Saturday, November 20, 2010

"STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING" by Robert Frost

For a long time now, I've wanted to read this too-familiar poem very slowly and see what develops.


"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Frost's titles are sometimes merely obligatory, but this one is a crucial part of his text. It effectively sets the scene and permits an immediate passage into the first line's interior monologue. The ease of this passage (so transparent most readers probably don't notice it) is the exact opposite of the typically Modernist move: hurling the reader unaided into the speaker's mind to create a maximum of initial disorientation. Frost's movement is more traditional, more Victorian, a Browning motion.

Whose woods these are I think I know.

The first two words signal a question--whose woods?--which the inversion of the next two words--"these are" instead of "are these"--turns toward the declaratory. But it's a weak, uncertain declaration that ends the sentence. In a nice contrast of form and content, the last four words tell us in ironically strident, marching iambs that the speaker only thinks he knows the owner's identity. (When I read this line aloud, 'think' receives the strongest emphasis, even stronger than 'woods'.) Frost's decision to open the poem with such a Rumsfeldian statement of self-assured uncertainty (the owner's identity is a 'known unknown') should put the reader on guard. It's a yellow sign that flashes: CAUTION: UNRELIABLE NARRATION AHEAD.

His house is in the village though;

Notice how smoothly the narrator slides past his uncertainty and in the snowy white space between two lines transforms a 'known unknown' into a 'known.' (Rumsfeld, the Don of Doubletalk, would be proud.) The shadowy man who may or may not own this woods is an absentee landlord, a townsman with country capital. And it's important that the poem initially and repeatedly inscribes him in the possessive case (whose woods, his house, his woods). He's a mysterious avatar of capitalism defined solely by what he owns.

He will not see me stopping here

Finally, in the third line, the personage who dominates the first stanza receives a pronoun that's neither possessive nor interrogatory. This is as close as we will ever come to seeing his miserly face. "He" will remain hidden behind pronoun and possession, a pure creation of language who possesses everything save a proper name. And our speaker is concerned about being seen by him. Wait a minute... What the hell is the speaker afraid of? Does he seriously expect us to believe that this ghostly owner is so possessive that he objects to passing drivers who pause to look at his property? Are we to imagine signs nailed to the trees reading "No Visual Trespassing"? The speaker may hope we believe such nonsense, but Frost surely does not. The irrational fear and anxiety on display in this line further displace the speaker into a position of unreliability and allow us to interpret the owner as a projection of the speaker's anxieties. The woods surely have an actual owner who may or may not live in the village, but that's irrelevant. The salient fact is the speaker's use of this owner as a blank screen upon which to project his own psychological conflicts. (There is much more of this sort of thing to come in the following stanzas.) In Marxian-Freudian terms, the owner represents the speaker's punishing capitalist superego, his internalization of all those Yankee maxims about the necessity of hard work and the inadvisibility of being a lazy bastard who stops in the middle of a country road to stare at a woods.

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Our speaker likes to watch. This is all the speaker wants to do, a perfectly innocent activity, so why should a part of his mind object? Why feel guilty about such an innocuous (and invisible) act? One easy answer: that old-time religion. The puritanical protestant work ethic that our speaker imbibed with his New England mother's milk specializes in the demonization of innocuous, solitary, unproductive acts. The analogy to masturbation, a solitary act that the Victorian era repressed in some truly hellish ways, is obvious, but it's perhaps more interesting to interpret our watcher-wanker as a stand-in for the poet, one who engages in arduous solitary activity that brings little or no financial reward. There's no money to be made in loafing and inviting one's soul, our speaker's internal Good American Capitalist would point out, so get off your ass and sell it to my company. It thus seems fitting that our ghostly owner is once again reduced to the possessive in this line ("his woods"). After becoming almost a person in line three's "he," the phantasm is knocked back down a peg to capitalist caricature (he is what he owns). The owner then unexpectedly vanishes as completely as a ghost in a snowstorm. We hear no more of him. The speaker seems to have won round one of his battle with the superego, but a hint that there is more to come occurs in the odd choice of "fill up" to describe the snowfall's effect on the woods. It's clearly an overstatement (and there's more of this to come, too): if the woods were literally to fill with snow to the tops of the trees, the speaker would be consumed and blinded by that overwhelming whiteness. The ground is being covered, a few inches (or feet) of trunks are being concealed, but surely the woods is not 'filling up.' I interpret this strange overstatement as a textual 'bump in the rug' that both conceals and indicates the presence of the temporarily repressed superego that the speaker has hastily swept under it. It's also a bit of wish-fulfillment: a woods-filling snowfall just might be deep enough to bury the speaker's anxieties--along with everything else in his world.

