Karen L. Kilcup

Karen L. Kilcup: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

The poem as a whole, of course, encodes many of the tensions between popular and elite poetry. For example, it appears in an anthology of children's writing alongside Amy Lowell's "Crescent Moon," Joyce Kilmer's "Trees," and Edward Lear's "Owl and the Pussy-Cat." Pritchard situates it among a number of poems that "have ... repelled or embarrassed more highbrow sensibilities," which suggests the question: "haven't these poems ['The Pasture,' 'Stopping by Woods...,' 'Birches,' 'Mending Wall'] been so much exclaimed over by people whose poetic taste is dubious or hardly existent, that on these grounds alone Frost is to be distrusted?" The views represented--and the representations of the poem itself, affiliated with the work of Dickinson, Longfellow, Dante, and the Romantics--range from emphasis on its gentility to its modernist ambiguity. Nevertheless, more than one critic underscores its threat to individualism, its "dangerous prospect of boundarilessness," which suggests the masculine conception of poetic selfhood with which the poem is commonly framed.

. . . .

Seasons were a conventional means to illustrate feelings, as in Helen Hunt Jackson's "'Down to Sleep'":

November woods are bare and still;

November days are clear and bright;

Each noon burns up the morning's chill;

The morning's snow is gone by night;

Each day my steps grow slow, grow light,

As through the woods I reverent creep,

Watching all things lie "down to sleep."

I never knew before what beds,

Fragrant to smell, and soft to touch,

The forest sifts and shapes and spreads;

I never knew before how much

Of human sound there is in such

Low tones as through the forest sweep

When all wild things lie "down to sleep."

Each day I find new coverlids

Tucked in and more sweet eyes shut tight;

Sometimes the viewless mother bids

Her ferns kneel down full in my sight;

I hear their chorus of "good night,"

And half I smile, and half I weep,

Listening while they lie "down to sleep."

November woods are bare and still;

November days are bright and good;

Life's noon burns up life's morning chill;

Life's night rests feet which long have stood;

Some warm soft bed, in field or wood,

The mother will not fail to keep,

Where we can "lay us down to sleep."

Jackson's poem relies on associations with the mother as well as the seasonal metaphor to make its point, making explicit what Frost's intimates: his speaker's desire to merge with the lovely, snow-clad woods suggests a desire to merge with the mother (Mother Nature) as strong as Jackson's. Having removed the traces of religiosity encoded in the refrain "down to sleep," a child's nighttime prayer to God, Frost's speaker nevertheless evinces his prayerful attitude in "the woods are lovely, dark and deep," as well is in the hymnlike regularity of the stanzas. And, in the affectionate reference to "my little horse" reminiscent of the cow-calf image in "The Pasture," he suggests the connection between human and animal parallel to Jackson's explicit observation: "I never knew before how much / Of human sound there is in such / Low tones as through the forest sweep / When all wild things lie 'down to sleep.'" "Sweep," of course, recurs in Frost's quiet poem: "The only other sound's the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake." Though probably accidental, Frost's echoing of the sweep-sleep rhyme indicates some of the emotional resonances and connections, especially with "weep," itself embedded in "sweep," that are explicit in Jackson. Finally, Jackson's narrator acknowledges only slightly more directly the movement toward age and death that Frost's suggests: "Each day my steps grow slow, grow light / As through the woods I reverent creep." The subjectivity of both Frost's and Jackson's poems is simultaneously individual and representative, suggesting that "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is a feminine poem with close connections to its popular antecedents.

Once again we can trace the emotional resonance of Frost's poem back to the concrete situation that helped engender it. Shortly before Christmas of 1905, Frost had made an unsuccessful trip into town to sell eggs in order to raise money for his children's Christmas presents. "Alone in the driving snow, the memory of his years of hopeful but frustrated struggle welled up, and he let his long-pent feelings out in tears." The intensity of this tearful moment translates into the affective content that permeates but never overwhelms "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." The fact that the poem would be written seventeen years after the moment that it reflected testifies to the deep suffering that this experience engendered; too painful to be dwelt upon, it would be only with time and distance that the emotions of that awful moment could be balanced, in a "momentary stay against confusion," by the comforting restraint of formal expression.

"Stopping by Woods" provides a doorway into an understanding of the poet's great popularity with "ordinary" readers. Jarrell observes, "ordinary readers think Frost the greatest poet alive, and love some of his best poems almost as much as they love some of his worst ones. He seems to them a sensible, tender, humorous poet who knows all about trees and farms and folks in New England." This view crashes with that of "intellectuals," who have "neglected or depreciated" him: "the reader of Eliot or Auden usually dismisses Frost as something inconsequentially good that he knew all about long ago."

From Karen L. Kilcup. Robert Frost and Feminine Literary Tradition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998: 45, 46-47.

Karen L. Kilcup: On "Home Burial"

Interestingly for our purposes, a central source of friction between the couple is the divergence between their self-conceptions, expressed in their different attitudes toward grief; while he mourns inwardly, she affirms the necessity of its outward expression. In her pain and anger she threatens him with her physical absence (her emotional absence is only too evident), yet, when she makes this threat, his real fears of sexual inadequacy surface: "'Amy! Don't go to someone else this time.'" What stands out for me at this moment--and elsewhere--is the duplicity of the language in which the husband couches his desire, for this line represents both plea and command. Furthermore, his words exhibit a wide veering from his behavior: "'Listen to me. I won't come down the stairs.' / He sat and fixed his chin between his fists. / 'There's something I should like to ask you, dear"' (emphasis added). Throughout the poem a language of endearment masks and conventionalizes the subverbal menace emblematized in his physical gestures. Echoing an issue that emerges differently in poems like "The Housekeeper" and "The Fear," Frost understands--only too well, perhaps-- the psychic weight carried by the threat physical violence embodied here by the husband, and his is deeply sensitive to the wife's vulnerability. If masculinity requires bodily supremacy, it also collides, however unwittingly, with psychological dominance. Yet the consequence of this dominance seems to be only greater alienation, sexual as well is emotional. . . . [T]he portrait of the husband on the verge of a violent brutishness both reflects and interrogates early-twentieth-century notions of muscular masculinity.

