Plato Was Right--Poets Are Such Liars!

by Tina Blue
November 1, 2000

     In a comment on my article "How Literary Allusion Is Used in a Well-Known Poem by Robert Frost," one reader referred to Robert Frost's own dismissal of interpretations of his poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening." The reader  remarked, "As Frost says, sometimes a poem is just about walking through the woods on a snowy evening." Frost also insisted when queried on the matter that he did not "plan" the clever (and, as I point out in my article, quite probably allusive) rhyme scheme of "Stopping by Woods," but rather sort of fell into it by lucky accident.

     That may or may not be true. The fact is, poets quite frequently lie about the process that has produced a given work, and sometimes their reason for doing so is to warn would-be critics not to press them on the matter. (Not just poets, either. Writers in many genres, including nonfiction, often do exactly the same thing, and for a variety of reasons.) In fact, many poets take special delight in playing cat and mouse games with critics, and sometimes they don't even tell precisely the same lies from one interview to the next.

      But let's just take Frost at his word for the moment. Let's say he really did not mean anything by this poem other than to describe a beautiful winter scene as perceived by a man in a horse-drawn wagon traveling through the woods late one night.

      In fact, I would guess that a primary motivation for writing this particular poem was the fact that he had himself very frequently been in a horse-drawn wagon traveling through the woods on a quiet winter's night. The image he describes would have been very familiar to him. Perhaps he had recently experienced it anew when the idea for the poem first came to him, or perhaps it was merely a Wordsworthian moment, a recollection in tranquillity of an emotional response to beauty.

      He does not have to consciously intend any of the poem's layered meanings for those meanings to be there nonetheless. As any psychiatrist, psychologist, or arm-chair observer of our quirky and self-deceiving species will tell you, we often do not fully understand the motivations and meanings behind what we say and do. On the other hand, what may be invisible to the actor or speaker may seem quite obvious to virtually any objective observer.

      But we also have to contend with Frost's other poems, and with the pattern of imagery and meaning in his work. Another of his poems, "Desert Places," describes a scene strikingly similar to the central image in "Stopping by Woods," but in "Desert Places" the snow-covered field evokes not serenity but despair, "I have it in me so much nearer home / To scare myself with my own desert places" (15-16). Consider also his poem "Acquainted with the Night," in which the persona recalls how often he has "walked out in rain--and back in rain" (2) and "outwalked the furthest city light" (3). The theme of "Desert Places" and "Acquainted with the Night" is depression and the sense of isolation and alienation felt by one who has "been acquainted with the night" (1, 14).

      This is also a major aspect of his poem "Bereft," in which the persona, alone in his house by the seashore, senses that all of nature has turned against him because he is alone and vulnerable in that isolation:

Where have I heard that wind before
Change like that to a deeper roar?
What would it take my standing here for,
Holding open a restless door,
Looking downhill to a frothy shore?
Summer was past and day was past.
Somber clouds in the west were massed.
Out on the porch's sagging floor
Leaves got up in a coil and hissed,
Blindly struck at my knee and missed.
Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known.
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.

     Despite the final line's claim that the persona has "no one left but God," the onomatopoeic effects of the poem's sound pattern, which evokes a moan of desperation and a cry of pain, and the ominous personification of natural elements as his antagonists create a sense of desolation. If, as he says, he still has God left, that obviously does not seem to him enough to comfort or protect him.

      This theme of isolation, alienation, and despair runs through a lot of Frost's poetry, and not surprisingly, since he was himself subject to bouts of black depression and suicidal impulses. And he was often drawn to describe images that embodied these moods.

      Of course, the central image of "Stopping by Woods" seems to be serene and alluring, not threatening as are the images in "Desert Places" and "Bereft." But a death wish need not be represented in violent, desolate, or frightening imagery. In "Ode to a Nightingale" Keats says, "I have been half in love with easeful Death" (52), and it is not hard to imagine that the persona in "Stopping by Woods" feels that the burdens of life itself comprise the many miles that he must go before he "sleeps."

      Now, let's also suppose he really did stumble into the poem's rhyme scheme "by accident." I have no trouble believing that. But for any poet who has passionately studied poetry (i.e., who has "gone to school to his predecessors," as serious artists do), who has practiced and honed his craft over many years, and who walks, talks, and breathes the tradition, "accidents" are usually the direct consequence of long practice and study, and not all that accidental.

      Even if the structure and the image of "Stopping by Woods" occurred quite "innocently," they occurred on ground that had been assiduously prepared for just such accidents.

      Though it is no longer the case, there was a time when virtually all people of a certain level of education were familiar with the Divine Comedy. Certainly all poets were, and so were writers of fiction--and of sermons. Reference to the opening tercet of the "Inferno" must be one of the most common literary allusions in the Western tradition. Even if Frost did not deliberately put allusions to those lines into the image or the rhyme scheme of his poem, he would be unlikely not to recognize the similarity once the poem was finished.

      Note, too, that "Acquainted with the Night," which has a similar theme of darkness, isolation, and depression, modifies the traditional English sonnet form of three quatrains and a rhymed epigrammatic couplet in a way that embodies the terza rima stanzaic pattern, for it consists of four tercets, rhyming aba bcb cdc efe, and a couplet rhyming ff. Frost was familiar with and used the terza rima pattern, and certainly he knew it was the pattern of the Divine Comedy. He also would have known his readers would spot the terza rima and make at least a tentative connection to Dante's stanza.

      Furthermore, the sonnet form has its own set of conventions and traditions. By using terza rima to vary the traditional sonnet form in a striking way, a way that calls attention to itself as surely as if it were in neon lights, he is practically shouting, "Over here, guys--it's terza rima!" And to do so in a poem about depression and alienation invites comparison to the opening tercet of the "Inferno."

      Having written "Stopping by Woods," however the writing of the poem took place, Frost would almost certainly have noticed that his quatrains' rhyming pattern recalled the terza rima form. He would also have realized that at least some of his readers were bound to make a connection, because of the rhyme scheme and the traveler "alone in a dark wood," to the opening lines of the "Inferno." At that point, again still assuming he did not consciously plan the allusion, he would have had to decide whether to permit the apparent connection to stand. He chose to let it stand, if indeed he did not deliberately plant it in the first place.

      Of course, what happens most often in the creative process is that such connections to the tradition arise naturally out of a well prepared subconscious, and are recognized after the fact and then deliberately worked on to enhance the meaning and effect of the allusion. We have no way of knowing how Frost came up with the rhyme scheme or whether he intended it or the "dark wood" image to recall the "Inferno." We do know that he deliberately invokes such allusions elsewhere in his poetry, however, so even if it was not consciously deliberate in this particular poem, that does not mean it was entirely an "accident."

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