Friday, December 19, 2008

The Star-Splitter, by Robert Frost

Robert Frost is best known for his archetypal poems, such as “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken.” But Frost wrote many lesser-known gems, including several long-form story poems such as “The Death of the Hired Man,” and one of my personal favorites, “The Star-Splitter.”
In many ways “The Star-Splitter” is quintessential Frost, integrating gentle observation and evocative rural scenes to tell a simple but compelling story. The poem opens with the startling image of a constellation rising over a small farming town:
You know Orion always comes up sideways.
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
And rising on his hands, he looks in on me...
He describes how Orion seems to observe him as he fumbles through his evening chores, feeling self-conscious, but comforted by the presence of this mysterious nighttime friend. This sense of relationship to the night sky deepens later in the poem, but first we're introduced to the narrator's hapless neighbor, Brad McLaughlin. McLaughlin, a reluctant and struggling farmer, burns his house down for the insurance money. He uses the proceeds to buy a telescope so that he may “satisfy a lifelong curiosity/about our place among the infinities.” Frost expands on McLaughlin's difficulties with farming:
There where he moved the rocks to plow the ground
And plowed between the rocks he couldn't move,
Few farms changed hands; so rather than spend years
Trying to sell his farm and then not selling,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance.
McLaughlin sets off to collect his telescope, even as the narrator of the poem argues with him, urging him not to spend the money on it. But McLaughlin insists, stating that it's beneficial to the whole town for him to possess one:
"The best thing that we're put here for's to see;
The strongest thing that's given us to see with's
A telescope. Someone in every town
Seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.
In Littleton it may as well be me."
McLaughlin's loopy but strangely sensible justification for the buying the telescope gives us a sense of his imaginative, haphazard nature, which contrasts sharply with the pragmatic, nose-to-the-grindstone farming folk of the town. It's hard not to admire the brazen way he gives up on hardscrabble farming life and grabs the opportunity to get what he wants.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the poem is the bemused controversy that the fraud and the subsequent eccentric purchase excites among the townsfolk.
Mean laughter went about the town that day
To let him know we weren't the least imposed on,
And he could wait--we'd see to him to-morrow.
But the first thing next morning we reflected
If one by one we counted people out
For the least sin, it wouldn't take us long
To get so we had no one left to live with.
For to be social is to be forgiving...
So in the end, they throw up their hands and decide to live and let live:
It wouldn't do to be too hard on Brad
About his telescope. Beyond the age
Of being given one's gift for Christmas,
He had to take the best way he knew how
To find himself in one. Well, all we said was
He took a strange thing to be roguish over.
The repeated use of “we” in these stanzas reinforces the deep-rooted sense of community and family that permeates the town. It's a lovely touch that makes the final lines of the poem all the more affecting. The narrator is eventually drawn in by the lure of the telescope, which McLaughlin names “The Star-Splitter.” He begins to visit McLaughlin regularly to star-gaze and chat:
Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.
The final stanza asks a haunting question:
We've looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night to-night
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?
The sense of rootedness and home is juxtaposed with the feeling of being lost and adrift with the new, wider perspective provided by the telescope. Frost ends it here, leaving us to contemplate the mystery of where we stand in the universe.
Although perhaps not as popular as other poems, “The Star-Splitter” is one of Frost's most uniquely captivating works. To read the poem in its entirety, visit and use their search index to find it.


Gene Sedy said...

Enjoyed your article. I'm reading The Star-Splitter to a group for a Toastmasters International project from one of our speaker training manuals. I am an engineer, not a poet, so I find myself often out of my comfort zone, which is a good thing, I suppose. I found an audio clip of Robert Frost reading the poem and felt that maybe he should have recorded it earlier in life. I don't think he did it justice; your blog helped me with ideas on how to attempt to bring out the richness of the imagery that was there, but not brought out by Frost in the reading I heard. (Yeah, an engineer is going to do this!)
Thank you!

Pragatii said...

one day i'll also become a poet................................

Nancy Harris said...

Kristen, Thanks for giving us your interpretation of Robert Frost's poem. I will be sure to read this on my own, as it is one I have never studied. Have you ever thought of teaching a writing class including poetry? Just wondering . . . .! You have so many talents! Thanks for sharing.