05 October 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/40

A Mood Apart

Once down on my knees to growing plants
I prodded the earth with a lazy tool
In time with a medley of sotto chants;
But becoming aware of some boys from school
Who had stopped outside the fence to spy,
I stopped my song and almost heart,
For any eye is an evil eye
That looks in on to a mood apart.

Robert Frost

In his beginning lines the poet intimates a sacred atmosphere. The slightly odd phrasing of the first line (down on his knees to the plants, rather than among or alongside) implies that he is kneeling down before the growing plants as one would kneel to God in a church (that is, with a feeling of reverence as before a greater power, not merely kneeling because it's a position that makes gardening easier). He is singing under his breath; more specifically, he is chanting, a vocal form usually associated with monasteries and medieval monks. Anyone who has ever tended to plants from seedlings to harvest must have felt this holy sense of kinship with mysteries – the miracle of natural growth.

Is it a symptom of our over-sexualized sense of language that I find sexual hints in "prodded the earth with a lazy tool"? It might simply be a way of saying that he is proceeding in a dreamy directionless way, rather than in the energetic and organized way you would need for regular work. In either case – erotic undercurrent or daydream, or both together – an essentially private and personal atmosphere is created, which joins with the sanctified hints to recreate the "mood apart" of the speaker.

But the mood lasts only a few lines before the outside world intrudes in the form of "some boys from school" who have stopped to spy. They are probably just curious about the strange sounds they hear, but we are seeing things from the speaker's point of view, and spy is his angry verdict on their motivation. When gender roles were more clearly divided than they are today, men were expected to be engaged in the outer world, the non-domestic (and often harsh and uncomprehending) world, in a way that women, at least women of a certain social standing, were not. (This is actually still true for men, but now this engagement is more likely to be expected from women, too.) For many boys, the entry into school marks the beginning of masking their wayward and unusual side, their dreamy separateness, to protect it from the coarse judgments of the harsh new society they will be forced to grapple with for the rest of their lives. Hence the appearance here of the spying schoolboys; they represent this world, casually but continually monitoring behavior for any signs of strangeness.

The poem begins Once, implying that we are hearing a recollection, an adult looking back on his younger days. The phrasing some boys from school suggests that the speaker knows them, that he is a classmate of the spies (perhaps, under different circumstances, a friend). As such, he is particularly vulnerable to the on-going ridicule that might result from this encounter.  As soon as he realizes he is being observed, he stops his song, and also his heart (almost) stops – there is a suggestion of fatality there, the stopping of a heart, but more strongly of fear, and the suspension or hiding of something personal and sacred. His lovely moment has been violated. But we aren't told how the boys actually reacted – did they mock him, did some defend him, did they find the whole scene boring? – because under these circumstances any eye is an evil eye: that is, any outside look or judgment is a fatal intrusion. What's important to him now is not how the boys reacted then, but his reaction to what he sees as their spying – his heart-stopping knowledge of potential exposure and, despite it all, his continued retention in memory of his broken mood.

In the last line, the sort of odd and clunky chain of prepositions ("looks in on to a mood apart") helps create an almost physical sense of the separation between the group looking and the individual boy's mood – you feel the prepositions stretch like treacherously slippery stones between two river banks. Looks in on suggests a more intrusive regard than you would get from such possibly more benign phrasing as looks upon. The boys might have said plenty of things, or nothing at all, but the speaker is indifferent to all that – any intrusion is unwelcome. Moods are by definition temporary things. This special one was shattered. Nonetheless, he keeps the memory of it, away from the others; hence his ability to recreate it in poetry.

This seemed like a good poem for the beginning of autumn, a time when we tend to draw inward (which is probably one of the reasons it is my favorite season). The poem is from the Library of America edition of the Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays of Robert Frost.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you for analyzing the "in on to" phrase. I thought it sounded clunky, too. It kind of interrupted the flow of the reading, just like that group of boys interrupted the gardening, so I was glad to hear the reasoning that might have gone into its use.
Middle school teachers are witnesses to the change that happens between the start of 6th grade and the start of 8th grade, where a simple question, such as "What is your favorite movie," answered so freely in 6th grade, can cause an 8th grader to completely shut down, realizing that it's somehow embarrassing or dangerous to admit to being different. And, just like in the poem, kids may or may not have a reaction, but the fear is there, just the same.