To what far ends: Robert Frost’s “A Prayer for Spring”

 Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;

And give us not to think so far away

As the uncertain harvest; keep us here

All simply in the springing of the year.  

 

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,

Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;

And make us happy in the happy bees,

The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.  

 

And make us happy in the darting bird

That suddenly above the bees is heard,

The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,

And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

 

For this is love and nothing else is love,

The which it is reserved for God above

To sanctify to what far ends He will,

But which it only needs that we fulfill.

 

–With a halting rhythm and sometimes odd, naïve style of diction, the speaker of “A Prayer for Spring” expresses longing to be immersed in the pleasures of the fresh new season, but is met at every turn with anxious thoughts of duty and mortality, his submerged themes which will remind him to cast off ease in favor of more demanding mysteries.  He implores for pleasure, but the springtime answers him with intimations of divine destiny.

From the first stanza, we are grounded in the awareness that the speaker’s prayer will be futile– whether it is in fact offered in desperation or in irony.  The line, “All simply in the springing of the year” strikes us with its childish, nonstandard diction.  The phrase, “keep us here/ All simply” presumably means, “keep us simple-minded”, i.e., capable of living plainly in the moment.  But “simply”, though a clever way to compress this attitude for poetic purposes, is in this syntax a childish word; combined with the phrase, “the springing of the year”, the effect is suggestive of a child’s prattle, albeit prattle with a precociously clever poetic affect.  It is as if Frost is assuming the voice of one of Wordsworth or Blake’s imaginative, Romantically pure children, and subtly parodying it.  “Springing”, used as an intransitive, has a potent effect, but it’s not easily separated from the suggestion of a child’s mind taking a charming but grammatically incorrect appropriation from the noun “spring”.

vermont-garden-apple-orchard-gardenista

With the second stanza the speaker begins to salute in turn a trio of organic figures, first the trees, followed by bees and bird.  The orchard, strikingly, is “[l]ike nothing else by day” but “like ghosts by night”.  In the light of day, the orchard is perfectly individuated–unique.  Yet in the nighttime it is only “ghosts”– as are we all.  The pleasure and radiant of life, in which all things are splendidly individuated, will yield to death, where all is ground down into wraiths.  As if invoked by the “ghosts”, next appears the swarm of “happy bees”.  Happy they may be; but, like ghosts, they “swarm”.  The phrase “swarm dilating” is liquidly, perhaps frighteningly, Dionysian.  Though bees have their happy place in nature, they are not exactly a theme of such pleasant indifference to man as the trees– bees can sting; and their unpredictable motion, their “dilating”, does not chime perfectly with the still white splendor of the trees or the patience observance and hopeful prayerfulness of the speaker.  Saluting the swarm by the title “happy bees” may be more an expression of prayerful hope on the speaker’s part, than a truthful estimation of their role in the scene.

But with the third stanza the speaker suddenly alights upon a more apt and suggestive exemplar in the natural scene before him than either the trees or the bees.  Here is a sudden bird– like the bees, animate, mobile; but like the trees, only more so, it is unique, distinguished, individual.  It is no “ghost”, but a “meteor”– a being not only skyward, but potentially, like an actual meteor, celestial, an emissary from the Heavens.  Its “darting” motion is seen, but it is also “heard”– it comes from “above” the bees, and dismisses the thought of them.  If the bees were only ambivalently “happy”, the bird is a startling, more persuasive messenger who lures the speaker on with the promise of a truer happiness.  The bird is a “meteor” yet, in a startling sudden reversal, it is seen in a frozen, perfect moment of time like a dazzling photograph:

“And off a blossom in mid air stands still.”

Like an angelic messenger, the bird has dived down from the sky, yet suddenly freezes before the speaker’s eyes, transfixing his gaze as the bird miraculously stands on air, prettily posed beside a blossom, a slight but sudden, unexpected Annunciaton, flooding the anxious speaker with sudden thoughts of God.

What does the speaker mean by, “For this is love and nothing else is love”?  This proclamation is emphatic, even ecstatic.  But does it refer back to the opening line’s “pleasure in the flowers today”, or to the remaining lines’ talk of the “far ends” God sanctifies as He will?  The first reading leaves us in a kind of epicurean Wordsworthianism, but this is unsatisfying, for the poem’s second line assures us that the speaker is, in fact,  worrying already about the far-off “harvest”.  That harvest, like the orchard’s ghostly night, assuredly connotes death and the measure it must take of the spent springtime.  Has the speaker lived wisely, even if harmlessly, by biding his time studying the pleasures of Spring?  If his (and our) enjoyment of the spring flowers is “sanctified”, it is by mysterious yoking to still-distant ends ordained by, and known only to, God:  ends “it only needs that we fulfill.”  This hopeful but solemn declaration still leaves unanswered the how and when of this fulfillment.

Can the speaker serve these purposes through his patient, idle observation of the spring things?  Does the poem offer a self-reflective mirror into that service: a celebration of the creative molding of experience and observation into the poet’s divine tribute?  Whatever the explanation, the soaring bird is closest to the truth, for this visitor who “thrusts in with needle bill” has delivered a message, however inscrutable, from the heights.  As a record of distilled experience, the poem replicates the bird’s feat of hanging in mid air, reminding us to think of things “far away”, and what we must do to satisfy their hard, yet exhilarating, demands.

 

 

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