We ‘did’ Frost for O level.
Ten Twentieth Century Poets, edited with notes by Maurice Wollman, M.A. – I still have a copy, though it’s not the one I used because my name’s not in it. Instead, it’s Susan Heald 5B, Rosemary Green, 4x, Lindsay Brown 4E, Sheila Foster 6”. Where are you now, Susan, Rosemary, Lindsay and Sheila? What do you remember of Robert Frost?
Our teacher was in her early sixties I think, close to retirement. She was plump and very sweet – not a confident woman, but she liked poetry and we must have liked her because we learned not only French vocabulary but also poems on the school bus from Knutsford to Wilmslow, and we passed our exams. I still have ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ by heart.
Yesterday, it was ‘Mending Wall’ that came to mind. The fence at the front of the house was being . . . half mended, half rebuilt by two stout members of the family. It fell to me to make scones and bacon rolls to keep them going. Their fingers were literally green by the time they downed tools.
‘Mending Wall’ was the first of the set of Frost poems and therefore the first Frost we read. In my head, Frost got mixed up with Andrew Young, who was in the same book – “Frost called to water ‘Halt! / And crusted the moist snow with sparkling salt”.
And then there was the odd inversion at the start – “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”, instead of “There is something . . .” And that reminded me of Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Family, which had been a craze for me and my two friends Kate and Keri the year before. They talked like that in How Green Was My Valley, inverting everything in a Welsh way. In fact, we re-named the novel There is Green My Valley Was, and Kate became Ceinwen, Keri Keridwen and I think I was Olwen. It wasn’t fair to Kate: nobody, after reading the book, wanted to be Ceinwen.
But back to Frost. We used to adapt bits of poems for our own ends. Something would go missing and one of us would say, “it’s not elves exactly”. Or we would be dragged out against our will to play netball in drizzle, moaning “Oh, just another kind of outdoor game”. Even now, when someone fondly produces a well-worn phrase, the words come to me: “he (or she) likes having thought of it so well”.
I didn’t notice how playful the poem was. I didn’t notice “And on a day we meet to walk the line / And set the wall between us once again. / We keep the wall between us as we go.” How regular it is – how the lines of the poem turn into the obedient lines of the wall! And although there are notes at the back of the book, this poem has none.
In the Highlands, there are dry stane dykes all over the place, mossed over and tumbling. Something has often “spilled the upper boulders in the sun” but mostly the lower boulders stay exactly where they are, and the lines of the ancient walls run through wood, valley and field with stoic determination.
But that’s by the by. Our Hatton Green fence is stoutly erected to keep out neighbours’ dogs and make cats think twice. It’s taller than I might have liked, because my other half wants privacy (“He moves in darkness as it seems to me, /Not of woods only and the shade of trees”). But there’s a little gap underneath. The hedgehog can probably still get in. . . .