Nature

Donald E. Thackrey: On 258 ("There's a certain Slant of light")

One of the very best lyric poems which Emily Dickinson wrote, it seems to me, is ["There's a certain Slant of light"]. . . . /76/

This poem is frequently found in anthologies of American poetry but has seldom been discussed, as far as I know. Perhaps the explanation is to be found in the poem itself, which is unquestionably beautiful in its sound, and striking in its imagery, yet resists definition in terms of a logical, comprehensive statement. This poem, certainly, is one of those rare poems which are experienced, never completely understood. It seems to me impossible to read the lines without feeling a tragic, serene emotion which must be akin to the melancholy about which Keats writes. Emily Dickinson's poem is much less specific than the "Ode on Melancholy" in describing the nature of the emotion, but her poem captures and transmits the experience itself.

In regard to the poem's meaning, one finds himself perplexed at first. The poet experiences a profound affliction in the presence of something normally regarded as cheerful—a ray of light. If, however, one remembers the mystical approach which characterizes much of Emily Dickinson's writing, the poem assumes a new meaning. This is not a mystical poem, but it derives its ethereal quality from the influence of the mystical aspect of Emily, Dickinson's viewpoint. Light, itself a characteristic mystical symbol of the Divine, and perhaps also the natural splendor of the world which the light reveals and enhances in its afternoon, fading glow, strikes Emily Dickinson with the irresistible force of an Eternal Power. Not mere speculation is stimulated; an emotional ecstasy of such intensity that it is an affliction possesses her. Furthermore, it is an imperial affliction sent us of the air. It is again the mystical concept of the worthiness of painful ecstasy to promote the complete fulfillment of one's nature. No other education is comparable; only the experiencing of "despair" sets the enduring "seal" upon the soul. One recalls that beauty and truth, alike in their effect, are for her the agents of supreme human fulfillment and are accompanied by the complex sensations indescribable except in such paradoxical terms as rapturous pain. The slant of light, its illumination epitomizing the glorious sublimity of nature, would symbolize for Emily Dickinson the ultimate realization of truth and beauty. The immensity of light's compass, the intangibility of its substance, the mystery of its origin, the all-pervasive immediacy of its /77/ presence would create in her the sudden awareness of her own relationship to the natural world and yet of the inevitable change of this relationship at death. The awareness that she must cease to see the light gives her present vision its searing acuteness. . . .

An examination of the images in "There's a certain slant of light" reveals their extraordinary degree of consistency and appropriateness. The light is presented in its most effective form. The slant indicates that the light is refracted so that one may see the beam or ray itself and not just an illuminated surface. The slant is explained by afternoons. Sunset is near, for "winter afternoons" are short. The terms winter and afternoon both are suggestive of the end of life. The lustre and yellow warmth of the light stand out in striking relief in austere winter. Light compared with cathedral tunes demonstrates a consummate use of imagery in which the profoundest impressions of one sense are called forth to describe equally profound impressions of another sense. The senses of sight and hearing, as well as an emotional tone and a feeling of muscular tenseness in opposing weight, are all involved in the brief stanza. The nature of the paradoxical "Heavenly hurt" is made evident by the image of cathedral tunes. Most people are sensible of the sober disquietude that may be stimulated by great, solemn music, if not by the beauty of nature. The "internal difference" is, of course, the essential difference for Emily Dickinson rather than any outward change. . . . /78/

[The] significance of the slant of light is also within. The sudden, inward change is so thorough that the poet, holding her breath and listening, sees her own emotional state reflected in the very landscape and shadows. The emotion, too intense to last, subsides as the slant of light lengthens and lowers into the gray of twilight. Then "'tis like the distance / On the look of death." The feeling of softened, lengthened distances as seen at dusk, the poignancy in the departure of something precious, the resigned awareness of death—not felt with the acute sensations of before but contemplated dispassionately—all are included in this solemn final image.

The mechanical details of the poem are, to my mind, flawless. The second and fourth lines of each stanza end in perfect rhyme, and the first and third lines of each stanza exhibit the incomplete sound-rhymes for which Emily Dickinson has been alternatively praised and damned for something over fifty years. The recurrence of sounds in the complete and incomplete rhymes is not obvious and blatant; it has the effect of music lightly assuring the listener of its key by sometimes stating the tonic, but frequently only pausing on the dominant. The key or tone of the poem is maintained throughout by the preponderance of "s" sounds. The poem seems to demand to be read in a subdued tone ending with the whispered last two lines. There is not a jarring sound present; the liquid "I's" and the vowels add to the hushed, lyric quality.

The trochaic meter in this poem is much more skillfully handled than the majority of Emily Dickinson's meters. Even in the terse /79/ seven-syllable, five-syllable lines there is present much subtle metric variation, as reading the poem aloud will verify.

The simplicity of the organization of this poem is art which conceals art. The stanzas are self-contained, precise units, each one an extension of the basic meaning. The poem ends with the symmetrically balanced phrases "when it comes . . . when it goes . . . " and the final images of sound and sight complete in reverse the pattern created by the sight and sound imagery of the first stanza.

This poem exhibits none of the childishness, the self-conscious mannerisms, which mar some of her poetry. The characteristics which are present—the introspective analysis of the second stanza, the mystical implications of the third, and the supreme mastery of words and imagery throughout—contribute to make this poem one of the best products of Emily Dickinson's unique poetic genius. /80/

From Emily Dickinson's Approach to Poetry, New Series, No. 13 (University of Nebraska Studies, November 1954), pp. 76-80.

