The Need of Being Versed in Country Things (1923)
House and home figure prominently in Frost, as do chimneys. Here the house is on fire when it brings “[t]o the midnight sky a sunset glow.” And the chimney is all that remains after the fire, similar to the chimney in “Ghost House.” “Ghost House” was written in 1901 and was inspired by “an old cellar hole with a broken chimney standing in it—what remained of a nearby farmhouse after a fire had destroyed it in 1867” (Parini, 91). The remains were near one of Frost’s farms in Derry, New Hampshire. The image here might have been inspired by the same experience, except it is cast as a reminder of a flower stem that has lost all its petals; the chimney is the remaining pistil.
The wind went in the opposite direction of the barn, saving it from the fire. But the barn has been abandoned since the house burned down. There are no longer teams of livestock kept there. The birds still come through broken windows, but they sigh about what is gone and their chirping is not cheerful, “[t]heir murmur more like the sigh we sigh / From too much dwelling on what has been,” the speaker says. For the birds there is still something of home, however. The lilacs are still there, the elm scarred by its touch of fire, the dry water pump, the fence post. These objects all remain for a bird to alight upon. But the speaker muses, “One had to be versed in country things / Not to believe the phoebes wept.” An outsider would believe the birds are weeping, but a country person knows better. Robert Faggen finds that “education or uneducation of human emotions is the focus” of the poem (69).
To be versed in country things is to, if not anticipate, at least expect happenstance. Those not versed in country things think that nature cares about human beings and other living things. Those who are versed know about the indifference of nature, that it does not respond to human affairs. To be versed in country things is not to know how to mow a field or lead a team of cattle, as city folk might suppose. It is deeper than that. Those who think nature is concerned with human affairs are not at all versed in country things.
The expression sounds like a shallow country saying, but it is more serious than that. It appears to be playful, but it is too dark. Faggen describes the title as sounding “like a prelude to a piece of moral wisdom, but its folksy sound belies the cruelty of what is to come. ‘Country Things’ echoes Hamlet’s question to Ophelia about indecent ‘country matters’; Frost lures his readers to consider nature’s wisdom only to find that the joke is on them” (69). The poem is not about milking a cow but about knowing that for nature “there was really nothing sad” in the burning down of a house. Faggen further notes that “[s]adness is our emotion, and the true need of being versed in country things is to recognize the uselessness of that emotion and to avoid attributing it to other creatures” (70).
Demonstrating the pun on the word “verse” as well as Frost’s own knowledge of country things, Robert Pack writes, “One must understand the indifference of nature and country things, and be versed in nature’s separateness to write (in verse) a believable nature poem” (157).
The poem was first published in the December 1920 issue of Harper’s Magazine and was later collected in West-Running Brook.
Bagby, George F. Frost and the Book of Nature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993, 132–133. Elder, John. “The Poetry of Experience,” New Literary History 30, no. 3 (Summer 1999): 649–659. Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, 69–70. Pack, Robert. Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost. Hanover, N.H.: Middlebury College Press, 2003. Parini, Jay. Robert Frost: A Life. New York: Holt, 1999. Wolosky, Shira. “The Need of Being Versed: Robert Frost and the Limits of Rhetoric,” Essays in Literature 18, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 76–92.