Tuesday 24 May 2016

Frost's Butterfly

As well as a lifelong love of his poetry, Richard Wilbur had another connection with Robert Frost. His wife's grandfather, William Hayes Ward, had been editor of The New York Independent, in which Frost had his first poem published, in 1895. William's wife, Susan, was a poetry lover and expert on hymnody who was taken with Frost's work from the start. All his life Frost described her as 'the first friend of my poetry'.
 That debut poem of Frost's was My Butterfly, and it says something for Susan Haye Ward's discernment that she could see the promise of greatness glimmering faintly in what is clearly prentice work....

THINE emulous fond flowers are dead, too,
And the daft sun-assaulter, he
That frighted thee so oft, is fled or dead:
Save only me
(Nor is it sad to thee!)        5
Save only me
There is none left to mourn thee in the fields.
The gray grass is not dappled with the snow;
Its two banks have not shut upon the river;
But it is long ago—        10
It seems forever—
Since first I saw thee glance,
With all the dazzling other ones,
In airy dalliance,
Precipitate in love,        15
Tossed, tangled, whirled and whirled above,
Like a limp rose-wreath in a fairy dance.
When that was, the soft mist
Of my regret hung not on all the land,
And I was glad for thee,        20
And glad for me, I wist.
Thou didst not know, who tottered, wandering on high,
That fate had made thee for the pleasure of the wind,
With those great careless wings,
Nor yet did I.        25
And there were other things:
It seemed God let thee flutter from his gentle clasp:
Then fearful he had let thee win
Too far beyond him to be gathered in,
Snatched thee, o’er eager, with ungentle grasp.        30
Ah! I remember me
How once conspiracy was rife
Against my life—
The languor of it and the dreaming fond;
Surging, the grasses dizzied me of thought,        35
The breeze three odors brought,
And a gem-flower waved in a wand!
Then when I was distraught
And could not speak,
Sidelong, full on my cheek,        40
What should that reckless zephyr fling
But the wild touch of thy dye-dusty wing!
I found that wing broken to-day!
For thou are dead, I said,
And the strange birds say.        45
I found it with the withered leaves
Under the eaves.

'Thine emulous fond flowers', forsooth - 'and glad for me, I wist' - 'the languor of it and the dreaming fond' - 'for thou are dead, I said'... But there's something there, under the strained sentimentality and the 'poetical' archaisms. Frost's handling of metre is precociously adept, and the odd arresting phrase shines out - 'the daft sun-assaulter', 'those great careless wings', 'the grasses dizzied me of thought' - and the penultimate stanza, culminating in the touch of that 'dye-dusty wing', is good.
 Frost himself was well pleased to see My Butterfly in print and to pocket the $15 fee. On the strength of it, he proposed to his girlfriend, Elinor Miriam White, but she wanted to finish college first. So Frost took himself off on an excursion to the gloriously-named Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, proposing again on his return. This time Elinor said yes, and they were married at the end of the year.  A few years later, they were working the farm bought for them by Robert's grandfather, and Frost was beginning to write the poems for which he would become famous. The faint promise of My Butterfly had borne fruit.

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