Wild Grapes. Miscellaneous Poems. 1920

WHAT tree may not the fig be gathered from? 
The grape may not be gathered from the birch? 
It’s all you know the grape, or know the birch. 
As a girl gathered from the birch myself
Equally with my weight in grapes, one autumn,  
I ought to know what tree the grape is fruit of. 
I was born, I suppose, like anyone,
And grew to be a little boyish girl
My brother could not always leave at home. 
But that beginning was wiped out in fear     
The day I swung suspended with the grapes, 
And was come after like Eurydice 
And brought down safely from the upper regions; 
And the life I live now’s an extra life 
I can waste as I please on whom I please.    
So if you see me celebrate two birthdays,
And give myself out of two different ages, 
One of them five years younger than I look— 

One day my brother led me to a glade 
Where a white birch he knew of stood alone,        
Wearing a thin head-dress of pointed leaves, 
And heavy on her heavy hair behind, 
Against her neck, an ornament of grapes. 
Grapes, I knew grapes from having seen them last year. 
One bunch of them, and there began to be         
Bunches all round me growing in white birches, 
The way they grew round Leif the Lucky’s German; 
Mostly as much beyond my lifted hands, though, 
As the moon used to seem when I was younger, 
And only freely to be had for climbing.          
My brother did the climbing; and at first 
Threw me down grapes to miss and scatter 
And have to hunt for in sweet fern and hardhack; 
Which gave him some time to himself to eat, 
But not so much, perhaps, as a boy needed.          
So then, to make me wholly self-supporting,
He climbed still higher and bent the tree to earth
And put it in my hands to pick my own grapes. 
“Here, take a tree-top, I’ll get down another. 
Hold on with all your might when I let go.”        
I said I had the tree. It wasn’t true. 
The opposite was true. The tree had me. 
The minute it was left with me alone
It caught me up as if I were the fish 
And it the fishpole. So I was translated  
To loud cries from my brother of “Let go! 
Don’t you know anything, you girl? Let go!” 
But I, with something of the baby grip 
Acquired ancestrally in just such trees 
When wilder mothers than our wildest now
Hung babies out on branches by the hands
To dry or wash or tan, I don’t know which, 
(You’ll have to ask an evolutionist)— 
I held on uncomplainingly for life. 
My brother tried to make me laugh to help me.
“What are you doing up there in those grapes? 
Don’t be afraid. A few of them won’t hurt you. 
I mean, they won’t pick you if you don’t them.” 
Much danger of my picking anything! 
By that time I was pretty well reduced
To a philosophy of hang-and-let-hang. 
“Now you know how it feels,” my brother said,
“To be a bunch of fox-grapes, as they call them, 
That when it thinks it has escaped the fox 
By growing where it shouldn’t—on a birch, 
Where a fox wouldn’t think to look for it— 
And if he looked and found it, couldn’t reach it— 
Just then come you and I to gather it. 
Only you have the advantage of the grapes
In one way: you have one more stem to cling by,     
And promise more resistance to the picker.”

One by one I lost off my hat and shoes,
And still I clung. I let my head fall back,
And shut my eyes against the sun, my ears 
Against my brother’s nonsense; “Drop,” he said,   
“I’ll catch you in my arms. It isn’t far.” 
(Stated in lengths of him it might not be.) 
“Drop or I’ll shake the tree and shake you down.” 
Grim silence on my part as I sank lower,
My small wrists stretching till they showed the banjo strings.  
“Why, if she isn’t serious about it! 
Hold tight awhile till I think what to do.
I’ll bend the tree down and let you down by it.” 
I don’t know much about the letting down; 
But once I felt ground with my stocking feet 
And the world came revolving back to me, 
I know I looked long at my curled-up fingers, 
Before I straightened them and brushed the bark off. 
My brother said: “Don’t you weigh anything? 
Try to weigh something next time, so you won’t   
Be run off with by birch trees into space.”

It wasn’t my not weighing anything
So much as my not knowing anything—
My brother had been nearer right before. 
I had not taken the first step in knowledge;       
I had not learned to let go with the hands, 
As still I have not learned to with the heart, 
And have no wish to with the heart—nor need, 
That I can see. The mind—is not the heart. 
I may yet live, as I know others live,
To wish in vain to let go with the mind—
Of cares, at night, to sleep; but nothing tells me
That I need learn to let go with the heart.



The mind—is not the heart. Knowledge and skill are acquired along with the learning of limitations – how much, when, and suchlike. Not desire. One may have to let go of the mind but never from the heart.

Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, ‘grace’ metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, ‘Why don’t you say what you mean?’ We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections — whether from diffidence or some other instinct.
– RF (Education by Poetry, Amherst College speech published in the Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly, February 1931)

A childhood accident, a fable, a learning, a resolve, this poem is interspersed with beautiful imagery. The protagonist here is a girl who sets us thinking by telling us about grapes that hang from birches as she herself once did. She tells of an incident that ended her boyishness when she was small. A child’s play of swinging on birches is a metaphor for knowing with heart and mind, of and letting go. It echoes the thought of Reluctance,

Ah, when to the heart of man 
Was it ever less than a treason         
To go with the drift of things, 
To yield with a grace to reason, 
And bow and accept the end 
Of a love or a season?

These lines have to be read to enjoy the scene, the simplicity of description, the sheer picture that the poet draws. And true to his word that a poem must ‘begin in delight and end in wisdom’, the poem closes with the philosophical thoughts. A helplessness that we experience when called upon to let go. Sometimes we do, sometimes not. What do we tell ourselves? The protagonist here says:

The mind-is not the heart.
I may yet live, as I know others live,
To wish in vain to let go with the mind-
Of cares, at night, to sleep; but nothing tells me
That I need learn to let go with the heart.

Literary Designs

Personification: The birch stands personified like a stately woman with ornaments around her neck.

Wearing a thin head-dress of pointed leaves, 
And heavy on her heavy hair behind, 
Against her neck, an ornament of grapes.

Humor

And the life I live now’s an extra life 
I can waste as I please on whom I please.        

I said I had the tree. It wasn’t true. 
The opposite was true. The tree had me. 

Hung babies out on branches by the hands
To dry or wash or tan, I don’t know which,

Outer Vs Inner Weather

I would like to think it’s all about older brother and little sister. But the stereotypes that have been pointed out are difficult to ignore. The boy is about dominance, authority, control, knowledge and skill. The brother ‘could not always leave (me) at home’ and ‘led me to a glade’.

My brother did the climbing; and at first 
Threw me down grapes to miss and scatter 
And have to hunt for in sweet fern and hardhack; 
Which gave him some time to himself to eat, 
But not so much, perhaps, as a boy needed.

So then, to make me wholly self-supporting,
He climbed still higher and bent the tree to earth 
And put it in my hands to pick my own grapes. 

The boy is open in his disregard for her sense: ‘Don’t you know anything, you girl? …’

I do identify completely with her as she hangs from the tree ‘uncomplainingly for life’ totally disregarding the brother’s advice to ‘drop’ as nonsense. She seems to be enjoying her freedom, however short lived. She’s on her own. The decider of her destiny. Echoing thoughts from Birches:

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

She knows and accepts that she does not know.

It wasn’t my not weighing anything
So much as my not knowing anything—

Finally we see her silent resolve. Not the learning, the practical insights of the brother but her emotional connect – the higher understanding of things. The difference Frost saw between himself as the poet and the tree in Tree at My Window:

That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.

References

  • Eurydice – a tree nymph. More.
  • Leif the Lucky was the first European to set foot on the continent of North America around 1000 AD. Leif christened the area Vinland, after the wild grapes he found there.


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