Letting go of good things

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(Host) With summer and most of autumn now behind us and one half or the other of the electorate about to be disappointed by the presidential election’s results, poet Robert Frost and commentator Peter Gilbert consider how to deal with loss.

(Gilbert) The leaves are mostly down now, and trees stand bare under skies that are more often gray than blue.

Stick season is here, leaving us with a sense of loss; we cling to memories of bluer, greener days before the frost was on the pumpkin.

Robert Frost wrote powerfully about that longing in his poem Reluctance. But Reluctance is not just about seasons changing. It’s about that reasonable tendency to accept the passing of good things as they inevitably play themselves out. To do that, Frost writes – "to go with the drift of things" – would betray the heart. One should be reluctant to accept the end of things.

In a similar spirit, another poet, Dylan Thomas urged us to "not go gentle into that good night. Thomas urged us to "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Not that we can keep death at bay, of course, but we don’t have to be resigned to it in a way that negates the affirming power of life.

After an evocative description of New England in autumn, Frost’s last stanza contains the zinger. And he waits until the last line – almost the very last word – to make it clear that he is talking at least in part about – of all things – love.

Here’s Frost’s poem, Reluctance:

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch-hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question ‘Whither?’

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Frost wrote this poem as a young man of twenty, when he thought he had lost the love of his fianc and future wife, Elinor.

There’s a melancholy aspect to the poem, but it’s also got spunk; it pushes back. I’ve read this poem at a funeral – because while it’s necessary to accept the end, we know doing so isn’t easy – and indeed one wouldn’t want it to be too easy. Like all great literature, this poem continues to resonate in my mind and helps me cope with whatever endings life inevitably brings.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. The poem "Reluctance" from THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST, edited by Edward Connery Lathem and published by Henry Holt.

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