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Gilbert: A World Torn Loose

09/13/11 5:55PM By Peter Gilbert
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(HOST) The terrible flood damage in Vermont caused by tropical storm Irene has reminded Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert of a poem by Robert Frost - a poem inspired by an incident Frost witnessed during the great flood of 1927.

(GILBERT) In November 1927 Robert Frost was crossing the country by train to attend the inauguration of a new president of Amherst College in Massachusetts on November 4. He never got there, due to the horrific rain that clobbered much of the Northeast that very day and absolutely decimated Vermont, killing eighty-four people, including the Lieutenant Governor.

Looking out of the train window, Frost saw a washed-out bridge and beside it a car that kept backing up a little each time a bit more earth would fall away from the lip of the precipice.

Years later, that image - the collapsing slope of dirt and the car backing up - inspired a poem. It's entitled "One Step Backward Taken." In it the narrator watches as heavy rains cause a steep slope of earth and rock to collapse, eroding deep into the hillside. The narrator is standing on top of the slope, and only by stepping back just in time does he save himself, as he says, "from going," too.

Here's the poem:

Not only sands and gravels
Were once more on their travels,
But gulping muddy gallons
Great boulders off their balance
Bumped heads together dully
And started down the gully.
Whole capes caked off in slices.
I felt my standpoint shaken
In the universal crisis.
But with one step backward taken
I saved myself from going.
A world torn loose went by me.
Then the rain stopped and the blowing,
And the sun came out to dry me.

Yes, the poem ends with the rain stopping and the sun coming out to dry him. But those who want an unambiguous happy-ever-after ending will have to look elsewhere - because in this deeply philosophical poem, the narrator, who may or may not be exactly Frost himself, describes "a world torn loose", where things are "off their balance". Nature is described as thoughtless and uncaring: "great boulders," it says, bump "heads together dully". And this isn't a one-time event: water often moves sand and gravel: as the poem tells us, ". . . sands and gravels/Were once more on their travels . . .." The speaker saves himself only by stepping backward - by retreating.

As a result of his experience, the narrator says, "I felt my standpoint shaken/In the universal crisis." He's not just talking about his literal "standpoint," the place he was standing, which obviously changes. Somehow his perspective is shaken; for him this eroding hillside stands for a "universal crisis." What exactly the crisis is and how his perspective changes is unclear. The poem was written in late 1945; perhaps it's his perspective on World War II that changes, or his perspective on war itself, or perhaps he simply feels his life to be more precarious than he did before.

Certainly that is a feeling we all have known at some point, some more recently than others.
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