Frost at Midnight: The Lost Poem (A Play)

Characters

Robert Frost: The poet, early 70’s
“Ellie” (Elinor Frost): His wife, early 50’s
Carol Frost: Their son, a young man

Scene

Bedroom on the top floor of the Derry, New Hampshire farmhouse. A storm rages outside; icy flakes beat against the windows. In the snow-light, the dull light of an obscure moon and the pale yellow light of an outside lamppost: two figures huddle under an old quilt. The hair on the pillows is short and white, and shoulder-length dark gray. The white head bobs on a sea of self-afflictions.

FROST
(In sleep; excited–) No…. Don’t do it!

ELLIE
(Awaking–) What?

FROST
(Asleep–) Mmmm…. Mmmm….

ELLIE rises on an elbow, listens. The wind howls outside, but the figure beside her sleeps quietly now. She lowers her head on the pillow…. After a few moments–

FROST
(Asleep–) Damn boy! Don’t! Don’t!

ELLIE
Robert? Robert!

FROST
(Asleep–) Don’t! No!

ELLIE
Robert! (She shakes him–)

FROST
(Awaking–) Uh! What? What?

ELLIE
A dream…. Are you… all right?

FROST
(Turning on night lamp, sitting up in bed; looking around–) Where are my glasses?

ELLIE
In the drawer…. Are you all right…? Go back to bed!

FROST
(Mimicking her–) “Go back to bed…. Go back to bed!” (As he fumbles in the drawer–) Which drawer?

ELLIE
(Irritably–) The nightstand drawer! Where they always are…. Behind your papers….

FROST
(Finding them–) Why didn’t you say so? Why do you always hide them?

ELLIE
(Wearily–) They’re always there! Sleep, Robert…. Sleep….

FROST
“Macbeth hath murdered sleep!”

ELLIE
What? Who?

FROST
(Gentler now–) Go back to bed….

ELLIE
(Likewise–) Are you all right?

FROST
Yes…. (To himself–) A half-lost dream that took a half-familiar form….

Sitting up, he puts on his fur-lined slippers, shakes his head, rises….

ELLIE
Will you write?

FROST
God willing….

ELLIE
Wear your robe!

FROST
(Mimicking–) “Wear your robe!” (Softer–) Go to sleep. I’m a big boy….

ELLIE
(Half asleep–) You always forget….

FROST touches her shoulder gently, rises, puts on the heavy flannel robe, slips his glasses into the breast pocket, and walks with the careful gait of an old, but vigorous, man to the next room.

As the night lamp goes off, FROST throws the switch to the light in his study. He takes a sheaf of papers from a shelf, sits in his wooden chair, lifts the slanted, improvised writing platform from the floor, settles it on the broad, flattened chair-arm, places paper on the platform. He squints at the page, looks around–

FROST
(To himself–) Now, what in blazes! Where did she hide my glasses?

He checks the lower pockets of his robe, then the breast pocket, finds the glasses with relief, puts them on carefully–

Let’s see… let’s see…. (Erupting–) Damnation!

He checks his pockets again, stands up; searches his desk until he finds the pencil he wants, sits at his writing-chair again. He checks the point of the pencil, licks it, and writes quickly, as though from memory or from dictation. He mumbles to himself as he writes….

After a while, reading to himself:

Not for the sake of the old man’s moon,
Ringed in snow from the farmhouse light,
Not for her he lay beside–
But for itself it came, from beyond the night.

And for itself it stayed,
And put its bone-cold claw
On the old man’s brow
So that he wept and prayed

While the wind up-roared!

(To himself, critic now–) Hmmm…. (Emphatically–) Garbage!

He crumples the paper, brushes it onto the floor.

The wind rises; a draft stirs the remaining blank pages on the improvised desk; FROST covers them with his hands, weighs them down with his pencil and glasses. He looks around the room, feeling a presence. He picks up the crumpled paper, smooths it out on his desk, turns the collar of his robe up, crosses out some lines, then continues writing.

CAROL
(Offstage; eldritch–) Father….

FROST
(Looking up nervously now–) Who’s there? (He doubles his editing efforts; reads–) “while the voice up-roared….” (He scratches out the word.) “…while the ghost up-roared… ghostly uproar….” (Looking around–) That you, Carol? Show yourself! I’m not afraid….

