Uncertainty

Harry B. Shaw: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

It is ironic that here the Black man utters an expression of doubt in a poem entitled "[Love Note I:] Surely."  Although the multiplicity of possible referents in the poem lends itself to a display of artful ambiguity, the persona can be seen using the lover motif to suggest the relationship between Black people and their country.  The sestet of the sonnet helps to unravel some of the ambiguity of the octave.  Read negatively, in light of the sestet, "surely" becomes an expression of doubt rather than certainty. . . .  [T]he use of "surely" in this poem focuses the sarcasm on that about which the Black man would be most secure.  Surely the country and its democracy could not be thought of by the Black man as "mine"; surely to him country had not been "all honest, lofty as a cloud"; surely he would not be assured of the country's love; and surely the country's eyes were not "ungauzed."

. . . "Love Note II: Flags" continues the motif of the unrequited lover to convey the Black soldier's disillusionment over his country's failure to champion his cause in his war for dignity.  Democracy is alluded to here as a lady whose flag the Black fox-hole soldier carries.   Bitter about being whimsically jilted by the fair lady of democracy, the soldier makes a sarcastic proposition in the octave. . . .

"Dear defiance" suggests the indignation provoked whenever the flag and what it represents are invoked by Black people to champion their cause.   The soldier's disgust is shown by his dragging the flag into the foxhole with him and asking derisively, "Do you mind?"

Other poems about the Black man as soldier-patriot . . . reveal as much about the societal mentality against which Black people struggle as about Black people themselves.  The poems depicting the Black man attempting to be a patriot reveal the tension caused by the attraction and the danger of committing to the American dream.  Indeed the danger is sufficient to transform the Black citizen who would be a patriot into a victim of the larger society.  To be sure, each of the patriots discussed so far has been a victim of racism in the larger society.  The Negro hero, for example, was a victim of racism before as well as after his heroic moment.  Most often, however, Black people who are victims of the larger society are not soldiers or patriots but ordinary citizens of the ghetto.  They share, though, the same flirtation with the American dream as do the would-be patriots.  The notion of being able to obtain the good life--or some aspect of it--provides the lure which eventually traps Black people as victims of society.

Shaw, Harry B.  "Perceptions of Men in the Early Works of Gwendolyn Brooks."  Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960.  Ed. R. Baxter Miller.  Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986.  136-59.

Susan McCabe: On "The Fish"

[McCabe quotes the lines that begin "I looked into his eyes" and end "old scratched isinglass."]

What she discovers is not identity but difference, the eyes impenetrable and layered – mediated and distanced by the speaker’s language. That she describes his yes as "seen through the lenses / of old scratched isinglass" implicates both her vision and that of the fish as blurred and imperfect. Isinglass, a transparent gelatin from the bladders of fish and used, ironically, as a clarifying agent, only diminishes and reduces her ability to see the fish …

[McCabe quotes the last twelve lines in "The Fish."]

Only after seeing the fish can she see "the little rented boat," which, like the fish, becomes dynamized, its deficiencies metamorphosing to matter for exultation. The fish is only ugly or grotesque to the untrained or unempathic eye. As the small space of the boat expands, her multiple prepositions override "thwarts" and tie "everything" into relationship. The poem takes us two ways: into recognizing difference and into apprehending unity, into perceiving connection and its frailty. But to comprehend, to totalize would be to underrate. We recall that this is a poem about a visionary moment: it can’t keep, but must be let go. This poem, looser than others in this volume and preferring internal rhymes until its final couplet, highlights how fragile and unpredictable are our joinings and communions. …

From Susan McCabe, "Artifices of Independence," Chapter 2 in Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 95, 96.

Robert Faggen: On "After Apple-Picking"

"After Apple-Picking," one of Frost's greatest lyrics, blends the myth of the Fall with consequences of modern science. The "two-pointed ladder" figures as both the instrument and the technology of tropism toward "heaven" that ultimately leads to the oneiric hell of uncertainty and of waste and struggle. Order, progress, and the harvest of knowledge are as much a part of the inextricable order of the garden as the great tree upon which we sway precariously:

[lines 1-6]

In such a casual phrase as "there may be two or three / Apples I didn't pick upon some bough" we feel the speaker's indifference toward perfection. The rest of the poem moves away from heaven, which has been the theological place of perfection, to meditation on exhaustion from contemplation of the world's immense ungraspability, its superfecundity and waste.

