Monday, January 3, 2011

Breakfast and Robert Frost

Perhaps you were unaware of my credentials in the little-known field of Breakfast Poetry Scholarship?  So was I myself, until my recent appearance at the Breakfast Symposium (SBAMR, as we refer to it).  My presentation focused on the poetry of Robert Frost.  My dad, Frost-lover that he was, would have been so proud.  Or would he? . . . Yes, I believe he would have felt these new discoveries were true to the spirit of the "originals."  I include here the text of my remarks about the provenance of these newly discovered Robert Frost poems, as I feel a little historical background only improves their impact. 


“And Mounds to Eat Before I’m Filled”:
Breakfast and Human Appetite
in the Poetry of Robert Frost

by Marilyn Nelson-Nielson

The poet Robert Frost is well-known for his poems about nature and rural life. He often used natural settings in New England to introduce more complex themes about human nature and social philosophy.

Much has been written about Frost’s early poetry coming out of his time abroad. Less well-known, however, is the spiritual awakening he received after visiting the Shrine to Breakfast in Dorsetshire, England. While historical details of the experience itself are few, its influence on Frost was immediate and profound. Mere weeks later, he was introduced to, or sought out, the group of English poets calling themselves “Pastriests.” Led by essayist Ezra Poundcake, this group fostered a lively exchange of ideas and commentary on Breakfast Pastry, and indeed, Frost himself took on the name “Robert Frosting” for a time. During this period, Frost wrote several donut-themed poems, notably “The One Not Eaten,” which is thought to be based on biographical experience.

Although certainly influenced by the Pastriests, upon returning to the states, Frost declined to ally himself with any one movement. Instead, he began to explore his own themes of the rightful place of breakfast in society. While not wedded to the idea of one specific type of breakfast food [see, e.g., his use of eggs, toast, and ham in various poems], Frost had definite opinions about the necessity of breakfast itself as a societal institution. He stated, famously, that “Going through the day without breakfast is like playing tennis with the net down.” The forms and structure he favored in his poetry mirrored what he saw as a fundamental need for the formal, three-meal structure of daily American life.

Frost further showed his independent spirit by resisting the impulse which was in vogue at the turn of the century to romanticize breakfast in poetry and prose. For instance, consider the lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”: “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices/Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” Frost disapproved of this sort of lofty lumping together of “tea and cakes and ices”—a kind of Platonic Ideal of a meal rather than the nuts and bolts of actual refreshment. Instead, in his own work, Frost insisted on depicting what he termed “meals as they are actually eaten.” Thus, we have phrases like “frosting and apple lumps” or “the egg yolks give a little sway”—details that take us into the real essence of the poetic meal without pretense or ornamentation.

After the First World War, Frost began to experience somewhat of a crisis of faith. His poems, always meditative, now became darker in theme and tone. His “Stopping For Eggs on a Hungry Morning” is a bleak commentary on endless human appetites, encapsulated in the haunting final lines, “And mounds to eat before I’m filled/ And mounds to eat before I’m filled.” This period culminated in one of Frost’s most famous poems, the starkly titled “Nothing’s Good Post-Brunch.” Here Frost muses on the inevitability of decay in a Fallen world, using the descent from day to night, from breakfast to dinner, as a metaphor for man’s expulsion from Eden.

While Frost’s work remained contemplative, some critics think that later in life he drew away somewhat from this darker view of human nature. In “Ham and Toast,” the tone is seemingly less strident and more tolerant, apparently allowing for alternate views in man’s definition of breakfast. However, others scholars disagree with this reading, seeing instead a deep derision in Frost’s citation of mere physical functionality (“I think I know enough of wheat/To say that for digestion, toast/Is good to eat”) as a defense of toast. They cite Frost’s final line, “And would suit most,” as a repudiation of the “any breakfast goes” view, and a wistful cry for breakfast purists to reclaim breakfast’s moral high ground. The speaker’s deferential phrase “though I do not like to boast” is in this reading filled with irony, and reflects Frost’s own belief in the superiority of his own breakfast attitudes.

After Frost’s death, tensions in breakfast politics continued to escalate, to the point that his estate hired a legal team to re-write many of Frost’s most controversial poems and make them less overtly food-related. By republishing these expurgated versions, the Frost estate hoped to avoid the anti-breakfast backlash that was spreading throughout so many other parts of the country in the 1960's. For the most part, they were successful; so much so that the changed poems became the standard in many collections and anthologies. However, thanks in part to a grant from NOCAB, scholars have been able to find and restore the original content of these so-called “Breakfast Poems.” We are pleased to be able to present, side by side with their more well-known versions, the original texts of four of these poems today.
 

3 comments:

  1. Hahahahahahahahahahahah. Ahahahahahahaha.

    This is excellent. I chuckled more than once.

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  2. I want you to know that I read this out loud - ever dangblasted word of it - to my husband. I'd have read it to the whole family if I had one anymore. And when we weren't rolling on the floor, we were shaking our heads in wonder. If the kids you produce carry one tenth of your wit in their little brains, then the country's done for. As a person who has written many a graduate exegesis, I will tell you that, had I been your instructor in college instead of your friend's mommy, I'd have packed up my office and gone home after my semester with you, knowing that my purpose in life had just been realized and that everything after you would only be a disappointment.

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  3. Mar, this is truly your finest hour. Truly.

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