Whose Words These Are I Think I Know

In late November 1962, Robert Frost came to Dartmouth College to read, or as he put it, say his poems to our freshman class. Many of us had memorized and recited Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening and The Road Not Taken in high school. Some of us the year before had watched on television as the wind-buffeted old poet recited The Gift Outright in the January chill of the Kennedy Inauguration. And by November 1962 all of us had learned we had one thing in common with our speaker; he too had entered Dartmouth as a freshman, though in a different century, and though he’d left before the year was out. “I have a special fondness for this college,” he told us; “it’s the first institution I ran away from.”  He won our hearts with that.

He was an old man, 88, and had an old man’s reedy crackling in his voice. But as he said his poems in his vernacular way, making conversation of their metric lines, his voice took force and held us and carried us through the fading afternoon. Between readings, he’d stop from time to time to talk about a poem, sometimes pointedly, sometimes with whimsy. After reading Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, he teased us about the interpretive techniques we might be learning, “People have made that out to be a death poem,” he said. “They’re all doing that to poems. I do that too when I’m provoked or mad…. Or when I’m up to something.”  At such moments, as we laughed along with him, we saw a boy’s face flash out from his aged one and could imagine the freckles that had given way to liver spots and the dark unruly hair that now was snow.

Two months later Robert Frost was dead.  We were the last class he said his poems to, the last to laugh with him and wonder at him, and many of us have told of it with pride and gratitude in the years since.


Frost did not always discount the interpretation of poetry. He was an artful man who elsewhere wrote, “Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.” But on the day he met with us, Frost added, “Sometimes you write a poem and you know it’s straight goods and they can’t do anything to it.” He called such poems “foolproof” and said “you just have to take them as they are.” I’d put The Self-Seeker in that category (bartleby.com/118/15.html). It is a poem I assigned to my law students every year that I taught Torts, and it is surely the only work by a major poet about the settlement of a workplace injury case.

The poem takes place in a New Hampshire or Vermont mill town in a boarding house at the bedside of a mill-worker whose legs and feet are severely injured. He was snagged and pulled to harm by an erratic leather conveyor belt at the mill. He does not yet know if he will walk again, though it is certain that, if so, he will be severely hobbled. He awaits a company lawyer coming up from Boston to have him sign a settlement for $500. His friend Willis arrives unwanted to talk him out of settling for so slight a sum. The injured one (unnamed in the poem) is or tries to be philosophical; Willis is angry. Much of the poem is their dialogue. Here is part of it (the injured one speaks first):

“Everything goes the same without me there.
You can hear the small buzz saws whine, the big saw
Caterwaul to the hills around the village
As they both bite the wood. It’s all our music.
One ought as a good villager to like it.
No doubt it has a sort of prosperous sound,
And it’s our life.”
“Yes, when it’s not our death.
“You make that sound as if it wasn’t so
With everything. What we live by we die by.”

Soon the lawyer arrives, and Willis brings him upstairs along with the fourth character in the poem:

A little barefoot girl who in the noise
Of heavy footsteps in the old frame house,
And baritone importance of the lawyer,
Stood for a while unnoticed with her hands
Shyly behind her.

The girl Anne has found two Rams Horn orchids and brought them for the injured one’s inspection. He is an expert on the wildflowers of the region; his pleasure was to roam the hills collecting specimens for a monograph that he will now not finish – “your flowers, man,” Willis implores him, “you’re selling out your flowers,” – and he has taught the child to seek and gather rare flowers and still leave enough for seed. The two discuss what she has found, what she has left undisturbed, and what else she has seen in the woods. Eventually the lawyer puts a stop to it:

The lawyer wore a watch the case of which
Was cunningly devised to make a noise
Like a small pistol when he snapped it shut
At such a time as this. He snapped it now.
“Well, Anne, go, dearie. Our affair will wait.
The lawyer man is thinking of his train.

Why did I ask my Torts students to read this poem each year? In part, perhaps, because I hoped they might linger for a moment over Frost’s mastery of verse and line. The poem is so conversational one might almost read it as a short story without noticing its meter. Yet a strict meter is there. Much of it, including the passage of the lawyer and his watch, is in iambic pentameter, 10 beats to the line. Elsewhere Frost heightens the narrative effect by permitting himself some 11-beat lines. “I’d as soon write free verse,” he once remarked, “as play tennis with the net down.” Much as lawyers who seek to be creative in their legal writing must, Robert Frost sought the freedom of his art within constraints of form.

More concretely, I assigned the poem because it captured a cruel moment in Tort history, before the adoption of workers’ compensation laws, when industrial accident victims had to sue their employers in order to recover damages, yet were generally barred from any recovery under a doctrine that deemed them to have assumed the risk, by accepting employment, of any dangerous conditions of the workplace and the job. Frost published The Self-Seeker in the collection North of Boston in 1914, just as states around the country were beginning to improve the lot of industrial accident victims by enacting workers’ compensation laws. (New Hampshire adopted its workers’ compensation act in 1911, Vermont in 1915).

Still more concretely, I assigned the poem because, unlike most of the Torts cases that we read in class, it conveyed intangible elements of the victim’s loss that are so vital to the presentation of a damage case. The injured one would be denied his one great pleasure—to walk the hills for wildflowers—for some 40 more years of life. Willis knew, and the reader knows, the force of that great element of his loss. I also assigned the poem because it shows so economically yet memorably how we lawyers can be seen by others. “The baritone importance of the lawyer” is a line I hoped my students might take to mind.

And finally I suppose I assigned it because I’m still under a spell the old poet cast on a long-past November afternoon. And, too, because The Self-Seeker is the “straight goods.” See for yourself; read it; the link above will take you there.


One last Frost story: Some years ago, one of our sons entered a poetry contest sponsored by his school district; he was then in second grade. Students of all grades submitted poems that they had written; and school by school and grade by grade, first, second, and third place winners were chosen, others were selected for honorable mention, and all of the selected poems were assembled into booklets sent home to the students and their families. Our son was among the winners for his school and grade, which delighted him and pleased his parents; and when we received our booklet, I thumbed through it to see what other students had written. Some of the poems were bright and cheery; some were disturbing windows into troubled lives. But one poem, submitted by a fifth grader, particularly caught my eye. It began:

I have wished a bird would fly away
And not sing by my house all day.

The poem was Robert Frost’s A Minor Bird, though of course not credited as such. You can find it at www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-minor-bird. I don’t know whether Frost, who published his first book of poems at 39 and won four Pulitzer Prizes in the years that followed, ever entered a poetry contest in his student days. But A Minor Bird achieved only minor success–a second place ribbon–for his surrogate in Phoenix Elementary School District #1. I like to think, though, that Frost would have chuckled at this outcome. After all, it was he who wrote, “Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me.”