Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Robert Frost and the Northern Pass: "Freedom Lies in Being Bold"

Although it appeared in his Pulitzer Prize volume of poetry entitled New Hampshire (1923), Robert Frost's long narrative poem "A Fountain, A Bottle, A Donkey's Ears, and Some Books" is not well known--unless you are from the North Country.

The poem opens with the speaker (a semi-autobiographical Frost) talking with "Old Davis," a local guide of sorts, who owns "a solid mica mountain in Dalton" with, experts predict, mica sheets as big as plate glass windows buried deep down. Some "Boston people" had come out to see it, and Davis wants to take the speaker there too.

Unimpressed by this gaudy phenomenon and its Boston visitors, the speaker instead wants Old Davis to take him to a more meaningful and elusive place:

the place where once, on Kinsman,
The early Mormons made a settlement
And built a stone baptismal font outdoors—
But Smith, or someone, called them off the mountain
To go West to a worse fight with the desert.

Davis drags his feet and scoffs at the idea of searching for that "old bathtub," but the speaker persists, and finally Davis consents even though "it's grown up some to woods around it [and] the mountain may have shifted since I saw it in eighty-five."

What follows is a day of tramping around the Kinsmans searching for the old Mormon settlement and its legendary fountain in the vicinity of the current WMNF Reel Brook Trail in Easton. The two men "made a day of it out of the world," "ascending to descend to reascend," as accurate a description of hiking the Kinsman ridge as has ever been written.

The Mormon fountain eludes them. Then Old Davis stumbles across something else that he thinks will placate the speaker--the likeness of a bottle painted, or stained by vegetation, on the side of a cliff--and further suggests that they search out the image of a donkey's ears formed by two converging slides. But the speaker dismisses these as likenesses "that surprise the thrilly tourist."

A frustrated Davis then leads the speaker to an abandoned house, not of the Mormon settlement, but of the poetess Clara Robinson, now dead. Books of poetry lie strewn about everywhere in the broken glass from windows shattered by "boys and bad hunters." In the old house, Davis and the speaker each pick up a book and begin reading, "both either looking for or finding something . . . .I was soon satisfied for the time being."

All the way home I kept remembering
The small book in my pocket. It was there.
The poetess had sighed, I knew, in heaven
At having eased her heart of one more copy—
Legitimately. My demand upon her,
Though slight, was a demand. She felt the tug.
In time she would be rid of all her books.

Frost's actual friend and hiking companion, Ray Holden of Franconia, has written that Frost often spoke of the legend of the Mormon settlement with its ruins that hunters occasionally came across. "Frost and I never took a walk without the sometimes spoken and sometimes tacit understanding that we were looking for that altar" (Thompson, Years of Triumph, 563-64).

In a legend rooted in historical evidence, Mormons did settle on the side of Easton's Beech Hill on South Kinsman Mountain in the 1830s, even if Frost and Holden never found the site. In the poem, the search on the west side of Kinsman for the evocative old settlement and its altar serves to provide a necessary day "out of the world" and anticipates finding the abandoned house of poetry in which the speaker experiences the sense of satisfaction that tourist attractions (mica mountains, images of bottles on cliffs, avalanche scars that look like donkey's ears) cannot give him. For Frost, the uncharted outdoors is the gateway to the temple of art.

In "A Fountain, A Bottle, A Donkey's Ears, and Some Books," Robert Frost, the iconic poet of New England, captures the deeper meaning of the North Country as a place where one may still experience a day "out of the world" in nature. It is sadly ironic that the apparent site of the old Mormon settlement for which Frost's speaker searches would lie in the shadow of 145' steel pylons if the Northern Pass project takes its "preferred route" through Easton and the White Mountain National Forest. Those same mammouth towers would march up and over the mountain through the original Kinsman Notch, in the col between Mt. Wolf and South Kinsman, and forever obliterate the haunting traces of Nathaniel Kinsman and others before him, perhaps even the Native Americans, who first walked into the Easton Valley.

What would Robert Frost say?

"Freedom lies in being bold."

To join the Bury the Northern Pass email list, write to