By Meadbh Ni Mhorain
Gary D. Schmitt’s Robert Frost: Poetry for Young People rests in my palms like a child’s picture book. Large, but not so much as I remember, and boasting an extravagant, energetic illustration of Frost’s characteristic natural imagery across a shiny hardback cover. If the dichotomy of grandeur and humility so prevalent in the works of Frost could be presented in one image, this is it. A simple garden shed rests before a fiery, soaring autumnal woods with dark pines peeking out dimly from behind the gold. This is an inviting, friendly collection and one I return to with great fondness to reflect on wintertime.
This treasured anthology divides selected works of Frost into four modest sections based on the seasons of the year. The collection begins with ‘Poems of Summer’ and Henri Sorenson’s beautiful, water-coloured illustrations are introduced with a cool freshness, warm tones and lively, agricultural imagery. Winter itself is left nestled unobtrusively between the much grander, bolder and fuller depictions of autumn and spring. The choice to present these poems ‘by season’ seems made with attention afforded, at times, only to colour (‘The Road Not Taken’ is categorised under autumn, with its single reference to “yellow woods” expanded and reimagined into an emblazoned, full-page illustration). While this presents a ripe opportunity for critics to point out blatant and absolutist classification, there is a childlike logic and simplicity to the presentation which is undeniably satisfying to experience and works beautifully alongside the abundant imagery.
The beauty of Poems for Winter, for me, is the easeful marriage between illustrations and poems, the latter of which are reflected in their humility by paler images, splashed across the pages in cool, earthy browns and icy blues. Winter is not revered by Frost, nor does he wallow in its archetypal gloom. Instead, he presents modest scenes with a thoughtful verisimilitude and attention to detail.
“There’s a patch of old snow in a corner
that I should have guessed
was a blow-away paper the rain
had brought to rest.”
‘A Patch of Old Snow’ is made up of two, uncomplicated rhyming stanzas and draws attention to a common natural phenomenon with curious simplicity, elicited so specifically one could almost catch a breath of icy air between the lines. The fleeting nature of this familiar scene is reflected in the short poem, tiny, centered and set against an almost blank white background. The accompanying image beneath is small and muddy, with a brushstroke of off-white snow nestled in the center, drawing careful attention to Frost’s sentiments of impermanence and gentle nostalgia. While a dreariness is present here, evoking a cold, wet and all-too-familiar version of winter, the stillness and the immortalization of this insignificant event remains full of heart.
there is a childlike logic and simplicity to the presentation which is undeniably satisfying
Right on the opposite page to this, lies ‘Good Hours’, an arguably Christmassy and hearty ode to family and togetherness. The illustration markedly opposes the soft browns of ‘Old Snow’. This is a pretty, postcard scene of hushed snowy blues, melting upwards into a deep, decadent indigo which coats a starless night sky and sets up a stage for the soft yellow widows of a cottage, “up to their shining eyes in snow.” One of my main criticisms of this collection, and particularly of the winter section is the absence of ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, a poem which is also both Christmassy in its horse-clop rhythm and beautifully reflective “….miles to go before I sleep.” ‘Good Hours’ is similar to this in its contemplations but lacks a fable-like purposefulness, not progressing towards a closing thought so much as simply following the subject for a while:
“Over the snow my creaking feet
Disturbed the slumbering village street
Like profanation, by your leave
At ten o’clock on winters eve.”
There is, admittedly, something lovely about just witnessing a brief journey and the accompanying image, even without a moral to take away. There is great heart in the quiet, just like the yellow, firelit windows in the snow. This appreciation of simplicity is further expressed in ‘The Wood Pile’.
“And leave it there far from useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow, smokeless burning of decay.”
An ostensibly paltry pile of wood is discreetly personified and with the coupling of burning and decay the season is bestowed heart and life. Throughout these poems, I notice that the idea of winter as a time of cold, darkness and finality is defied by simultaneous dualities; urgency in the stillness, passion in the quiet, sadness in the intimacy. A first introduction to the works of Frost is beautifully rendered here and is an appropriate ode to the poet’s ability to sensitively capture nature. I am left with a reminder of the heart of the season through a child’s picture book, vivid in its visual imagery and paying quiet tribute to Frost’s words.
Image: Ezra Jeffrey-Comeau via Unsplash