Sunday, 28 April 2013

Portsmouth Point Poetry: 'A Considerable Speck' by Robert Frost

by Gregory Walton-Green

In Robert Frost's poem, 'A Considerable Speck', the narrator, having written on a piece of paper, sees a ‘mite’ run across the page. He first thinks of stabbing it, then realises it is intelligent, so he lets the scared ‘mite’ rest. Then the narrator tells us he didn’t save the mite because of a general principle of equal kindness, but because it had done him no harm. He ends the poem by saying he is glad to find signs of intelligence in any form on pieces of paper.

A speck that would have been beneath my sight
On any but a paper sheet so white
Set off across what I had written there.
And I had idly poised my pen in air
To stop it with a period of ink
When something strange about it made me think,
This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
But unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.
It paused as with suspicion of my pen,
And then came racing wildly on again
To where my manuscript was not yet dry;
Then paused again and either drank or smelt--
With loathing, for again it turned to fly.
Plainly with an intelligence I dealt.
It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn't want to die.
It ran with terror and with cunning crept.
It faltered: I could see it hesitate;
Then in the middle of the open sheet
Cower down in desperation to accept
Whatever I accorded it of fate.

I have none of the tenderer-than-thou
Collectivistic regimenting love
With which the modern world is being swept.
But this poor microscopic item now!
Since it was nothing I knew evil of
I let it lie there till I hope it slept.

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

Different Interpretations
The title itself is somewhat oxymoronic: how can such a small object be of any importance? We are first led to believe it is only noticeable due to its contrasting against the paper; next we are told it is significant because it could think when we expected it to be a thoughtless, lifeless speck of dust. However, perhaps it is considerable only for what it signifies: we know logically that this intelligent mite cannot have existed, therefore, what does Frost wish the miniscule ‘mind’ to be a metaphor for? It may be a reference to the thoughtless process by which humans run around their lives helplessly, achieving nothing. On the other hand, the mite is said to have mind, but is it using it? Is Frost a serious threat to the mite? Many suggest that this poem is Frost’s way of showing his lack of sympathy with the view that kindness should be doled out to everything equally. Could Frost be encouraging us, in the final verses, to think for ourselves and not to follow the crowd, unable to make our own decisions or have any originality?
Some view this poem as Frost boasting of his benevolence towards his critics: this poem was written at the height of Frost’s career, he viewed critics (the mite) as having little power over him, as inconsiderable when he was so successful. He may be saying that he views it as refreshing to have a critic tell him an honest opinion, but views it as no threat to his writing prowess. Indeed, much of the language seems contemptuous, such as Frost describing how the mite ‘seemed too tiny to have room for feet’ and that Frost is far above the ‘Collectivistic regimenting love/with which the modern world is being swept’, portraying himself as far superior.

Yet can we even be certain that the narrator reflects Frost’s own opinion? It is entirely plausible that Frost is mocking the haughty stance and the moral high ground the narrator occupies. For example, the narrator ends the poem with a self-congratulating statement: ‘I have a mind myself and recognise/ Mind when I meet with it in any guise’, and yet he failed to recognise the mite for what it was for a considerable time, indeed, he never would have noticed it was his page of writing not so blank! There is clear irony here, as the narrator who claims that he has considerable intelligence has failed to write very much at all, unlike Frost. The fact that the mite finds the ink loathsome hints that perhaps the writing is of a very poor standard, or even that the mite is afraid of what the writer is writing, not the writer itself. If we take the mite as representative of an apathetic follower of Collectivism, perhaps it is frightened by the intense individuality, analysis and productive use of mind by the narrator. To fully understand the poem, I believe we must weigh up these differing opinions, and try to select one that is fully compatible with the whole poem.
Form, Rhyme and Structure
The poem is split into three verses. The first, of 23 lines, simply tells a (somewhat odd) story of a mite that ran over a page of writing, in fear and desperation of the writer. The rhyming in the first verse starts off with 3 rhyming couplets, which all describe the narrator before he realises the speck is ‘a living mite’. Once he has realised the speck is intelligent, he follows its frantic actions, and the sporadic and jerky movements of the mite are reflected in the irregularities that form in the rhyme scheme.
The second and third verses explain why the narrator saves the life of the mite. The second verse makes a philosophical point about how the narrator disapproves of the growing attitude of acting kindly to seem better than your peers, even when the subject of kindness is undeserving, under the premise of explaining the reason people may think the narrator spared the mite. It then explains the actual reason, that he made his OWN judgement, that the mite should be spared, not out of a need to seem benevolent, but because the mite had done him no wrong. He sympathised with the mite in the first verse for its frantic lifestyle and the distress it suffered from its irrational fears, and so in the second verse hopes that it can find some rest.
The rhyming in the second verse is reminiscent of the sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet, as it has the rhyme scheme ‘abcabc’. This is the older form of sonnet, and the sestet was traditionally used to mark a turn in emotion in the sonnet, to reflect upon the earlier ideas. This follows the meaning of the second verse where the narrator becomes pensive on the subject of Collectivism and also that he has the capacity to empathise with other intelligences. In the final verse, the narrator return to his own opinion, but switches his focus from the ‘speck’ to ‘mind’ and, after boasting of his ability to detect ‘mind’, he tells us how he is surprised and happy to discover intelligent writing, although it is unclear whether he means in his own work or in others. 
Here, Frost returns to using rhyming couplets, which links the poem back to its beginning; this circular pattern also highlights how this final verse causes us to re-interpret the poem and its subject. The use of a rhyming couplet at the end of a poem, to put the rest of a poem in a different light, is a classic technique, used by Shakespeare in his sonnets. This emulating of Shakespeare is enforced by the use of pentameter throughout.  Frost moves from a specific example to a generalisation, making a wider philosophical point. He suggests most people who write no longer think for themselves intelligently.

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