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Robert Frost reads The Witch of Coös

As strict as Robert Frost could be about meter, here he speaks in variations of a loosely vernacular iambic pentameter, and when he reads, taking on the character of the narrators, he adds asides, and makes the listener feel here and now. As the characters speak, a mother and her forty year old son, both mediums living in the hills of New Hampshire close to the Canadian border, the mother especially reveals herself, perhaps a hillbilly Lady Macbeth, whose guilt has made her go mad. There are buried bones in the cellar. Or are there?

The faintest restless rustling
of the bones echoes the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. Frost changes some words from the original text as he goes along. How could that be becomes how that could be, and They had a grave in the cellar becomes They have a grave in the cellar. Who are they? Several murdered lovers or just one corpse’s pile of bones? We’d kept all becomes we’d kept up, and Frost takes out the word to in the line: The least I could do was to help dig their grave. Perhaps he noticed that to added an extra half foot, one extra beat, and he deleted it to make the line iambic pentameter: The least I could do was help dig their grave. Perhaps before Frost had wanted that extra beat like one more tap of the shovel packing down the grave. These changes might seem small, but they are also significant. Even poems written as well as Frost’s are never quite done. Frost, the master craftsman, can change things as he goes along, not set in stone but a stream still flowing. It is so hard not to want to change what you’ve written. Even Frost can’t help it. Here is his wonderful reading of The Witch of Coös. Enjoy.



The Witch of Coös

Circa 1922

I STAID the night for shelter at a farm
Behind the mountain, with a mother and son,
Two old-believers. They did all the talking.

The Mother

Folks think a witch who has familiar spirits
She could call up to pass a winter evening,
But won’t, should be burned at the stake or something.
Summoning spirits isn’t “Button, button,
Who’s got the button,” you’re to understand.

The Son

Mother can make a common table rear
And kick with two legs like an army mule.

The Mother

And when I’ve done it, what good have I done?
Rather than tip a table for you, let me
Tell you what Ralle the Sioux Control once told me.
He said the dead had souls, but when I asked him
How that could be—I thought the dead were souls,
He broke my trance. Don’t that make you suspicious
That there’s something the dead are keeping back?
Yes, there’s something the dead are keeping back.

The Son

You wouldn’t want to tell him what we have
Up attic, mother?

The Mother
Bones—a skeleton.

The Son

But the headboard of mother’s bed is pushed
Against the attic door: the door is nailed.
It’s harmless. Mother hears it in the night
Halting perplexed behind the barrier
Of door and headboard. Where it wants to get
Is back into the cellar where it came from.

The Mother

We’ll never let them, will we, son? We’ll never!

The Son

It left the cellar forty years ago
And carried itself like a pile of dishes
Up one flight from the cellar to the kitchen,
Another from the kitchen to the bedroom,
Another from the bedroom to the attic,
Right past both father and mother, and neither stopped it.
Father had gone upstairs; mother was downstairs.
I was a baby: I don’t know where I was.

The Mother

The only fault my husband found with me—
I went to sleep before I went to bed,
Especially in winter when the bed
Might just as well be ice and the clothes snow.
The night the bones came up the cellar-stairs
Toffile had gone to bed alone and left me,
But left an open door to cool the room off
So as to sort of turn me out of it.
I was just coming to myself enough
To wonder where the cold was coming from,
When I heard Toffile upstairs in the bedroom
And thought I heard him downstairs in the cellar.
The board we had laid down to walk dry-shod on
When there was water in the cellar in spring
Struck the hard cellar bottom. And then someone
Began the stairs, two footsteps for each step,
The way a man with one leg and a crutch,
Or little child, comes up. It wasn’t Toffile:
It wasn’t anyone who could be there.
The bulkhead double-doors were double-locked
And swollen tight and buried under snow.
The cellar windows were banked up with sawdust
And swollen tight and buried under snow.
It was the bones. I knew them—and good reason.
My first impulse was to get to the knob
And hold the door. But the bones didn’t try
The door; they halted helpless on the landing,
Waiting for things to happen in their favor.
The faintest restless rustling ran all through them.
I never could have done the thing I did
If the wish hadn’t been too strong in me
To see how they were mounted for this walk.
I had a vision of them put together
Not like a man, but like a chandelier.
So suddenly I flung the door wide on him.
A moment he stood balancing with emotion,
And all but lost himself. (A tongue of fire
Flashed out and licked along his upper teeth.
Smoke rolled inside the sockets of his eyes.)
Then he came at me with one hand outstretched,
The way he did in life once; but this time
I struck the hand off brittle on the floor,
And fell back from him on the floor myself.
The finger-pieces slid in all directions.
(Where did I see one of those pieces lately?
Hand me my button-box—it must be there.)

I sat up on the floor and shouted, “Toffile,
It’s coming up to you.” It had its choice
Of the door to the cellar or the hall.
It took the hall door for the novelty,
And set off briskly for so slow a thing,
Still going every which way in the joints, though,
So that it looked like lightning or a scribble,
From the slap I had just now given its hand.
I listened till it almost climbed the stairs
From the hall to the only finished bedroom,
Before I got up to do anything;
Then ran and shouted, “Shut the bedroom door,
Toffile, for my sake!” “Company,” he said,
“Don’t make me get up; I’m too warm in bed.”
So lying forward weakly on the handrail
I pushed myself upstairs, and in the light
(The kitchen had been dark) I had to own
I could see nothing. “Toffile, I don’t see it.
It’s with us in the room, though. It’s the bones.”
“What bones?” “The cellar bones—out of the grave.”

That made him throw his bare legs out of bed
And sit up by me and take hold of me.
I wanted to put out the light and see
If I could see it, or else mow the room,
With our arms at the level of our knees,
And bring the chalk-pile down. “I’ll tell you what—
It’s looking for another door to try.
The uncommonly deep snow has made him think
Of his old song, The Wild Colonial Boy,
He always used to sing along the tote-road.
He’s after an open door to get out-doors.
Let’s trap him with an open door up attic.”
Toffile agreed to that, and sure enough,
Almost the moment he was given an opening,
The steps began to climb the attic stairs.
I heard them. Toffile didn’t seem to hear them.
“Quick!” I slammed to the door and held the knob.
“Toffile, get nails.” I made him nail the door shut,
And push the headboard of the bed against it.

Then we asked was there anything
Up attic that we’d ever want again.
The attic was less to us than the cellar.
If the bones liked the attic, let them like it,
Let them stay in the attic. When they sometimes
Come down the stairs at night and stand perplexed
Behind the door and headboard of the bed,
Brushing their chalky skull with chalky fingers,
With sounds like the dry rattling of a shutter,
That’s what I sit up in the dark to say—
To no one any more since Toffile died.
Let them stay in the attic since they went there.
I promised Toffile to be cruel to them
For helping them be cruel once to him.

The Son

We think they had a grave down in the cellar.

The Mother

We know they had a grave down in the cellar.

The Son

We never could find out whose bones they were.

The Mother

Yes, we could too, son. Tell the truth for once.
They were a man’s his father killed for me.
I mean a man he killed instead of me.
The least I could do was help dig their grave.
We were about it one night in the cellar.
Son knows the story: but ’twas not for him
To tell the truth, suppose the time had come.
Son looks surprised to see me end a lie
We’d kept up all these years between ourselves
So as to have it ready for outsiders.
But tonight I don’t care enough to lie—
I don’t remember why I ever cared.
Toffile, if he were here, I don’t believe
Could tell you why he ever cared himself….

She hadn’t found the finger-bone she wanted
Among the buttons poured out in her lap.

I verified the name next morning: Toffile.
The rural letter-box said Toffile Barre.


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