Poetry is one of the most profound modes of expression that human beings have developed. One, in fact, misses out a lot in life, if s/he does not appreciate the beauty of words set to rhythm and rhyme. The greatest artists of this medium can use the simplest of words to paint the grandest pictures, words whose resonance catches ones imagination, and whose rhythm moves one to sing. Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken or Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar are perfect examples of such poems where the most insightful truths about life and the human experience finds expression in fitting images and rhythm. Reading these poems, one feels an ecstasy when emotions and feelings, of which we have been robbed and desensitized in the pace and glamour of modern-day existence, rise in our heart like long lost friends. I will hear attempt to demonstrate to the subtle beauties of the above-mentioned poems and how one need to approach them with imagination and emotion to grasp the profound truths they speak of.
While reading any poem by Robert Frost one should always remember that the apparent simplicity of his compositions only serve to belie an underlying profundity and masterly subtlety. The poem deals with an archetypal situation using an archetypal image and its intricate nuances are often overlooked. A person is faced with a crossroad in life, a simple image that might connote a thousand different situations in reality. Think how many times in our life we are faced with a similar situation as delineated by Frost in the poem. How many times we have to choose one out of two roads. And how very often we convince ourselves of the wisdom of our decisions in choosing one road over the other when in the moment of the choice we do not have any superior knowledge to assist us to decide between the two. Because as Frost says, to the traveler standing at the crossroad, both the roads are equal, promising equal opportunities or dangers, and s/he is not really in a position to judge between the two. Both the roads are equally worn and equally grassy: “Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same, / And both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black.” Note that the poem also, very subtly, explores the theme of the opportunity lost forever, how our choices delimits our sphere of experience, for in spite of appearances the poem is not about the road the poet takes, the one which later seems to be the “less traveled by”. One should keep in mind that as the title says, the poem is about ‘the road not taken’. However, Frost’s brilliance as a poet comes to the forefront when he delineates the inherent human need for romanticizing the past. The traveler while choosing one road over the other, knowing fully well that he might have just as well chosen the other one, predicts a future insincerity, when looking back from a vantage point he will sigh and declare that once, a long long time ago, standing at the crossroads of life, he had chosen the road that was “less traveled by/ And that has made all the difference.” Thus the poem gives beautiful expression to a profound truth of human life; it provides words for a feeling that all of us have felt at one point of time or the other. Frost’s poems are famous for their natural flowing rhythm so that reading the poem aloud with stresses on the right syllables is a great pleasure. One should note the perfect rhyme scheme (ABAAB) of each stanza and the harmonious distribution of four stressed syllables in each line.
While reading Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” one should keep in mind the poem’s immense autobiographical significance. The erstwhile poet-laureate composed the poem just three years before he passed away and, though he composed quite a few poems after that, insisted that “Crossing the Bar” should be included as the last poem in any collection. The poem deals with a universal subject: death, the inescapable and perhaps the only truth of human existence. In the dusk of his life, the poet, poised and controlled braves death and even welcomes it with a sense of adventure for he equates the journey beyond life with a sea voyage that takes us beyond the “bourne of Time and Place”. In this poem, one should note the brilliant imagery and the effect it achieves with minimum use of words. The words in the opening line of the first and the third stanza: “Sunset and evening star” and “Twilight and evening bell” immediately summon a few familiar visions in front of our eyes, word-pictures that connote the end of a busy day and the approaching darkness of the night. Tennyson immediately associates these archetypal images of the finale with images of approaching darkness and an impending sea voyage. The sand bar that ‘moans’ when the tide rises is an image for the line separating life and death. However, the poet does not wish to be mourned for during his departure for the other side of the bar. He says that in a figurative manner in the second stanza, where he wishes for a tide that is too full to foam and froth; and more directly in the third stanza: “And may there be no sadness of farewell/ When I embark”.
One should also note that the poem develops an immense philosophical depth beyond Tennyson’s personal attitude to death when the poet says: “When that which drew from out the boundless deep/ Turns again home”. Tennyson is speaking of “Him Who is our Home”. One also perceives the same intensity of faith in the line: “ I hope to see my Pilot face to face/ When I have crossed the bar”. The Almighty Lord is the One from whom we come and to whom we return after the end of this earthly sojourn. He is the Pilot of the vessel that takes us beyond the bar separating life and death and therefore we are safe in His Hands. This is the source of Tennyson’s courage in facing the fearsome death. The poem remains a great inspiration for every mortal living a life under the crippling shadow of death.
Thus poets, through the use of words, can rouse our finest sensibilities. They can bring out our best emotions and can make us experience our own selves, as we have never done before. Reading poetry is a way of delving deep into our own humanity as the most beautiful words set to the most perfect rhythms arouse in us the noblest of feelings and makes us confront the most philosophical and the most profound of truths. The poems that have been discussed above are prime examples of this. The first one by Robert Frost, for instance, delineates a significant human situation in this ‘chaosmos’ by the use of one simple imagery: that of a traveler standing at a junction unable to decide which road he or she should follow. Tennyson, on the other hand, provides words for the greatest of human truth, the fear of the unknown, and shows us the way to overcome it. The simple image of a vessel crossing the bar to venture out into the open sea magically becomes the perfect metaphor of death, the final venture into the unknown. Poets, makes us come face to face with our humanity without which we are as good as animals. The fact that we are civilized does not mean anything by itself. Just to be technologically advanced is not to be civilized. Just to be earning huge sums of money is not to be civilized either. Civilization lies in the human attempt to observe, understand and appreciate this awe-inspiring creation. And who can help us better in this endeavor than the poets? Who can better arouse in us that sense of wonder or that feeling of beauty, which makes us human, but the poets?