Steven Gould Axelrod on "Skunk Hour"

The first four stanzas of "Skunk Hour" describe the Maine seacoast village of Castine (and nearby Nautilus Island and Blue Hill), where Lowell spent the summer of 1957. . . . The amiability of his tone is a ruse. He is describing more than scenery, he is describing the rotting of a whole social structure. The "hermit heiress" longs for "Queen Victoria's century" and is senile. Her social successor, the "summer millionaire," is also past his prime -- his yawl has been auctioned off. Even nature has grown old and sinister, covered with "stain" . . . . The once vibrant New England culture and economy have been degraded: their traditional implements -- nets and corks of fishermen, cobbler's bench and awl - are now only items displayed by an interior decorator to attract wealthy tourists.

In stanza five the "sterility" howling through the landscape is given its point. . . . The observation in stanza three that "the season's ill" might have referred innocently to seasonal change, but by stanza six its full implication is manifest: this season of human habitation on earth is ill -- decadent and debased. And Lowell, his spirit "ill," personifies that disease. Just as he embodies his ailing civilization, so the town inhabitants turn out to have prefigured Lowell himself, who is as isolated and demented as the heiress, as fallen as the ruined millionaire, and as loveless and artistically failed as the decorator.

Lowell has entered a monstrous world akin to the world of "For the Union Dead" in which automobiles and steamshovels appear as creatures out of the Mesozoic era. The monsters of both poems embody the inner truth of the observed scene and, equally frightening, make manifest his own disordered feelings. In "Skunk Hour" he sees the graveyard hill itself as a "skull," an expressionist figure of death. He projects his feelings of lovelessness and balked lust into a scene of automotive sexuality, in which not only the car's occupants but the "love-cars" themselves couple "hull to hull," while bleating like sheep of "careless Love." Disconnected from the observed scene and even from his own inner self, Lowell perceives himself to be a "skull" of death, an empty "hull" in which his spirit chokes.

The self-portrait Lowell has created calls to mind other sexually and emotionally withdrawn characters in our post-Puritan literature, preeminently those of Hawthorne and Henry James . . . . As in Hawthorne, Lowell's depiction of psychological separateness manifests a cosmic condition. Because he is now exiled from God as well as human society, he is constrained, in the manner of Ethan Brand, to judge and punish himself:

I myself am hell; nobody's here --

Lowell has written of his stanzas, "This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross's poem. . . ." Like Christ on Golgotha, the "place of a skull," Lowell confronts death on the "hill's skull" near the graveyard; not a death leading to resurrection, but an existential death, yielding nothingness.

From Robert Lowell: Life and Art (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978), 124-126.

C. K. Doreski: On "The Armadillo"

. . . the firelit landscape of "The Armadillo" offers no sanctuary for the beleaguered creatures. The poem offers a glimpse of a secularized religious celebration, long since stripped of intent and meaning; the "frail, illegal fire balloons" ascend toward a waiting saint. In ascendancy, the fire floats assume lives of their own:

the paper chambers flush and fill with light  that comes and goes, like hearts.

Unstable and undirected, these heaven-bound balloons, gestures of "love," bear the potential of either love or war:

Once up against the sky it's hard  to tell them from the stars—  planets, that is—the tinted ones: Venus going down, or Mars . . .

Oscillating between the heavenly extremes, the "tributes" represent a kind of chaos, not order; terror, not relief and penance. Bishop suggests that their very uncertainty—"With a wind, / they flare and falter, wobble and toss"—aggravates earthly insecurities. Inappropriate celebrations, which are both blasphemous and ignorant, violate the sacredness of ritual and disrupt the relationship between culture and nature. Such violation is likely to provoke fate and turn "dangerous":

[lines 15-20]

The final line plummets toward the grim consequence of a moment of particularized sensation—an actual event, not merely a condition. Yet Bishop turns this tale of fragile faith and false tribute not on the plight of humanity but of innocent creatures. As messily careless in descent as ascent, the fire balloon "splatter[s] like an egg of fire," immolating airborne and ground-dwelling inhabitants alike. The scene commands full attention as the fire egg ironically brings death to the owl's nest:

[lines 24-28]

The appearance of the visibly immature ("short-eared") baby rabbit captures the instantaneous transition of the setting:

So soft!—a handful of intangible ash  with fixed ignited eyes.

Even as the poem reaches for the airy substance of the hare it disintegrates into the elements, returning the speaker's gaze with the steadfast certainty of death. An epiphany would reach for comfort and assurance, for insight and explanations through a glimpse of a dimension in which suffering doesn't occur. The lyric hero, however, responds only to ignorance and fear. In the italicized exclamation of the closure, the poet challenges even the aesthetic posture of poetry; she cries out as one forever earthbound:

[lines 27-40]

The harsh deformations reject all falsification and softening of reality. Invocation and resignation collapse together in an impotent outcry as rage displaces epiphany. Unable to transcend the horror of this awesome occurrence, yet unwilling to return into the experience of the poem, Bishop gestures angrily but agnostically toward the beyond, challenging the type and substance of the incomprehensible. Bishop, like Wordsworth, sees humanity's dilemma as one of estrangement from natural vision; but unlike her predecessor, she has neither the ability nor the will to penetrate the otherworld and confirm herself in epiphany, further distancing herself from such harsh realities. She can neither accuse nor ignore her own kind; she can only grieve.

from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP

Mark Richardson: On "Mending Wall"

The speaker of that poem allies himself with the insubordinate energies of spring, which yearly destroy the wall separating his property from his neighbor's: "Spring is the mischief in me," he says (CPPP 39). This alliance at first has the effect of setting the speaker against the basic conservatism of his neighbor beyond the hill, who as everybody knows never "goes behind his father's saying": "Good fences make good neighbors." But the association of the speaker with insubordinate natural forces should not be permitted to obscure an important fact, which has been often enough noticed: he, not the neighbor, initiates the yearly spring repair of the wall; moreover, it is again he, not the neighbor, who goes behind hunters who destroy the wall in other seasons and makes repairs. So if the speaker is allied with the vernal mischief of spring and its insubordinations, he is nevertheless also set against them in his efforts to make the stones of the wall balance and remain in place: "Stay where you are until our backs are turned!" he wryly says to the stones. Here, in fact, the speaker is rather like those of Frost's earlier poems "Rose Pogonias" and "October," each of whom, in imagination at least, attempts to arrest the naturally entropic and destructive forces of nature in the hope of achieving a momentary stay against confusion. In "Rose Pogonias," for example, we read:

We raised a simple prayer      Before we left the spot,  That in the general mowing      That place might be forgot;  Or if not all so favored,      Obtain such grace of hours,  That none should mow the grass there      While so confused with flowers.

