O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.
Robert Frost, A Boy’s Will, 1913
With apologies to Robert Frost, who probably has no equal as a 20th-century nature poet writing in English, we confess that we have always thought that his tribute to October misses Olympian perfection by a hair’s breadth. What we see as a flaw is a single word, its first word, one letter long. Strapping a frilly bonnet onto a Degas ballerina would have a similar effect. In our frankly inexpert view, the first line scans perfectly well without this archaism. Somehow, it fails to irritate in its repetition in line six, so why not just let it be there?
In some biographical tome or critical exegesis we have no time to look for, there must be an explanation for why Frost chose to begin with ‘O’. Could he have set himself a test, in which he had to try to knock John Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ off its pedestal? Was it both an hommage — Frost’s love of the early Romantic poets is well known — and friendly competition?
Certainly for ears in our time, Frost’s is the greater poem because it is so lean and quirky — deeply felt yet flintily austere; and as true in every detail it observes as the strong, beautiful muscles in Degas’s balletomane bronzes. Nature serves the Keats verses as a backdrop for a passionate reverie. For Frost, it is at front and centre.
But it would be unfair for history — when the 20th century also seems much further away than it does now — to judge Frost to be the better poet, not just because each man wrote for a different era of literary conventions and taste, roughly a hundred years apart. Keats, who would die at 25, only a year after ‘To Autumn’ was published, was 23 when its lines came to him. It would take a heart of stone to escape an excruciating twinge of sadness, reading or recording these facts. What he managed to accomplish in his firefly’s span certainly warrants his pegging as a young poet of genius.
By contrast, Frost was slow to make his mark as a poet, having ‘allied himself with no literary school or movement.’ He was on the verge of his fifth decade when his October poem appeared in his first collection, A Boy’s Will — which he had to publish himself, after years of having his work rejected by magazines.
Almost no one learns poetry by heart after school, but there must be lots of other people, we suspect, who committed it to memory as adults and recite it this month, year after year, feeling a shiver up the spine at the end of it.