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Robert Frost's "Carpe Diem"

Updated on May 8, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Robert Frost

Source

Introduction and Text of "Carpe Diem"

The speaker in Robert Frost’s "Carpe Diem" offers a rebuttal to the philosophical advice portrayed in the notion, "seize the day." Frost’s speaker has decided that the present is not really that easy or valuable enough for capturing. Thus this rebel has some subterfuge advice for his listeners. Let art and life coalesce on a new notion.

Carpe Diem

Age saw two quiet children
Go loving by at twilight,
He knew not whether homeward,
Or outward from the village,
Or (chimes were ringing) churchward,
He waited, (they were strangers)
Till they were out of hearing
To bid them both be happy.
"Be happy, happy, happy,
And seize the day of pleasure."
The age-long theme is Age's.
'Twas Age imposed on poems
Their gather-roses burden
To warn against the danger
That overtaken lovers
From being overflooded
With happiness should have it.
And yet not know they have it.
But bid life seize the present?
It lives less in the present
Than in the future always,
And less in both together
Than in the past. The present
Is too much for the senses,
Too crowding, too confusing-
Too present to imagine.

A reading of Frost's "Carpe Diem"

Commentary

The phrase, "carpe diem" meaning "seize the day," originates with the classical Roman poet Horace, circa 65 B. C. Frost's speaker offers a different view that questions the usefulness of that idea.

First Movement: Age as a Person

Age saw two quiet children
Go loving by at twilight,
He knew not whether homeward,
Or outward from the village,
Or (chimes were ringing) churchward,
He waited, (they were strangers)
Till they were out of hearing
To bid them both be happy.
"Be happy, happy, happy,
And seize the day of pleasure."

In the first movement of Frost’s "Carpe Diem," the speaker creates a metaphor by personifying "Age," who is observing a pair of young lovers. The lovers are on a journey—to where the speaker is not privy. Because the speaker does not know exactly wither the couple is bound, he speculates that they may be simply going home, or may be traveling out of their home village, or they may be headed to church. The last guess is quite possible because the speaker notes, "chimes are ringing."

Because the lovers are "strangers" to the speaker, he does not address them personally. But after they can no longer hear, the speaker wishes for them happiness in their lives. He also adds the "carpe diem" admonition elongating it to a full, "Be happy, happy, happy, / And seize the day of pleasure."

Second Movement: A New Take on an Old Concept

The age-long theme is Age's.
'Twas Age imposed on poems
Their gather-roses burden
To warn against the danger
That overtaken lovers
From being overflooded
With happiness should have it.
And yet not know they have it.

At this point, after presenting a little drama exemplifying the oft touted employment of the expression in question, the speaker commences his evaluation of the age-old adage, "carpe diem." The speaker first notes that is it always the old folks who foist this faulty notion upon the young. This questionable command of the aged has spilled into poems the rose-gathering obligation related to time. His allusion to Robert Herrick’s "To the Virgins to Make Much of Time" will not be lost on the observant and the literary.

The implication that a couple in love must stop with basking in that all-consuming feeling and take note of it is laughable to the speaker. Lovers know they are love, and they enjoy quite tangibly in the here-and-now that being in love. Telling them to "seize" that moment is like telling a toddler to stop and enjoy laughing as she enjoys playing with her toddler toys. One need not make a spectacle of one’s enjoyment for future use.

Third Movement: The Faulty Present

But bid life seize the present?
It lives less in the present
Than in the future always,
And less in both together
Than in the past. The present
Is too much for the senses,
Too crowding, too confusing-
Too present to imagine.

Lovers know they are in love and enjoy that state of being. They are, in fact, seizing the present with all their might. But for this speaker, the very idea of life in general being lived in the present only is faulty, cumbersome, and finally unattainable simply because of the way the human brain is naturally wired. This speaker believes that life is lived "less in the present" than in the future.

Folks always live and move with their future in mind. But surprisingly, according to this speaker, people live more in the past than in both the present and the future. How can that be? Because the past has already happened. They have the specifics with which to deal. So the mind returns again and again to the past, as it merely contemplates the present and gives a nod to the future. Why not live more in the present? Because the present is filled with everything that attracts and stimulates the senses. The senses, the mind, the heart, the brain become overloaded with all of the details that surround them. Those things crowd in on the mind and the present becomes "too present to imagine." The imagination plays such vital role in human life that the attempt to confine it to an area of overcrowding renders it too stunned to function.

