Reuben A. Brower

Reuben A. Brower: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Throughout the poem—brief in actual time, but with the deceptive length of dream—we are being drawn into silence and sleep, yet always with the slightest contrary pull of having to go on. The very tentative tone of the opening line lets us into the mood without our quite sensing where it will lead, just as the ordinariness of 'though' at the end of the second line assures us that we are in this world. But by repeating the ‘o’ sound, 'though' also starts the series of rhymes that will soon get the better of traveler and reader. The impression of aloneness in the first two lines prepares for concentration on seeing the strange process not of snow falling, but of woods 'filling up.' The intimacy of

My little horse must think it queer

reminds us again of the everyday man and his life back home, but 'queer' leads to an even lonelier scene, a kind of northern nowhere connected with the strangeness of the winter solstice,

The darkest evening of the year.

In this second stanza the unbroken curve of rhythm adds to the sense of moving imperceptibly into a spell-world, as we dimly note the linking of the rhymes with the first stanza. The pattern is catching on to the reader, pulling him into its drowsy current.

The lone spaciousness and quiet of the third stanza is heightened by the 'shake' of bells, but 'to ask,' humorously taking the horse's point of view, tells us that the driver is awake and sane. The sounds he now attends to so closely are very like silence, images of regular movement and softness of touch. The transition to the world of sleep, almost reached in the next stanza—goes by diminution of consonantal sounds, from 'gives . . . shake . . . ask . . . mistake (gutturals easily roughened to fit the alert movement of the horse) to the sibilant ‘sound's the sweep / Of easy wind . . . 'Sweep,' by virtue of the morpheme ‘-eep,’ is closely associated with other words used for 'hushed, diminishing' actions: seep, sleep, peep, weep, creep. The quietness, concentration, and rocking motion of the last two lines of stanza three prepare perfectly for the hypnosis of the fourth. ( Compare similar effects in 'After Apple-Picking.') 'Lonely' recalls the tender alluringness of 'easy' and 'down'; 'dark' and 'deep' the strangeness of the time and the mystery of the slowly filling woods. The closing lines combine most beautifully the contrary pulls of the poem, with the repetitions, the settling down on one sleepy rhyme running against what is being said, and with the speaker echoing his prose sensible self in 'I have promises' and 'miles to go' while he almost seems to be nodding off.

'There is nothing more composing than composition,' Frost has said, and 'Stopping by Woods' shows both the process and the effect as the poet-traveler composes himself for sleep. The metaphorical implication is well hidden, with no hint offered like

            a call to come in To the dark and lament.

The dark nowhere of the woods, the seen and heard movement of things, and the lullaby of inner speech are an invitation to sleep—and winter sleep is again close to easeful death. ('Dark' and 'deep' are typical Romantic adjectives.) All of these poetic suggestions are in the purest sense symbolic: we cannot say in other terms what they are 'of,' though we feel their power. There are critics who have gone much further in defining what Frost 'meant'; but perhaps sleep is mystery enough. Frost's poem is symbolic in the manner of Keats's 'To Autumn,' where the over-meaning is equally vivid and equally unnameable. In contrast to 'The Oven Bird' and 'Come In,' the question of putting the mystery in words is not raised; indeed the invitation has been expressed more by song than speech. The rejection though outspoken is as instinctive as the felt attraction to the alluring darkness. From this and similar lyrics, Frost might be described as a poet of rejected invitations to voyage in the 'definitely imagined regions' that Keats and Yeats more readily enter.

From The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention. New York: Oxford UP, 1963. Copyright © 1963 by Reuben A. Brower

Reuben A. Brower: On "Design"

This is a poem of finding evil in innocence, a song of experience, though the voice is hardly that of Blake’s child-like singer. At first we hear the cheerfully observant walker on back-country roads: ‘I found a dimpled . . .’ The iambic lilt adds a tone of pleasant surprise: ‘I found a dimpled darling’—‘Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet!’ But in ‘spider’ the voice betrays itself, and in ‘fat’ and ‘white’ the dimpled creature appears less charming. On a small scale the first line, like the whole poem, builds up a joke in tone, rhythm, and image that grows into a ‘joke’ of another sort.

