The Need of Being Versed

in Country Things

The house had gone to bring again

To the midnight sky a sunset glow.

Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,

Like a pistil after the petals go.

The barn opposed across the way,     

That would have joined the house in flame

Had it been the will of the wind, was left

To bear forsaken the place’s name.

No more it opened with all one end

For teams that came by the stony road

To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs

And brush the mow with the summer load.

The birds that came to it through the air

At broken windows flew out and in,

Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh

From too much dwelling on what has been.

Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,

And the aged elm, though touched with fire;

And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm;

And the fence post carried a strand of wire.

For them there was really nothing sad.

But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,

One had to be versed in country things

Not to believe the phoebes wept.

                       Robert Frost

But do phoebes weep?

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“Strongly spent is synonymous with kept,” Frost says in one of his essays. This is Frost’s formula for the temporal, dissipative process of asserting form in the midst of constant change, whether it be the writing of a poem or the keeping of a farm.  The landscape of Frost’s poetry is filled with spent houses as emblems of life lived to the fullest.  In this poem, as in “Directive,” the abandoned farm still harbors the vitality of a life lived there wholly in keeping with the possibilities and limitations of the place.  As we walk here now with the poem’s speaker, we reclaim, through the work of the imagination, a sense of their labors and their love of place.

     See “Burning Down the House” for a tour of Frost’s strongly spent farms and of their antithesis: the clear-cut landscape and “slab-built, black-paper-covered house” of “The Census Taker.”