My seminar came to my borrowed house:
a dark place where my golden-hearted wife
and son and daughter slept so deeply,
though lightning struck it twice that June.
It was rivalrous Robert Frost’s old farm,
where he designed the stairwell in the back
so anybody taller than he was
would hit their heads as they tried to climb.
I offered to guide us back to the Barn
over mountainside cross-country ski trails:
“Come to leave the routine road,”
as Frost himself once wrote.
It wasn’t a “Road Not Taken”:
I had found my way five times,
and preened to lead these bright
young folks through the mazy mires.
We talked again about Herbert’s “Jordan”:
“Is all good structure in a winding stair?”
And suddenly I realized I had missed a turn,
but pushed along because I was “abashed,
and struck with many a sting of swarming fears,”
like the misguided wanderer of Herbert’s “Pilgrimage,”
with deerflies to enforce the point.
“I travailed on,” and yearned for Brandy Brook.
But how wrong could we really go?
By now the Barn was bound to be
just down the slope. We got there,
though too late for lunch, and caked in mud.
What strikes me only now, a decade later,
asked to celebrate a Bread Loaf century,
is that our seminar had just continued
into metaphor: some willing wanderers,
none of whom really knew the way
through doubts, diversions, and shared noticings,
through ever-changing shadows, never black or white,
from sunlight playing in the tangles that are life,
the way we travel through the world
with ancient words upon our lips,
and if it left us hungry, that was for the best –
so much so that I feel I’m back there now
not needing any trail. We were pilgrims,
wading our small Jordans, as they sink
down to the Dead Sea, and we cross them
toward promised lands that could mean anything.
Robert N. Watson, a former member of the Bread Loaf faculty, is Distinguished Professor of English at UCLA. His poetry has been published widely; his latest book is titled Cultural Evolution and its Discontents.