Monday, December 7, 2009

Literary Analysis of Robert Frost's Poem "The Road Not Taken"

The Road Not Taken can be read against a literary and pictorial tradition that might be called "The Choice of the Two Paths, " reaching not only back to the Gospels and beyond them to the Greeks but to ancient English verse as well. In Reson and Sensuallyte, for example, John Lydgate explains how he dreamt that Dame Nature had offered him the choice between the Road of Reason and the Road of Sensuality. In art the same choice was often represented by the letter "Y" with the trunk of the letter representing the careless years of childhood and the two paths branching off at the age when the child is expected to exercise discretion.

In one design the "Two Paths" are shown in great detail. "On one side a thin line of pious folk ascend a hill past several churches and chapels, and so skyward to the Heavenly City where an angel stands proffering a crown. On the other side a crowd of men and women are engaged in feasting, music, love-making, and other carnal pleasures while close behind them yawns the flaming mouth of hell in which sinners are writhing. But hope is held out for the worldly for some avoid hell and having passed through a dark forest come to the rude huts of Humility and Repentance." Embedded in this quotation is a direct reference to the opening of Dante's Inferno:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was the forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more.

From the beginning, when it appeared as the first poem in Mountain Interval (1916), many readers have overstated the importance of "The Road Not Taken" to Frost's work. Alexander Meiklejohn, president of Amherst College, did so when, announcing the appointment of the poet to the school's faculty he recited it to a college assembly.

"The Choice of Two Paths" is suggested in Frost's decision to make his two roads not very much different from one another, for passing over one of them had the effect of wearing them "really about the same." This is a far cry from, say, the description of the "two waies " offered in the seventeenth century by Henry Crosse:

Two ways are proposed and laid open to all, the one inviting to virtue, the other alluring to vice; the first is cumbersome, intricate, untreaded, overgrown, and wiyh many obstacles to dismay the passenger; the other plain, even beaten, overshadowed with boughs, tapistried with flowers, and many objects to feed the eye; now a man that looks but only to the outward show, will easily tread the broadest path, but if he perceives that this smooth and even way leads to a nest of Scorpions: or a litter of Bears, he will rather take the other though it be rugged and unpleasant, than hazard himself in so great a danger.

Frost seems to have deliberately chosen the word "roads" rather than "ways" or "paths" or even "pathways." In fact, on one occasion when he was asked to recite his famous poem, "Two paths diverged in a yellow wood," Frost reacted with such feeling—"Two roads!"—that the transcription of his reply made it necessary both to italicize the word "roads" and to follow it with an exclamation point. Frost recited the poem all right, but, as his friend remembered, "he didn't let me get away with 'two paths!'"

Convinced that the poem was deeply personal and directly self-revelatory Frost's readers have insisted on tracing the poem to one or the other of two facts of Frost's life when he was in his late thirties. (At the beginning of the Inferno Dante is thirty-five, "midway on the road of life," notes Charles Eliot Norton.) The first of these, an event, took place in the winter of 1911-1912 in the woods of Plymouth, New Hampshire, while the second, a general observation and a concomitant attitude, grew out of his long walks in England with Edward Thomas, his newfound Welsh-English poet-friend, in 1914.

In Robert Frost: The Trial by Existence, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant locates in one of Frost's letters the source for "The Road Not Taken." The poet wrote to Susan Hayes Ward on February 10, 1912:

Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much traveled. Judge then how surprised I was the other evening as I came down one to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone's eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home. But I didn't go forward to the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by; and that, too, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out by a comparison of lives and immediate and remote interests what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in a wilderness at the same moment of nightfall. Some purpose I doubt not, if we could but have made out. I like a coincidence almost as well as an incongruity.

This portentous account of meeting "another" self (but not encountering that self directly and therefore not coming to terms with it) would eventually result in a poem quite different from "The Road Not Taken" and one that Frost would not publish for decades. Elizabeth Sergeant ties the moment with Frost's decision to go off at this time to some place where he could devote more time to poetry. He had also, she implies, filed away his dream for future poetic use.

That poetic use would occur three years later. In 1914 Frost arrived in England for what he then thought would be an extended sabbatical leave from farming in New Hampshire. By all the signs he was ready to settle down for a long stay. Settling in Gloucestershire, he soon became a close friend of Edward Thomas. Later, when readers persisted in misreading "The Road Not Taken," Frost insisted that his poem had been intended as a sly jest at the expense of his friend and fellow poet. For Thomas had invariably fussed over irrevocable choices of the most minor sort made on daily walks with Frost in 1914, shortly before the writing of the poem. Later Frost insisted that in his case the line "And that has made all the difference"—taken straight—was all wrong. "Of course, it hasn't," he persisted, "it's just a poem, you know." In 1915, moreover, his sole intention was to twit Thomas. Living in Gloucestershire, writes Lawrance Thompson, Frost had frequently taken long countryside walks with Thomas.