And the future: of course, the first complaint is that it has not happened yet. But the future is the fertile ground of the imagination. Imagining what we will do tomorrow. What will we have for lunch? What job will I train for? Where will I live when I get married? What will my children look like? These brain sparks all indicate future time. Thus the speaker has determined that the human mind lives more in the future than in the present. The "carpe diem" notion, which this speaker has demoted to a mere suggestion, remains a shining goal that is touted but few ever feel they can reach. Maybe because they have not considered the efficacy of American poet Frost’s suggestion over the latinate command of Roman poet Horace.

Mr. Keating's Lesson on "Carpe Diem" from Dead Poets Society

Life Sketch of Robert Frost

Robert Frost's father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a journalist, living in San Fransisco, California, when Robert Lee Frost was born on March 26, 1874; Robert's mother, Isabelle, was an immigrant from Scotland. The young Frost spent eleven years of his childhood in San Fransisco. After his father died of tuberculosis, Robert's mother moved the family, including his sister, Jeanie, to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they lived with Robert's paternal grandparents.

Robert graduated in 1892 from Lawrence High School, where he and his future wife, Elinor White, served as co-valedictorians. Robert thEn made his first attempt to attend college at Dartmouth College; after only a few months, he returned to Lawrence and began working a series of part-time jobs.

Elinor White, who was Robert's high school sweetheart, was attending St. Lawrence University when Robert proposed to her. She turned him down because she wanted to finish college before marrying. Robert then relocated to Virginia, and then after returning to Lawrence, he again to proposed to Elinor, who had now completed her college education. The two married on December 19, 1895. Their first child, Eliot, was born the following year.

Robert then made another attempt to attend college; in 1897, he enrolled in Harvard University, but because of health issues, he had to leave school again. Robert rejoined his wife in Lawrence, and their second child Lesley was born in 1899 . The family then moved to a New Hampshire farm that Robert's grandparents had acquired for him. Thus, Robert's farming phase commenced as he attempted to farm the land and continue his writing. His first poem to appear in print, “My Butterfly," had been published on November 8, 1894, in The Independent, a New York newspaper.

The next twelve years proved a difficult time in Frost's personal life, but a fertile one for his writing. The Frosts' first child, Eliot, died in 1900 of cholera. The couple, however, went on to have four more children, each of which suffered from mental illness to suicide. The couple's farming endeavors continued to result in unsuccessful attempts. Frost became well adjusted to rustic life, despite his miserable failure as a farmer.

Frost's writing life took off in a splendid fashion, and the rural influence on his poems would later set the tone and style for all of his works. However, despite the success of his individual published poems, such "The Tuft of Flowers" and "The Trial by Existence," he could not find a publisher for his collections of poems.

Relocation to England

It was because of his failure to find a publisher for his collections of poems that Frost sold the New Hampshire farm and moved his family to England in 1912. This moved proved to be life-line for the young poet. At age 38, he secured a publisher in England for his collection, A Boy's Will, and soon after North of Boston.

In addition to finding a publisher for his two books, Frost became acquainted with Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas, two important poets of the day. Both Pound and Thomas reviewed Frost's two book favorably, and thus Frost's career as a poet moved forward.

Frost's friendship with Edward Thomas was especially important, and Frost has remarked that the long walks taken by the two poet/friends had influenced his writing in a marvelously positive manner. Frost has credited Thomas for his most famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," which was sparked by Thomas' attitude regarding not being able to take two different paths on their long walks.

Returning to America

After World War 1 broke out in Europe, the Frosts set sail back to the United States. The brief sojourn in England had had useful consequences for the poet's reputation, even back in his native country. American Publisher, Henry Holt, picked up Frost's earlier books, and then come out with his third, Mountain Interval, a collection that had been written while Frost was still residing in England.

Frost was treated to the delicious situation of having the same journals, such as The Atlantic, soliciting his work, even though they had rejected that same work a couple of years earlier.

The Frosts once again became owners of a farm located in Franconia, New Hampshire, which they purchased in 1915. The end of their traveling days were over, and Frost continued his writing career, as he taught intermittently at a number of colleges, including Dartmouth, University of Michigan, and particularly Amherst College, where he taught regularly from 1916 until 1938. Amherst's main library is now the Robert Frost Library, honoring the long-time educator and poet. He also spent most summers teaching English at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Frost never completed a college degree, but over his entire lifetime, the revered poet accumulated more than forty honorary degrees. He also won the Pulitzer Prize four times for his books, New Hampshire, Collected Poems, A Further Range, and A Witness Tree.

Frost considered himself a "lone wolf" in the world of poetry because he did not follow any literary movements. His only influence was the human condition in a world of duality. He did not pretend to explain that condition; he only sought to create little dramas to reveal the nature of the emotional life of a human being.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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