And in "October":

O hushed October morning mild,  Begin the hours of this day slow.  Make the day seem to us less brief.  Hearts not averse to being beguiled,  Beguile us in the way you know.  Release one leaf at break of day;  At noon release another leaf;  One from our trees, one far away.  Retard the sun with gentle mist;  Enchant the land with amethyst.  Slow, slow!

The happy irony of "Mending Wall" is this: the speaker in this case allies himself with the destructive energies of nature, not against them as in "Rose Pogonias" and "October"; but at the same time he ritually initiates the wall-building exercise that so inefficiently resists and contains those same energies. The speaker of "Mending Wall" is obviously of two minds: at once wall-builder and wall-destroyer, at once abettor and antagonist of seasonal entropies. I would point out further that his impatience with his neighbor's aphoristic turn of mind is significantly (and playfully) qualified by the admonitory aphorism he himself devises and twice repeats, clearly delighted at having thought of it himself: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," he says in a tone that by the poem's end almost acquires an air of finger-wagging, country pedantry. The difference is that, unlike his benighted neighbor, the speaker of the poem does indeed go behind his own favored aphorism to play both sides of the fence. In short, the two opposed men in the poem fairly shape up into one, and his name is Robert Frost.

At last, then, we have alternative aphorisms about walls and fences, and the truth of the matter resides in the "gap" between them that this famously mischievous poem opens up. In this way "Mending Wall" at once acknowledges the limitations of walls (and aphorisms) and also their seductions and value. As has often been pointed out, this dual

theme is embodied even in the movement of the blank verse lines of "Mending Wall," which subtly play both within and against the metrical and structural impositions of the iambic pentameter line. When his speaker has in view the energies that disturb walls and boundaries, Frost's prosody vagrantly resists the regularities of his metrical contract:

Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it And spills the upper boulders in the sun And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Enjambment and metrical variations—trochaic feet for iambic ones, spondaic and pyrrhic substitutions, and so on—contribute subtly to the theme of these lines. It is exactly as Pope would have it. How better to, describe a disordered wall than in lines themselves disordered? At such times Frost's blank verse recalls "Tintern Abbey," in which Wordsworth describes those "hedgerows hardly hedgerows" in eloquently unruly lines. In any case, here—as at a number of moments in "Mending Wall"—metrical and rhythmical patterns work in a kind of loosely running counterpoint characterized more by "formity" than by "conformity," as Frost might say. By contrast, when Frost imagines the reconstruction of the wall as the two men labor, the rhythm and meter of his lines coincide quite exactly:

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill; And on a day we meet to walk the line And set the wall between us once again. We keep the wall between us as we go.

Here, end-stopped lines are the rule: grammatical and rhetorical units more or less confine themselves to their prescribed ten-syllable boundaries. And there is little or no rhythmical variation against the basic iambic grid, which reasserts itself in these lines rather as the wall it- self is "reasserted." Other such examples of Frost's metrical dexterity in this poem might be given, but these two suffice to suggest how tightly integrated in "Mending Wall" are form and theme.

In sum, the speaker of the poem exhibits, both in his manner and in his actions, a certain flexibility. He unsettles walls that he also always repairs; he is at once Apollonian and Dionysian. Once again—as in the introduction to King Jasper and "The Future of Man"—Frost's conservative and rebellious tendencies are perfectly balanced, just as the "intransigent" and "accommodating" tendencies of the speaker of "Good Hours" are metrically and thematically balanced ….

We might also regard "Mending Wall" in light of what Frost says in his 1934 letter to his daughter Lesley about the doctrine of Inner Form. The "neighbor beyond the hill" is all on the side of conformity, the speaker of the poem (at least by his own account) all on the side of formity. Frost himself—and here we should perhaps distinguish him from his speaker—stands at the dialectical intersection of these two opposed terms, for as he says in "The Constant Symbol" about the "discipline[s]" from "within" and from "without": "He who knows not both knows neither."

From The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and His Poetics. Copyright © 1997 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Clint Stevens: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

This is an elegant poem. It is by no means the most psychologically rich poem Frost ever wrote, yet in its starkness and clarity we as readers only benefit. Perhaps the first thing we notice is that the poem is an interior monologue. The first line establishes the tone of a person musing quietly to himself on the situation before him: "Whose woods these are I think I know." He pauses here on "the darkest evening of the year," the point in time poised between the day and the night, between consciousness and unconsciousness, between waking and sleeping, between life and oblivion. There is a slight lack of surety in the speaker saying to himself, "I think I know," thus again signifying the meeting ground between what he knows and what he does not. These antimonies, his lack of certainty, and the muted sense of passion provide the tension by which the poem operates.

