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Friday, September 13, 2013

Living and Loving With Reluctance

Young, impetuous, daring gypsy souls love the allure of the Highway Song. Many adventurous youth seek contentment by leaving familiar confines to find something more pleasing. Many of the restless know why they wander yet have no idea of where to find well-being. They trust good fate as a faithful companion.

When does freedom of movement guarantee a path to freedom of mind? Putting distance between a seat of unhappiness does not necessarily placate perception. Memories of losses often restrain the strongest will and impede peace of mind despite new environments. Many human beings who wander realize that "coming home" to revisit stark realities may be necessary to find impetus that allows the conscience to move on.

"Reluctance" was written by Robert Frost while he was living with his mother and sister in Lawrence, Massachusetts, before he had convinced his future wife, Elinor, to marry him. After he was firmly rejected by her during a visit to her school in New York, Frost contemplated committing suicide. However, Frost eventually found courage and decided not to take his own life and accept Elinor’s rejection.

This work is the final poem in Frost’s 1913 book A Boy’s Will. The title of the work is a reference to a line from Longfellow’s poem “My Lost Youth,” which reads: “‘A boy’s will’ is the wind’s will / And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”

"Reluctance" serves as a cap on the theme of exile and return that is introduced in the first poem of the book, "Into My Own." In "Into My Own," the speaker expresses his determination to turn his back on his own and travel the world in a quest for self-discovery. He declares, “I do not see why I should e’er turn back, / Or those should not set forth upon my track / To overtake me, who should miss me here / And long to know if still I held them dear / They would not find me changed from him the knew / Only more sure of all I thought was true."

But in the final verse in A Boy's Will, “Reluctance,” the speaker's travels have finally led him back home. After "climbing over the walls" that retained his young body, wandering the world, and ascending "the hills of view," he decides to return -- a decision that contradicts his earlier conviction in "Into My Own." He, evidently, has found a new perspective -- in maturation, he must face his past and come "by the highway home."

“Reluctance” reveals that Frost has begun to explore ideas of development and maturity—the journey from childhood to manhood. And, as part of theme, it also shows that Frost questions the relationship between nature and mankind.

The speaker arrives at home and what he sees is disturbing. All that is left are the dead leaves of the winter season. In the third stanza, he mentions that “The last lone aster is gone.” An aster is a type of daisy with bright purple or pink flowers that die when winter overtakes the landscape and makes it bleak – which is exactly how the narrator feels at the time.

In tribute to natural strength, the speaker personifies the strong, noble oak as the keeper of the remaining leaves which it reluctantly yields to “ravel one by one," by letting them fall with mournful “scraping and creeping” on the snow already covering their "sleeping" dead brethren.

The speaker confesses "The heart is still aching to seek, / But the feet question 'Whither?'" It seems the double meaning here is about both the death of the season and his feelings of unrequited love. His emotions tell him to keep looking for those “flowers of the witch hazel” that have withered, but his reason asks him, “Where are they? Where should I go, and what should I do?”

Still, the speaker is unwilling to accept an ending and refuses to “yield” to the dead season in his life or “go with the drift of things” simply because nature proclaims it to be so.

The poet muses that “going with the drift of things” was never less than a betrayal (“treason”) of the heart to go along with nature’s (and his ) coldness. No human being can change "the drift of things." But somehow there must be reluctance in everyone “to yield with a grace to reason.” The speaker is willing to accept rejection and continue, even with his own self-righteous anger and sad human emotion.  

In the final line of the poem, any ambiguity is cleared up. In the end one must “bow and accept” that a love or a season has to pass away, but the person doesn’t have to like it.

And the poet? Frost eventually found courage and decided not to go “with the drift of things” and accept Elinor’s rejection. Such an admittance of failure would have been “treason” to his heart and to his love.

However, just a note of question makes the poem even more contemplative. With the use of “Ah” at the start of the final stanza, there is a suggestion that Frost is philosophizing on a state that he wishes could exist in man but which he is sure does not and never will. Reluctance will always win out. Is this the difference between the true course of nature and the path of cerebral mankind?


By Robert Frost 

Out through the fields and the woods
   And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
   And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
   And lo, it is ended.
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
   Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
   And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
   When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
   No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
   The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
   But the feet question ‘Whither?’
Ah, when to the heart of man
   Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
   To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
   Of a love or a season?

Perhaps the proverbial "moss" that doesn't "gather on a rolling stone" and whose absence symbolizes that a carefree wanderer is not attached to anything or anyone should not be understood as stagnation, but rather as an essential substance comprising natural design and devotion. After all, avoiding responsibilities and cares does not advance knowledge or culture. Mobility, at least in a physical sense, may or may not be profitable for an individual.

In good time, most of us are covered with hornworts on the damp, shady north sides of our nature.
And, moss is not all bad. In fact, consider this trivia:

* Sphagnum mosses were used as first-aid dressings on soldiers' wounds, as these mosses are highly absorbent and have mild antibacterial properties.

* Native Americans were one of the peoples to use Sphagnum for diapers and napkins, which is still done in Canada.

* In Finland, peat mosses have been used to make bread during famines.

* In Mexico, moss is used as a Christmas decoration.

* Physcomitrella patens is increasingly used in biotechnology. Prominent examples are the identification of moss genes  with implications for crop improvement or human health and the safe production of complex biopharmaceuticals in moss bioreactors.

In any event, Robert Frost eventually married the love of his life and the union produced six children. Robert and Elinor both did experience serious bouts of depression. Their son Elliot (1896–1904, died of cholera); son Carol (1902–1940, committed suicide); daughter Marjorie (1905–1934, died as a result of puerperal fever after childbirth); and daughter Elinor Bettina (died just three days after her birth in 1907).

Only daughter Lesley Frost Ballantine (1899–1983) and daughter Irma (1903–1967) outlived their father. Frost's wife, who had heart problems throughout her life, developed breast cancer in 1937, and died of heart failure  in 1938

Robert Frost was 86 when he read his well-known poem "The Gift Outright" at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961. He died in Boston two years later, on January 29, 1963, of complications from prostate surgery.

Frost was buried at the Old Bennington Cemetery in Bennington, Vermont. His epitaph quotes the last line from his poem, "The Lesson for Today" (1942):

"I had a lover's quarrel with the world."

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