Frost’s “The Silken Tent”

In a comment to an earlier post, BDR recommended this poem of Frost's, which I hadn't read since I was an undergraduate. Reading it several times over the last couple of days, it occurs to me how metaphysical the poem is. In the sense of the Metaphysical Poets of the 17th century.
She is as in a field a silken tent At midday when a sunny summer breeze Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent So that in guys it gently sways at ease And its supporting central cedar pole, That is its pinnacle to heavenward And signifies the sureness of the soul, Seems to owe naught to any single cord, But strictly held by none, is loosely bound By countless silken ties of love and thought To everyone on earth the compass round, And only by one's going slightly taut In the capriciousness of summer air Is of the slightest bondage made aware.
The use of an extended & unlikely metaphor is striking, producing a primary effect of sincerity & a secondary effect of high intellectual irony. Not to make too much of influence, it's worth noting that when Frost was coming into his maturity, Eliot was celebrating the Metaphysicals, especially Donne. It's just that one doesn't usually think of Frost as being one of the High Modernists -- at least I don't -- that makes this connection worth thinking about.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

7 thoughts on “Frost’s “The Silken Tent””

  1. That’s been one of my favorites for many years. I was always puzzled that it was not in anthologies. It is far superior to “Mending Wall” and “The Road Less Travelled.” Maybe it is “The Poem Less “Anthologized”? I never thought of it in relation to the metaphysicals before, but that’s a good comparison. It has that quality of “wit”–not at all overdone of course.

    If more Frost were like this, then he would be a high modernist. Or if this side of Frost were better known.

  2. That’s true: the way it sways from side to side. Notice how Frost writes so fluidly that punctuation is barely necessary: the armature of the poem, like the silken ties of love and thought, is only noticeable through the slight tension of being pulled to one side or the other.

  3. Aren’t you guys getting a little close to the “imitative fallacy,” or even to Wittgenstein’s early “picture language”? The idea that language somehow reproduces the world? This notion has always made me uneasy. Language is its own system that does not map easily onto the actual world. I guess the question is normative: should the poem reenact in its language the motions it describes? Should the meter of a poem about a train sound like a train? (An aside: I’m interested in folk music & the blues. Blues songs often use this sort of imitative technique & am I making an elitist argument by banning it from high culture?)

  4. GUYS

    Nothing she’s in but swaying makes her seem
    to be working upward from the bottom of a well-
    worn way of making do with nothing
    as in words that end in fields
    but strictly toward a single simple compass
    taut as naught thinks backward
    to its bondage to everyone on earth
    by the slightest breeze that binds them
    to some capriciousness of soul
    love is thinking when we’re not
    that it has somewhere still to go
    heavenward that signifies awareness
    only loosely on its pinnacle swaying
    as in one of those countless summer days.

  5. Maybe that’s a fallacy in general, but what if instead of seeing the poem’s form as imitating the movement of the tent, you saw the entire poem as a description of the poem’s fluid motions. The “She” in the poem IS the poem.

    Or can you see a metaphor, the silken tent, as a description of two things, the woman and the poem?

  6. i think immediately of wm btlr yeats’ THE MAN WHO DREAMED OF FAIRYLAND. ‘He stood among a crowd at Dromhair./ His heart hung all upon a silken vest./And he had known at last some tenderness/ before earth took him to her stony care./….And when a man poured fish into a pile/it seem they raised their little silver heads….’ and i am quoting from a memory that goes back more than 50 years when i wrote out in pencil then all his versions from articles in jornals and the first variorum published when at 19 i was studying at arlington state junior college, arlington,texas and was besotted with how yeats wrote–long before i fell under stevens’ spell (well, not so much ‘spell’ but more his PRACTICE because stevens’ didn’t grab you by the soft testicles but by the soft tissue of thought and the making of thought.) but stevens is yeats incarnate and without the conscious tradition. stevens is a man on his own frontier passage through the end of time. a johnny appleseed of words without the tradition bending his shoulders. both yeats and stevens are wonders to me. laura riding and before and through her gertrude stein was by midwife and first master. then my sweet poetry uncle william carlos williams can and sang in my crib and taught me about the white spaces. anyway, look at the early yeats, esp in this regard the man who dreamed of fairyland. edward mycue

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