My little horse must think it queer

Unless we intend to grant our speaker the power of cross-species telepathy, we can only read this line as yet another act of projection. (Granted, he does hedge a bit with the 'must,' but later developments (lines 9 and 10) reveal this as a quickly forgotten hedge, akin to the 'I think' of line 1.) The property owner was too dangerous a blank screen, too human, too close to the speaker's self-image, so now he projects his anxieties, his sense of the queerness, the strangeness of his act, upon an animal under his command. Theorists of the Queer might seize upon the final word to produce an interesting queer reading of this poem (I've already suggested one tactic for such a reading in my masturbation analogy), but I'll leave that for another day, as I still have miles to go before putting this reading to sleep. It's not the last but the first adjective here that captures my attention. Why is his horse 'little'? As an understatement, its concavity matches nicely with the previous line's convex overstatement, but surely it's doing something other than completing a purely notional formal circle. The horse is 'little,' I think, because the speaker must see himself as 'big,' powerful enough to defeat the desert places in his mind, and the easiest way to enlarge oneself is to belittle others. Further, and contrarily, the speaker unconvincingly projects his own feelings of smallness and weakness onto the horse, an animal surely larger and stronger than he.

To stop without a farmhouse near

This is an unusual occasion. Our speaker is not a man ordinarily given to revery. Hence his anxiety about this pitifully minor lapse witnessed only by himself. He's not the kind of man who stops before arriving at his destination. Not a Frostian poet given to deep thoughts about nature, man and the cosmos. He's the sort who would rather get on with it and leave the loafing to beggars and bums. On this one evening, however, he has stopped in the middle of nowhere...

Between the woods and frozen lake

...and it's a deeply inhospitable kind of nowhere: land and sky filled with snow, the lake frozen. It's a landscape that tends to force viewers back upon themselves, and is thus dangerous for those not given to introspection. And has Frost mentioned yet that the sun has already set?

The darkest evening of the year.

Only now, halfway through the poem, do we discover that it takes place in Rembrandtian darkness. The poem is so well-known that the shock of this is lost, but it's like the sun going down unexpectedly in the middle of the poem. It's not just 'evening' but after dark, and not just any darkness, but the very darkest of the year's evening darknesses. Again Frost ends his stanza with an overstatement. This is no more objectively the 'darkest' evening (whatever that could possibly mean; how would one measure it?) than the woods are literally 'filling up' with snow. This darkest of darknesses is a subjective perception created by the speaker's darkened consciousness. At this central point in the poem his projections turn from specific animate objects (owner, horse) to the Great Blank Screen of Romanticism, capitalized Nature.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.

The speaker's projection of his anxieties upon the horse goes overboard into crude anthropomorphism. The horse has now been granted a human mind and human intentions, and the speaker has enough sense to end this projection immediately before we slip any further into Doctor Doolittle territory. There has indeed been a mistake: the speaker's mistaken projection of his anxieties onto an object still close enough to himself to embody those anxieties without relieving them. As chosen objects, the owner and the horse are mirrors that reflect the speaker's psyche back at him. He needs an object inhuman enough to absorb his projections and large enough to swallow them without a trace. He needs Nature, and in the next two lines Nature blows in on the breeze.

The only other sound's the sweep
of easy wind and downy flake.

