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Robert Frost's "Hyla Brook" and the Versanelle

Robert Frost remains America's most noted and beloved poet. His classic works are widely anthologized and studied in the nation's schools.

Introduction and Text of "Hyla Brook"

Robert Frost became a master writer of "tricky poems" including the versanelle; he has averred that "The Road Not Taken" was a very tricky poem, but many of his other poems are just as tricky, including "Hyla Brook."

Robert Frost's "Hyla Brook" consists of fifteen lines with the rime scheme, ABBACCADDEEFGF.

Frost became a master writer of "tricky poems"; while he has stated that his poem, "The Road Not Taken," was a tricky poem, many of his other pieces remain just as tricky, including this novel little piece focusing on a body of water and its attributes.

This fascinating little drama resembles a Petrarchan sonnet but instead of an octave, it displays a novtet which sets up the situation, while the sestet complements it. A cursory reading of the poem might result in missing the "either/or" construction that informs the complete description of the brook.

This "either/or" construction renders this Frost somewhat tricky; the subtle meaning may be overlooked without due considered of that flighty and often whimsical construction.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Hyla Brook

By June our brook's run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)—
Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat—
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.

Reading of "Hyla Brook"

Commentary on "Hyla Brook"

This poem is as tricky as "The Road Not Taken." Overlooking the "either/or" construction may cause a misreading of the description.

The Novtet: A Brook Runs Through the Farm

By June our brook's run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)—
Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.

The opening line suggests that the speaker and his family are the proud owners of a brook that runs through their farm. For most of the year as long as rainfall remains sufficient, the brook, which is similar to a creek, flows merrily along.

But during a drought, the brook or creek might dry up completely and only the dry channel bed be visible.

The speaker begins by acknowledging the fact that by the summer month of June, the brook seems to be winding down, that is, after the rains of spring have subsided and with the onset of summer, the once fast flowing brook that babbled cheerfully along has slowed and quietened.

Then later on into mid- and late-summer, either of two situations might occur: (1) The brook may dry up completely, "gone groping underground," in which case all the frogs will also have escaped to wetter grounds, or (2) if the year had not yet produced drought conditions, the brook would have "flourished and come up in jewel-weed."

The speaker notes that "jewel-weed" is easily bent by a breeze, "Even against the way the waters went." Even when a breeze blows in the opposite direction from that which the brook is flowing, the "weak foliage" is "bent," as a result of having proliferated with all of the rainfall.

Sestet: A Creek Dries Up

Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat—
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.

In the sestet, the speaker describes the brook after it has dried up. Its bed has then begun to look like a piece of paper folded and sticking together, caused by the heat.

During a dry spell, the water empties out of the brook and has gone underground as the speaker asserts early in the novtet.

The dried leaves that lie in the dry channel bed "stuck together by the heat" remind the speaker of an empty sheet of paper. The speaker realizes that the brook in this dried out condition would be unrecognizable by anyone who had not seen it in its normal water-flowing state.

In addition to this awareness, the speaker also knows that brooks which make an appearance in many songs and poems never resemble real brooks in those creative forms.

Nevertheless, to this speaker, the love of this particular brook always remains as strong as when it is filled with flowing waters and professes the Hyla frogs and their croaking sounds that remind him of "a ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow."

The speaker then offers a profound observation as he frames it philosophically: "We love the things we love for what they are."

The "Either/Or" Construction: Two Stages of the Brook

The subtle "either/or" position that the speaker places in his descriptive tribute to his beloved brook may be missed on a cursory reading, and then the interpretation of the poem would result in describing only a "dry" brook. But clearly, the speaker offers two situations for the brook.

In line 3, the speaker begins the first with the term "either" and then he says a word about the dried up brook, but then in line 7, he adds the second situation, "or," then describes what happens when the season has not been dry.

By picking up and continuing the description of the dry brook in the sestet, the speaker is being a bit sly, and the result is another tricky poem.

Frost's Versatility: Master of the Versanelle

Robert Frost wrote many long poems such as "The Death of the Hired Man," "The Witch of Coos," and "The Mountain," in addition to his short lyrics such as "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "The Road Not Taken."

Frost was also a master of the short, pithy versanelle, for example, his "The Door in the Dark" offers a simple scenario of man fumbling in the dark from room to room but though he was very careful manages to bump his head "so hard / I had my native simile jarred."

Such a disruption has to be quite serious for a poet. Another fine example of Frost's versanelle prowess is his "The Armful," dramatizing a man losing his balance and dropping his grocery items. The poet's "Now Close the Windows" offers an emotional glimpse at losing the natural sounds that had wafted through the open window.

"The Door in the Dark"

In going from room to room in the dark,
I reached out blindly to save my face,
But neglected, however lightly, to lace
My fingers and close my arms in an arc.
A slim door got in past my guard,
And hit me a blow in the head so hard
I had my native simile jarred.
So people and things don't pair any more
With what they used to pair with before.

In "The Door in the Dark," through a first person narrative, the speaker offers a snapshot of his experience stumbling and reaching out blindly to save his face, but carelessly neglects to protect his head with his hands and arms.

Suddenly, the door got in his way and conked him on his head "so hard" that it affected his ability to think comparatively.

The speaker could no longer match up things and people as he could prior to his cranial wallop. He claims he got his "native simile jarred." Such a distraction discomfited him and no doubt jarred his confidence in poetry creation for a time.

Reading of "The Door in the Dark"

"The Armful"

For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns —
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with hand and mind
And heart, if need be, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.

Again, in "The Armful," the speaker delivers his experience directly in first person. He begins in medias res stooping down to seize a parcel he has dropped, and he says that for every one he retrieves he loses others until there is a whole pile of bottles and buns and other items lying on the ground.

The speaker philosophizes about losing the entire mess of groceries, "all [he has] to hold with hand and mind / And heart, if need be. " But he knows despite his failure to keep from dropping his parcels that "[he] will do [his] best."

So the speaker continues to bend down to try to keep from dropping things, but they fall anyway, and he ends up sitting down in the middle of them. He had to drop the armful in the road, where he sits down and attempt to rearrange them in a manner more conducive to carrying.

Reading of "The Armful"

"Now Close the Windows"

Now close the windows and hush all the fields:
If the trees must, let them silently toss;
No bird is singing now, and if there is,
Be it my loss.

It will be long ere the marshes resume,
I will be long ere the earliest bird:
So close the windows and not hear the wind,
But see all wind-stirred.

In "Now Close the Windows," the speaker is giving a command, but it is obviously to himself he is speaking and addressing the command: he says, "Now close the windows and hush all the fields."

The speaker bemoans the loss of hearing the natural sounds. He will not hear the trees that will only "silently toss." He will miss the birds singing. He reports that it will be a while until he can hear those sounds again, but it is time to close the windows, and he has to reconcile himself to merely seeing the things as they move in the wind.

Reading of "Now Close the Windows"

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes