4/16/09

My First Inkling of Liking Anything by Robert Frost

I've pretty much ignored Robert Frost since I first read the standard "The Road Not Taken" back in middle and high schools. For years now, I thought it was because Robert Frost sucked- he had some old school vision of poetry (which he might still) and it was all landscapes and personal freedom crap. Some kind of American lifestyle that was exemplified in his poetry that has led him to being so revered by the pezzonovante.

There is something I still find kind of old school in his style and use of language- there's little attempt, at least in my initial reading, of trying to do anything different with poems and language. It's the same crap- David even says they read it in a Romanticism class so they could talk about HOW to read a poem- can you imagine??

But today- perhaps somewhere in the last few days, really, I heard something that has stuck with me. And while I realized it was Frost, I, as always, ignored it. However, like some kind of parasite, it has been on my mind all day, which is why I'm writing this post.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep

The words and rhythm struck me in a way that I generally don't take note of. I generally find rhythm is yet another construct and a method by which to sort of fit language into a space, rather than allowing language to expand of its own volition. There's a burst at each iamb:

The WOODS are LOVE-ly, DARK and DEEP

Shakespeare's iambs don't burst for me- and as I said, I normally would ignore such a thing, but today, the rhythm of this line has been dragging me along with it. I'm caught on each stressed syllable in a way that's quite new to me.

And then the text itself: there's something deliciously morbid and, I would argue, grotesque about it. "The woods are lovely"- ok, yeah- trees and nature are nice (something that's bothered me about Frost anyways...) "dark and deep"- whoa! These aren't just pretty woods that seem to extend beyond sight- there is something sinister afoot. I've read some things today on this line and suicide, and I am totally buying it: there's something enticing about the darkness of these woods- something that is engaging and tempting in them that is beyond a general enjoyment of nature. There's something lonely out there, almost- a morbid wood, really.

What really gets me about the rhythm and the words is that it fall apart to me in the next line:

But I have promises to keep

"Promises" kills the rhythm dead- breaks it into pieces. It seems impossible to read the line without the rhythm falling apart before your eyes and suddenly clearing the dream-like vision of suicide out: the narrator has responsibilities to get back to, and as lovely as death sounds for him, he knows now is not the time.

NB: Rereading it now, I might be wrong on this point and "pro/mi/ses" may function like the rest of the poem- but I like my reading better :)

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is luring you in along with the narrator- the rhythm relatively consistent up until the "promises" line (or beyond, I guess...) and I believe the interesting thing about the poem is just how it does that and how it turns what seems like into an natural aesthetic piece and creates a nearly 90s Goth tone.

Reading the U Illinois Modern American Poetry page, Jeffrey Myers notes three of the poems lines are "transformations" of lines from other folks. The "woods" line is a transformation of Thomas Lovell Beddoes' (who??) "The Phantom Wooer": "Our bed is lovely, dark, and sweet." There is something sexual here in the original, and something that leads us over to death in Frost. The bed as luring as death is intriguing to say the least and I think that Frost is even attempting an objectification of death to some extent. To sexualize death would be nothing new, but this seems to be going on here as well.

Myers, actually, makes my point in the next paragraph (which is kind of disappoint AND comforting):

The theme of "Stopping by Woods"--despite Frost's disclaimer--is the temptation of death, even suicide, symbolized by the woods that are filling up with snow on the darkest evening of the year. The speaker is powerfully drawn to these woods and--like Hans Castorp in the "Snow' chapter of Mann's Magic Mountain--wants to lie down and let the snow cover and bury him. The third quatrain, with its drowsy, dream-like line: "Of easy wind and downy flake," opposes the horse's instinctive urge for home with the man's subconscious desire for death in the dark, snowy woods. The speaker says, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep," but he resists their morbid attraction.

I don't know about all the horse stuff, but certainly the lure of death is Frost's primary theme and the horse's feelings are clearly intended to be a juxaposition to that.

There's something about poems about nature that are dull to me- like it's been done to death and so I just tune out. I'm not saying it's a positive quality, and obviously the very nature of nature is change, but something struck me today about the layers in the one line of "Stopping."

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