Once in a California Sierra
I was swooped down upon when I was small,
And measured, but not taken after all,
By a great eagle bird in all its terror.
Such auspices are very hard to read.
My parents when I ran to them averred
I was rejected by the royal bird
As one who would not make a Ganymede.
Not find a barkeep unto Jove in me?
I have remained resentful to this day
When any but myself presumed to say
That there was anything I couldn't be.
-- Robert Frost
Here are some more images of Ganymede and the eagle. Included are stamps from Cyprus, Cuba, and Greece:
Robert Frost's "Auspex": or, All about Eagles
Recently, while browsing through an edition of Frost's poetry, I noticed for the first time a strange little poem about a child who was attacked by an eagle. The title is "Auspex," and it is one of those minor Frost poems that almost nobody has ever bothered to include in an anthology. The title, however, intrigued me, and the description in the first stanza of the small child nearly being carried away by an eagle guaranteed that I would give the poem a thorough reading. So I sat down amidst the dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference books in the library and started looking stuff up. "Ganymede," "auspex," "auspices," "Sierra" -- one by one I tracked the terms down with entertaining and surprising results.
In a dictionary of Roman mythology I found the story of Ganymede. He was an extremely handsome young human boy who attracted the eye of Jove, the chief god. So Jove sent one of his eagles flying down the side of Mount Olympus on a mission to kidnap Ganymede. The eagle brought the young man back, and Jove was so happy to have him that he made Ganymede his own personal cupbearer, that is, the lad was always at his master's side and was responsible for serving such beverages as nectar and wine to Jove and the other gods. In Frost's flippant language, Ganymede was "a barkeep unto Jove." The parallel to the poem was obvious: Ganymede was kidnapped by an eagle, and the little boy in the poem was almost kidnapped by an eagle. (See the footnote to this paper for the R-rated suggestions that go with the name Ganymede, who was actually a bit more than just a cupbearer to Jove. )
"A California Sierra" is one of the peaks in that state's Sierra Nevada mountain range, a natural enough place for Frost to mention since Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874 and lived in California until he was eleven years old. The Sierra Nevadas in the early 1880's would have been filled with spectacular birds of prey such as the bald eagle and the California condor. Thus it seems that the myth of Ganymede was almost acted out in real life. A seven or eight-year-old Frost, while visiting the Sierra Nevadas, was "swooped down upon" by an eagle which "measured," i.e., or sized up the lad as a possible meal, and then flew away. Ganymede was chosen by his eagle; little Frost was "rejected" by his eagle.
"Auspex" and the related form " auspices" are terms which also deal with birds. In ancient Rome there were all sorts of soothsayers and prophets, and one of them was called an "auspex." His job was to study the flight, and sometimes the entrails, of birds such as doves and eagles. For example, by studying the flight of a flock of doves released as a Roman Legion prepared to march off to war, an auspex would predict the future success or failure of those soldiers. His predictions were known as auspicia, or " auspices." By calling the poem "Auspex," Frost is saying the poem involves an attempt to divine the future by studying the behavior of the California eagle who "rejected" him. So now we can make a sensible parahrase of the poem:On a visit to the Sierra Nevada mountains with my parents when I about seven or eight years old, a terrifying eagle flew down close to me, sized me up as a meal, but then did not choose to carry me away. The significance for the future of such omens in the behavior of birds is difficult to figure out, and when I went to my parents they made a little literary joke out of the event and said something like "Don't be afraid. The eagle doesn't think you're worth carrying off. You're not going to be carried away like Ganymede. The eagle rejected you. It's an omen that you will be safe." I didn't like the idea that I wasn't good enough fetch drinks for the gods. And instead of being completely relieved that the eagle let me escape I was a little annoyed and I felt rejected. All my life I have been irritated when anybody tells me I can't or shouldn't try to be whatever I want to be.Even though "Auspex" was written near the end of his life, it still has the independent spirit of "The Road Not Taken." In that famous poem Frost chooses the "road less traveled by" at least in part as an assertion of his independence. In "Auspex" he says that he will interpret the meaning of events in his life anyway he pleases. No one should ever "presume" to tell him what he should do with his life. He will be his own "auspex."
Note: Ganymede is also a traditional symbol for male homosexuality. So the parents, who were very literary and who knew the Ganymede story thoroughly, were a little amused when the very young Frost was a little disappointed that he had been "rejected." Obviously the little boy only understood the G-rated implications of the Ganymede story. Also, so that nobody can possibly misunderstand this footnote -- I have looked at dozens of biographical sources and cannot find even a hint that Frost was gay. As a matter of fact, Frost and his wife Elinor had six children!