The reader will notice along with this that the first line consists entirely of monosyllables. Typically, monosyllabic lines are difficult to scan, yet Frost, having written the poem almost entirely in monosyllables demonstrates by this his technical prowess, as the poem scans in perfect iambic tetrameter. And so, any lack of certainty we might first suspect is smoothed over by this regular rhythm. Frost, likewise, stabilizes the poem by the rhyme scheme of aaba/ bbcb/ ccdc/ dddd, without a single forced rhyme. This combination of regular rhythms and rhymes produces a pleasant hypnotic effect, which only increases as the poem progresses. Richard Gray has marked this in explaining how the poem moves from a more conversational tone to the charming effect that characterizes the ending. The language does indeed demonstrate this change: we move from the colloquial "His house is in the village though" to the poetic "Of easy wind and downy flake// The woods are lovely, dark and deep."

If there is any generalization that is apt to describe Frost’s poetics, it is that his characters are almost always of two minds. John Ogilvie has noted the slight contrast between the speaker’s public obligations and his private will. The speaker, we may assume, is "half in love with easeful death." Yet, though the poem is an interior monologue, the speaker does not look inward; rather, he focuses on recreating in his imagination the sense of his surroundings. Indeed, he seems much more conscious of his surroundings than he is of the inner-workings of his mind (which, at least for the reader remain nearly as inscrutable as the dark woods). In such a way, the speaker by implication hints that the outer-wilderness corresponds to his inner one. This is of course most evident in the final refrain in which the outward journey becomes a symbol for his inner journey, but it is furthered by the concentration on his perception of his surroundings; in other words, by opening his mind to the surroundings rather than sealing it off in self-referential language, he becomes what he beholds, or, to quote another poem which most certainly was influenced by this one:

On must have a mind of winter To regard the frost and the boughs Of the pine-trees crusted with snow

Richard Poirier has marked that "woods" is mentioned four times in the poem. Along with this the reader will note that "I" is mentioned five times. These two realities, the subjective and the objective, are merged over the course of the poem. Such that, while the speaker focuses almost exclusively on the physical fact of his surroundings, he is at the same time articulating his own mental landscape, which seems ever-intent "to fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget." There is in the end the uncertainty in choosing between his death impulse and his desire to continue on the road of life. Which wins in the end, I think I know, but it scarcely matters; the speaker has had his solitary vision; whether he stays or goes, the woods will go with him and the reader, who are now well-acquainted with the coming night.

Frank Lentricchia: On "Birches"

In "Birches" (Mountain Interval, 1916) Frost begins to probe the power of his redemptive imagination as it moves from its playful phase toward the brink of dangerous transcendence. The movement into transcendence is a movement into a realm of radical imaginative freedom where (because redemption has succeeded too well) all possibilities of engagement with the common realities of experience are dissolved. In its moderation, a redemptive consciousness motivates union between selves as we have seen in "The Generations of Men," or in any number of Frost's love poems. But in its extreme forms, redemptive consciousness can become self-defeating as it presses the imaginative man into deepest isolation.

"Birches" begins by evoking its core image against the background of a darkly wooded landscape:

When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy's been swinging them.

But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay

As ice storms do.

The pliable, malleable quality of the birch tree captures the poet's attention and kicks off his meditation. Perhaps young boys don't bend birches down to stay, but swing them they do and thus bend them momentarily. Those "straighter, darker trees," like the trees of "Into My Own" that "scarcely show the breeze," stand ominously free from human manipulation, menacing in their irresponsiveness to acts of the will. The malleability of the birches is not total, however, and the poet is forced to admit this fact into the presence of his desire, like it or not. The ultimate shape of mature birch trees is the work of objective natural force, not human activity. Yet after conceding the boundaries of imagination's subjective world, the poet seems not to have constricted himself but to have been released.

    Often you must have seen them

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning

After a rain. They click upon themselves

As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored

As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells

Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust--

Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away

You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

Fascinated as he is by the show of loveliness before him, and admiring as be is of nature as it performs the potter's art, cracking and crazing the enamel of ice coating on the birch trees, it is not finally the thing itself (the ice-coated trees) that interests the poet but the strange association be is tempted to make: "You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen." Certainly there is no question of belief involved here. The linkage of the scientifically discredited medieval sphere with the heaps of cracked ice suggests rather the poet's need to break beyond the rigid standard of empirical truth, that he himself has already allowed into the poem, and faintly suggests as well the kind of apocalyptic destruction that the imagination seeks when unleashed (the idea that the inner dome has been smashed clearly pleases the speaker). Eventually Frost in "Birches" comes round to exploring in much more sophisticated ways the complex problem broached by this statement from a later poem, "On Looking Up By Chance At the Constellations":

The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,

Nor strike out fire from each other, nor crash out loud.

The planets seem to interfere in their curves,

But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.

We may as well go patiently on with our life,

And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun

For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.

In "Birches" Frost looks not to natural catastrophe for those "shocks and changes" that "keep us sane" but to his resources as a poet:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

Manipulating the simile, the overt figure of comparison, is a dangerous ploy for the poet, implying often that be does not have the courage of his vision and does not believe that his mode of language can generate a distinctive perspective on experience. For Frost, however, and for any poet who is rooted in what I call the aesthetics of the fiction., the simile is the perfect figure of comparison, subtler even than metaphor. Its overtness becomes its virtue: in its insistence on the disparateness of the things compared (as well as their likeness) it can sustain a divided vision; can at once transmute the birches--for a brief moment nature stands humanized and the poet has transcended the scientific universe--and, at the same time, can allow the fictive world to be penetrated by the impurities of experience that resist the transmutative process of imagination. It is at such moments as this in Frost's work that the strategies and motives of a poetry of play are revealed. There is never any intention of competing with science, and therefore, there is no problem at all (as we generally sense with many modern poets and critics) of claiming a special cognitive value for poetry. In his playful and redemptive mode, Frost's motive for poetry is not cognitive but psychological in the sense that he is willfully seeking to bathe his consciousness and, if the reader consents, his reader's as well, in a free-floating, epistemologically unsanctioned vision of the world which, even as it is undermined by the very language in which it is anchored, brings a satisfaction of relief when contemplated. It may be argued that the satisfaction is greatest when it is autonomous: the more firmly the poet insists upon the severance of his vision from the order of things as they are and the more clearly that be makes no claim for knowledge, the emotive power of the poem may emerge uncontaminated by the morass of philosophical problems that are bound to dog him should he make claims for knowledge. Both poet and reader may submerge themselves without regret (because without epistemological pretension) in aesthetic illusion.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in

With all her matter of fact about the ice storm,

I should prefer to have some boy bend them

As he went out and in to fetch the cows--

Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,

Whose only play was what be found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.