FROST puts a paperweight on his notes, walks to the window; stands with his back to audience, hands clasped behind, watching the eddying snow. His shoulders hunch as he realizes the impossibility of discerning the form he seeks.

FROST
Why don’t you come?
(Sighing, turning to audience–)
Why won’t you come?

He looks around the room, looks up and down….

Wasn’t it a night like this, ten years to a night like this,
Your torn soul howled in a winter wind like this,
And something broke your mind in two?

Fiery white, the snow rose then
Around the circle of that witness moon.
The white, blind eye of that tell-tale moon….
Wasn’t it something that I failed to do?

He sighs heavily, turns to the window again, looks out; after a while, he turns from the window, shakes his head. Almost a chant–

A father should know his son’s bones’ rattle,
Walk in his blood while the blood beats in his ears,
Reconnoiter the preceding path, make known–
Not bury his son because he couldn’t hear!

The wind howls again.

(Insistently–) Come! I won’t have this! I am old…, but, I am not
afraid!

Lights off as the wind howls and shutters flap against the wooden frame of the house. Spotlight FROST standing stock-still, staring. Another spotlight falls upon a corner of the room: smoke rises in this light. As the smoke clears, we see the spectral form of CAROL, standing behind the light. Throughout the following exchanges, FROST relates to the light as much as to the form obscured within it.

CAROL
(With a wan, thin voice–) I came because you said so. You summoned, and I came.

FROST
Show me your true form!

There is no answer. FROST approaches the circle of light. Tentatively, he places his hand into the rising dry-ice kind of smoke–

Ahhh! (Quickly withdrawing, cradling his hand–) Cold! Cold as the eyes of one we loved… and wronged….

CAROL
Maybe not… that cold! Why did you call me?

FROST
(Suspicious–) Did I?

CAROL
If not, I’ll go….

The spotlight begins to dim.

FROST
Wait! Wait…. (As he walks around the light and the spectral figure; warily–)

Why should I wager you’re the thing you seem?
Some New England demon you may be–
A witch from Edwards’ time,
A poor child whose mum had taught her how to swim…
And failed the test of water!
How can I trust my senses when my senses reel?
I am old…. I am afraid…. Give me a sign!

CAROL
(Plaintively–) Father….

FROST puts the back of his hand against his mouth–

FROST
I know that voice—even from Hell’s gates!
Carol… my son… my son!

He moves his hands around the smoky light, an inch or two from the circumference, as though caressing it…

FROST
Is this what’s become of your fine head?
While the world made much of me,
Could I pass so little on?

Falling to his knees before the light—

Son-spirit, spirit that I barely knew,
Why do you haunt your father’s dreams?

CAROL
I came because you called….

FROST
That’s some misbegotten cause!
You call that reasoning?
Who’s to squeeze a meaning out of that?
I called because you haunt me!

Agitated, FROST paces, points at the light; slowly, as though lecturing—

(Mimicking–) I called… because you haunt me!

Tell him, Spirit–whatever you may be:
He should have been a stronger man!

His soul cut down his soul!
Why trouble me for absolution?
That’s a thing like freedom—
That is not given; that is seized!

CAROL
Then… let me go….

The light flickers as a draft comes from the window.

FROST
Not yet! Not yet! (He reaches for the circle of light–) A word….
One small word….

FROST goes to the window, pounds the crossbeam with his fists, even though it’s shut tight. (To the specter–)

Stay!

The light grows strong again.

CAROL
One small word from you
Might have made a world of difference.
How much could one small word have cost?

FROST
That’s the thing you want to throw at me!
You roll it year by year like dirty snow
Until it teems with weight and volume
And you hurl it at my head!

CAROL
I don’t know what you’re talking about….

FROST
I gathered in the plaudits for fatherly acuities,
But couldn’t spare a penny of a word for you.
I know the word….

CAROL
Say it!

The light flickers.

FROST
That week you stayed at Derry…
When you showed your poems—
If I had said “pride” then–

CAROL
A single syllable… to change the world!
And what’s the cost? A penny?
“A penny for your thoughts!”
Words were always burrs between our saddles!

FROST
You wrote your heart out—
But there was no heart in your writing….

