On "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be The Same"
If a mythical starting point for the pastoral music of outdoor sound might be located in the Virgilian shepherd's liquid metronome, the more complex Romantic reading of nature demands a different sort of account. One poem by Robert Frost, harking back to Classical pastoral in one way, more directly invoking the biblical garden, may serve to illustrate this:
[. . . . ]
This is an uncharacteristically mythopoetic moment for Frost. The myth is that of the imprinting of consciousness onto nature, not a visual one of, say, double exposure, or overlay of transparency that might fulfill technologically a wholly imagined Romantic device, but an aural one"Be that as may be, she was in their song," and surely only be- cause of the heightened power of eloquence in call or laughter, not weeping, the very sounds of which drop, like tears, into the ground. Hereafter, the poem says, nature would exist as a meaningful communicantthis is really a totally Emersonian poemto be listened to because human meaning would always be in it. The final couplet of the sonnet is a blend of summation and inspired, crafty hedging: "Never again would birds' song be the same," says Frost, in the line that gives the poem its title. But then he withdraws, as if the point of the poem couldn't be the establishment of a major myth; the final line domesticates the story, turning into canny praise of Eve's beauty"And to do that to birds was why she came." But of course the poem is not about Eve as woman at all, but, in an unavowedly Miltonic way, about a part of humanity.
"Her tone of meaning, but without the words"undoubtedly what Frost had earlier formulated, in attempting to particularize the dimension of the music of speech to which his ear was most highly attuned, as "the sentence sound." He meant the delicate but crucial modulations of phrase-stress pattern, contrastive stress, the rhetorical suprasegmentals, that not only make oral communication what it is, but which a practitioner of classical accentual-syllabic verse must be aware of. It is the music of English verse in which syntax plays a necessarily important role. "Just so many sentence sounds belong to man as just so many vocal runs belong to one kind of bird," he writes to Sidney Cox in 1914. 'We come into the world with them and create none of them. What we feel as creation is only selection and grouping. We summon them from Heaven knows where under excitement with the audile imagination." The sound of sense: the music of speech, but of speech being watched, in its transcribed form, within a diagramming and punctuating and annotating grid of metrical pattern. To this degree, we all still dwell in the Romantic world of the ear, in which the song of birds is more like poetry than a Beethoven string quartet. Wordsworth's "Ode on the Power of Sound" is, of course, emphatically not about the power of music, but about the ear's larger, undomesticated vastnesses, those regions in which real poetry, rather than cultivated verse, is to be found, the realm of all the human and natural utterance, from cries of pain to shouts of discovery: the sounds of language and of the wind in trees.
From Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form. Copyright © 1975 by Oxford UP.
William H. Pritchard
Though it is probably wrong to speak either of wildness or a "joke" in relation to "Never Again Would Birds' Song. . .," still the "eloquence so soft" with which Frost unrolls this quietest and most discreet of his sonnets, has about it the air of a tour de force. Like his heroine Eve, he has added "an oversound" to the world of created sounds--bird calls, love calls, sonnets, in which he lives. The sonnet's cunning phrasing, with its artfully polite phrases--"Admittedly," "Moreover," "Be that as may be," all at the beginning of lines--suggests the impressive blend of delicacy and firmness with which the case is made for Eve's persistence in song. . . .
From Robert Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William Pritchard.
Nothing in Frost more beautifully exemplifies the degree to which "tone of meaning" or sounds of voice create resemblances between birds and Eve, between our first parents and us, between the unfallen and the fallen world. On such resemblances as these Frost would have us imagine a habitable world and a human history. This is a poem which establishes differentiations only that it may then blur them. The delicate hint of a possible but very light sarcasm in the first line blends into but is not wholly dissipated by a concessive "admittedly" in the sixth line. This is one man allowing for another's pride of love but unable to resist the suggestion that perhaps his friend is a bit overindulgent. And the other concessive phrasings, "Be that as may be" and "Moreover," are equally delicate in their effectiveness. For one thing, they tend to take the sting out of the possibly ironic statement that the eloquence of Eve "could only have had an influence on birds"; for another, they lighten the force of "persisted"; and they allow for an almost unnoticeable transition by which the reader is moved from the "garden round" of the second line to "the woods" in line 11.
The tone of the poem is of a speaker who is now here with us and of our time and destiny, while it is at the same time full of a nice camaraderie with our first parents. It is loving and responsible all at once, accepting the parentage of Adam and Eve and the necessary consequences of the Fall, along with the acknowledgment of the possibly good fortunes that also attended it. Eve did come--from Adam and with Adam--in order that the song of birds should, by being changed, mean more than it otherwise would have. The force of the word "aloft" is ever so discreetly crucial here. Her eloquence had power not indiscriminately but only when it was carried to a "loftiness" that belongs to great love and great poetry, neither of which need be separated from the delights of "call or laughter." The "voice upon their voices crossed" became part of Emerson's fossil poetry, awaiting discovery by future readers, and lovers. The ability to hear the "daylong" voice of Eve in bird song teaches us that our own voices, like the voice in this poem, still carry something of our first parents and their difficult history. Mythological identification in this poem consists of voices finding a way to acknowledge and also to transcend historical differences and historical catastrophes. The birds' oversound in relation to words resembles the "sentence sounds" described in the letter, already quoted, which Frost wrote in February 1914 to John Bartlett: "A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung." And a bit later he insists that "the ear is the only true writer and the only true reader . . . remember that the sentence sound often says more than the words" (Thompson, Letters, pp. 111, 113).