The image of the ladder will evoke that of Jacob's dream as well as Emerson's more metaphysical use of that ladder in "Experience." We also see the ladder failing as a human construct by which to transcend nature. The opening line of Frost's poem enforces a sense of physicality—"two-pointed" and "sticking through a tree." The latter phrase sounds sexually suggestive, as does the "long scythe" in "Mowing." Unlike Jacob's, this ladder is a human construct that rests and depends on the tree and is left to nature as an artifact of human effort. And the speaker's oncoming dream is not of angels but, rather, of the details of apples and of labor. If anything is retained in the allusion to Jacob, it is the sense of an impending struggle.

In Lyric Time Sharon Cameron has pointed out that the speaker's dreaming, begun before the event of the poem, appears to begin again during the poem and announces its recommencement sometime after the poem. I will add to this observation that Frost is repeating the strange mixture of fact, dream, labor, and knowledge found in "Mowing"—"The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows"—reminding us of the inescapable limits of consciousness. In "The Koine of Myth," Northrop Frye describes the way human types persist, and he specifically addresses the figure of the ladder. The ladder, he observes, began to break down as a metaphor after the eighteenth century as a construct that symbolized the path from God to earth, the scala (Latin for ladder), or chain of being. In moving between dream and objectivity, the ladder and the human laborer sway precariously on the verge of disintegration. As Frye observed: "Within the limitations of human life, the most highly developed types are those whose lives have become, as we say, a legend, that is, lives no longer contemplating a vision of objective revelation or imprisoned within a subjective dream." In Frost, to use Frye's terms, action and awareness continually clash with each other in a way that ultimately prohibits the establishing of a lasting mythos. "Essence" is inextricably tied to matter and to sleep, "the scent of apples" and " drowsing off." The sensuous pull of the earth overcomes the speaker:

[lines 8-17]

Though claiming some mystery in "the strangeness" he "got from looking through a pane of glass," the speaker reminds us that this looking glass is but a temporary instrument and inextricable part of the fluidity from which it came: a drinking trough used for bodily rather than spiritual sustenance. It both enables and distorts sight. If the faces God as Job did in the theophany or as Jacob did after wrestling at Peniel, it is an overwhelming and immediate physical manifestation of the facts of growth, "stem end and blossom end," as well as the "flecks of russet" and not the Pauline promise of seeing God spiritually face to face in the future. His dreams are not of angels or of heaven but of the troubling abundance and waste of apples that are beyond his "picking," expressing the physical "ache" of his foot, his sensuous desire to touch. Moreover, the preponderance of first-person pronouns expresses an ego inspired and burdened by its own desire:

[lines 18-29]

The obsession with the physical and sensuous approaches a literalism by which the speaker seems to transfer his anxieties of exhaustion to the apples, so many thousands of which are beyond the control of his selection. "Magnified apples" merges both the oneiric world of human desire and the scientific world of instrumental examination. Close examination of nature in its great plurality and in its waste ultimately diminishes the significance of the observer. At once he sees ,the massive abundance and waste of nature, which overwhelm his own desire:

[lines 30-36]

The largeness implied by "ten thousand thousand" and "earth" along with the diminished sense of human control parallels the grandeur Darwin attributes to natural selection in contrast to man's selection. . . .

If man is a laborer, Darwin tells us, then nature is a far greater one. Our "view" is "imperfect." The laborer of "After Apple-Picking" works in a state that is a continual confusion of dream and knowledge, between the human idea of nature and its elusive reality always on the verge of transformation. A consciousness of a limited view and of a larger process of selection to which we are subjected is the darker fruit of our own knowledge. And what are wasted apples for humans who select for beauty and perfection become food for a hibernating woodchuck or further the spread of apple seeds.

The apple tree evokes the loss and displacement of the Fall—the Tree of Knowledge. But it also becomes the dominant metaphor of life and death in the new scripture of Darwin. Darwin's Tree of Life represents both nature's diversity as well as the common descent and destiny of all living creatures including man. In his emphasis on survival no creature or branch is given certain privilege in the hierarchy; no future is certain. It is therefore not surprising that, after considering , the apples ''as of no worth," the apple picker wonders about the relation of his own "sleep," a metaphor for loss of control and death in our self-consciousness, to that of another creature, "the woodchuck," for whom sleep hibernation is at least protection against the environment:

[lines 37-42]

The apple picker, however, turns to another creature at the end of his labor only in hope of finding a way out of his troubling isolation and fears—and there may be no way out of what he can "describe." He persists on the ladder, somehow failing to accept the biology of sleep (and the purpose of dreaming to keep us asleep), while other creatures have gone. The gerund in the tide expresses the perpetual refusal to submit, as does the gerund in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Just in the final line expresses a diminished sense of "human sleep," a diminished sense of the labor, knowledge, and aspiration by which our species once thought itself elect.

 

From Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Copyright © 1997 by The University of Michigan

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.