Essay: Strangeness of Nature Three American Poets

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¶ … American Poets -- the Strangeness of Nature

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening -- Robert Frost

Robert Frost's poem -- an iconic and very well-known poem -- can be misunderstood, and is misunderstood in many instances. This is because there is a seeming innocence about the poem. What could be confusing about a poem that seems so tranquil and so linked to the natural world in wintertime? A careful examination of the second stanza can discover there is more meaning than immediately meets the eye, however.

"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."

The poet stops on the "…darkest evening of the year" to watch the woods "fill up with snow," and according to John T. Ogilvie's scholarship, the poet is caught between two worlds, the world of quiet nature and solitude, and the world of "…people and social obligations"

(Ogilvie, 1959). Does the lure of his social responsibility have more power than his attraction to the woods? Ironically the world of the woods and snow may be the poet's escape from the village and the society, but a man owns these woods so he isn't really escaping at all.

Ogilvie suggests that these lines may seem simple ("He gives his harness bells a shake / to ask if there is some mistake") but when a person is out in the cold winter night and parked between woods and a frozen lake in the snow, the poet may "…succumb to the influences that are at work" -- the "empty wastes of white and black" (Ogilvie, p. 1).

Reuben a. Browner notes that the line "My little horse must think it queer" is designed to remind readers that this is a lonely scene, a "…kind of northern nowhere connected with the strangeness of the winter solstice"

(Browner, 1963). Browner asserts that "The darkest evening of the year" was intended by Frost to pull the reader "into its drowsy current." The critic is correct that there is a kind of drowsy rhythm to the poem, a soft, unhurried Mother Nature kind of peacefulness. Browner adds that the first two lines of the last stanza, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep / but I have promises to keep" are designed by the poet to create a "rocking motion" which prepares the reader for the "hypnosis of the fourth" line: "And miles to go before I sleep / and miles to go before I sleep" (Browner, p. 2).

Meanwhile the late literary critic Richard Poirier believes the Frost poem is "…concerned with ownership and also with someone who cannot be or does not choose to be very emphatic about owning himself"

(Poirier, 1977). Poirier believes that the person the poet has depicted in this poem is "out of character" to be in the woods while it fills up with snow; the reason Poirier believes that is because the horse believes it's "queer" which tells the reader that the man is normally passing through and has business to attend to. "Miles to go before I sleep" indicates to Poirier that this person is a "man of business who has promised his time, his future to other people" (Poirier, p. 3).

Jeffrey Meyers takes a rather controversial position regarding Frost's poem; Meyers suggests that the theme of the poem is "…the temptation of death, even suicide"

(Meyers, 1996). The woods filling up with snow symbolizes death -- and the darkest evening of the year adds to the possibility that the poet is talking about death. The horse instinctively wants to head for home but the poet presents a "drowsy, dream-like" line, "Of easy wind and downy flake," which to Meyers suggests man's subconscious desire to die in those dark, snowy woods. But moving on because there are "miles to go…" means the poet is resisting the temptation to die and let the snow cover his body.

It is interesting to read Carol Frost's recollection of what Robert Frost told a friend, M. Arthur Bleau, about the writing of this poem. Frost had taken some goods into market, hoping to sell them to make some money to buy Christmas presents. He is discouraged because nothing sold and he was coming home empty-handed. When he neared his house, he told Bleau, he stopped in the woods and gave the horse "his head"; then, Frost told Bleau, "I just sat there are bawled like a baby…"

until the tears ran dry (Carol Frost, 2012). After Frost had cried, the horse then "shook its harness and the bells jingled" and while Frost said nothing to the horse, that animal knew it was time to head home. "Love would see the Frost family through that Christmas and the rest of hard times," Carol Frost writes (p. 1).

Desert Places -- Robert Frost

This poem is another involving snow and loneliness and night, but it begins with more urgency, emotion and tension than "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." And the poem also identifies the emotional situation for the poet quicker and more obviously than the previous poem does. Perhaps "oh, fast," is how quickly the poet is aging and feeling that he doesn't have much time left on the planet. "A few weeds," he writes, and "stubble," which also describes a beard that an old many might have and not bother to shave off. This is what the snow will cover and this is the life that will be covered by time as the poet becomes moody and depressed and perhaps contemplates dying. The stubble also indicates that while nature put the field there, man has tended it, raised corn or wheat and now all that is left as the snow hurtles to the ground is the stubble, and a "few weeds," which is a forlorn thought.

The darkness is falling as fast as the snow, with presents a visual conflict for the reader; which will dominate, the dark or the light? So at the very outset there seems a sense of confusion

Basically the poem can be interpreted on one level as a reflection of the poet's sense of isolation, and that mood is conveyed with the lines:

"I am too absent-spirited to count / the loneliness includes me unawares…"

The poet uses irony effectively in the title, conveying a sense of a vast wasteland, covered with snow that makes the scene as desolate as a desert. Humans have to cross though deserts sometimes in their lives, and it is usually a human crisis or fear that sends them across those lonely sands. Critic Adeel Salman, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, explains that the entire second stanza reflects a sense of being "deprived" and hence the poet's mind -- with the loneliness and dispossession wrapped around the scene he envisions -- "gives way to the benumbing mood all around"

(Salman, 2003).

It seems the poet conveys that he is uncomfortable in this setting, he is perhaps an intruder, and while the animals are perfectly comfortable in their places, the poet is out of place and doesn't really blend in with nature. In the third stanza loneliness is linked to a "Blanker whiteness of benighted snow / With no expression, nothing to express," which takes the reader into a bleak moment where perhaps life is meaningless and nature cannot be found.

When the poet's eye turns from the blanker whiteness -- an expressionless moment in a lonely mood in a field filling up with snow -- quickly to the universe and the spaces between stars, a reader could assume the poet is trying to escape the world around him. Or he may be relating that he is lonely and spiritless but he is nonetheless part of the universe. Thinking about the vast distance between stars is a cold and lonely visualization. By saying "they cannot scare me with their empty spaces" the poet would appear to be in denial; perhaps he is scared, even though he is nearly home. The universe, as enormous and infinite as it is, may be a more comfortable place for him to imagine than the cold darkness of the field with snow falling fast. There are always several ways to look at poems, and in this case, a reader might take the gloom of the first three stanzas as a mood that the poet would like to break.

And hence, the fourth stanza is the place in which he lifts himself up beyond the bleakness into the heavens where no human can be found. And suddenly he realizes he is near to his home and it doesn't matter whether he is lonely or scared or in isolation -- home will help him forget all that, and if he needs to continue to be dark and depressed, he can do it just as well at home as he can crossing a snowy field in the darkness.

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