From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright © 1977 by Oxford University Press.
evokes that substratum, much later in his career, in "Never Again Would
Birds' Song Be the Same" (1942), a poem that provides a good example of
what might be described as his more advanced modernist thinking—advanced, that
is, beyond imagism—even as it demonstrates the extent to which his modernism
continues to be bound up with his notion of sentence- sounds. It also
demonstrates, I would argue, a modernism less or differently qualified than that
projected in some of Frost's essays and letters, insofar as the poem raises
problems of reading and interpretation that are normally less obtrusive or
visible on the surface of his texts. While we do not quite encounter the
"formal dislocation" of Eliot or Pound here, we are still presented
with a speaker who, like Eliot's Gerontion or Tiresias, bridges great gaps of
time and seems both ancient and modern, simultaneously one of us and an intimate
of Adam in the garden of Eden. This quality, moreover, casually revealed in the
speaker's own sentence-sounds, is completely taken for granted in the poem.
several ways, in fact, "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same" is
a curious mixture of apparently unrelated motives and effects. For one thing, it
is a sonnet. For another, despite its innocent guise of a pleasant "just
so" story, it actually constitutes something like a meditation on origins,
both linguistic and poetic. Set in Eden, scene of origins par excellence, the
poem nonetheless imagines a time when a kind of fall seems already to have taken
place, when Adam and Eve have already become aware of their difference from
nature. Like Milton, however, Frost does not view this event entirely in terms
of loss; it is, rather, the beginning of something else.
Adam is presented as the author of a myth about the human appropriation of
nature, or the absorption, the transformation, of nature into language—an
event which gives rise to the nostalgia of the poem's title even as it marks the
beginnings of a full human awareness of nature. "Never again would birds'
song be the same," says the speaker, although, by the poem's own logic,
what "birds' song" was like before its transformation could not,
strictly speaking, have been either knowable or nameable. In this sense, the
speaker's nostalgia is misplaced; the poem elegizes the loss or absence of what
Adam or the speaker could know only as loss
or absence. Clearly, a break in continuity between Adam and Eden has occurred, a
break signalled by both his nostalgia and his myth-making. At the same time,
however, there is a sense in which that myth-making, and perhaps poetry itself,
are intended as compensations for the sense of loss, imaginary as it may be. To
the extent that Eve came, as the poem's last line suggests, in order to humanize
nature, it is to her coming that we owe whatever knowledge of nature we have,
along with myth, poetry, and this very poem.
the poem's complexity is not only thematic; it also lies in the manner of its
telling, particularly, in the relation of its speaker to Adam, whose thinking is
reported to us in an apparently noncommittal indirect style that seems at odds
with myth in its tentativeness and in its almost fussy reliance on terms that
belong to logical discourse (itself, perhaps, a sign of the fall). Who, we must
ask, is speaking here? As the poem proceeds, it becomes increasingly difficult
to separate the speaker from Adam, to distinguish quotation from narration. Only
the tenses of the verbs remind us that we are listening to a mediated discourse,
a description of someone else's thinking; and in the last line of all, which
could reasonably be understood as, either Adam's or the speaker's, even that
indication disappears. If the speaker begins at some distance from Adam,
allowing for the possibility of an ironic account, one in which modern
skepticism exposes or at least stands apart from primitive belief, such a gap
narrows considerably, if not completely, by the end of the poem, where the
speaker seems fully involved in Adam's vision. On the other hand, the speaker is
careful to suggest that Adam himself is not entirely committed to what he
nevertheless "would declare," and we have to wonder if the speaker, in
speaking for Adam, is being more or less diffident about his myth than Adam
himself would be. In other words, how faithful a version or translation of
Adam's own language is this speaker providing (not a trivial question about a
poem by Frost, famous for his remark that poetry is what gets lost in
translation)? Do such terms and phrases as " Admittedly," "Be
that as may be," and "Moreover" reflect the attitudes of Adam, or
the speaker, or both? And does the rational tone that they convey work
ultimately to undermine or to signal an acceptance of Adam's myth? In any case,
the mythic is being viewed here, it would seem, from a decidedly
"fallen" point of view, one characterized not by visionary or
imaginative certainty but by a cautious and reasonable consideration of
vision itself, of course, is focused most centrally on what the' poem calls
Eve's "tone of meaning" and its influence upon the birds. "From
having heard the daylong voice of Eve," we are told, the birds in the
garden "Had added to their own an oversound, / Her tone of meaning but
without the words." By "tone of meaning" here we can understand,
precisely, Frost's sentence-sound. It is a kind of pure intonation, a substratum
of speech that can apparently cross over from human beings to birds and be
reproduced by them in a way that thereafter becomes meaningful to human ears, or
at least perceptible as "song." This crossing over can take place,
however, only because it is not meaning but sound that the birds pick up and
convey. In Frost's conception, one which plays an interesting variation on
traditional notions of linguistic origins, a language of spoken words is
preceded or underlain by a language of sounds without words, and like most
notions of an original or ideal language, this one is both prior
to actual speech, and so free of the problems of signification, and somehow
communicative nevertheless. This is the language that Adam hears as an
"over-sound" in the voices of the birds. Appropriately, since the poem
is a sonnet, this language seems to be a language of love, of "call or
laughter," in which meaning is conveyed by tone without the need for words.
