The Prayer a Poem Can Make
A Prayer in Spring
A poetry column in any New Hampshire magazine would be incomplete without the inclusion of our state’s most beloved poet.
Robert Frost. No sooner do we hear the name then most of us recall childhood memories of hearing poetry for the first time. We recollect “woods lovely, dark, and deep” beneath “downy flakes” on “the darkest evening of the year.” We imagine two roads diverging in a yellow wood, birches bent over from boys swinging them, abandoned woodpiles, skittish woodchucks and birds, and of course those emblematic New England stone walls in need of repair.
We likewise recall those Frostian adages rendered forth by the white-haired, New England sage: “Good fences make good neighbors,” “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” “Earth’s the right place for love,” “I took the road less traveled,” “Nothing gold can stay,” “Men work together…whether they work together or apart,”
If you live in New Hampshire and you don’t know Robert Frost as your most proximate literary neighbor, you have some work to do and you may want to start with a crumbling stone wall. If you are among those who have come to know Frost and his poems better, you know that beneath that persona of a whimsical pastoral sage resided an individual and artist more complex and contradictory than most people realize.
Start with the fact that he is one of the world’s most famous Yankees though he was named after General Robert E. Lee and was born in San Francisco where he lived for the first 11 years of his life. As Frost’s most insightful biographer, Jay Parini, observes, “The contradictions of [Frost’s] life and work remain stunning…a loner who liked company; a poet of isolation who sought a mass audience; a rebel who sought to fit in…a family man to the core [who] frequently felt alienated from his wife and children…a democrat who hated Franklin Roosevelt, [and] a poet of labor who could not support the New Deal.” (Robert Frost A Life, 446-47)
Robert Frost’s views of religion are no less paradoxical. He once described himself as “Presbyterian, Unitarian, Swedenborgian, Nothing.” At the same time he could have animated conversations with the Jesuits at Holy Cross and he even delivered a sermon at a Jewish synagogue. As Parini observes, “Having moved around so many churches in childhood,” Frost “deliberately stayed away from most churches later in life; nevertheless his correspondence, conversation, and poems are saturated with religious feeling, with questing after God, with evocations of doubt, with meditations on time and eternity.” (A Life, 15) And in one of the last letters Frost wrote in his late eighties, he asked: “Why will the quidnuncs [gossips] always be hoping for a salvation man will never have from anyone but God? I was just saying today how Christ posed himself the whole problem and died for it. How can we be just in a world that needs mercy and merciful in a world that needs justice?” (15)
The Frost poem I have selected here for our heart and lips is suited both to the liturgical and natural season. “A Prayer in Spring” offers thanks for the earth as it comes back to life, and the eight rhymed couplets are as Psalm-like as any words ever spoken to invoke gratitude for the blessings of this earth. What I appreciate most about this short poem is that it was written during “the Derry years” when Frost was a modest farmer on a farm in Derry (today a state park which I strongly encourage you all to visit!). The year was 1906 and Frost had just been hired to teach at Pinkerton Academy, a necessary financial boost to his less than lucrative farming endeavors. Though he was more attentive to writing than farm chores, the idea of becoming a famous poet was still but a distant dream.
The center of this young teacher’s world was his wife Elinor and their four children whom they schooled at home. Frost’s role in this home instruction included Astronomy and Botany and other lessons in the natural world. In contrast to some of the dark events that would befall the family in later years, Frost would come to regard these Derry years as rather idyllic. This poem springs from those family years and its melodic simplicity and beauty have always struck me as the words of a father to his children. The “us” in the poem is most assuredly the Frost family at the Derry farm in 1906. I invite you to let these words extend across a century and more to help you prayerfully welcome in this year’s New Hampshire spring:
A Prayer in Spring
By Robert Frost
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.
And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.
For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.
There are three graces that we ask of God in the sounds and images that fill these lines from Robert Frost. First, we beg the grace to receive the gifts so evident in the world coming to life around us – “the flowers to-day” – and to receive them without worrying about the future, “the uncertain harvest” “so far away.” At Mass, after the Lord’s Prayer we ask to be protected “from all anxieties.” Here we repeat that desire: “Keep us here/All simply in the springing of the year.”
The second grace we ask is to truly appreciate the remarkable beauty surrounding us: “the orchard white,” “the happy bees…dilating round the perfect trees,” and “the darting bird,” – a hummingbird that Frost describes as descending like “a meteor” and thrusting its “needle bill” into “a blossom,” seeming, as it does so, to “stand still” in “midair.”
The final and most important grace we ask in this prayer is to recognize that all this beauty springs from the love of God. “For this is love and nothing else is love.” It is “for God above” to sanctify these things to whatever ends he chooses. Our role is merely to be fulfilled by responding in astonished gratitude.
“I discovered,” Frost once wrote to a close friend, "that do or say my damnedest I can’t be other than orthodox in politics, love, and religion: I can’t escape salvation.” (Life, 443) May this simple and beautiful prayer that Frost offered on behalf of his family all those years ago become our own this spring. May our own stubbornness and worry, as with that of our familiar and elusive New Hampshire poet, fail to make us escape salvation. May this prayer open our eyes and hearts to God and help us see that “this is love and nothing else is love.”