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Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge’

Robert Frost
1874-1963

On the eve of the Second World War and during a period of acute personal distress, Robert Frost composed “The Silken Tent,” a lyric poem widely regarded as one of the finest sonnets written in English in the twentieth century. A love poem in the tradition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, it is also a hymn in praise of personal composure:

            She is as in a field a silken tent

            At midday when a sunny summer breeze

            Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,

            So that in guys it gently sways at ease,

            And its supporting central cedar pole

            That is its pinnacle to heavenward

            And signifies the sureness of the soul,

            Seems to owe naught to any single cord,

            But strictly held by none, is loosely bound

            By countless silken ties of love and thought

            To everything on earth the compass round,

            And only by one’s going slightly taut

            In the capriciousness of summer air

            Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

In these eloquent lines, cast in the strict rhymed form of the English sonnet, Frost elaborates a single complex sentence and a single unifying metaphor. Likening an unidentified woman to a silken tent, he compares her strength of character to a cedar pole, her interdependent relationships to guy lines, and her bonds of affection to the “cords” that tether her to the earth. Contrasting the connotations of bound and bondage—the former suggestive of obligations, the latter of enslavement—he portrays a person grounded in real life but also flexible, buoyant, and untrammeled. In the midst of social pressures and ever-shifting conditions, she remains balanced and resilient—qualities of heart and mind that the narrator much admires.

Those qualities are not only extolled by the poet; they are also mirrored by the poem itself. In its achieved concordance of formal elements, it demonstrates what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, speaking of the power of the poetic imagination, called “the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” In “The Silken Tent,” as often in Frost’s poems, the fluent rhythms of natural speech are balanced against the drumbeat of iambic meter. Images of stasis and stillness harmonize with those of change and movement. And complexity of syntax and figuration is reconciled with the unity of a single sentence and the simplicity of a single extended metaphor. Frost originally called the poem “In Praise of Your Poise,” and in its masterly balance of formal elements, it embodies the very quality it praises.

In Zen teachings that quality is known as equanimity. An object of active cultivation in Zen practice, it is not to be confused with indifference or a culpable detachment. On the contrary, its essence is a demonstrated capacity to maintain one’s stability of mind, clarity of vision, and openness of heart while engaged in the vicissitudes of daily life. In the Buddhist tradition, equanimity is one of the “Four Immeasurable Minds” (the other three being loving-kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy), and of the four, it is often viewed as the most important. The Zen priest Zokestsu Norman Fischer Roshi describes it in this way:

Equanimity . . . is inherently generous and trustworthy and supportive of all of reality, without taking sides.  It’s in the middle.  It stands in the middle of things – not to either side. . . .  [T]his doesn’t mean stupid neutrality, because actually standing in the middle of reality, in the middle of our lives, is the only place you could stand and maintain full integrity.  Otherwise, you would be biased; you would be unbalanced; and therefore, you would be vulnerable.  You would eventually suffer and cause others to suffer.  ­­­

Fischer notes that the Pali word upekkh­ā (Sanskrit, upekshā), from which “equanimity” derives, originally meant “to look over,” implying an impartial as well as comprehensive outlook. Consistent with this aspect of equanimity, Frost depicts his subject as “loosely bound / By countless silken ties of love and thought / To everything on earth the compass round.” Open to all, she refrains from taking sides.

In “Meditations in Time of Civil War” (1922), a poetic sequence written during the Irish Civil War, W.B. Yeats described the poems he would leave behind as “befitting emblems of adversity.” In “The Silken Tent,” Frost has bequeathed something very different but no less valuable: a befitting emblem of equanimity. Although Frost’s sonnet was written more than eighty years ago, under circumstances very different from our own, it remains a work of art deserving of study and a moral emblem worthy of contemplation. Even in trying times, it reminds us, equanimity is possible.

___________

The Silken Tent: Robert Frost, Complete Poems (Holt, 1949), 443.

“The balance or reconciliation: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817), Chapter XIV.

Equanimity . . . is: Norman Fischer, “Equanimity (Upeksha)–Fourth of the Four Immeasurables,” Everyday Zen Foundation, May 27, 2010.

 

 

 

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