Strictly speaking, though, it is not meaning but the sound
of meaning, the sound of sense,
that Adam hears. What he responds to or recognizes in the sound is a meaning
already identified with it in his relationship with Eve.
the poem is not about the origin of language so much as it is about its
humanizing power, its capacity to separate nature from itself and make it the
reflection of human meanings. In this sense, in narrating the event of Adam's
"discovery" of birds' song, the poem's speaker is locating the origin
of a lyric tradition, the very tradition in which his poem participates by
imagining that Eve is "in their song"; and again, it is Eve herself,
by her coming, who has precipitated this event and who therefore stands as the
ultimate cause not only of myth and poetry but of the human passage from nature
to culture. In arriving at this realization in the poem's final line, the
speaker seems, in addition, to be aware that what Eve has done to the birds she
has also, in some sense, done to him—that he and his language, even with its
" Admittedly" and "Moreover," are equally the results of her
naturalizing/humanizing act. Thus the poem is not simply about Adam's myth; it
is about itself in relation to that myth, and its final line, however obliquely,
offers the speaker's awed recognition of the connection, of the way his poem is
implicated in the very tradition whose origin it describes. What makes the poem
modern, beyond the fact of the problematic nature of its speaker and his
curiously indirect discourse, is precisely this sense of its connection with
poetic origins, its speaker's sudden apprehension of the continuity of his own
utterance with the mythic origin of poetic utterance in his own account of it.
Frost's stance in the poem, finally, with respect to myth and the primitive, is perhaps not unlike T. S. Eliot's attitude toward The Golden Bough. Frazer's great book, Eliot suggests, "can be read in two ways: as a collection of entertaining myths, or as a revelation of that vanished mind of which our mind is a continuation." Frost's poem, it seems to me, can similarly be read as an entertaining myth or as a revelation of the kind Eliot describes, a revelation of continuity. What I am suggesting, though, is that it is precisely the latter reading that allows for location of the poem in a modern context, one in which the poet discovers that his poem, and his very language, are conditioned if not caused by history. This is not, to be sure, the modernism of absolute beginnings, of Pound's "Make it new," but its other side—the modernism of Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (or, for that matter, of Pound's own question, posed in a letter of 1908, "Why write what I can translate out of Renaissance Latin or crib from the sainted dead?"), in which the writer comes to recognize that his task involves a struggle with meanings already inscribed in language. Indeed, to work in terms of this recognition may be just what Frost means by "the old fashioned way to be new."
from "Frost and Modernism" in Cady, Edwin H. and Louis J. Budd (eds.) On Frost: The Best from American Literature. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991. Originally published in American Literature 60.1 (March 1988).
It would seem that we have an enchanted Adam, who delights not only in Eve's voice, and by implication her softness, her calls and laughter, her "tones of meaning" that transcend or bypass words, but one who also delights in nature, in the songs of birds. Adam had arrived in the garden before Eve, and thus he was in a position to notice that her arrival had an effect on the birds. It was her soft eloquence, her calls and laughter, her wordless tones of meaning that became part of their song. These soft, perhaps erotic sounds were daylong; they were in concert with the birds' songs, and that is why they became forever a part of them. Since she was in their song, Adam needed only to hear the birds sing, and he would be hearing the voice of Eve as well. This influence carried beyond the particular spot where she stood; it carried to the birds "in all the garden round," a noun adjunct that suggests, in the way "compass round" does in "The Silken Tent," infinite extension in and around the garden. The sound traveled upward as well: it was carried aloft. But it was not her laughter or her calls that became part of the birds' song. Her calls and laughter were merely the carriers of her wordless "tone of meaning," her "soft eloquence." This intangible essence of Eve, then, is what entered their song.
Not only in space but through time did Eve have this influence, and in manipulation of tenses this poem extends itself almost imperceptibly backward and forward in time, creating (as did Milton) a timelessness within the poem which transcends the time-bound reality that we know Eve also to have introduced. We can assume that the "he" is Adam, since he is listening to Eve in the garden. The first sentence uses "would" as a modal, which hints of futurity even while it is the past of "will." The birds "had added" the oversound "from having heard" Eve's voice-clearly in the past and clearly putting the relationship of Eve's voice and their adding in a sequential relationship. This having been done, "she was in their song," still in the past. It is in the lines that follow that time becomes ambiguous: "her voice upon their voices crossed ("crossed" as past participle modifying "voices" or "voice" as it crossed with their voices) / Had now persisted in the woods so long / That probably it never would be lost. " When is "now" we must ask ? Did we not know the short term of their stay in the garden, we might be tempted to say this is an older Adam telling us that, after so long, the voices still remained "crossed." But we know how little time was spent in the garden, and we notice that not only has time extended beyond the time of Adam in Eden but so has setting changed from garden to woods. The constant common to all time and all place then is the birds' song, audible in garden and woods, audible then as now, but remarkable in that Eve's voice has remained in their song. "Never again would birds' song be the same" makes it clear that Eve's influence has been a permanent one, perhaps implying that Adam in every man in every time would hear Eve when he heard birds sing.
"Never again" is a very resonant phrase, however. One way to read it is with nostalgia for a past that can never again be recaptured. Eve's influence, as we have been told again and again before ever having read this poem, has not been simply to beautify birds' song. Eve's "influence" lost man Eden. Eve's influence introduced mortality, not only erotic pleasure. In fact, with the first couple's new-found knowledge came unsatisfied eroticism. But this poem hints that she came (unmistakably a sexual connotation) precisely to do that, to introduce this dimension to Adam's life for worsebut also for better .