The shrewdness in Frost's strategy now surfaces. While claiming to have paid homage to the rigid standards of empirical truth in his digression on the ice-loaded branches, what he has actually done is to digress into the language of fictions. When he turns to the desired vision of the young boy swinging birches, he is not, as he says, turning from truth to fiction, but from one kind of fiction to another kind of fiction: from the fiction of cosmic change and humanized nature to the fiction of the human will riding roughshod over a pliable external world. And the motives for all of this fooling? I think there are two: one is that Frost intends to fox his naturalistically persuaded readers; a second is that this is what his poem is all about--the thrusting of little fictions within alien, antifictive contexts.* As he evokes the image of the boy, playing in isolation, too far from the community to engage in a team kind of sport, he evokes, as well, his cherished theme of the imaginative man who, essentially alone in the world, either makes it or doesn't on the strength of his creative resources. And now he indulges to the full the desired vision that be could not allow himself in the poem's opening lines:

One by one he subdued his father's trees

By riding them down over and over again

Until he took the stiffness out of them,

And not one but hung limp, not one was left

For him to conquer. He learned all there was

To learn about not launching out too soon

And so not carrying the tree away

Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully

With the same pains you use to fill a cup

Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

Then be flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

One figure seems to imply another--the image of the farm youth swinging up, out, and down to earth again recalls the boyhood of the poet:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

And so I dream of going back to be.

It's when I'm weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig's having lashed across it open.

For anyone but Frost the "pathless wood" is trite. But for him it carries a complex of meaning fashioned elsewhere. The upward swinging of the boy becomes an emblem for imagination's swing away from the tangled, dark wood; a swing away from the "straighter, darker trees"; a swing into the absolute freedom of isolation, the severing of all "considerations." This is the transcendental phase of redemptive consciousness, a game that one plays alone. The downward movement of redemptive imagination to earth, contrarily, is a movement into community, engagement, love--the games that two play together:

I'd like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:

I don't know where it's likely to go better.

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk,

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

One really has no choice but to be a swinger of birches. In the moment when, catapulting upward, the poet is half-granted his wish, when transcendence is about to be complete and the self, in its disdain for earth, has lofted itself into absolute autonomy, nothing having any claim upon it, and no return possible, then, at that moment,, the blessed pull of the earth is felt again, and the apocalypse desired by a transcending imagination, which seemed so imminent, is repressed. At the end of "Birches" a precious balance has been restored between the claims of a redeeming imagination in its extreme, transcendent form, and the claims of common sense reality. To put it in another way, the psychic needs of change--supplied best by redemptive imagination--are balanced by the equally deep psychic need--supplied by skeptical ironic awareness--for the therapy of dull realities and everyday considerations.

* The swings in consciousness between fictive and objective worlds are reflected in a series of perfectly placed linguistic pivots. Consider: the conjunctive "but," lines 5, 21; or the conjunctive "and," lines 42, 49, 55; or the subtle semantic ambiguity of "shed" (line 10) and "trailing" (line 18) which points us simultaneously outward (in objective reference) to the inhuman world of nature--of birches as birches--and inward (expressive reference) to the warm, ambient world of Frost's consciousness, of bent birches as girls throwing their hair before them, drying in the sun.

From Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self. Copyright © 1975 by Duke UP.

Hayden Carruth: On "Two Tramps in Mudtime"

"Two Tramps in Mud Time" opens with the poet as wood-splitter in the thawing time of late winter, suffering the interruption of two unemployed loggers; this is good localized description, the kind Frost was master of. But then he appears not to know what to do with his opening. The poem wanders into further unnecessary description: the April day, the bluebird, the snow and water; and then it ends in four stanzas of virtually straight editorial matter. The two tramps and the mud-time are left utterly stranded. When one thinks how Frost would have used these figures at the time when he was writing his earlier dramatic and narrative poems, one can see clearly, I believe, how he had deserted his own imagination and how he tried to make up the deficiency through conscious manipulation and force

From "Robert Frost" in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Spring-Summer, 1975.

Judith Oster: On "Desert Places"

This later poem makes a fitting companion piece to "Stopping by Woods." Even the rhyme scheme (aaba) is the same, although in this poem, the poet has not chosen to commit himself to the greater difficulty of linking his stanzas by means of rhyme. This speaker too is traveling through falling snow at night fall. The woods are present in this poem as well, though we are more conscious of their darkness in "Stopping by Woods" and more conscious of whiteness here. While the opening line sounds soothing with its repetition of "s," and "f," and "o," we know as early as the second line that this speaker does not stop, even for a moment—the fields he describes are those he is "going past." What is not presented as frightening in "Stopping by Woods" is frightening in this poem. Nothing here makes one feel that the speaker finds this snowfall attractive, nothing draws him in, for this snowfall does not present a relaxing oblivion; it presents a concrete blankness. Because it is with blankness that he identifies, it presents no escape, only a reminder of self, a self that is not a welcome haven or wellspring. Withdrawal would not be "strategic" and self-preserving. It would be facing a desert.