CAROL
You said as much.
And, saying it, said too much.

FROST
(Guiltily–) I shouldn’t have…. I know that now…. (Softly–)
I never could say anything that wasn’t there…. I could fantasize on paper… but….

CAROL
You have the art of understatement–
Getting up close to a single truth
And singularly saying it.

You knew how to wring it out on any paper
And make it seem like it was there in you.
Words were kindling for what was there in you!

FROST
I wanted you to reach beyond—
To turn the darkness inside out.

CAROL
There was nothing there—”beyond.”
You couldn’t turn things inside out—

FROST
But I reached for it—

CAROL
What made you think I could?

FROST
I wanted you to go beyond… what I could do….

CAROL
You walked up close to a truth—
In spitting distance—and spit it out!
What made you think I could?

FROST
That’s just a trick of Nature!
I wrote out of that fact!
You never learned the trick!
I never learned to show you!

Blame me for being sleight-of-hand,
Not knowing how to show it!
Happy families can take the hints.
Unhappy ones cannot.

CAROL
This isn’t about blame….

FROST
Then it’s beyond the moral compass of the world
And everything I ever wrote about!

CAROL
Blame takes us roundabout—to the starting place,
Not beyond.
You knew how to wring it out. I—

FROST
Just a trick—to hide there being so little
Of what I wanted most to be there–
Yankee wisdom: looking in the face of facts;
Teaching facts to fetch for you.

You took everything so serious!
Life is a deadly serious game–but still a game!

CAROL
I played it–and I lost….

FROST
You should have played it better!
That’s all I ever tried to teach!

Was it pride you wanted, pride instilled by me?
It was stubbornness you lacked—stubbornness
To see the inning through, to take the worst
And throw it back and laugh, and shout:
“Is that the worst that you can give?
Hit me with more! You haven’t seen my best yet!”

CAROL
(Softly–) Metaphors and similes!

FROST
To help us penetrate the kernels of our truths!

CAROL
They help us mask a multitude of sins.
You saw my best…. It wasn’t good enough for you!

FROST
Why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t you write?
I would have come to you!

CAROL
“Happy families can take a hint.
Unhappy ones cannot.”

The light flickers, FROST reaches to hold it back.

FROST
Carol, wait! Don’t go!
There must be some way we can–

CAROL
What?

FROST
Get back the thing we lost!

CAROL
How?

The spotlight flickers and is off. When the light of the room is on again, CAROL is gone. FROST looks around quickly, goes to the window, and peers out. ELLIE enters with a cup of hot cider. She looks at her husband to see that he is well, then sets the cider down on a desk. FROST doesn’t see her. Without saying a word, she is about to leave–

FROST
(To the faded vision–) Wait! … Carol! (To himself–) He should have made some accusation! I’m no good doing it myself!

ELLIE
Robert…?

FROST
(Coming around to her; excited–) Did you see… did you hear…nothing?

ELLIE
Just you, talking to yourself again.

FROST
You know what day this is, how many years?

ELLIE
The day we practice all year to forget.
The day you never mention….
I know….

FROST
He was here….

ELLIE
(Touching his arm; gently–) Robert….

FROST
(Inspecting the room; insistently–) He was here!

ELLIE
She puts her hand tenderly on his shoulder.
You couldn’t have stopped him….

FROST
He should have been stronger!
Why didn’t he tell me what he had in mind?
I could have helped him—if I knew.

ELLIE
Leave him in his world!

FROST
It wasn’t just the poems,
But everything around them—
The scaffolding… what holds it all together!
He wanted me to say that they were good.
But the thing around them was no good.

ELLIE
Let him go!

FROST
He was trying to escape into his poems!
And lose himself!
But they had no center!

Everything he tried was like that.
He thought they’d give him back
His marriage and his work…
And what I never gave him.
(As if I could!)

Poetry’s no refuge–
It’s a seething pit.
We go there to escape from there,
Holding a scrap of wisdom
In our burning hands.

We can’t get in there
Without the winding thread—
Like Theseus and the Minotaur.
He got lost in all the winding.
The wild beast ate him up!

ELLIE
It is a selfishness the way you call him back
To carry on the speech.
He’s gone now…. Let him go!