If we analyze the use of the modal "would" in this poem, we find that it is able to obscure time because it introduces a subjunctive mode not bound by time precisely because it is not used to report actual fact, past or present, but wish, fantasy, probability, or intent. We see this first of all when we examine the difference between the sentence "Never again will birds' song be the same" and "Never again would birds' song be the same." In the first we are in a factual present, looking ahead to the future; we would more likely assume from the sentence that now is best, and the future will not be as good. "Would" puts us into a past as it looks ahead into the future. Here, too, time faces in both directions, recalling "Nothing Gold Can Stay," but here there is a difference. In "Nothing Gold" ends are implicit in the beginnings; here, beginnings are implicit in an end. The hopefulness here and in "West-running Brook" may derive from the same source: the presence of an Eve and whatever meaningsliteral or figurativeattach (as we explored in the previous chapter) to marriage. "Would" also implies condition: under given conditions there would be a change. If Eve influenced the birds, they would never again be the same. The sentence as it stands in the poem looks both forward and backward, and it can imply either that Eve improved life or that she "diminished" it, for while we are told that she improved birds' song, we bring to the poem our knowledge that she influenced Adam's downfall. Never again would man live in Eden, but something of Eden persists in all time, in all woods. Eve, after all, is with him "wand'ring hand in hand" in a world that lies before them.
This duality of Adam's relation to Eve is reflected in the contrasting tones, the contrasting directions and rhythms of the poem. In fact, the contrasting pulls of tone arise precisely because of these different tones and contrasting voices. There is an uncomplimentary undertone introduced into this lovely lyric of bird song. There are men who would consider the "daylong voice" of a woman to be nagging and unpleasant. Here Eve's voice "crossed" that of the birds; it persisted. There is also the aggressive quality of the expression "to do that to," and when one comes to do something to birds, it could mean that one comes with a purpose, an intent. This too is woman; but combined as it is with beauty and song, softness and sexuality, combined with nature as we see it here in garden, woods, birds, these more aggressive qualities seem to mitigate what would other- wise be sentimental. The combination seems to tie even Eve, even the Eve principle, to realitydaylong, persistent, day-to-day, long-term, but still loving reality. (One is reminded that in "My Mistress' Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun" what begins as less than complimentary emerges, just for that reason, as a far more sincere declaration of love than we find in many more effusive love sonnets.)
Contrasting with birds and garden and the softness not only named but implemented by means of soundthe predominance of unvoiced consonants, especially "s" and "f"; the pre-dominance of liquids such as "r" and "1" and the semivowel "w," contrasting with the lyric, idyllic qualities of the sonnetwe find the language of argument. What room is there in such an atmosphere for words like "admittedly ," "moreover," and "be that as may be," which carries with it echoes of the more usual "be that as it may" as well as the doubting, noncommittal "maybe." It takes a poet confident and sure of what he is doing to throw words like this into such an atmosphere; and it takes a good poet to succeed in that these words sound right. They sound right because they carry forward the undertone that maintains the duality of the poem, of man's position in love and in the world we inherited from our first parents. They also inject the everydayness that makes the celebration of love so r'ealthe everydayness of Eve, the Eve-ness of everydayand they allow us to see the humor and the self-irony of a man who persists in defending what, in actual fact, is totally indefensible.
The poem tells us what he "would declare," which expresses, as we have already noted, both a hypothetical situation and an intention. It also expresses what was habitual. What he would declare is that the birds have added an oversound to their song--Eve's tone of meaning. But he soon sees that there is something illogical in this; "admittedly" such a soft eloquence would not be heard by the birds. Well, it would be when call or laughter carried it up; that is, the more seductive, appealing sounds will act as transmitters to the birds, and it is of course that note which will remain of Eve in all future birds. "Be that as may be, she was in their song." The speaker concedes that his claim is only within the realm of possibility, even of make believe; but we also "hear" the oversound of "be that as it may," which we use when we mean: well, it's like that anyway. In either case, it is as if he says: I know it doesn't make sense, I know your argument is sounder, but even so, this is the way I see it. She was in their song.
There are only two indicative sentences in the poem, only two sentences that state fact as we are to believe it really was: (1) "she was in their song" and (2) "to do that to birds was why she came." Ironically, these two "givens" are, in light of provable fact and reason, the most difficult to believe. We can have no evidence for either; yet these are the declarations of the poem. Everything else is expressed with "would" and "could": he would declare, he could believe, only in a particular way could her voice have influenced their song, probably it would not be lost, never again would it be the same. After all, doing this to birds was her intention; it was her reason for coming. He would declare it, and he could believe it.
What everything must finally depend on, of course, is his belief that this is so. Again it is ironic that "he would declare" precedes "and could himself believe." The order of the verbs is ironic, but so is the modal "could" and so too is the emphatic "himself." (Emphasis is also added by a reading of "would" that can lend a tone of stubborn insistence to his declaration, as in "he would do it despite our warning.") He plans to declare this strange phenomenon almost as if he must do so to make himself believe it, as if he talks himself into it with his argumentative line of reasoning that finally breaks down to be rescued by belief. He has not only convinced himself, but he has given in to what his perceptions and his feelings tell him, contrary to all logic and reason. These self-deceptions are not only declared as fact but are declared in metrical regularity as opposed to the jagged rhythm of the voice of logic: "Be that as may be, she was in their song." The self-deceiving first line is also completely regular. The spondaic "birds there" and "birds' song" are picked up in the last line, which ends, nevertheless, as if in answer, in regularity as well as statement of fact: " And to do that to birds is why she came."
