Lover he was, unlonely, yet alone—
Esteemed, belittled, nicknamed, and
—from “Epitaph,” by Robert Francis
It might be argued that every American poet labors in the shadow of Robert Frost’s birches. But the difficulty is particularly acute in the case of Robert Francis
(1901-1987), a “poet’s poet”—that double--edged designation—best known for his masterly lyric poems (eight books in all, including his Collected Poems 1936-1976 and his final volume, Late Fire, Late Snow). Referred to by Frost as “the best neglected poet,” he was constantly compared to his Amherst neighbor and mentor, with whom he could not help sharing a landscape both regional and artistic. Deferential toward the elder poet (“If he stumbles, his stumbling is more eloquent than our dancing”) but true to his own gift, Francis himself offers, perhaps, the fairest assessment of this lifelong hazard to his critical reputation: “Robert Frost has pulled my orbit a little nearer to his. He may have pulled me a bit out of my true shape. But the stuff in me is still my own stuff.”
And so it is, as can be witnessed in “Who Comes as Light,” a character-istically humble-hearted Francis poem—so tenderly vulnerable, yet clear of human disquiet—which Frost, in all his extraordinary power, could not have written:
Who comes as light
Need never wait outside.
Who brings the day
Always has right of way
To enter here,
Has leave to pass
Instant as light through glass.
Who comes as light
Will find these windows wide,
The glass washed clear.
Like Henry David Thoreau, his close companion of the mind, Francis lived much of his life in self-chosen isolation in a modest dwelling in the woods of Massachusetts. Fort Juniper, the house he named for the lowly but hardy ground-dwelling tree he took as his totem (To overthrow a juniper a wind / Would have to blow the ground away beneath it), was both a refuge from most human society and, by way of the green world he loved, a doorway into everything. The sun, the earthworm, the fern (token / Of all things fertile, whole, unbroken), the rain, and the blueberries (miniature moon or planet), and the birds they belong to (If they belong to anyone)—these were the beloved regular visitors to his life who found shelter in his poems.
Francis was a violinist and a vegetarian, a self-described “nature observer in a rudimentary way, a sunbather, a man of peace opposed to war, even something of poet.” His disarming autobiography The Trouble with Francis (1971) reveals an endearingly odd, nature-entranced sensibility. As a child, he kept a “mouse farm” (his father’s letter to him at camp: “The mice are O. K. Lovingly, Father”) and arranged his own personal county fair consisting of two fine exhibits: a box turtle and a plate of grapes—the first “for the animal kingdom” and the latter “to represent the vegetable.”
While working briefly on a chicken and apple farm after his discharge from the Army, he rescued an old baldy hen he named Gladys, a victim of the kind of pecking order violence he had feared as a youngster. To protect her from the cold, Francis housed her in his swept-out, unused fireplace, the stone hearth covered “with clean pine needles and rigged up” with “a little wooden fence.” Gladys recovered completely in no time at all: “At Christmas friends came bringing her gifts. We sat around the fireplace, not now to watch the fire but to watch Gladys.”
Like the character in Cast Away who, in the extremity of his loneliness, befriends a soccer ball, Francis, too, fashioned a friend of sorts out of an inanimate object: a stone face “with one squinting eye and a puckered mouth” atop a stone pedestal, to keep watch over Fort Juniper. The caption beside the stone man’s photo in Francis’s autobiography—like the poems themselves, and the man who wrote them—is self-abnegating yet revealingly self-insistent: “Origin Unknown, Age Undetermined, Sex Uncertain, Meaning Undeciphered, Endurance Unlimited, Integrity Unimpeachable.”
Attempting to account for this divided self in Francis’s poems, author Andrew Stambuk has argued that the true subject explored by Francis, a homosexual who didn’t enter into his first relationship until he was nearly 60, is “the bottling up of desire.” Stambuk, in The Man Who Is and Is Not There: The Poetry and Prose of Robert Francis (2011), chooses part two of Francis’s “Dark Sonnets” to illustrate his point:
We are the lonely ones, the narrow-
Our last “good nights” are interchanged
Then up cold stairs alone—the odd, the
What do we know of night? What do we
What do we know except that night is
That on a bed one sleeps, or lies awake,
That after too long waking sleep is
That for the unsleeping, day will
Oh, we know more. We can tell you how
On windy nights, and how the writhing
Hissed on the roof, mice gnawed, and
Over our head—or under the counterpane.
We are the lonely ones. When we are
We’ll be well suited to a narrow bed.
Suppression of such an essential aspect of Francis’s nature might well be the battery that runs the silver timepiece of his art. But if this alone were his subject, its appeal would be limited, and Francis’s best poems—such as the one above, such as all good poems—are meant for anyone, and are everlasting. Perhaps Francis’s true subject is the silent one who goes uncomforted (What do we know of night?), the wind’s last friend, who’s always been; that patiently waiting and painfully hopeful stone man with a beating heart.
Francis was a connoisseur of loneliness, an authority and specialist. In “Cypresses,” his Trees / Of Death (teaching birds / In little schools, by little skills, / how to be shadows) embody Always an attitude of solitude / To point the paradox of standing / Alone together. In “Ladybird, Ladybird,” a tiny red beetle (on the parchment shade of [a] reading lamp) becomes a saving grace: a tall tale / I could tell if I wanted to / for no one to believe: an angel / sent to cheer a lone man’s evening chair. The two beggars who are turned away with nothing to eat in “Two Bums Walk Out of Eden” leave a little / Briskly as men heedful to waste no time— / As men bending their steps toward due appointments. In “Eagle Soaring,” the solitary writer is depicted as a raptor wheeling high, Above all in the complete undistraction / And extreme loneliness of his observational.
In “Remind Me of Apples,” Francis writes to an anonymous “someone” in the language of light, touching briefly on what we love and are losing; he is the stone man who waits for us, trying to remember it all, keeping watch:
When the cicada celebrates the heat,
Intoning that tomorrow and today
Are only yesterday with the same dust
To dust on plantain and on roadside
Remind me, someone, of the apples
Cold in the dew of deep October grass,
A prophecy of snow in their white flesh.
In the long haze of dog days, or by night
When thunder growls and prowls but will
Or come, I lose the memory of apples.
Name me the names, the goldens, russets,
Pippin and blue pearmain and seek-no-
And the lost apples on forgotten farms
And the wild pasture apples of no
Ann Stapleton is a writer in Ohio.