It took that pause to make him realize
The mountain he was climbing had the slant
As of a book held up before his eyes
(And was a text albeit done in plant.)
Dwarf cornel, gold-thread, and maianthemum,
He followingly fingered as he read,
The flowers fading on the seed to come;
But the thing was the slope it gave his head:
The same for reading as it was for thought,
So different from the hard and level stare
Of enemies defied and battles fought.
It was the obstinately gentle air
That may be clamored at by cause and sect
But it will have its moment to reflect.
Robert Frost, The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, pp. 355-356
Every time I linger on Frost’s collected poems, I stop at this one and think that I shouldn’t have forgotten the impact of reading it, more than the poem itself or that extraordinary line made of names of plants. It is true that the situation at the outset of the poem shares the basic situation of other poems by Frost, and it is a standing point we recognise as the axis of this limpid juxtaposition between poetry and speculation: a stop on the way, a clear situation in “The Road not Taken” (“long I stood”) or “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”, for example, where the interruptions in the poem mimic those of the journey, and make reflection its natural course. However, in this poem the pause is so abrupt as acknowledging that to stop at a slant and see the mountain is the same as to stop at a reading and see the text. Pausing is essential to the strange effect of this reflexive poem: when the metaphor about the book of nature is put forward, defining a possible theme for the poem, we have already been woken with a start. The physical awareness of our position as readers – “slant / before his eyes, slope it gave his head” – has now merged with the memory of the man’s body climbing, and if the mountain is now a book for him (“fingered”, “read”), for us the book, as the mountain, is now an object of contemplation– “The Figure a Poem Makes”, as in the title of Frost’s essay.
What is quite impressive, however, is how this awareness is simultaneously the centre of the poem and that from which the poem quietly deviates, by turning this discovery into an objectified state, something (it) which the poem repeatedly tries to define in an accurate, albeit indeterminate, way: “It took that pause / But the thing was”; “It was the obstinately gentle air”. The main deviation is temporal and is dependent on relegating the pause to somewhere prior to the first line. Indeed, when we first step into the poem, something has already happened, and it is that (the thing) which is described by means of analogy and difference; and the approximation between book and mountain is in actual fact an inversion. It cuts out the poem (starting with the title “Time Out”) as the interruption of reading itself, stuck between the moments where the climb is brought to a halt, with views of the mountain, and its mirroring in the stationary body of the reader, gazing at the text in its immobile slant, “the same for reading as it was for thought”.
The reading of the poem, as the reading of the mountain, is reflection and not action, serene speculation – obstinately gentle – which suspends all the movement on which it depends to exist, including the act of reading itself, which constitutes it. It is the physical experience of the interval, or of reading as parabasis – the opposite of war, “the hard and level stare”, and let us remind ourselves we’re in 1942 - which the poem gives back, as some sort of oblique mirror, to whomever has moved to read it, and was forced to stop.
Translated by Rita Faria
Clara Rowland is Associate Professor at Universidade Nova de Lisboa. She once read an interview where François Truffaut told how he would learn by heart, as a kid, everything he heard in movies: words, sounds, and music. She took it as the description of a way of reading.