In the octet the joking discovery develops gradually through a series of contradictory pictures. ‘A white heal-all’ suggests purity and safety, though the color echoes the white of the swollen spider. A satin-white moth has its charm, too, a party-going creature poised like Wordsworth’s butterfly on its flower; but ‘rigid’ is too frozen, too easily reminiscent of rigor mortis or the stiff shining satin of a coffin. In the aside of the next three lines, the speaker gives away his joke, but he does it jokingly, again partly by tricks of rhythm. First there is the very correct iambic on line 4,

Assorted characters of death and blight . . .

in exactly ten syllables, every other one of which must be stressed, a little as in doggerel. The plain truth of the statement takes on a cheerful sing-song quality, an effect increased in the next line by reversing the stress and omitting the short in ‘Mixed ready.’ The tone now becomes quite jaunty, but ‘right’ hovers on a pun for ‘rite,’ as the poet mixes a brew worthy of the Weird Sisters, Shakespeare’s most evil images of evil. The adding of unstressed syllables speeds up and lightens the next line to soften the ugliness of what is being said:

Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth . . .

And with

A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,

more oblique joking is resumed in images of springtime freshness (‘snow drop,’ ‘flower-like,’ we hear). But the spider is there, and the fragility of ‘froth’ hardly conceals the link with venom. A surface of elegant gaiety is kept up, however, through symmetry of sound, as o’s and I’s, alliterated syllables, and apparent compounds are balanced in each half of the verse. Again we are brought up short with ‘dead wings,’ and if kites are fun, a ‘kite’ is also a bird of prey, and ‘a paper kite’ is another image of death-like rigidity.

The sextet brings the expected change in tone, now no longer easily observing and half-singing though in mockery, but self-questioning and increasingly serious. The first question (‘What had the flower to do . . .’) sounds like ordinary annoyance at a face that doesn’t fit in, though ‘white’ out a place begins to seem like ‘black.’ The next question (‘What brought the kindred spider . . .’), in a voice of lost innocence, brings a new note and a harsher irony with ‘kindred’ (as if the sweet flower and the spider had conspired to arrive at exactly that height and place). ‘Steered’ is more sinister, and with the last question ironic puzzlement turns into vision:

What but design of darkness to appall?—

Alliteration picks out salient impressions to give older theological and Emersonian arguments a reverse twist—‘Design, yes—but for evil.’ But the natural theologian pauses—he is only asking, not asserting—and takes a backward step:

If design govern in a thing so small.

It may after all be absurd to see so much in a flower, a moth, and a spider. But the ‘if’ stands out oddly because of the reversal of stress and because of the pause for the loss of a syllable,

If design || govern . . .

There is a glimmer of a further joke: ‘If design govern in anything at all . . .’—the subjunctive and a second reversal of stress alert us to the doubt. The soothingly humorous hesitation points to something many readers may find less agreeable than design of darkness, to no order whatever.

Few poems by Frost are more perfectly and surely composed, few where the figure in the mind and in the ear are better matched. Consider, for example, the daring use of the same end-rhymes, half the total number on a single sound. Though the repetitions in the octet can be matched in other poets, the surprise comes with the rhyme in line 9, which is picked up again in 'height' and 'night.' This persistent echo might be merely curious if it didn't come in so many words that in idea and image play with the disturbing discovery of the poem: words and things that ought to mean 'good' turn out to be 'evil.' The equations of rhyme and of i-sounds within lines (ten of them!) link the ingredients of this witches' broth in insidious confusions (white=blight=right(rite)=height=night). Notice too the surprising and apt use of the many double and triple stresses on successive syllables, from 'White heal-all' through 'snow-drop spider' to ‘white moth thither.' The weighting of rhythmic emphasis in these words, many of them evoking seemingly slight and charming images, directs attention to possible ugliness in ‘things so small.’