Repeatedly Thomas would choose a route which might enable him to show his American friend a rare plant or a special vista; but it often happened that before the end of such a walk Thomas would regret the choice he had made and would sigh over what he might have shown Frost if they had taken a "better" direction. More than once, on such occasions, the New Englander had teased his Welsh-English friend for those wasted regrets. . . . Frost found something quaintly romantic in sighing over what might have been. Such a course of action was a road never taken by Frost, a road he had been taught to avoid.

If we are to believe Frost and his biographer, "The Road Not Taken" was intended to serve as Frost's gentle jest at Thomas's expense. But the poem might have had other targets. One such target was a text by another poet who in a different sense might also be considered a "friend": Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose poem, "My Lost Youth," had provided Frost with A Boy's Will, the title he chose for his first book.

"The Road Not Taken " can be placed against a passage in Longfellow's notebooks: "Round about what is, lies a whole mysterious world of might be,—a psychological romance of possibilities and things that do not happen. By going out a few minutes sooner or later, by stopping to speak with a friend at a corner, by meeting this man or that, or by turning down this street instead of the other, we may let slip some great occasion of good, or avoid some impending evil, by which the whole current of our lives would have been changed. There is no possible solution to the dark enigma but the one word, 'Providence.'"

Longfellow's tone in this passage is sober, even somber, and anticipates the same qualities in Edward Thomas, as Frost so clearly perceived. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant had insisted that Frost's dream encounter with his other self at a crossroads in the woods had a " subterranean connection " with the whole of "The Road Not Taken," especially with the poem's last lines:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Undoubtedly. But whereas Longfellow had invoked Providence to account for acts performed and actions not taken, Frost calls attention only to the role of human choice. A second target was the notion that "whatever choice we make, we make at our peril." The words just quoted are Fitz-James Stephen's, but it is more important that Frost encountered them in William James's essay "The Will to Believe." In fact, James concludes his final paragraph on the topic: "We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces.

We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? 'Be strong and of a good courage.' Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better." The danger inherent in decision, in this brave passage quoted with clear-cut approval by the teacher Frost "never had," does not playa part in "The Road Not Taken." Frost the "leaf-treader" will have none of it, though he will not refuse to make a choice. Nothing will happen to him through default. Nor, argues the poet, is it likely that anyone will melodramatically be dashed to pieces.

It is useful to see Frost's projected sigh as a nudging criticism of Thomas's characteristic regrets, to note that Frost's poem takes a sly poke at Longfellow's more generalized awe before the notion of what might have happened had it not been for the inexorable workings of Providence, and to see "The Road Not Taken" as a bravura tossing off of Fitz-James Stephen's mountainous and meteorological scenario. We can also project the poem against a poem by Emily Dickinson that Frost had encountered twenty years earlier in Poems, Second Series (1891).

Our journey had advanced;
Our feet were almost come
To that odd fork in Being's road,
Eternity by term.
Our pace took sudden awe,
Our feet reluctant led.
Before were cities, but between,
The forest of the dead.

Retreat was out of hope,—
Behind, a sealed route,
Eternity's white flag before,
And God at every gate.

Dickinson's poem is straightforwardly and orthodoxically religious. But it can be seen that beyond the "journey" metaphor Dickinson's poem employs diction—"road" and "forest"—that recalls "The Choice of the Two Paths" trope, the opening lines of the Inferno, and Frost's secular poem "The Road Not Taken."

Self-reliance in "The Road Not Taken" is alluringly embodied as the outcome of a story presumably representative of all stories of self-hood, and whose central episode is that moment of the turning-point decision, the crisis from which a self springs: a critical decision consolingly, for Frost's American readers, grounded in a rational act when a self, and therefore an entire course of life, are autonomously and irreversibly chosen. The particular Fireside poetic structure in which Frost incarnates this myth of selfhood is the analogical landscape poem, perhaps most famously executed by William Cullen Bryant in "To a Waterfowl," a poem that Matthew Arnold praised as the finest lyric of the nineteenth century and that Frost had by heart as a child thanks to his mother's enthusiasm.

The analogical landscape poem draws its force from the culturally ancient and pervasive idea of nature as allegorical book, in its American poetic setting a book out of which to draw explicit lessons for the conduct of life (nature as self-help text). In its classic Fireside expression, the details of landscape and all natural events are cagily set up for moral summary as they are marched up to the poem's conclusion, like little imagistic lambs to slaughter, for their payoff in uplifting message. Frost appears to recapitulate the tradition 'in his sketching of the yellow wood and the two roads and in his channeling of the poem's course of events right up to the portentous colon ("Somewhere ages and ages hence:") beyond which lies the wisdom that we jot down and take home:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

If we couple such tradition-bound thematic structure with Frost's more or less conventional handling of metric, stanzaic form and rhyme scheme, then we have reason enough for Ellery Sedgwick's acceptance of this poem for the Atlantic: no "caviar to the crowd" here.

