Saturday, April 19, 2008


I am so tired of Robert Frost's two most famous poems. Whose woods are these? And two roads diverged. I've heard these poems repeated and repeated, endured countless references to them in the media and in student work to the point of becoming so sick and tired of Robert Frost. And all those images of him on TV shaking that gray head of his...and those eyebrows! Those eyebrows!

And that's why I've put off getting into Robert Frost's poetry. However, tonight I was skimming through an anthology and found a Frost poem that I like very much. I really must look at some of his less read work. He was a stunning poet.

Desert Places
by Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast oh fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

I know, I know, another snowy evening. But this poem makes me curious to look back at that other, oft repeated poem. Maybe there's something I can salvage from that old standby. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep. Suddenly that sounds a bit menacing. The first line in this stanza certainly sounds menacing: snow and night falling "fast oh fast." It feels almost apocalyptic. The weeds and stubble showing through the snow has always gripped my attention and tried to tell me some strange, elusive truth.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs,
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

Notice, the animals aren't "safe" in their lairs, but smothered in them. Even the promise of home and a warm bed holds no appeal to this speaker. And the speaker doesn't even warrant being counted among the living: "I am too absent-spirited to count..." Even loneliness, personified here, doesn't notice the speaker! That is an extreme form of alienation.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

As profound as this present loneliness is, the speaker knows it will grow before it will diminish. Life will become an even "blanker whiteness" than it is now. The speaker is nearly completely hollowed out, having "no expression, nothing to express.

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 speaker cannot be frightened by any form of alienation, not even the vastness, the airless void, of outer space. The speaker's "own desert places" are places most terrifying and void of spiritual significance. It is the void in the speaker's own psyche.

Thankfully, there have been few times in my life when I've felt this empty and alone. But I have felt it, and so I know how true this poem is to the experience.

I really must begin paying more attention to Frost. I've got to shake my head free from the old prejudices that have gripped me so long.

I think I need to learn the lesson that the great critic Lionel Trilling learned in 1958:

In 1958, when Frost turned 85, his publisher gave a party in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria and invited Lionel Trilling to be the featured speaker. Trilling, who preferred cities to rural idylls, shocked everyone by confessing that he had only recently come to admire Frost's work, specifically for its overlooked grimness. ''I regard Robert Frost as a terrifying poet,'' he announced. Trilling sent a letter to Frost apologizing for the stir his remarks had caused. ''Not distressed at all,'' Frost wrote back. ''You made my birthday a surprise party.''


ggw07 said...

Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.
Robert Frost

Erin said...

I enjoyed this entry, Theresa. I wrote a paper on Frost in an undergrad poetry class that focused on Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening, and I came to appreciate that poem so much more in the process or writing it. I should give Frost another look, too.



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"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken


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