Please Explain “The Silken Tent”

March 22, 1999

Sometime yesterday somebody accessed this journal looking for Robert Frost’s poem. I know this because my referral logs showed that a search engine presented with the parameters “Silken +Tent +Robert +Frost” had returned my URL as a possibility. This has happened before two or three times. I envision a hapless student saddled with an assignment to do a literary analysis clicking through page after page here, trying to find where “The Silken Tent” is discussed. Sometimes I hear from them directly. “Could you please explain this poem?” one asked. “All I found here was stuff about you.” So today might be a good time to go into why I’ve given my journal this name.

Here is Robert Frost’s lovely sonnet:

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.   

I knew this poem first in 1967, as a junior at Pennsylvania’s Millersville State College (now Millersville University). It was given to us as an exercise in diagramming a sentence for a rhetoric class taught by A.J. Leet, newly arrived from the private men’s college one town to the south.   

Albert, as I came to know him, had been hired for his reputation as a moody, intense poet on the cutting edge of the arts scene. (The president of the college, who was two trustees’ meetings away from losing his job, was keen on that sort of thing.) Albert developed a following among the moody poets in the English major ranks. In fact, watching One True Thing last night, I looked at William Hurt’s character and thought, that’s Albert, only better looking, and nicer. (And if you had the same reaction to the character that I had, that does not speak well at all of Albert.)

I was one of the moody poets drawn into his clique. We thought we were cooler than everybody else, blazing intellectuals stuck in the backwater of a land grant college. We were going to dismantle the establishment, reform education, cure poverty, end racism, empower everyone, and stop the war. But first we’d have to get groovy at Woodstock.

Albert conducted most of his classes sitting cross-legged on the desk, chain-smoking and reading poetry to us. He wore the beatnik’s uniform of black slacks and turtleneck, exaggerating his gaunt, hollow-eyed look. I was twenty to his forty, and I thought the look came from the hours he spent crafting his poetry. I suspect now it was alcohol. And I know now that as a teacher he was a disaster, that we should have sued the university over his classroom negligence and his after-hours sexual pressure.

“The Silken Tent” is a single sentence, rendered in fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with the classic Shakespearean rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. It says, basically, “She is . . . a tent,” or, more precisely, “She is as . . . a . . . tent [is] . . .” — the distinction is crucial if you are one of two young women kneeling in the hallway of your dorm inking the phrases onto a roll of shelf paper in their successive layers of modification and subordination.

The poem moves the way the tent moves, all those esses sibilant, sensual, sexual. Oh, I said, if only someone would say that about me. At twenty I was unaware that I had a sexuality that could serve me instead of slay me. It would be years before I would cease to be afraid of my own sexual power, before I would let myself move into its heat without “zero at the bone.” It would be years before I would understand that the poem is about me.

I am that tent, a soft drape of blues and greens and yellows, anchored to the earth by the silken ties of love and thought that are my roles as wife, mother, lover, friend, and kept straight and true by the central cedar pole that points to heaven and signifies the sureness of my soul.

I move, I bend, I dance, I dream. Thank you Albert, wherever you are.

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