The open space is surrounded by woods that "have it." They claim it, and the speaker willingly relegates it to them—willing not because of a decision he has struggled to make, but because he is too apathetic, "too absent-spirited to count." The structural ambiguity in this line and its seeming carelessness emphasize his absent-spiritedness, his apathy. We cannot be sure whether "count" is being used in its active sense (to count, to tell what is happening, to reckon up woods, animals and fields) or in its passive sense (to be counted, to count to anything or anyone else). The following line is also enriched by its apparently careless use of "unawares," which could modify "loneliness" or could modify "me." Again, the ambiguous use of the word illustrates that very unawareness, that carelessness that causes us to associate absent-spiritedness with absent-mindedness.

In the third stanza loneliness is in apposition to snow, and just as the snow will cover more and more, will leave nothing uncovered to relieve its smooth unbroken whiteness, so the loneliness will become still more lonely and unrelieved. That same whiteness—snow or loneliness—is what makes desert of a field, helps the woods to "have" the fields in that it obliterates clear boundaries between field and woods, raising, as it does in "Stopping by Woods," the dangerous prospect of boundarilessness. Even when the journey is into one's own desert places, one's humanity or identity is threatened, and loneliness, the apposition suggests, can do this too. What terrifies him so much, however, is not the fact that he is alone, without other people, but that alone with himself he may find nothing—no one and nothing within. Whereas "Stopping by Woods" presented an invitation to the solitude and inertia of snow, this poem presents the attendant fear that once giving in to the self, or going into the self, he will find that the journey has been for nothing. That there is nothing but loneliness, blankness, and absent-spiritedness in the sense of absence of spirit.

The "nothingness" that Frost fears is not the metaphysical void, it is the void he fears in himself. In relating this personal void to the spaces between stars, he suggests that a personal void can have—or seem to have—cosmic proportions, that it can seem at least as important, as vast and as frightening, as anything "out there." This speaker fears the void, but he does not seem, like Wallace Stevens's snow man, to be "nothing himself"; he is capable of beholding what is not there. He is not a man of snow because he has enough feeling to be afraid. His is not yet a "mind of winter," for he can still think about having one, fear that he might discover it if he explores inside himself. He has it "in him"—again, as in "Spring Pools"—the threatening potential of what lies within. The man with the "mind of winter" does not think, but to Stevens there are two kinds of nothingness—"the nothing that is" and "nothing," which is the absence of something. The greater lack is the latter—the absence of imagination in the man who "beholds nothing that is not there." In "Desert Places" the speaker fears blankness "with no expression, nothing to express." There is a difference between "nothing to express" and an expression of nothingness, as Stevens has shown us. The fear in the poem is of the former, but the act of the poem is the latter.

For the poet there is an additional terror in identifying his own "desert places" with the blank landscape: it is a "whiteness…with no expression, nothing to express." If there is nothing there, nothing showing or growing, if there is no spirit, what will he have to say? This fear of nothing to say was a constant one to Frost. To Untermeyer he once confided "a very damaging secret…The poet in me died nearly ten years ago…The calf I was in the nineties I merely take to market…Take care that you don't get your mouth set to declare the other two [books] a falling off of power, for that is what they can't be…As you look back don't you see how a lot of things I have said begin to take meaning from this?…I tell you, Louis, it's allover at thirty…Anyway that was the way I thought I might feel. And I took measures accordingly…I have myself all in a strong box" (SL 201-2). Having nothing more to say was what he assumed lay behind Hemingway's decision to commit suicide—a motive and a decision Frost defended (LY 294) .

Even worse than having nothing to say, perhaps, is emotional poverty—feeling used up, both by the pain of events in life and by the demands of his art. He once wrote: "[poets] are so much less sensitive from having overused their sensibilities. Men who have to feel for a living would unavoidably become altogether unfeeling except professionally" (SL 300). Whatever the basis, the poem ends with the fear of one's own emptiness, one's own nothingness. To traverse these spaces inside the self is to traverse the barren.

At the same time, though, and characteristically, the fear is expressed with a kind of bravado: "they can't scare me!" The comparison between the interstellar spaces and his own desert places also serves to aggrandize the speaker and the importance of his personal desert. Then, also characteristically, Frost undercuts both the bravado and the self-importance, mainly by means of metrics. Where the speaker tries so hard to show strength the lines end weakly: they are the only feminine rhymes in the poem; the three rhyming lines of the last stanza all have an added, unstressed eleventh syllable: /ez/. The effect in lines 13 and 14 is to undercut the tone of confidence. By the last line, where bravado gives in to fear, the unstressed ending reinforces the fear by sounding weak in the face of what is feared. The XX rhyme concluding the poem also works against a feeling of closure and resolution.

While the whole final stanza has its metrical bumps, line 14 jolts us the most and alerts us to other tensions with and within that line. For example, whereas "spaces" and "places" are both noun objects of prepositions, rhyming what is also structurally parallel, "race is," as a noun subject and verb, seems out of kilter with the other two. To focus more closely, though, on these words is to notice the possible pun "where no human races" and the tensions that produces between the two possible meanings: in one sense, the contrast between a place where people do not race—no rushing, no competition—and a world where the need to go forward quickly and competitively obtains even in one's private desert. Following on this contrast is another: the active verb of one reading— "races"—contrasts with the static "is" of the other, which creates further tensions. Grammatically, the two would be awkward together, as we do not coordinate an active verb with a stative one. Semantically, the difference is related to two conflicting needs: going, doing, rushing to compete and simply being. Such stasis, though, is located where there is no human life (a concept we will take up in another context in chapter 7). Seen this way, the poem presents another version of the conflict between going and stopping, motion and stasis. While in this poem the outward action is not stopping but going past the field (he races?), what inner desert it represents, of course, goes with him, and, as "Stopping by Woods" reminds us, we must go—move, do—if we are to be.

