The annual Perseid meteor shower is expected to peak over the next few days, and that’s why our homeschool poem-of-the-week for the second week of August is a wonderfully playful verse drawn from the world’s small store of meteor poems: Robert Frost’s “A Star in a Stoneboat.”
Usually we dive right in with the text, but this week your students really do have to know first what a stoneboat is. It’s not a boat, and it’s not made of stone; it’s a piece of farm equipment like a sled or toboggan that’s used for dragging stones out of a field. Frost was a New England poet, and in New England if you wanted to plant an acre of corn, you first had to drag a few tons of rocks out of the way.
And since wise old farmers never let anything go to waste, those few tons of rocks were generally piled up along the edge of the field where they served pretty well to keep the pigs out of the corn, too.
With that background — that stoneboats were the pickup trucks of yesterday — we can proceed with the meteoric tale of “A Star in a Pickup Truck.”
A Star in a Stoneboat
Never tell me that not one star of all
That slip from heaven at night and softly fall
Has been picked up with stones to build a wall.
Some laborer found one faded and stone-cold,
And saving that its weight suggested gold
And tugged it from his first too certain hold,
He noticed nothing in it to remark.
He was not used to handling stars thrown dark
And lifeless from an interrupted arc.
He did not recognize in that smooth coal
The one thing palpable besides the soul
To penetrate the air in which we roll.
He did not see how like a flying thing
It brooded ant eggs, and had one large wing,
One not so large for flying in a ring,
And a long Bird of Paradise’s tail
(Though these when not in use to fly and trail
It drew back in its body like a snail);
Nor know that he might move it from the spot —
The harm was done: from having been star-shot
The very nature of the soil was hot
And burning to yield flowers instead of grain,
Flowers fanned and not put out by all the rain
Poured on them by his prayers prayed in vain.
He moved it roughly with an iron bar,
He loaded an old stoneboat with the star
And not, as you might think, a flying car,
Such as even poets would admit perforce
More practical than Pegasus the horse
If it could put a star back in its course.
He dragged it through the plowed ground at a pace
But faintly reminiscent of the race
Of jostling rock in interstellar space.
It went for building stone, and I, as though
Commanded in a dream, forever go
To right the wrong that this should have been so.
Yet ask where else it could have gone as well,
I do not know — I cannot stop to tell:
He might have left it lying where it fell.
From following walls I never lift my eye,
Except at night to places in the sky
Where showers of charted meteors let fly.
Some may know what they seek in school and church,
And why they seek it there; for what I search
I must go measuring stone walls, perch on perch;
Sure that though not a star of death and birth,
So not to be compared, perhaps, in worth
To such resorts of life as Mars and Earth —
Though not, I say, a star of death and sin,
It yet has poles, and only needs a spin
To show its worldly nature and begin
To chafe and shuffle in my calloused palm
And run off in strange tangents with my arm,
As fish do with the line in first alarm.
Such as it is, it promises the prize
Of the one world complete in any size
That I am like to compass, fool or wise.
This is an exceptionally clever poem — a long string of comparisons and contrasts — and you and your students can spend quite a bit of time trying to figure it out sentence by sentence. I won’t go through all the components here, but I encourage you to look first at the very tight structure. “A Star in a Stoneboat” is made up not of couplets (rhymed pairs) but of triplets, where all three line-ends rhyme: all–fall–wall, cold–gold–hold, remark–dark–arc, all through the entire poem. That’s fairly uncommon in English, and it’s very difficult to sustain through so many stanzas. Next, count syllables: you’ll find that every line has exactly ten. The constraints that Frost imposed on himself in adopting this compact form account for some of the complexities of the poem’s word-order, which admittedly can take a bit of effort to follow.
What the content of the poem generally does throughout is contrast the “life” of this curious heavy stone once upon a time when it was flying through space, with its “life” after its arc was interrupted and it ignominiously landed in some farmer’s field, got pried out of the ground by a workman (see the illustration above), and was dumped onto a stoneboat. Formerly it had raced past the planets; now it’s keeping pigs out of the corn. “Yet ask where else it could have gone as well, / I do not know.” See how many earthly–heavenly contrasts and comparisons your students can identify, all of them mediated by this imagined meteorite. And ask them if they’d like to be, like the narrator, a wanderer along the walls, mile on mile, searching for stones that had once been stars.
What other wonderful words and poetical productions have you been studying in your homeschool this Hercules Term? 😊
❡ Stars thrown dark: If a special line or turn of phrase happens to strike you in one of our weekly poems, just copy it onto your homeschool bulletin board for a few days and invite your students to speak it aloud — that’s all it takes to begin a new poetical friendship and learn a few lovely words that will stay with you for life. 🌠
❡ Literary lives: The website of the Poetry Foundation includes biographical notes and examples of the work of many important poets (including Robert Frost) that are suitable for high school students and homeschool teachers. 🖋
❡ Here, said the year: This post is one of our regular homeschool poems-of-the-week. Add your name to our River Houses mailing list to get posts like these delivered right to your mailbox, and print your own River Houses Poetry Calendar to follow along with us as we visit fifty of our favorite friends over the course of the year. 📖