So we are expected to believe that Eve came to do something to the birds. In one way, it seems absurd; in another we say, of course, she did something to the way birds sounded, to the way birds were to sound to Adam and all his descendants. She did something to affect, if not the birds themselves, then at least man's perception of birds. From the perspective of the perceiver it is all the same. Looking at the poem in this way, we see that it is no longer simply about human love and the garden of Eden but also about the way man perceivesreadsthe world around him. It is also about the way Frost reads the Edenic story. It is about the power of imagination as well as the power of love. The humor in the poem comes from the gentle self-irony of the man who would declare and defend. The pull is between two voices, but it is also between two modes of hearing. We hear two kinds of voices in the poem: the idyllic and the argumentative; but the speaker also hears two voices: the voice of reason and the song of birds.
This Adam is not stupid; any deception is self-deception with his conscious collaboration. There is surely something mysterious about soft tones being transmitted to birds who "admittedly" cannot hear them all and something mysterious about such "learned" song when it is transmitted to an indeterminate future. So be it, because it is being declared by someone who knows it is in his imagination, but who believes in the truth of his imagination. Therefore this poem is about art as surely as it is about love. All tradition would be behind our agreement that no man could have taught the birds how to sing as Eve did. The upward lilt of the phrases ("eloquence so soft," "influence on birds," "carried it aloft") reinforces the lilt and softness of a lyrical female voice, the beauty and softness of an Eve. But at the same time it took an engaged listeneran Adamto perceive it and to appreciate it, and this required two things: the capacity to love, and the capacity to imagine, to look at nature and create with her, whether a human relationship or a work of art.
There is no other paradise, and man must therefore create his "paradise within." Frost has evoked the powerful story of Eden, but he will not accept, it seems, the traditional Christian view of the Fall (again, the Old Testament Christian) or of Eve's role. Yes, Eve can be a problem, but listen to what she did to bird song. Listen to her eloquent softness, her call, her laughter. See what it all did for our powers of perception, our creative imagination. To do all that is why she came.
This poem, in showing an Adam who loves and who has the capacity to imagine, who not only makes the best of his lot but positively enjoys it, presents us with a positive and hopeful view of Adamfor all Adams.
from Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and the Poet. Copyright © 1991 by the University of Georgia Press.
Matthew A. Fike
Critical commentary on Frost's sonnet "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same" (1942) has presented but not explored a biographical controversy centered on the sonnet's composition. The poet's treatment of Eve's influence on birds has been read both as an "elegy" to his wife Elinor, who died in 1938, and as a loving tribute to his friend Kay Morrison, to whom he proposed marriage and who became his secretary in the same year. But even if elegiac, says the critic, the poem "turns out in the end not to be an elegy at all": the tone is generally considered positive, and the poem, whoever the poet had in mind when he composed it, is a love sonnet. The purpose of the present essay is to suggest that "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same" is a subtle meditation on the Fall, in which Frost complements affectionate portrayal with sadnesshis love for Kay and his wife is tempered by feelings of failure and loss related to his marriage. By undercutting the joy of paradisal love and the sense that Eve's unfallen voice will never be completely lost, the poem conveys the lamentation to which all fallen love is heir.
In many ways, of course, the poem is highly positive, as Frost's own testimony suggests. At his birthday celebration in 1962, he praised Kay as "the lady who made me make it," referring to his most recent book, In the Clearing (published earlier that day and dedicated to her and others), and he recited "Birds' Song" in her honor. Fourteen years earlier, in a letter to Louis Untermeyer, Frost had praised her in language that anticipates the poem:
My secretary has soothed my spirit like music in her attendance on me and my affairs. She has written my letters and sent me off on my travels. It is an unusual friendship. I have come to value my poetry almost less than the friendships it has brought me. . . . I was thrust out into the desolateness of wondering about my past whether it had not been too cruel to those I had dragged with me almost to cry out to heaven for a word of reassurance that was not given me in time. Then came this girl stepping innocently into my days to give me something to think of besides dark regrets. . . . I wish in some indirect way she could come to know how I feel toward her.
Kay's "attendance" evidently had an influence on Frost's spirit as Eve's voice alters Adam's view of the birds' song. In each case, music is the metaphor of loving affection, and the poet, like Adam, responds to its soothing presence. The letter also anticipates the poem insofar as it echoes the Fall. Upon Elinor's death, Frost "was thrust out into the desolateness of wondering about my past," as Adam is expelled from Eden into a life of sad recollection. But then the Fall is reversed: Kay comes "stepping innocently into my days," much as God brings Eve to Adam in the unfallen garden. Contrary to a prevailing opinion on Frost's Eden poems, felix culpa does have some application in his personal life, and finds subtle expression in "Birds' Song." With Kay in mind, Frost could write with positive intent that the world would "never again" be the same.
At the same time, however, the influence of his wife must also be considered. He wrote to his daughter Lesley in March 1939 regarding a letter of Elinor's he had discovered:
My, my, what sorrow runs through all she wrote to you children. No wonder something of it overcasts my poetry if read aright. No matter how humorous I am[,] I am sad. I am a jester about sorrow. She colored my thinking from the first just as at the last she troubled my politics. It was no loss but a gain of course. She was not as original as I in thought but she dominated my art with the power of her character and nature.