FROST
(Wounded–) Is that the thing you want to throw at me–
That old cudgel?
You’ve carped that tune before!

ELLIE
(Wearily; and warily–) This isn’t about us! Don’t make it so….
It’s just yourself, talking to yourself;
The way you do when something’s brewing in you.

FROST
You said that I was selfish!

ELLIE
Selfish–as a man is when he’s self-possessed,
And owned by something greater than himself….
Why don’t you go to sleep?

FROST
(Not placated–) You said it! Don’t deny it!
(Looking around–) Other ears than mine can hear you!
This is no night for idle talk.

ELLIE
I never quarreled with the life we lived.
You did the thing you had to do. I know.
I loved you for your poems and your blue eyes…
And nothing more….
Did you ever hear me murmur, “More…”?
We took the worst of it. We made our bed.

FROST
(Moved; taking her gently by the shoulders–)
It was I who wanted more—to give you more!
I wanted him to say–I did my best….

ELLIE
I thought he had…said that to you?

FROST
(Tapping his chest, above his heart–)
That I—that I, his father—did his best–
To understand him… to understand my son….
We never could say that to one another.

ELLIE
He mis-learned that from you–
Your brooding silences.
You couldn’t say it, so you wrote.
Now write finale … Let him go!

FROST:
(Spent–) How could he take his precious life
And throw it in the wind?
I could have forgiven anything but that!
God would have forgiven anything but that!
Had I some hand in it?
(Looking at his hands; anguished, tearfully–)
I curse these old man’s hands!

(Hits his hands against his temple.)

ELLIE
(She takes his hands in hers; kisses them gently–)
Robert, Robert, this will not do….
These hands are life-preservers, not life-takers.
It’s over, Robert…. Let him go….

FROST
(Wearily–) What could I have done?
There are things I can’t let go. There are people….
(Warily–) They come and stalk me….
What could I have done?

ELLIE
Nothing….

FROST
I made things happen on the page….

ELLIE
(Wryly–) Man writes, God publishes….
Writing was your “portion.”
Don’t you remember what the Good Book says?

FROST
Here and there….

ELLIE
“There is nothing better than that a man
Should rejoice in his own works;
For that is his portion.”

FROST
(With a heaving sigh–) He never could find his….
I couldn’t help him…. Absalom, Absalom….

I’m tired… I’m tired now.…

ELLIE
Go to sleep…. “When you wake–
You will have… all the pretty little horses….”
The dark film will be lifted from your eyes.

FROST
(Rubbing his eyes–) As long as you are with me….

ELLIE
So much trouble just to write a line!
I’m always with you, Robert.

FROST
So you promised long ago—even unto death.

ELINOR
(Softly–) Even beyond death….

FROST
(He looks at her strangely; there is some mystery he can’t quite unravel–)
You are different somehow.
I don’t understand….

ELLIE
It’s just you, talking to yourself.
It’s what you go through time-to-time.
When your birthday approaches,
When you feel the weight of years….
Or when some poem is biting at you,
Almost there—behind a veil.

“Cleaning the gears,” you used to call it.
“To prime the engine.”
Don’t you remember?

FROST
I’m 70! I’ve forgotten more than I recall….

ELLIE
You lived your three-score years and ten.
I never did!

FROST
Don’t talk like that!

ELLIE
(Shrugging–) It’s just what is. I’ve learned to live with it!
Or not to live with it!

FROST
Don’t riddle me! I’ve had enough–
For a thousand and one nights!
I can wrestle with some angels…, not with you….

ELLIE
(Musing–) My heart was never very strong….

FROST
(Putting his hands over his ears–)
Enough gobbledygook for one eternal night!
You’ll go to sleep now… and I will sleep beside you.
I will wrestle with the syllables that woke me.
I’ll wrap them in a cloak of country wisdom
Which others will applaud
Because I say it simply:

“Nothing to look forward to with hope;
Nothing to look backward on with pride.”

No mystical mumbo-jumbo.
No pushing at the boundaries
Of this world and the next.

(Hugging Ellie to him–)
You are here! I feel you in my arms!
No “insubstantial pageant faded”!
You! My Elinor! My Ellie!

ELLIE
I was never very strong….
I gave you what I could.
So you could give—the gift outright.

