I'm not, I'm not!
You make me angry.  I'll come down to you.
God, what a woman!  And it's come to this,
A man can't speak of his own child that's dead.'

'You can't because you don't know how to speak.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand--how could you?--his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man?  I didn't know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
Then you came in.  I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don't know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby's grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.'

'I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I'm cursed.  God, if I don't believe I'm cursed.'

'I can repeat the very words you were saying.
"Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build."
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor.
You couldn't care!  The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world's evil.  I won't have grief so
If I can change it.  Oh, I won't, I won't!'

'There, you have said it all and you feel better.
You won't go now.  You're crying.  Close the door.
The heart's gone out of it:  why keep it up.
Amy!  There's someone coming down the road!'

'You--oh, you think the talk is all.  I must go--
Somewhere out of this house.  How can I make you--'

'If--you--do!'  She was opening the door wider.
'Where do you mean to go?  First tell me that.
I'll follow and bring you back by force.  I will!--'

To Earthward

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of—was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they're gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.