The battle rent a cobweb diamond-strung
And cut a flower beside a ground bird’s nest
Before it stained a single human breast.
The stricken flower bent double and so hung.
And still the bird revisited her young.
A butterfly its fall had dispossessed
A moment sought in air his flower of rest,
Then lightly stooped to it and fluttering clung.
On the bare upland pasture there had spread
O’ernight ‘twixt mullein stalks a wheel of thread
And straining cables wet with silver dew.
A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.
This poem makes the flight of a bullet that will kill a man incidental to the effects it has upon the insects and small flowers on a battlefield.
STRUCTURE NOTE: This poem is a Petrarchan sonnet.
Robert Frost: Frost was a renowned American poet.
Range-Finding: A speculative shot intended to find out a gun’s accuracy over distance. Here though, also a metaphor for how speculating how far the effects of war are felt.
First Stanza / Octet: The poem lies in a tradition of poetry that uses animals to provide a perspective on human affairs, particularly human carelessness— the most obvious precursor here being Rab Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ (in which a farmer bemoans destroying a field mouse’s nest while tilling the soil: he declares that “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft gley”). The Octet concentrates on how the bullet flies through a spider’s web, nearly bisects a flower that grows near a ground-bird’s nest, and upsets the actions of a butterfly.
“Before it stained a single human breast…”: The bullet will kill or maim a human at the end of its flight. This poem is not concerned with that terrible moment, but it remains in the background of the poem throughout. Instead the octet concentrates on a “stricken flower” and what occurs around it.
“…still the bird revisited her young.”: Nature and its creatures persist and continue to work, even during (man’s) war.
“A butterfly its fall had dispossessed…”: the focus here is on the delicate butterfly close-up, to the exclusion of all other things: hence the detail of the “fluttering” creature clinging to the stalk. The contrast between the fine beauty of a butterfly and the monstrous events that lie in the poem’s background is understated, but stark.
Second Stanza / Sextet: The perspective of the poem shifts here, as sonnets traditionally do. The ‘turn’, however, is not from nature to man, as might be expected, but to the spider first mentioned at the beginning.
“a wheel of thread / And straining cables wet with silver dew”: The beauty of the spider’s web is described through metaphors that accentuate technology and invention: the spider is, to this degree, humanized.
“The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly, / But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew”: The spider is fooled by the movement on its web to think that it has prey to feed on. There is a bitter irony here, for the mechanical action of the spider belies the truly inhuman actions occurring above and beyond, on the field of battle.
[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The second of the poems to look at nature and human nature in an unconventional manner. Both poems are by Americans, whose country at this point had not entered the war (Frost however was in Britain at the start of the war). Perhaps this allowed the sense of objectivity and philosophical space that these two poems seem to work in.]