April 23, 2005

Robert Frost: Weary Wanderings Down Wooded, Wintry Ways

The interesting thing about a lot of Frost's poetry (to me) is how resistant it is to any interpretation or analysis with depth. The lines of poetry wash gently over you as you read them and your mind is filled with vivid, peaceful scenes of woods and footpaths, green summer days and white winter nights, and . . . who would wish to intrude upon this lyrical setting simply to impose some brutish meaning over its simple beauty?

Or, to think of it another way, what Frost says comes through in his writing in a reasonably clear and (what is infinitely more important) breathtakingly colorful style . . . why would a starry-eyed young reader of poetry want to convert fluid verse into jarring prose? Frost has already written things out very nicely by himself, and a part of me would just prefer to leave it alone.

But enough rambling about that. We all know that I'm not going to just leave it alone. In fact, I'll be hacking at, not one, but three Frost poems momentarily. If you want to read them, they appear beneath the fold . . . so curl up with the keyboard in the warm glow from your monitor and enjoy the words of the Frosty One.

"Mending Wall" has the narrator "walking the line" with his neighbor, repairing the wintertime damage to the wall between their respective properties. Nature, it would seem, doesn't have a great deal of respect for such man-made contrivances, although from the description of the repairs they make ("some [boulders] so nearly balls/We have to use a spell to make them balance") it sounds as if portions of the wall wouldn't stand up to a stiff breeze.

To the narrator, this bit of exercise is little more than a game to wile away a sunny spring day. So, when they come to a portion of wall which divides two stands of different types of trees (on the one side, pines, on the other, apples), he sees no need to rebuild. The neighbor, however, is stubbornly (but mindlessly) determined that a wall should exist. This prompts the narrator to begin to ask the questions which, perhaps, the reader was already asking after the poem's opening statement: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." What does love a wall, and why?

Suddenly, the neighbor takes on a very base aspect. He seems dark and primitive and barbaric, grunting as he shifts rocks around and places them on top of each other, helpless in the grip of a protective instinct which tells him, against all reason, that he requires a barrier between himself and his fellow man.

"The Road Not Taken" is so widely known and widely read that it has practically become cliché. And yet, the reason for this is precisely because it communicates something that everyone experiences at some point (probably several points) in their lives through the artfully drawn metaphor of a traveler who reaches the inevitable fork in the road he has been following and must choose between two ways which seem virtually identical . . . but probably aren't. The choice is all the harder because once it has been made the traveler will never be able to tell whether the road not taken actually was the better choice. It is the uncertainty, I think, which will keep him hearkening back to that choice "ages and ages hence."

The big question this poem raises in my mind is one of how important the decision really is. I mean, I know the last line declares that it "has made all the difference" but look at the description of the two roads. They were essentially identical, how could choosing one road over the other have made any appreciable difference that he would be capable of judging without having traveled the other road? Perhaps the poem subtly suggests that it was the act of choosing which has so affected the traveler, rather than any variation between the two paths.

Or perhaps Frost is echoing a sentiment from Hamlet: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." The two roads were equal, but the traveler still thinks back on his decision "with a sigh." He is moving forward down the road he chose, but his eyes are continually cast backwards with longing and regret towards the one he did not choose. His obsession with that other road is preventing him from being fulfilled by the path he has taken.

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" concerns yet another traveler, on his way from somewhere to somewhere (a condition which the reader feels he must often find himself in). It is evening and everything is growing dark. Snow is falling, and for some reason he suddenly finds his attention absorbed by the drifts of white gathering in a patch of woods.

The character of this traveler is somewhat suggested by two things. First, his horse is not used to stopping like this . . . it is rare indeed for this traveler to stop for no apparent reason, simply to admire a view. Second, his introspective moment, partially hypnotized by a view of "lovely, dark and deep" woods, is cut short by the pressing call of "promises to keep" and "miles to go."

It is a soothing snapshot of brief tranquility in the midst of a life which seems full of destinations and obligations. This traveler is quite used to being often on his way from one place to the next. People are counting on him, and he has much left to do before he can pause to sleep . . . and yet, this scene stops him dead, if only for a few moments. Here is something different. Here is something he is not often used to seeing. Here is peace, complete and absolute and, for him, sadly transient.

Frost's poetry operates on two levels for me. On the surface, it is beautiful and pleasant and inspiring and calming. These are good poems. Just beneath this surface, however, Frost's poems produce a nostalgic longing in the reader and raise questions we do not often ask anymore. These three poems lead me to wonder:

-Why do we wall ourselves off from each other so much and so often when this is obviously against the natural order of things?

-Why do we live so much in the past when it obviously stunts our participation in the present?

-Why do we often allow details to drown out the parts of life which are most worth living?

Oh, go on and think about it for a second. A little introspection won't kill you. Personally, I’m not sure that I know the answers to any of these questions, but I do think that one way to deal with the problems they highlight is simple and effective: Read a Robert Frost poem or two, and then go share them with someone else.

And while you're doing that, I'm going to go do something else . . . I've still got "miles to go before I sleep," myself. I'll beat all those blasted details yet!

Mending Wall

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.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
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.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Posted by Jared at April 23, 2005 09:21 PM | TrackBack