Clearly, Frost is reflecting on his former poems, but it would be naive to believe that Elinor's influence ceased at her death. The letter itself, along with his continuing grief, suggests that it did not. Or as one critic puts it in a comment on Kitty Hawk (1956), Elinor "lived in his memory long after she was no longer a physical part of his world." As Frost is a "jester about sorrow" in earlier poems, so "Birds' Song" mingles the joy of paradise with the lamentation of the Fall, so that the poem subtly expresses Adam's profound regret.
This dual reading begins with the sonnet's structure. Although the poem does have a Shakespearean rhyme scheme, the three quatrains in "Birds' Song" do not contribute equally to a positive view of Eve's influence. Two distantly removed time periods are presented, and the turn between them comes between lines eight and nine. The octet deals with Adam's perception, whereas the sestet reveals the fallen poet's similar view in the present day. In other words, despite a Shakespearean rhyme scheme, the poem's use of the Petrarchan structure of meaning is in keeping with Frost's frequent manipulation of sonnet form.
Details that highlight the two time periods reinforce the sense of loss and regret marked by the turn at line nine. Frost contrasts "the garden round," roundness symbolizing perfection and wholeness, with "the woods"the New England woods or the region east of Eden. The garden is "there," in the past, whereas the speaker believes that Eve's influence still persists "now," in the present day or post-lapsarian time in general. A further indication of sonnet structure is that Eve's "daylong voice," her "call or laughter," ends at line eight, so that the next line returns to the fallen world. If one regards the time of the third quatrain as the period directly after the Fall, the portrait is hardly positive: the birds pass the voice of Eve between them; her voice no longer has any impact, since she has little reason to laugh, much less in a "daylong" fashion worthy of the birds' emulation. The shift in line nine, however, more likely brings Frost's speculation on distant matters to bear on birds of the present day. Meter now implies his uncertainty: "Be that as may be, she was in their song." The word "may" is accented, so that the phrase sounds like "maybe," implying modern man's uncertainty and inadequacy in commenting on edenic perfection. And ironically, the poet is speaking not with Eve's unfallen "eloquence"a word whose polysyllables imply a higher state of language in the unfallen gardenbut primarily in monosyllables, a technique which captures the simplicity of fallen speech. The sonnet's very language, then, implies that "her voice" has indeed been lost, contrary to the claim "That probably it never would be. . . ."
In the opening lines, Frost's lack of specificity in two particular monosyllables opens the poem to a range of meaning. Attention has been paid to his not identifying who "He" is. As the pronoun suggests that the poem is a love sonnet of Frost or Everyman, it also implies Everyman's lament. The word "there," relating to space as well as time, serves a similar purpose. Adam in the garden notes lovingly that the birds have captured Eve's "tone of meaning but without the words"a view in keeping with the traditionally positive interpretation of the poem. In addition, the word "there" suggests a displacement not only from the modern "woods" but also from Adam's fallen life in the region east of Eden. "He would declare and could himself believe," then, captures two types of habitual recollection: Adam's unfallen joy, as well as his lamentation after the Fall, his sad, habitual realization that birds' song bears a reminder of what he has forever lost. Frost's use of the pluperfect bears out this point: "He would declare and could himself believe" (habitual acts of perception in the past after the Fall), but the birds "Had added to their own an oversound" (action identified with the unfallen garden further in the past).
If the poem is a lament, Adam resembles Everyman in the manner of the fallen poet: Adam recalls paradise but cannot forget the Fall; Frost mourns the loss of joy in marriage even as he remembers its bitterness. "Birds' Song" does not merely offer onesided admiration; it offers love mingled with regret. It shows in the third quatrain Frost sharing the qualities he attributes to Adam in the octetnot only the Wordsworthian sense that perception is plastic, but more important, humans' tendency to view the world in terms of the persons they love, with whom they have shared poignant experiences. Birds' song will never be the sameand here "never" conveys a sense of bittersweet finalitybecause the human perception of it has been forever changed by love and by the Fall.
The song itself has presumably changed as well. Although Eve's influence may never be "lost," the word implies the Loss to which birds' song is subject in the present day, as well as the previous lessening of Eve's "eloquence." So the final line bears a dark implication: Eve came not only to humanize and color Adam's perceptions but also to bring about the Fall, because "birds" represent creation in general, in keeping with Frost's claim that he was a synechdochist. Certainly the phrase "to do that to" conveys the sense of inflicting injury or pain. It is not that Eve ruins the birds' song; it is simply that Frost rounds out his "love sonnet" with irony that befits the fallen woods.
Insofar as Frost weaves a thread of lamentation throughout the poem, the sonnet form becomes a compensatory device. For Frost, as critics writing on his other sonnets have observed, form provides the means to overcome chaos. Whereas the Fall qualifies the sense that "Birds' Song" is a love poem for Kay Morrison, the sonnet form indicates the poet's attempt to forge order out of chaosthe fall out of happiness in his marriage but on a larger scale the Fall he shares with humanity. There sounds a further note of hope in "her voice upon their voices crossed." One critic's reading, that "crossed raises the specter of conflict, as in a crossing of swords," bears out the negativity of the Fall. But "crossed" more aptly calls to mind the Cross, on which Christ undoes what Eve has done to birds and Adam and all of creation. The word shares in the optimism of Frost's letter to Untermeyer, and qualifies the notion that felix culpa was ever far from the poet's mind.
from The Explicator 49:2 (Winter 1991), pp. 108-112.