. . . .

In "Home Burial" we are left a capacious space in which to imagine the transformation of a prior intimacy into an utter fracture of relationship. As the husband reflects on his wife's kind of grief, he pleads, "You'd think his memory might be satisfied--," and she responds,

"There You go sneering now!"                                              "I'm not, I'm not!"

Frost breaks this line in the middle to suggest how profoundly at odds they are, how much psychic as well as literal space separates them. Once again, the relationship between the husband and wife's creativity emerges most clearly in language: his language wounds powerfully, and, however unwittingly, he, not she, is the metaphor-maker, the poet who speaks of fences when his heart aches. When the wife accuses, "'You can't because you don't know how to speak,"' she is unable to hear the pain and beauty in his lament: "'Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build!"' We see a moment in which the poet urges and encodes the efficacy of language but only to an audience that can understand it--the reader willing to respond emotionally as much as intellectually. Frost acknowledges that Amy--like Elinor, perhaps--is confined by the literal creativity that her role as wife demands and by the emotions that such limitation imposes. Being only a place of "confinement" for her, home is too much where the heart is.

Working against the stereotype of the nostalgic regionalist idyll, Frost is especially critical of representations of home as merely a source of renewal and refuge. Amy is home-less, and the religion that sometimes filled the Frost household is echoed in her circumscription, in her repeated affirmations that she has to escape, get out, go, "'Somewhere out of this house."' She wonders, "'How can I make you--"' understand, we assume, but she is inadequate even to complete her sentence. The husband's "sentence" that concludes the poem--"I'll follow and bring you back by force. I will!"--represents both desperate plea and the final, overt expression of the menace that has underscored his speech throughout the poem. Structurally as well as semantically, the poem enacts the enclosure of the feminine self and feminine speech; to read this last line as merely desperate is seriously to underread the danger that the husband poses. Echoing the voice of cultural authority, he becomes both judge and author of his wife's fate: house arrest.

From Karen L. Kilcup. Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradtion. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988: 72, 75-76.

Karen L. Kilcup: On "Design"

This designing poem has lured generations of readers to contemplate death, order, evil, and the nature of poetry. The three elements of nature, all sideshow freaks, combine in a whimsical and dreadful drama of murder that is fostered by the sensibility of the speaker-poet. As if stirring "a witches' broth," conjuring a spell that captivates not simply the protagonists but the reader-listener as well, he elicits the tragicomic scene whose ostensible inadvertence mirrors the whimsical relationship between himself and the reader. Taking back with one hand what he gives with the other, Frost offers a "dimpled spider," "a flower like a froth," and "dead wings carried like a paper kite." The mood is fostered by this bizarre conjunction of images, in which the spider is like a baby (a jab at sentimental "dead baby" poem's? at his own "Home Burial"?), the flower is like food (or, more ominously, foam at the mouth of a madman), and the "dead wings" (reminiscent of Clara Robinson's poetry in "A Fountain") are a child's toy. All of these come together in a line that sounds like a jingle for breakfast cereal: "Mixed ready to begin the morning right."

The rhetorical gestures of the second stanza enforce our uncertainty and the narrator's power, for the questions suggest a knowledge of which we cannot partake, as he simultaneously claims membership in a secret society whose rituals confound the ordinary eye as he mocks that membership. We are provided a glimpse into the sacred chambers, however, with the second question: "What brought the kindred spider to that light, / Then steered the white moth hither in the night?" The controlling consciousness is, of course, the poet's own, as his apparently innocuous first words indicate: "I found." We might read right over this opening, and even later we might be tempted to emphasize the role of chance in the configuration of characters. But, as the poem progresses, retrospection insists that we assign ultimate weight to the "I," the mediating poetic consciousness that creates the utterly strange (and beautiful-ugly) meeting. By "finding" spider, moth, and flower, he becomes their creator, for his words bring them into daylight, onto the whiteness and blankness of the page. Hence, the last question and its "answer," "What but design of darkness to appall?-- / If design govern in a thing so small," at once expresses doubt and satisfaction at his own magic in the recreation of the scene, just as the ambiguity of "appall" challenges the reader to interpret "correctly": Does it mean "to shock"? "To make white?" "To kill?" All of the preceding?

The sestet meditates on the issue of design, for the rhyme scheme is overdetermined, having little variation, while the stress system of the last line, and particularly the emphasis on "if," remains entirely ambiguous. Having pulled back the curtain on his Wizard of Oz ever so slightly, the speaker leaves us, like Dorothy, to contemplate our own method of escape from Oz itself. The poet is a performer, a confidence man, and if we are drawn into the world of the poem, we have been "had"--and I always am.

Professional readers as a whole, I think, find this verbal intercourse irresistible. Nevertheless, even a perfunctory review of "Design" underlines its radical difference from the narrative poems: human relationships and other voices are erased in favor of intellectual challenge. The feminine voice that concerns itself with labor and love and that enacts a generous relationship with the reader metamorphoses into the ingenious and virtuoso poet. As Walton Beacham remarks, "'Playing' involves the whole spirit, while 'playfulness' can be the result of detached observation without real commitment to the game."


From Karen L. Kilcup. Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998: 213-216.