From The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention. New York: Oxford UP, 1963. Copyright © 1963 by Reuben A. Brower

Reuben A. Brower: On "The Oven Bird"

. . . The poem opens with what first sounds like flat prosaic statement,

There is a singer everyone has heard . . .

but the line rides on the expected thrust of later lines, and before it ends, it melts imperceptibly into iambics. But—we must always be saying 'but' of this poem—as we are lapsing into a regular beat, the meter flutters slightly in 'everyone' before settling down. The next line begins unexpectedly

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird . . .

The opening monosyllable is stressed doubly for sense and meter, the comma further lengthening the pause; the word is out of the familiar metrical and grammatical order, and very casual, almost rude in tone. But 'Loud' is followed by two echoing poetic compounds, and the third line is back in the swing of iambic verse, though a bit roughed up by alliteration and t-d-s sounds—almost a tongue-twister:

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

This odd talking-song, so deftly rude, is central to the growing form and to the attitude reaching a climax in the final line—the troubling sense of diminishedness, of things being less than they were. The poetry is not in this idea alone, but in the metaphor of loss-and-song expressed 'in all but words' through many sorts of indirection. The song in the poem is not just any oven bird's song, but the singing made by the poet's words. It is very common—'everyone has heard' it—and not charming or poetic, but 'Loud.' It renews the spring song of 'other birds' ('Tree trunks sound again') only to remind us that summer is a tenth as good as spring, that the 'petal-fall' anticipated the approaching 'other fall.' More conventional birds, like the orioles and thrushes, do not sing in mid-summer. But the oven bird's song really isn't a song, as the language keeps insisting: he 'makes . . . trunks sound' (he hammers and drums ), 'he says that . . . he says . . . he says . . . he knows . . . he frames . . . '—a most explanatory bird. (As Frost says of prose without rhythm, it is 'declare, declare, declare.') If we are familiar with the 'teacher-teacher' call of the oven bird, we get the point sooner; but even without knowing the bird we hear its teaching in the paradox of song-not-song renewed in many fine poetic stresses. The metaphor is always there underground and implicit, the quality of the poem depending on the unobtrusiveness of this half-apprehended but surely heard meaning. Anyone who has walked in dry July woods will remember how the metallic refrain of the oven bird bores into ears and mind.

The metaphor is also active in the dramatic voice, which is very much in harmony with 'all-but-ness' and which resists easy reduction of the poem to 'Ah, summer!—spring's faded!' The poet's rhythm is always being steadied by prose statement, and his grammar is of the plainest. In the wager of 'one to ten,' where we might expect 'ten to one' in summer's bounty, and in the playing with various 'falls' his subtly amused tone comes out clearly enough. The restraining quality of his speech goes finely with the language he has used of the bird's song and with the question he frames in the end. But the poet outdoes the bird: he manages in not singing to sing. Tempo and feeling increase as the rhythm rides with surprising force through full stops and with what Edward Thomas beautifully called 'a quiet eagerness of emotion.' Readers who see in the poem a symbol of Frost as poet or a veiled ars poetica, should note that the symbol is not the bird but the poetic art, the 'feat of words' as a whole. But that further metaphor is only touched on: as in the best of Frost, lightness is all.

The figure implied in 'The Oven Bird'—of talking song and of unobtrusive metaphor embodied in rhythm and tone as much as in statement and image, of a growth from observation (Frost's moment of 'delight') to felt truth—is not only a formal pattern, but also the forming of a revelation of which the meaning is the unfolding poetic event.

From The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention. New York: Oxford UP, 1963. Copyright © 1963 by Reuben A. Brower

Reuben A. Brower: On "After Apple-Picking"

There is no question here of tones playing against a traditional form; rather, an original rhythmic form grows out of the dramatic setting and the initial commitment in tone. Pre-sleep and sleepy reminiscence of the day condition all that is said, and the speaker's first words show what form his dreamy talk will take. His 'ladder's sticking through a tree'—which is accurate and earthy—but 'through a tree / Toward heaven.' As the apple-picker drowses off, narrative of fact about the ice skimmed from the trough gets mixed with dream, and the time references of the tenses become a bit confused:

But I was well Upon my way to sleep before it fell, And I could tell What form my dreaming was about to take.