Andrew M. Lakritz
The tone itself is never defined in this poem, yet clearly be it sad or happy, Frost is making a virtue of the dialectical interpenetration of the female voice with his own song: Eve supplies the mood or tone, without or beyond language, and Adam, that primal poet and archetypal namer, gets it into words, into sonnet form, into human song. Perhaps there is something of this recognition in Frost's journal note: "Life is something that rides steadily on something else that passes away as light on a gush of water." The metaphor of riding here suggests domination and parasitism, but the concretization of the metaphor as light on moving water takes that back, as it were. One might say that the water is like the tone of Elinor Frost's voice, the sadness that made its way into Frost's poetry, while the flashing light is the brilliance of Frost's language, the embodiment in words of her feeling. If in constructing this dialectic as the interconnection of heart (woman/wife/inspiration) and head (man/husband/poet) Frost seems to rely on a very old-fashioned, misogynist dichotomy, that has to be complicated I think by the very medium in which the writer works his thought. For while in both letter and poem the female figure supplies inarticulate or preverbal feeling to be married with the male language (the realm of the symbolic governed by the law of the father), this way of constructing the past really only reassures the male in his role. What if the sadness, which is named in the letter and identified as belonging to the poet's wife, but not named in the poem (but so many other Frost poems of birds do contain sad, or diminished songs), in fact came from the poet's heart? That Frost appropriates the old gender roles is a measure of his great need to protect himself from his own emotions.
from Andrew M. Lakritz. Modernism and the Other in Stevens, Frost and Moore. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996: 71.
H. A. Maxon
Like "The Silken Tent" that appears eight poems before it, "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same" is so quiet as to seem almost a whisper. There is a sense of relief that accompanies early readings of this poem mainly because it follows "The Most of It," one of the darkest treatments of human isolation to be found anywhere in Frost. Even to hear Frost read the poem (he does on PBS's Voices and Visions videotape) there is a sweetness, a lilting absolute lyricism that is too delicately balanced and certain of itself to be fragile. Also like the previous sonnet, it is masterful and perhaps even deceiving, for rarely is anything completely what it seems in these poems.
The poem develops by quatrains (even though it is stichtic in form), and the first two, forming a kind of octave, are knitted together by a single sentence that exists in both quatrains. Quatrain one establishes the influence of Eve's voice upon the songs of birds. Quatrain two says that a "tone of meaning" is also there, a slight addition to the first contention, but still an addition.
Lines nine through twelve could be considered the beginning of a sestet, with the more insistent "she was in their song" signaling a turn. Or it might be considered yet another addition to the building already in progress: she influenced their song; she provided meaning; she was too long an influence to be lost. If this reading is accurate, then the couplet turns on the idea that it wasn't merely happenstance that this occurred. It was part of the plan from the beginning, hence an answer seemingly out of "Design."
Two possible readings arise from this uncertainty. If there is an octave and a sestet, then the last line of the octave suggests a purely accidental influence on the birds. "When call or laughter carried it aloft," would indeed contradict the very direct final statement of the couplet, "And to do that to birds was why she came." The "that" of the closing line becomes suspect: what is "that," a purely accidental, undesigned influence on birdsong, or a deliberate, designed influence, an elaborate plan orchestrated by a designer to forever have the guardianship of humanity, proclaimed by God, be stamped even on the voice of birds, "a thing so small"?
I don't believe there is a correct way to read these lines. Both make sense. Both can be supported from a prosodic and conceptual point of view. And both readings are possible thanks to other problems introduced into the poem from the beginning.
Part of Frost's theory was that poems lead to "clarification[s] of life." But seven of the thirty-seven sonnets ask questions that never get answered, and many more (such as this one) raise questions that cannot be answered because Frost provided mixed clues, if any. Clarification, then, means that we are thinking clearly, seeing all points of view simultaneously and asking the right questions to keep all of this in focus. This does not mean we ask questions that lead to definitive answers. We simply ask questions that allow us to keep from being disillusioned by our unknowing. This is a tough equation, but we can accept ambiguities because life is ambiguous, and poems are about life. They show us a new way of seeing what we already knew.
For a poem that appears so quietly certain of itself and straight-forward in its presentation, this is a mighty convoluted piece of work. But wait!
Two questions come immediately to mind, and these in themselves raise questions that are not, and cannot be, answered given what we have to go by. Question one: Who is "He"? There seem to me three possible answers, any of which can and do skew the reading of the poem. These readings are complementary but mutually exclusive.
Given the reference to Eve, the first possible speaker is Adam. If the speaker is Adam, then he appears to be saying that men are capable of good, of being a positive influence on the world (nature). The historical prospective argues somewhat against this identification of the speaker—it has "persisted in the woods so long." Yet still, who would know better?
God, perhaps? If God is the speaker (and He has spoken elsewhere in Frost), then we read a positive influence by Eve on the birds. But this, of course, must be counterbalanced, and this counterbalance occurs in the pun on Eve (darkness), which takes Adam's reading and stresses that along with the positive, evil was also picked up (however innocently) from the serpent. In this case there is a suggestion that the now-voiceless serpent has insured an evil influence by first going through Eve, thence to the birds through her. A circuitous route, to be sure, but one not denied by the poem. This reading is encouraged, in fact, by the very general "Her tone of meaning." Nowhere are we told if this tone is good or evil, if we are to read this with joy or with the resigned voice of one who sees the evil in the world and knows it cannot be stopped because evil will always find a way.
