Cheryl Levi

A Question by Robert Frost

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My son spent his afternoon today at the funeral of a good friend who was killed in Gaza.  I wish I could say that today was uncommon, but it wasn’t.  Our young adult children are either fighting Hamas, sitting by the bedsides of friends who were injured, or standing by the gravesides of their peers.  By the end of this war, they will have seen more funerals and visited more Shiva houses than their parents have. Nothing about this is normal.  War is not normal.

My son called to ask me to borrow the car to attend the funeral while I was at work.  He told me about the death of his friend, and I immediately felt that familiar thud in my chest. It was the same thud I felt when my father died. It is the same thud I feel every morning when I look at the faces of the soldiers who died in the night while fighting to protect me. I can’t give it a name. All I know is that it washes over me and transforms my heart into a plunging stone.

“I’m so sorry.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I’m so sorry.”

I heard myself repeat these words over and over again as I contemplated the state my son must have been in.

I agreed to give him the car, and I went into my tenth-grade classroom. My students were working on their Robert Frost projects. Each girl had to choose a poem written by Frost and create a slide show about it. My students were in the “find the poem” stage, and they were panicking.

“Can I do ‘Fire and Ice’?”

“Can I do ‘Stopping by the Woods’?”

“Can I do ‘A Minor Bird’?”

I walked around the room and helped each student decide on her poem, and that’s when I saw it. It was a poem entitled “A Question”. A student had chosen it and called me over to approve it. I read it and was immediately able to identify that thud in my chest from earlier in the day.  Poetry can be magical when it is written well.

The poem was typical of Robert Frost.  It was 4 short lines, easily understood, and yet so markedly profound that I froze in my tracks when I read it. 

A Question by Robert Frost

A voice said, Look me in the stars

And tell me truly, men of earth,

If all the soul-and-body scars

Were not too much to pay for birth.

In the poem, a voice calls out to the reader.  That voice is other-worldly as it has stars for eyes, and it labels the readers “men of earth”.  Yet it could just as easily be an inner voice,  a voice so poignant and so intimate that you might find yourself looking over your shoulder when it speaks to you, to make sure nobody is listening.

The voice poses a question: when you consider all the physical, emotional, and spiritual scars this world has caused you, is it worth being born?

When I read it, images flooded my mind.  They were images of young wives weeping from the graves of their husbands. They were sounds of mothers begging for one more hug.  They were the smells of freshly dug earth.

Robert Frost was no stranger to suffering. The poem was written in 1942 when he had already lost his father, his mother, his sister, and four out of six of his children.  He and his wife understandably suffered from depression. If anyone had a right to ask himself this question, it was Robert Frost.

The year the poem was published was also telling.  It was during World War Two, a war that would eventually kill somewhere between 70-85 million people (about 3% of the world population).  It was a vicious war that forced people to rely on their most base instincts to survive.  It would expose the world to the horrors of the Nazi death camps, and the pits covered in bones found in the forests of Poland.  It was the War of Wars.

And now I found myself in my classroom facing my own inner war: that familiar unforgiving thud in my chest.

The other magical thing about Robert Frost’s poetry is that it is often open-ended.  Frost doesn’t provide an instruction booklet to interpret his poetry;  He leaves his readers to understand his poems on their own terms.  In this poem, he poses a question, but not the answer.

Is it worth it to be born into a life of suffering?

When I stopped to think about those images of young wives and mothers, I grew concerned.  What would they say to this question? But it strikes me that the poem does not allow for a simple yes or no answer.  The question is too profound and poignant.  It demands reflection.  It forces the reader to contemplate life. All of life.  Not just those moments by the graveside. What has my life presented me with?  Challenges? Wisdom?  Love? Compassion? Suffering?  Strength?  Weakness?

And if suffering is the overriding theme of the moment, perhaps the answer to this question demands broader strokes.  Maybe we should be examining the length and breadth of our lives as opposed to individual flashes of time.

Frost was 86 years old when he passed away.  He lived a long life of suffering and scars.  But he also contributed immense beauty and wisdom to the world.  His poems speak of choices, regret, nature, passion, hate, and hope.  Through his poetry he examined the complete character of life;  He lived beyond a single moment through his art. Maybe this poem is beckoning us to do just that;  Maybe it’s telling us to try to see beyond the thud in our chests.

It’s a difficult message to absorb when we are in the midst of so much loss.  Surely the tears of the young wife and tearful mother are blurring their vision and stinging their eyes.  My hope for them is that one day those tears dry out allowing them a broader view of what life has to offer.  I pray that one day they’ll be able to face Frost’s question without a thud in their chests.

About the Author
Cheryl Levi is a writer and a high school English teacher who lives with her family in Bet Shemesh, Israel. She has a master's degree in medieval Jewish philosophy and has written numerous articles about faith crisis in Judaism. Her book, Reasonable Doubts, was published in 2010.
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