IMAGE BY: Robert Frost, Newyorker.com
by Jonathan Russell Clark
The great Maxine Kumin wrote a poem describing a time at Bread Loaf when Robert Frost came to read and hang out with the students. “Magisterial in the white wicker rocker,” she writes, “Robert Frost at rest after giving / a savage reading.” He holds “nothing back” and barks at the young poets: “don’t sit / there mumbling in the shadows, call / yourselves poets.” He goes on to give some stern, hard-earned advice:
up from the page. Pause between poems.
Say something about the next one.
Otherwise the audience
will coast, they can’t take in
half of what you’re giving them.
He concludes by saying, “Make every poem your final poem.”
Kumin’s “The Final Poem” suggests something about Frost’s own poetry that many often overlook. Frost tells Kumin and the other fawning poets of Bread Loaf that the audience “can’t take in / half of what you’re giving them.” If we were to believe conventional analyses of Frost’s work, an audience would be able to get everything in one hearing, as many interpretations of Frost’s poetry don’t account for the layers of Frost’s work. Moreover, Frost is often thought of as a poet of nature and rural life, which to me feels a bit like referring to Anne Sexton as merely a poet of domesticity—these descriptions are ostensible; it is what is underneath them that defines them. Let’s take three of Frost’s nature poems—“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Birches,” and “After Apple-Picking,” which are often interpreted as laments on man’s distance from nature—and determine the way that each of these poems shows how nature only offers fleeting respite and temporary transcendence. Nature cannot save us spiritually; it can only place us “toward heaven,” and only then for but a moment. Rather than lament this ephemerality, Frost concludes, “Earth’s the right place for love.”
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in March of 1874, and lived there until he was eleven, when the family moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts following the death of Frost’s father. As a poet, Frost has had a fascinating and ever-changing relationship to poetry criticism. As critic Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2003, Frost
at the time of his death in 1963 was generally considered to be a New England folkie… In 1977, the third volume of Lawrance Thompson’s biography suggested that Frost was a much nastier piece of work than anyone had imagined; a few years later, thanks to the reappraisal of critics like William H. Pritchard and Harold Bloom and of younger poets like Joseph Brodsky, he bounced back again, this time as a bleak and unforgiving modernist.
Just last year, David Orr published The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, in which he argues, among other points, that the poem, rather than a celebration of “the road less traveled by” (though thanks to M. Scott Peck people usually leave out the “by”), actually
gives us several variations on the standard dilemmas associated with the romantic sensibility: How can one transcend one’s self (“travel both”) while still remaining oneself (“And be one traveler”)? What is the difference between the stories we tell about ourselves and the actuality of our inner lives? In the moment of choosing—the moment of delay—all answers to these questions remain equally possible. But when a choice is made, other possibilities are foreclosed, which leads to what Frost describes as “crying over what might have been.”
If Frost’s most iconic and ubiquitous poem is largely misunderstood, what chance does the rest of his poetry have? And does the man who refers to regret as “crying over what might have been” mesh with the image we’ve had of Frost since reading his verses in grade school? Critics have long understood that there was more going on in Frost’s work than spotted at first glance, but the greater population has yet to catch up, and it isn’t just “The Road Not Taken” that remains stubbornly misinterpreted.
Another of Frost’s iconic poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is often seen as a mournful ode to humanity’s disconnection from the natural world. The speaker’s “little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near,” because, the poem suggests, the man never does this. By the end, though, the man realizes that he has “promises to keep” and “miles to go before” he sleeps. One interpretation of this would claim that this fleeting moment is somewhat tragic—man has no time for nature. He is too busy, too mired in responsibility to do anything more than stop for a brief respite. This poem, for many, perfectly captures the spirit of Frost’s attitude toward our relationship to nature.
Let us for a moment examine another poem to see if “Stopping by Woods…” truly typifies Frost’s beliefs. In “After Apple-Picking,” the speaker becomes “overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.” His ladder is left “sticking through a tree / Toward heaven.” By the end, the speaker contemplates sleep, how his won’t be “Long sleep,” like the woodchuck’s, not a hibernation, though it feels that way to him. Instead, it will just be “some human sleep.” Is this a man who allows his desire for “human sleep,” his need for daily, human comforts, to get in the way of reaching “toward heaven”? That would make this poem match that of “Stopping by Woods…” Clarke W. Owens notes, “One cannot escape the resonance of death in the image of sleep” in this poem. Similar arguments have been made about the “sleep” at the end of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The death metaphor would suggest further that each poem’s speaker will miss out on the transcendental beauty of nature and die before they truly reach it. Is this what Frost intended?
Back to “After Apple-Picking.” When the man explains why the apple-picking has made him so tired, he says:
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
The speaker here sees nature as abundant and tedious as life can be. Each apple is not some miracle but merely a drop in the bucket of apple cider. Now, one could read this as yet another critique of humanity’s treatment of nature, i.e., that we reduce beautiful things (like apples) to the level of machinery, the vitality of the wondrous coming from our destruction of them for our own purposes. For the speaker, though, does that matter? However humanity as a whole treats nature, the speaker still has to live in that world, and his reaction to it is less about all people and more about him as an individual. For the speaker, too, is one of “ten thousand thousand” people, “as of no worth.” Nature reminds him of this fact instead of saving him from it.