 

From Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and the Poet. Copyright © 1991 by the University of Georgia Press.

Albert J. Von Frank: On "Desert Places"

The poet sees the snow and the night descending together, black and white, working together to muffle sensation and obliterate perception; yet they work against each other, paradoxically, to heighten perception. The snow works against the night, giving ghastly light whereby to see the darkness, while the fast falling darkness gives urgency to the need to see, for the opportunity will not last long. What the poet sees is truly "for once, then, something." In the moments before obliteration he sees something with a positive existence, something he can put a name to—a field. He knows it is a field because, for the moment, positive signs of its identity remain: the "few weeds and stubble showing last." It is important to understand, then, that this is a cultivated field and not a natural clearing in the forest; it is nature given purpose and identity by man. Like the snow and the night, the weeds and stubble set up crosscurrents of meaning. The stubble is more clearly the hint of man's presence, the aftermath, quite literally, of man's contact with the land, while the weeds—which can exist only in (and therefore define) a cultivated area—remind us of nature's persistent reclamation of the artificial. What the snow smothers, in addition to everything else, is the vital conflict which the juxtaposition of "weeds and stubble" suggests.

II

As the snow piles on, obliterating all distinction, the field becomes—as the first line three times tells us—an inanimate, dead thing, unmarked by, and unreflective of, the care of man, the very thing which gave it its positive identity as a field. Remove the signs of man's involvement, and it straightway ceases to be "for once, then, something" and can only be identified negatively: it is the nothingness at the center of the encircling trees; it is the nothingness which can only be known by the positiveness which surrounds it and which can only be named in the indefiniteness of a pronoun. This annihilation is figured as death, the ultimate weight of which in cosmic fashion smothers all life, leaving the poet alone in a dead universe, touched, himself, by the death that smothers.

Confronted with the deadness, the spiritlessness, of the external world, the poet notes that he, too, is "absent-spirited"; he, too, is "included" in the loneliness, which is to say the separateness, of the universe of material objects. The paradox here is to be included in separateness, and one arrives at a perception of that paradox by recognizing the plurality of material existence and understanding one's own place in the universal array of physical facts—that is, in nature. This sense is akin to if not identical with Emerson's discovery, made "too late to be helped . . . , that we exist." For Emerson, however, we exist in positive relation to higher values; the essence of our meaning consists not in separateness but in unity. For Frost (thus far in the poem) the persona exists negatively, just as the field may be said to exist negatively. More specifically, the field (no longer a field, properly speaking) is known as the emptiness which disturbs the continuity of the woods; similarly, the poet-observer is defined by his absent-spiritedness and thus by his isolation. The analogy between the condition of nature and the condition of personal psychology is a romantic concept and one perfectly in accord with the ideas of Emerson or Wordsworth. In "Desert Places," however, the implications of the analogy are necessarily and entirely reversed since what is analogous in the persona and the field is the quality of discontinuity. For Wordsworth, and for many subsequent romantic writers including Emerson, the analogy between states of mind or dispositions of the spirit and the sympathetic universe was uplifting because it implied, or rather presupposed, an active positive alliance, a radical continuity, through God, between man and nature. Nature lives and spiritually supports us, even though it is composed in large measure of inanimate objects, because we live and God has allowed us to invest it with our lives. Wordsworth expressed this reciprocal relation when he said, "That from thyself it comes, that thou must give / Else never canst receive" (The Prelude, XII, 276-77). Frost appears, in the first three stanzas, to have reversed these implications. The analogy between man and nature appears operative, but the reciprocal relation is negative rather than positive; pluralistic rather than monistic; fragmented in its stress on aloneness rather than unified; deadly rather than life-supporting.

III

The third stanza appears at first the weakest on several counts. The purpose it serves seems primarily mechanical. It is necessary to shift the focus from the poet himself back to the scene before him in preparation for the final statement in the last stanza. The first two lines, as Reuben Brower has pointed out, achieve a "Poe-like melancholy," though perhaps by equally Poe-like mechanisms—the use of the archaic "ere" and the mournful reiteration of the word "lonely." A further weakness of these lines might consist in the inadequacy of the physical phenomenon which prompts them. Presumably the quondam field will become lonelier or less expressive than earlier because the snow is now deep enough to hide not only the "weeds and stubble showing last," but also the very contours of the land. Since the annihilation of the identity of the field was earlier accomplished when all signs of its use, its pragmatic definition, were covered, this added touch may strike the reader as gratuitous or insignificant by comparison.

The stanza does, of course, accomplish an intensification of mood, though again almost in spite of itself. The gentle hint of "ere it will be less" must be rejected if these lines are to be read as a genuine concentration of despair. The implied rebirth in the necessary melting of the snow and the reemergence of the field as a real thing is an unassimilated lump of hope, working for the moment in stubborn defiance of the tone and meaning of the poem as it stands at this point.

More subtly in defiance of the tone and meaning is the paradoxical assertion that the "blanker whiteness" has "nothing to express"—a proposition which the very existence of the poem appears to jeopardize. "Nothing" actually becomes "for once, then, something" in a context which is consistently negative. The intensity of nothingness—that is, the intensity which is insisted on in the third stanza—begins to lend to that nothingness an almost palpable reality. It is, after all, that quantity which had defined the field and defined the poet; and because nothingness is thus the landmark by which realities are known, it becomes a real, and in a sense a positive, quality. It is truly a case of nothing having escaped Frost's observation; he is like the listener in Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man" "who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." Frost evokes a similar awareness in "Neither Out Far nor In Deep" by what Trilling has called "the energy with which emptiness is perceived." That Frost could work such a paradox on us is only to say that he makes emptiness real for us as readers of the poem.

