Friday, November 18, 2011

A Critical Analysis of Robert Frost's "Provide Provide"

Robert Frost has been often accused of being a “terrifying poet”. Lionel Trilling had poems like “Provide Provide” in mind when he talked about the intimidating quality of Frost's poetry. “Provide Provide” paints a dreary picture of the ravaging powers of time and how time can take its toll without any pity or concern whatsoever. Even the most beautiful and ravishing things aren't spared. They too undergo the same fate. "Provide provide" reiterates the universal truth about beauty's ephemeral nature. It is only matter of time when everything beautiful turns ugly.  The inevitability of ruin and decay is built into the very fabric of life. Nobody can escape it; nothing is forever, nothing is permanent.

One may find oneself exceedingly lonely and neglected in his old age. In such a dismal scenario, either one must die friendless and all alone or choose to purchase friendship. No doubt, it isn't an ethical or praiseworthy way to go about making friends but then Frost knows finding a true friend in today's materialistic world is near impossible. Taking a realistic view of life, Frost recommends having phoney friends than having none. The poem endorses the idea of purchasing friendship to avoid meeting an ignominious and lonely end. The poet strongly prefers the prospect of leaving this world early. This, according to him, provides an opportunity to escape the misery of facing the horrors of old age. Hence, to die young is to die in a dignified manner.

The entire tone and manner is that of the public poet speaking to his democratic culture. The diction is appropriately drawn from the accessible middle level, with the exception of "boughten," a regionalist trace of the authentic life, meaning "store-bought" as opposed to "homemade," the real thing as opposed to the commoditized version; no major problem if the subject is ice cream or bread, but with "boughten friendship" we step into an ugly world where friendships are only in  name.

The bardic voice speaks, but now in mock-directives "Die early and avoid the fate," "Make the whole stock exchange your own", counseling the value of money and power; how they command fear; how fear commands, at a minimum, a sham of decency from others better that than the authenticity of their meanness. Genuine knowledge? Sincerity? Devices only in the Hollywood of everyday life. Try them, they might work."

Jarrell treats this poem as a subtle example of how the “Wisdom of this world….demonstrates to us that the wisdom of this world isn’t enough.” When Robert Frost wrote the poem “Provide, Provide” what he meant to say was decide, decide. Your probably asking yourself: decide what? To decide what type of life you wish to die. Throughout life you are given many choices. The decisions that you make during the course of your life will change the way you live your final minutes.                                           

Whether, you want to spend your closing hour at peace or with disappointment in yourself. Robert Frost suggests you have to provide yourself with the life you want to die with. Make sure you make the right decisions early. If you think bidding adieus to this world with a lot of money is more important than family and friends, then you should make sure that happens for you. Whichever path you choose to take, make sure it’s the one you want to live and die for.

In "Provide, Provide", Frost shows a few examples of what kind of life you may live. You can be born a beautiful woman and still die a haggish old witch. You can rule the economy and be the richest person in the world yet end your life with fake friends by your side or absolutely alone. You can become a fake queen and be viewed by others as a majestic god (read tin god) but you may still die as no one, perhaps all alone. In the third stanza Frost writes: “Make up your mind to die in state.” Suggesting you can’t take control of your destiny but you may decide in what mental state you want to die.

In the fifth stanza, Frost writes: “What worked for them might work for you.” Meaning you can look at people before you, to take example if that’s the way you want to live and die. But once again everything comes down to the decisions you make that would eventually shape your life. If you think that the meaning of life is to be rich and famous, than make such a decision and put your all out efforts into making it a reality. If all you wish for is to live life for your family than you should stay loyal and true to yourself. At least such choice is yours if not else. Hence, the poem is an attempt at finding a way to live happily and dying happily at all costs.

Frost ends his poem with a sarcastic stanza: “Better to go down dignified With boughten friendship at your side Than none at all. Provide, provide!” Frost is saying, that you try in life to provide yourself with the life you want, but if you find out that in the end you have failed, you may end up providing yourself with a fake version of how you wanted to end. Frost’s poem Provide, Provide makes you think of what kind of life you wish to provide yourself, by making the right decisions in life. Maybe you don’t want to be a Hollywood star. Maybe you just want to be a stay at home devoting your life to your family. Everyone’s life is different and no life should be criticized for the decisions which one makes.

But who, really, is Frost talking to? Who is this "you"? He appears to be addressing the audience he had been reaching (for twenty years at this point) through the press and from the platform: "For you to doubt the likelihood" is a bardic reminder to the masses. "What worked for them might work for you" is cynical and contemptuous counsel offered to the same. The penultimate stanza, however, whose triplet rhyme condenses the entire poem, makes no sense in that rhetorical scheme:

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Who among the ordinary, the unassuming, the obscure from fame, has any memory of having starred, of having lost it, of having to find a way to make up for later disregard? From a rhetorical point of view, the poem becomes incoherent here, but the incoherence is interesting and calculated: an expressive sign.
Be it Hollywood's heroines or poet, talking contemptuously to and at oneself, looking down the road at a possible fare that they would not be able to say they hadn't chosen, were it to turn out to be his - because they had made the decision to commit themselves to fame's course, within the cruel range of choices that this utilitarian and capitalistic world offers. It comes with the territory.

The ambitious especially have to carry wares that are so hard to unload. America's ambitious lot, are all like the biblical Abishag, who, though young and beautiful, could not warm King David: she could not arouse him, and her trying only degraded her. "Provide Provide"  paints the terrifying prospect of getting old and ugly in no unequivocal terms. It is described as bluntly and vividly as possible.

Robert Frost doesn’t mince words and refuses to whitewash the hard realities of life. The world & Nature are essentially unconcerned about human welfare or wellbeing. The onus to provide for oneself squarely lies on one’s own self come what may, under all circumstances. Morals and ethics may fail to garner support or friendship for oneself in the end.

Terrifying? Yes and no. Superficially yes, actually not. Nowhere does Frost want you to show your back and run away. The poet neither suggests escapism nor a cowardly exit from this world. Rather, there is a clear cut call to gird up your loins and provide provide, whatever the circumstances, whatever the situation to the best of your ability.

Trilling had indeed shocked everyone by stating,''I regard Robert Frost as a terrifying poet,'' for he found distinct grimness in Frost's poems. Later Trilling sent a letter to Frost apologizing for the stir his remarks had caused. ''Not distressed at all,'' Frost wrote back. ''You made my birthday a surprise party.'' Frost said: ''No sweeter music can come to my ears than the clash of arms over my dead body when I am down.'' Frost is gone but the clash of arms will continue on the interpretation of his wonderful poems that have unparalleled depth and appeal. "Provide Provide" is certainly one among them.


Anonymous said...

Robert Frost is the BESTTTT poet ever!!!

Rachna Sharma said...

Law of nature and its power is Depicted so beautifully.....when at the old age people need love, affection and attention on one side, the other side youth and young people are busy attaining their carrier and fame and least bother about the old people..... And hence the feeling of ignorance and unwanted is dreadful.... Similar to death....

Ed Esso said...

Rachna, I have difficulty taking this poem as seriously as you (and the accompanying commentary) do. In fact, every time I read this poem, I smile a large smile at its level of playfulness. The opening image of the former Hollywood screen star (played, of course by Lillian Gish) could be the opening shot of a classic silent film about a once-popular movie star who has lost her appeal and is now working as a housemaid. I think the poem makes fun of itself all the way through, with sarcasm dripping from every line. Its advice to Provide, Provide amid the perils of human existence is given with a subverting chuckle.

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