Not Adam? Not God? Who then? The third possibility seems to me to be the poet himself. Perhaps this is an appreciation of birds' songs, or natural beauty, a celebration of the creative influence of man on nature. In the "tone of meaning" then we have another restatement of Frost's poetic theory of the "sound of sense": "Her tone of meaning but without the words." After all, "The Oven Bird" offers much the same line: "The question that he frames in all but words." In other words, he has done it before, why not here, now? No reason. In the post-Edenic world we need to seek for something of our own making to praise, this reading suggests.
Which voice? Which speaker? The sonnet is sufficiently open to allow for any of these choices and sufficiently closed to omit the possibility of some sort of randomness as occurs in "Design." This is not coincidence, nor is it a random speaker. With randomness comes a whole new set of questions (Where does "He" come by his knowledge? is the first and foremost) that absolutely cannot be answered. The poem stumbles and self-destructs in the face of such a possibility. There may be another possible speaker, but it is not a random one or one designated an Everyman.
"Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same" is connected to other sonnets in several ways. The form is one way. The Shakespearean format, whether one sees Frost sticking to it or not, seems less important, however, than some other connections.
The poem is clearly connected to "The Oven Bird" by way of the "sound of sense." It is also connected because of the Eden/Eve references. In this way it is also connected to "Unharvested." Although there is no pattern or dominant image (other than the references to the biblical fall), the power of each of these poems to summon the others is strong.
Likewise, "Never Again . . ." powerfully recalls the three previous bird sonnets—"The Oven Bird," "Acceptance" and "On a Bird Singing in Its Sleep." This is not a fourth bird sonnet per se, but it does call into question the certainty with which some statements are made. All three of the bird sonnets teeter uncertainly on the question of safety, the future, the present, for all of them depict frail creatures in a harsh world. This momentary, self-assured step into a fanciful world, gently but forcefully influenced by a woman's voice, is a far cry from the real world, where survival reigns and niceties of modulated "tones of meaning" hold no sway. Taken as an irregular but logical next poem, "Never Again . . ." seems to lean toward the harsher readings suggested above and away from the gentler readings that would force it to depend too heavily on the other three without, perhaps, the resources and strengths to stand alone.
In many ways it is easy to see why critics have read this poem as a fairly straightforward appreciation by Robert Frost of Kay Morrison after her years of service as secretary. It is a poem that is "the quietest and most discreet of his sonnets" (Pritchard 237), a poem that possesses "delicacy and firmness" (Pritchard 237), yet without some very deliberate digging it does not yield up a great complex of meanings. Perhaps, as with "The Silken Tent," we want these to be sonnets of wisdom as well, an aging poet's earned clarity, a poet "made whole again beyond confusion," a poet who, for the rest of us, can recognize that "Truth is Beauty," and say it elegantly, unambiguously and freshly. And perhaps that is just what he is doing—but I don't think so.
from On The Sonnets of Robert Frost. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1997. Copyright © 1997.
Frost's sonnet "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same," from A Witness Tree (1942), is not usually included in selected editions of Frost's poetry. Nonetheless, it repays close attention, as has been amply illustrated by Judith Oster's deft reading of the poem in Toward Robert Frost. Oster considers it "one of the finest love poems we have" (246). However, as a love poem it is a peculiar one, and this peculiarity has not been sufficiently admitted.
The oddity lies in the poem's combination of touching intimacy and affection, with implicit suggestions of remoteness and distance. It is at once a delicately romantic poem and one that dwells on human aloneness and otherness in a relationship. Throughout the poem, Frost preserves "Eve" discretely from "He," the implied Adam. The poem allows that her voice is heard by the birds, and that the birds are heard by him, but there is an intriguing, insistent absence: The poem avoids reference to any direct communication between Eve and her lover. She seems to be heard and imitated by birds, and he hears them, but her "daylong voice" is not in dialogue or affectionate exchange with her lover. Her voice is solitary; its subject matter, its meaning, is kept from us, just as, perhaps, it does not reach him.
Indeed, Frost teases his reader in the middle of the sonnet with a suggestive enjambment: "Admittedly," we read, "an eloquence so soft / Could only have had an influence on birds / When call or laughter carried it aloft" (6-8). But the line break momentarily offers us the possibility that "an eloquence so soft / Could only have had an influence on birds," adding teasingly to the poem's subdued suggestions that Eve remains separate from the Adam figure, her words do not find him, her voice crosses with birds' song and not with his. Lines 13 and 14 read, "Never again would birds' song be the same. / And to do that to birds was why she came." So Frost's last line, a deeply affectionate way of describing the effect of Eve's presence and the amplitude of her personality, also preserves her otherness from Adam, leaving the reader again with her amid an audience of birds and with the continuing, quiet suggestion of a distance between her and her lover. That distance is perhaps implicit in the first line of the poem : "He would declare and could himself believe." But now we do not know to whom Adam makes his declaration.
Frost, Robert. "Never Again Would Bird's Song Be the Same." The Witness Tree. New York: Henry Holt, 1942.
Oster, Judith. Towards Robert Frost: The Reader and the Poet. Athens: U of Georgia P. 1991.
from The Explicator 58.2 (Winter 2000)
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