Okay, so returning to “sleep” as death: if Frost viewed “nature as an antagonist,” or at least as not so different from human life, then what do the references to sleep mean? Are they, as Owens suggests, metaphors for death? Owen’s argument goes like this:
Were the contemplated sleep truly “just some human sleep,” it would be a known quantity—because we have all experienced sleep—but it is not a known quantity. The tension of the poem derives precisely from its not being known. The image of a ladder pointing to heaven (lines 1 and 2), the image of winter, the archetypal season of death (7), the image of long experience and an over-tiredness with one’s formerly desired ends (the middle section of the poem, but especially lines 24–31)—all these things, together with the wondering, apprehensive uncertainty, suggest a nonexclusive or symbolic association of death with the image of sleep.
Owen goes further to state that “the final contrast becomes one between death as it occurs in nature—that is, a cyclical process of decay and cessation followed by birth and renewal akin to the change of seasons—and mere “human sleep,” seen as an individual’s night of dreams interspersed within a quotidian routine of work and reward.” It is tempting to see the poem in this light—that “sleep” stands for death— but this flies in the face of much of the poem’s literalness, an aspect that defies metaphor. Frost, here, does mean to contrast nature with humanity, but elevating “sleep” to death goes a little further than the poem suggests. Strip away any notion of metaphor and we arrive at a poem about the limitations of nature within a human context. The speaker picked apples for a long time and has tired of it. That participating in nature should lift him “toward heaven” means very little to him, as he is tired and overworked. “Just some human sleep” is what he’ll get, not the “long sleep” of hibernation, an extended existence in nature. Because ultimately, the speaker, no matter how heavenly nature can be, must return to life.
But this return is not a negative one. Frost does not see it as tragic. In fact, he sees it as preferable. In “Birches,” we get Frost’s most clear view of man’s relationship with nature—or, at least, his own relationship with nature. After “brilliantly” digressing about an ice storm, and describing the way the speaker imagines a boy “riding down” the branches of the birches, Frost launches into a prolonged statement about nature. “So I was once myself a swinger of birches,” he writes, “And so I dream of going back to be.” But there is something the speaker needs to clarify:
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
Frost’s speakers do not wish to be in nature forever, nor do they think it would be a good thing if they were. Nature offers something like the fun of a boy swinging across tree limbs—a temporary enjoyment, a minor diversion from the more pertinent and necessary claims of an adulthood. One could even see how Frost viewed all “visionary experience as an illusion.” And his speakers are quite aware of this. So the sadness that one detects in a Frost poem, that peculiar yearning just underneath the language, is not a lament for our distance from some life-altering and life-affirming nature, but instead for the fact that nature actually doesn’t offer much solace.
Let’s go back to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” with this interpretation in mind, specifically the final stanza:
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.
The repetition of sleep, rather than suggesting death, actually suggests life–a long, weary and not-so-fulfilling one, yes, but a life nonetheless. This man can’t stay and watch the snow as it softly falls; he can’t continue to contemplate the “lovely, dark and deep” woods. He must carry on, he must keep his promises, and he must sleep, eventually, after all his work is done. Rather than view this as tragic, as a commentary on the way we allow our work and our trivial lives prevent us from experiencing the transcendence of the natural world, why can’t we see this as quietly heroic? Why can’t we allow that maybe the aims of humanity—our goals, ambitions, our greatest hopes and fears—are not meaningless when compared to nature? Why must we be deemed the trivial ones? Can snow really be more meaningful than promises?
If all this sounds a little unromantic, we must remember who we’re dealing with here. Like Kumin, John Updike also has story of seeing Frost in person. After moving through his “poems rather rapidly, minimizing their music in his haste to get on with his spoken commentary on whatever came to his mind,” Frost launched into an attack on Archibald MacLeish. Updike continues:
MacLeish had recently issued a radio play, The Trojan Horse, whose message in that heyday of McCarthyism was that the United States should not take into itself the Trojan horse of totalitarian tactics. Who could dispute so unexceptionable a message and the agitated liberalism that have given rise to it? Well, Frost could. “You know,” he told his old friend and admirer in the astonished hearing of us worshipfully assembled undergraduates, “if you’re going to beat a fella, you got to get to be like him.”
Frost continued on “long enough for his anti-anti-McCarthyite drift to register,” and Updike notes that in response to another work by MacLeish—a version of the Job story called J.B.—and its moral—that “Our labor…is to learn through suffering to love”—Frost said, “People think everything is solved by love. Maybe just as many things are solved by hate.”
Readers conditioned by popular culture’s version of Frost would be stunned by these stories. How heartless and wrongheaded was this guy? Updike’s story is, of course, anecdotal and shouldn’t be used to completely demonize Frost, but there is something important in such a description of Frost, especially when one is considering his poetry. Here was a man who saw nature as “indifferent, alien, hostile,” yet wrote some of the most beloved nature poems of the twentieth century. Here is a man who preferred humanity to nature, yet is remembered for odes, not to people, but to a fleeting escape from human activity. But Frost did not, as Whitman did, contradict himself; his poetry does not contain multitudes. Instead, what Frost feared so has happened: his poetry has been “willfully” misunderstood and placed (irrevocably) in nature, or at least on nature’s side, and the great tragedy might be that now that it’s snatched away, it might never return. Is there hope that the institution of Frost will continue to venerate his poetry for misguided reasons? Can we still rescue him from the woods? In the lines directly before the ones about being misunderstood by fate, Frost writes, “I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” Maybe he still can.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic and author of the forthcoming book An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom (Fiction Advocate 2017), a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. He is a staff writer at Literary Hub, and his work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, Tin House, Rolling Stone, New Republic, and numerous others.