During my short stint with Poembusters, we tackled “Desert Places” by Robert Frost. It’s one of his better poems, yet I did not even know about it until this Poembusters session.
Indeed, this poem was a big inspiration when I wrote The Many Goodbyes.
Last night the sky dumped a good amount of snow on the ground, and so staying home from work because school is out can have its advantages. I decided to re-read “Desert Places”, perhaps subconsciously, because snow is a character in the poem (I had forgotten this).
For anyone who knows Frost, some basic characteristics of his poetry in general is they are nature poems written in Iambic Pentameter, often blank verse. This small poem Iambic (short LONG) Pentameter, though it is hard to tell at first. The poem throws a lot of surprise punches. Let’s start with the first verse.
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The is little mystery in this stanza. The beauty in this stanza is the language. There is alliteration(falling fast field), and repetition (falling falling) (fast fast) that combine for a double punch. Frost is gently pounding away his imagery just like snow falls in a big storm. Of course, the rhyming meter helps to control the poem, the feeling he will experience in the following stanzas. The stanza uses a lot of metrical substitutions, but what you need to decide when scanning a poem for meter is what the majority of feet are within the poem as a whole; this helps to identify the substitutions.
“but a FEW WEEDS in STUBble GROWing FAST” does not show the true meter in the line. Neither does “SNOW FALling and NIGHT FALling FAST oh FAST”. But both lines end in an Iambic foot.
The woods around it have it—it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
What do the woods around the field have? This is the first punch we don’t see coming. Whatever “it” is, appears to affect the animals too — why else would they be smothered in their lairs? Snow can smother, but snow doesn’t fall in lairs. But Frost as narrator admits his absent-mindedness at what he is looking at and doesn’t see that he isn’t an observer. He isn’t in the movie theater — he is in the movie. And with this understanding, we now can understand what the “it” is — loneliness. The field feels it, the wood feels it, the animals feel it, Frost feels it.
We wait until the last line of the second verse before we get a complete line using Iambic Pentameter: “the LONEliNESS inCLUDES me UNaWARES”. This line needs a special punch, and we get it with a perfect Iambic Pentameter line.
And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
This stanza reveals the agent of the loneliness is the snow itself. The more snow that falls, the more lonely the place will be. And just like a blank expression does not allow anything to pass like a brick wall, the snow is one big blank expression. It reminds me of a famous argument between Van Gogh and Gaughin. They were painting a landscape together, and Van Gogh saw the sky with all its lines and curves and interesting pockets of color shades. Gaughin saw the sky as flat and uninteresting, like a plank or a sheet. And so the snow is more like what Gaughin saw, an expressionless suffocating agent.
But suddenly the poem shifts, and the wide surroundings of field and woods and sky is only a microlevel of the vast world that loneliness envelopes, especially when he acknowledges that loneliness is a frightening thing, and since it exists everywhere, nowhere is safe from it. And yet, Frost would rather be scared where he lives and knows, then be out there in the unfamiliar ground of the universe along with the other lonely objects and scared still.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.