'Could tell' and 'was about to take' seem to refer both to the morning and to the present state of 'drowsing off.'

Everything said throughout the poem comes to the reader through sentences filled with incantatory repetitions and, rhymes and in waves of sound linked by likeness of pattern. From the opening lines, apparently matter-of-fact talk falls into curious chain-like sentences, rich in end-rhymes and, echoes of many sorts. But although the voice seems to be lapsing into the rhyming fits of insomnia, the fits shape themselves into distinct and subtly varied patterns. Each phase of reminiscence or reflection forms a unit of syntax, all except two without a final stop within the unit; and each unit becomes in effect a stanza marked off by one or two rhyming 'seals.' The last word either introduces a new rhyme that will be picked up in the next stanza:

. . . off.                 2 . . . break.           3 . . . it is.                9

or else it completes a rhyme used earlier and with one exception not used again:

. . . now.            1

. . . take.            4

. . . clear.           5

. . . in.                 6

. . . desired.        7

. . . worth.          8

. . . sleep.           10

The rhymes of the first type link stanza to stanza. Those of the second type increase the sense of monotonous sameness within each phase, as memories of waking fact and their sleepy distortions become impossible to tell apart. Since the word 'sleep' (10) has already occurred five times, it completes the rhyme and the poem with a special finality of sound and meaning.

The meaning implied by the self-hypnosis and dreamy confusion of rhythm is finely suggested in the image of 'the world of hoary grass,' the blurred seeing of morning that anticipates the night vision. This blurring of experience focuses in the central metaphor of the poem, 'essence of winter sleep.' 'Essence' is both the abstract 'ultimate nature' of sleep and the physical smell, 'the scent of apples'—a metaphysical image in T. S. Eliot's sense of the term. Fragrance and sleep blend, as sight and touch merge in

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight. . .

The metaphor is renewed in many other expressions, for example, in 'Magnified apples,' which are apples seen against the sky with daylight accuracy, and also great dream-like spheres. Other similarly precise details are 'blurred through the over-and-over way of recalling and describing them: 'stem end and blossom end,' 'load on load, 'ten thousand thousand.' The closing metaphor of the poem, the woodchuck's 'long sleep,' adds to the strangeness of 'winter sleep' by bringing in the non-human death-like sleep of hibernation. We are finally quite uncertain of what is happening, and that is what the poem is about:

One can see what will trouble This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.

In these two lines tone and rhythm work together beautifully, implying a great deal in relation to Frost's metaphor. The slight elevation of 'One can see' recalls the more mysterious seeing of the morning, just as the almost banal lyricism of 'This sleep of mine' sustains the rhythm of dream-confusion. The rest of the second line, barely iambic, barely rhyming, casual and rough, assures us that the speaker has at least one toe in reality. The contrasts of tone and rhythm, fitting the puzzlement of the sleepers state, look ahead to the woodchuck's sleep and back to the initial balance of tones in 'sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still.' The poem is absorbed with 'states-between,' not only of winter sleep, but of all similar areas where real and unreal appear and disappear. 'After Apple-Picking' illustrates exactly Santayana's remark that 'the artist is a person consenting to dream of reality.' The 'consent' in this instance is implied in the perfection of the form.

We have now moved well beyond voices and rhythms to 'the figure a poem makes.' For we should hardly have arrived at the amused confusion of the end of 'After Apple-Picking' unless the poem had carried us on a form that was more than rhythmic, however marvelous. It is characteristic of Frost that the 'sentencing' and the sense are surely controlled, that daylight accuracy and daylight humor are present in statement and tone. It is also characteristic that the figure of sound grows from a metaphorical center.

From The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention. New York: Oxford UP, 1963. Copyright © 1963 by Reuben A. Brower