From Rue No More to “Mother to Son”
I try not to repeat poets in this column. But Robert Frost is just too important. What else can you expect from a poet who won the Pulitzer four times and recited one of the most memorable inaugural poems, The Gift Outright, which he blurted out when the sun’s glare kept him from being able to read the poem he’d prepared.
One of the joys of Frost’s ubiquity is that his poems turn up in fiction. In D.L.S. Evatt’s Bloodlines & Fencelines, a murder mystery, the reference occurs midway through the book when a man on the fence repair crew at a cemetery quotes Mending Wall: “Old Bobby Frost had it about right. Something in the world doesn’t take to a wall.”
An even more unlikely Frost sighting occurs in The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, when Ponyboy and Johnny are hiding out in an abandoned church. Pony recites Nothing Gold Can Stay. Hearing the poem for the first time, Johnny says, “Where’d you learn that? That was what I meant.”
That’s Frost for you. He says what you meant.
I first encountered “Dust of Snow” because it serves as the epigraph for John M. Marzluff’s work of beautiful science, In the Company of Crows and Ravens. The poem is ninety-nine years old. Its original title was “Favour” when it was published in the London Mercury.
Dust of Snow
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued
– Robert Frost
For such a brief poem, it’s incredibly visual. I can picture the snow and the crow and the hemlock tree, and I even picture a version of Robert Frost, based on an illustration from a children’s poetry book of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Each line of “Dust of Snow” only has four words, except for the last one, which has six.
The poem makes great use of sound, especially rhyming “mood” with “rued.” To rue is to feel regret, remorse, maybe even penitence. The person in the poem has been ruing the day. Whatever happened, they do not feel good about it. There they are, ruing away, when Crow gets up to a little mischief, shaking down a “dust of snow.” The person isn’t covered, just dusted. And by wreaking havoc, Crow wreaks magic.
The dusting “Has given my heart / A change of mood.”
As a sensitive person myself, I often find it difficult to break out of a rueful reverie. All my troubles always seem extra tragic. Sometimes the only way to change my mood is to embrace a little foolishness. Call it salvation through mischief.
Generally snow is rare in April where I live, but I remember one Friday before Easter when the bluebonnets got a snow dusting. A friend had just died from cancer. The unlikely pairing of winter with spring seemed a meteorological sign of favor. Perhaps a weather crow in the clouds was sending me and everyone who loved Carrie an outright gift.
By Heart for May
In honor of Mother’s Day, we’ll learn Langston Hughes’ Mother to Son By Heart.
Mother to Son
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Browse more By Heart
“Megan Willome has captured the essence of crow in this delightful children’s collection. Not only do the poems introduce the reader to the unusual habits and nature of this bird, but also different forms of poetry as well.”
—Michelle Ortega, poet and children’s speech pathologist