FROST
(Unraveling the mystery; recalling–)
You gave more than you could….
I never said it. I couldn’t say it to you.
How long has it been now, since—?

ELLIE
Not long….

FROST
You shouldn’t have left me when you did!

ELLIE
That’s beyond us all….
Dreams within dreams… and yet, we dream….

FROST
There are dreams that come like sentinels,
With warnings. And yet, we do not want to hear….

ELLIE
(Slowly–) You…must…let…me…go…now…, too….

FROST
I am sick of all this floating in between—
The nether world, and this and that!
I am weary of this dream!

ELLIE
(Raising her collar against a sudden draft) It’s cold! (Almost as an afterthought–) You’ll be coming along soon, Robert? (To herself–) You’ll be coming along soon…. I have missed you… more than I can say….

FROST
(Absently) Yes…. Yes…. I’ll be all right now…. Soon…. Soon….

She watches him carefully, then exits. A strange wind blows her nightgown
spectrally behind her.

FROST
(Intrigued with himself; exhaling forcefully-)
Like a necromancer of old!
Faust in all his power!
That I could do a thing like that:
To call my heart’s blood from the dead!

(Meditatively–)
Pride!
The fools flourished, and I put on pride!
After the plowing and the digging, dirt under nails,
Into the night laboring, clothing myself with pride!

The work went out, and the announcements came back:
(prissy imitation–)
“We do not think you good enough to marry our magazine.”
“Please follow our guidelines…. Subscription form enclosed!”

And I established my house in pride!
What Artist worth his salt does not?
Could anything worthwhile be wrought
Without that seasoning?

Pride took me to Shakespeare’s realm!
Pride took me home and crowned my head with laurels!
Hard-won–but I could turn my back on it!
To love it–but not need it!

He sits at his writing desk again. He smooths the crumpled paper again. Crosses out two stanzas. And he writes…. After a short while, he rises again. Thinking to himself–

I could not tell him so!
I could not make him understand!

We need it to begin anything worth beginning.
And to end what’s worth ending!
Somewhere in between, to walk out,
And not look back,
As we walk out on overbearing love….

And walk back, when we have our senses on again,
To tell ghosts what we could not utter then….

He looks at the poem again. Still thinking aloud—

As we walk out on accouterments
And even bare necessity
To grasp the raw essentials.

FROST sits and writes; the wind howls outside; oblivious, he writes quickly, with intensity; the shutters beat against the frame house, and he writes. The draft ruffles his hair, and he huddles over the paper and writes. A phantasm of lights plays around the room, and he writes. After a while, the wind and the lights cease their lovers’ quarrel. He stands erect, shoulders back; reads with a clear, steady voice from the page–

Not for the sake of the old man’s moon
Ringed in the halo of the farmhouse light,
Not for her he lay beside,
But for itself it came, from beyond their night;

For itself it touched the old man’s brow,
And blew cold breath in the wizened ear.
The snow swirled up to the barnyard door–
Over the roof of the world lay fear.

Over the roof of the heart lay hope:
That the words asleep in the snow would rise;
That they might hear the words’ wings beating;
And the words, at last, would make them wise.

FROST puts the paper down and smooths the page. He stretches his large frame, extending his arms above his head in a “V”—a slow victory sign.

He turns the light off and exits. As he shuts the door, the spectral light appears over his desk. The wind howls, the shutters beat against the house. A gust of wind comes from nowhere and scatters the papers….

Lights out.

***

An earlier, shorter version of Frost at Midnight: the Lost Poem, premiered at Stage Door Players in Atlanta, Georgia in 1993, and was performed at the Tri-Cities Neighborhood Playhouse in Atlanta in 1994. That version has been published in The Chattahoochee Review and posted at Hollywood Progressive. (“The Lost Poem” is the original work of the play’s author.)

Gary Corseri has published articles, poetry, fiction and dramas in The Seattle Star, The New York Times, CounterPunch.org, Redbook Magazine, The Village Voice and hundreds of periodicals and websites worldwide. His plays have been produced on Atlanta-PBS and at public schools and universities. He has performed his poetry at the Carter Presidential Library and Museum. He has published novels and collections of poems, edited a literary anthology, and has taught in universities in the US and Japan, and in public schools and prisons in the US.