This stanza separates perfectly into two sentences, a question and an answer. The horse's troubling question is answered by a perfectly lovely apparition of nature that beautifully blows the troublesome beast away. (The horse, like the owner before him, now disappears from the poem.) The wind 'sweeps' but does not bite; it's more 'easy' than cold; even the snow is now 'downy,' falling like feathers to stuff the pillow on which we sleep. Read the lines aloud and hear their soothing music: the slow, open o's and soft, sleepy sibilants sweep the third line along, and the long e's of 'sleep' ease into line four's 'easy,' an internal rhyme with 'downy,' which itself harmonizes with the earlier 'sound's.' The music of these two lines is so different from the previous two that the end-rhyming 'flake' sounds almost like a false note.


The woods are lovely, dark and deep,


The vision is as entrancing as the music that creates it. Punctuation is extremely important here. To demonstrate this, insert a comma after 'dark.' Contrary to a superficial reading, the woods are absolutely not "lovely, dark, and deep." The woods are 'lovely.' 'Dark' and 'deep' characterize that loveliness. They are lovely because they are dark and deep. We should linger over this line, because it's certainly the poem's most important. Here the speaker's trajectory of projectional objects finishes its course from human to inanimate, from man to horse to woods. He finds in the final object a thing dark and deep enough to beautifully conceal his anxieties. Like a black hole, the woods reflect nothing back. And also like a black hole, they exert a dangerous attraction. Aye, there's the rub. If they're so lovely, why not stay here and listen to their siren song forever? Why not pass easily into that lovely dark depth and cease upon the midnight with no pain? The projection of anxiety now threatens to become the dissolution of self, a process not necessarily identical with death. An anxious self, that is, might be dissolved to make room for one less riven by anxiety, or at least a self more conscious of the reasons for its riving, which is probably as much as psychoanalysis can achieve. (Readers who interpret the poem as I always had before this close reading, as a dramatization of a death wish, are probably correct on some level, but there's more going on.) Frost's speaker stands at a parting of the ways. But unlike that other speaker who took the road not really less traveled, this choice actually might determine the further course of his life (if any). It's a genuinely existential choice. So he cannot be permitted the freedom to make it.


But I have promises to keep,


Enter the superego to save the day for conformity. The power of convention is far too great for the speaker to oppose. Years of internalized social rules versus a few seconds on a snowy road. Which side would you bet on? The speaker is given a chance to change his life, but his choice against change is determined by the same force that determines all his other actions, the anxiety producing superego. It's time to move on. Andrew Carnegie didn't get where he is today by staring at a fuckin' woods, buddy. The conformist tape that pays 24/7 inside this guy's head is more effective than any motivational seminar. Who needs Dale Carnegie when Carnegie's ideas determine the architecture of our selves? Get moving, hustle, sell, sell, sell. Because if you don't sell, you're sold. The deal is done, and then it's really dark woods time. So why sell yourself short? Get going. Keep those promises, every blessed one.

And miles to go before I sleep,

Miles and miles and miles, and every mile is another trip down the darkest road on the darkest evening of the year. What a wonderful future this guy has to look forward to. (That last sentence was sarcastic, in case the tone didn't come through.) And after all of these miles, before that sleep of death comes as a blissful annihilation...wait for it...wait for it...That's right, there's even more! Tell him what he's won, Don Pardo...

and miles to go before I sleep.

According to the editors of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, from which I take my text, "Frost always insisted that the repetition of the line in the last stanza was not supposed to invoke death but only to imply a somnolent dreaminess in the speaker." Yeah, right. In fact, the Hamletian question of life or death is moot here, since the speaker's "miles and miles" of future life are the equivalent of a living death, a drearily conformist rut from which he cannot turn. His wheels are too deep in the groove, and his inner puritan is always waiting to terrify him into motion. If the repetition is indeed somnolent, that only serves to underscore the years of soporific boredom that stretch ahead of him like a long, flat, straight American highway lined with billboards repeating Sarah Palin's vacuous visage unto the unimaginable horizon. C'est la vie--and not only for people in poems. To some extent, this is life for most of us, isn't it? This poem is the record of a defeat. And to a greater or lesser extent, it's a defeat we all share.

1 comment:

phosphoros said...

Brian, thanks for a very thoughtful explication of Frost's poem. Over-familiar, indeed - you helped me see new things where before were only the much-recited lines.