Sunday, 1 February 2009

The Cow in Apple Time --- War Poem or Bull?

Any reader of Robert Frost's poetry must, sooner or later, come to terms with what he called its 'ulteriority' --- its ability to say one thing and mean another. What, then, does this poem mean?

The Cow in Apple Time

Something inspires the only cow of late
To make no more of a wall than an open gate,
And think no more of wall-builders than fools.
Her face is flecked with pomace and she drools
A cider syrup. Having tasted fruit,
She scorns a pasture withering to the root.
She runs from tree to tree where lie and sweeten
The windfalls spiked with stubble and worm-eaten.
She leaves them bitten when she has to fly.
She bellows on a knoll against the sky.
Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.

Frost wrote the poem in England in late 1914. At readings, he always explained that his 'heroic cow' was inspired by the group of animals at the base of the Albert Memorial (see above), having forgotten or perhaps failed to notice that the 'cow' in question is being ridden by Europa. A more obvious source is Frost's own 'Mending Wall', in which walls between neighbo(u)rs are considered especially important 'where there are cows'.

Frost thought about walls in bodily terms: 'One chief disposition of life living is cell walls breaking and cells walls making'. He also thought about them on an international level. Take, as one example among many, 'Education by Poetry', when he resists arguments against nationalism: 'Look! First I want to be a person. And I want you to be a person, and then we can be as interpersonal as you please. We can pull each other's noses --- do all sorts of things. But, first of all, you have got to have the personality. First of all, you have got to have the nations and then they can be as international as they please with each other.'

Frost's cow is transgressive. She crosses boundaries to taste forbidden fruit, and having been driven back to her proper territory, she suffers the consequences of her greed, losing the ability to nourish her own offspring. In late 1914, one ulterior meaning would have clearly presented itself. Frost's subsequent omission of Europa is the most revealing of disguises. What is the poem about, if not the outbreak of hostilities on the continent which takes its name from that mythical heroine?

It is about a cow which gorges itself in an orchard. That much, at least, we can agree on.

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