IV

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces  Between stars—on stars where no human race is.  I have it in me so much nearer home  To scare myself with my own desert places.

The protestation of the first line appears to Reuben Brower "a bit flamboyant." "The scary place," Brower writes, "is thrust off 'there' by the emerging man of wit, by the mind that won't give way to 'absent-spiritedness.' But the gesture . . . opens a worse form of terror by bringing fear where the poet lives most alone." This reading depends on the assumption that the last stanza is essentially disjointed; that something has occurred between lines two and three that leads the poet to reconsider the confident defiance he has just, perhaps too heroically, expressed. In other words, in explaining the sense of the last stanza Brower finds an implicit "but" before the third line. To be sure, the poem has proceeded by crosscurrents to such an extent that it would be easy to see another one here, but in this instance the relationship between ideas seems to be causal rather than antagonistic—a transition which is perhaps better expressed by "because": They cannot scare me with their empty spaces because I have it in me to scare myself with my own desert places.

The other assumption implicit in Brower's reading is that the recognition of private deserts in one's own mind involves "a worse form of terror" than the vision of a dead universe. This assumption also needs to be examined, but first it is necessary to determine who "they" are in the opening line of the stanza and why they cannot scare the poet.

Brooks and Warren have suggested that "they" are astronomers, and, insofar as astronomers adopt an inorganic, physical, and scientific viewpoint and speak for a standard, accepted view of the universe, the suggestion is not amiss. But if the intrusion into the poem of prosaic astronomers seems unduly reductive of Frost's intended ambiguity, it might be more appropriate to take "they" to mean nature itself, pluralistically figured, since nature has been felt throughout the poem as a collection of material objects.

In "Desert Places," then, Frost is commenting on one of the most basic romantic assumptions about the universe—that it is essentially responsive to man, that we are its vital force, its reason for being. . . . What Frost realizes at the beginning of the last stanza is that nature's empty spaces are truly empty—not only of matter, but of meaning and that it is only meaning that can scare. The tune is not in the tree, and the lesson of emptiness is not between stars.

Here, in the last stanza, the major paradox of the poem is resolved. The third stanza asserts that the "blanker whiteness" had "nothing to express," though the deadly heavy pall of nothingness was itself a very considerable thing for the "blanker whiteness" to have expressed; and were it not for that very effective expression, the poem would have had no subject. Realizing now, in the fourth stanza, that the idea of nothingness, of emptiness or aloneness, is generated from within the mind outward and not placed in the mind from exterior nature, obviously the "blanker whiteness" truly does not and can not express, but is a mere canvas on which the observer builds out his own inherent conceptions. The tune is not in the tree; the tune of nothingness is not in the snow. Thus what seemed paradoxical in the third stanza is, when seen from the vantage of the fourth, a simple statement of fact. The "blanker whiteness" has "nothing to express"; it has, literally, no meaning.

If meaning does not inhere in nature, it exists only in the mind, just as Emily Dickinson affirmed. Frost agrees with entire explicitness: "I have it in me," he says, contrasting the substantiveness of the "it" with the "nothing" that the snow has to express. "I am," in other words, "the repository of meaning." This implied assertion, in turn, gives final development to a major theme of the poem—that of location. The field has been transformed from a positively defined entity into a thing which exists only in relation to exterior fixities, by the agency of the snow. The snow, in addition to symbolizing death, symbolizes an allied concept—doubt, that quality which undermines self-knowledge and self-containment and makes us look outside ourselves for points of reference. The poet is located by a quantity which appears to be exterior, the pervasive nullity of a dead universe. But when the poet-observer comes to understand that he is himself the repository of meaning, he is relocated—or, more properly, he locates himself as definer, namer, potentially as poet—and puts himself positively at the center of the universe. The experience he observes in the field—or rather the romantic misunderstanding he has of it—literally pulls him out of himself and makes him so vulnerable to the apparent deadness that he is nearly smothered in the rarified atmosphere of aloneness and homelessness. The poem restores him to himself, equips him with a sense of who and where he is, defined positively this time, in relation to nature and to the objects to which he will give meaning poetically. He is brought home: "I have it in me so much nearer home," he says. Here again we are dealing with two concepts which are related as cause and effect. He can locate "home" because, for the first time in the poem, he can see that there is something in him which does not exist elsewhere, and that "something" is the potential to create meaning.

Perhaps the modernity of "Desert Places" is most clearly seen in its acceptance of a universe without inherent prior meaning. There is, in the last stanza, a note almost of relief at the realization that one is not tied to a dead universe; that is, to a universe whose overarching principle is death and separateness. Rather he finds a universe without overarching principles, without prior meaning—a universe which he, as a poet, can fill up and fill out with meaning from his own life. For Frost this insight and the prospect it affords represent a tremendous freedom. "They cannot scare me," seen in this light, is simply another way of saying "the universe cannot impose upon me."

For Frost, meaning is a thing people use to bridge separateness and to bring order out of real, not apparent, chaos . . . The analogy which exists between man and nature was not, for Frost, established by God, but is continually being created by man's own imagination: each time one draws an analogy between man and nature, one does so by an act of the will, not in accordance with the scheme of the universe but in defiance of its essential schemelessness. . . . What led the poet-observer into despair at the beginning of the poem was his Wordsworthian assumption that the analogy does exist a priori; by the end of the poem the mistake is discovered.

from "A Study of Frost's 'Desert Places.'" Frost: Centennial Essays. Copyright © 1973 by University Press of Mississippi.