And yet Frost has played a subtle game in an effort to have it both ways. In order to satisfy the Atlantic and its readers, he hews closely to the requirements of popular genre writing and its mode of poetic production, the mass circulation magazine. But at the same time he has more than a little undermined what that mode facilitates in the realm of American poetic and political ideals. There must be two roads and they must, of course, be different if the choice of one over the other is to make a rational difference ("And that has made all the difference").

But the key fact, that on the particular morning when the choice was made the two roads looked "about the same," makes it difficult to understand how the choice could be rationally grounded on (the poem's key word) perceptible, objective "difference." The allegorical "way" has been chosen, a self has been forever made, but not because a text has been "read" and the "way" of nonconformity courageously, ruggedly chosen. The fact is, there is no text to be read, because reading requires a differentiation of signs, and on that morning clear signifying differences were obliterated. Frost's delivery of this unpleasant news has long been difficult for his readers to hear because he cunningly throws it away in a syntax of subordination that drifts out of thematic focus.

The unpleasant news is hard to hear, in addition, because Fireside form demands, and therefore creates the expectation of, readable textual differences in the book of nature. Frost's heavy investment in traditional structure virtually assures that Fireside literary form will override and cover its mischievous handling in this poem.

For a self to be reliant, decisive, nonconformist, there must already be an autonomous self out of which to propel decision. But what propelled choice on that fateful morning? Frost's speaker does not choose out of some rational capacity; he prefers, in fact, not to choose at all. That is why he can admit to what no self-respecting self-reliant self can admit to: that he is "sorry" he "could not travel both/And be one traveler."

The good American ending, the last three lines of the poem, is prefaced by two lines of storytelling self-consciousness in which the speaker, speaking in the present to a listener (reader) to whom he has just conveyed "this," his story of the past - everything preceding the last stanza - in effect tells his auditor that in some unspecified future he will tell it otherwise, to some gullible audience, tell it the way they want to hear it, as a fiction of autonomous intention.

The strongly sententious yet ironic last stanza in effect predicts the happy American construction which "The Road Not Taken" has been traditionally understood to endorse -- predicts, in other words, what the poem will be sentimentally made into, but from a place in the poem that its Atlantic Monthly reading, as it were, will never touch.

The power of the last stanza within the Fireside teleology of analogical landscape assures Frost his popular audience, while for those who get his game -- some member, say, of a different audience, versed in the avant-garde little magazines and in the treacheries of irony and the impulse of the individual talent trying, as Pound urged, to "make it new" against the literary and social American grain - for that reader, this poem tells a different tale: that our life-shaping choices are irrational, that we are fundamentally out of control. This is the fabled "wisdom" of Frost, which he hides in a moralizing statement that asserts the consoling contrary of what he knows.

"The Road Not Taken" is an ironic commentary on the autonomy of choice in a world governed by instincts, unpredictable contingencies, and limited possibilities. It parodies and demurs from the biblical idea that God is the "way" that can and should be followed and the American idea that nature provides the path to spiritual enlightenment. The title refers doubly to bravado for choosing a road less traveled but also to regret for a road of lost possibility and the eliminations and changes produced by choice.

"The Road Not Taken " reminds us of the consequences of the principle of selection in al1 aspects of life, namely that al1 choices in knowledge or in action exclude many others and lead to an ironic recognitions of our achievements. At the heart of the poem is the romantic mythology of flight from a fixed world of limited possibility into a wilderness of many possibilities combined with trials and choices through which the pilgrim progresses to divine perfection. The poem draws on "the culturally ancient and pervasive idea of nature as allegorical book, out of which to draw explicit lessons for the conduct of life (nature as self-help text)."

The drama of the poem is of the persona making a choice between two roads. As evolved creatures, we should be able to make choices, but the poem suggests that our choices are irrational and aesthetic. The sense of meaning and morality derived from choice is not reconciled but, rather obliterated and canceled by a nonmoral monism. Frost is trying to reconcile impulse with a con- science that needs goals and harbors deep regrets.

The verb Frost uses is taken, which means something less conscious than chosen. The importance of this opposition to Frost is evident in the way he changed the tide of "Take Something Like a Star" to "Choose Something Like a Star," and he continued to alter tides in readings and publications. Take suggests more of an unconscious grasp than a deliberate choice. (Of course, it also suggests action as opposed to deliberation.) In "The Road Not Taken" the persona's reasons wear thin, and choice is confined by circumstances and the irrational as noticed from lines 1-10.

Both roads had been worn "about the same," though his "taking" the second is based on its being less worn. The basis of selection is individuation, variation, and "difference": taking the one "less traveled by." That he "could not travel both / And be one traveler" means not only that he will never be able to return but also that experience alters the traveler; he would not be the same by the time he came back. Frost is presenting an antimyth in which origin, destination, and return are undermined by a nonprogressive development.

And the hero has only illusory choice. This psychological representation of the developmental principle of divergence strikes to the core of Darwinian theory. Species are made and survive when individuals diverge from others in a branching scheme, as the roads diverge for the speaker. The process of selection implies an unretractable process of change through which individual kinds are permanently altered by experience. Though the problem of making a choice at a crossroads is almost a commonplace, the drama of the poem conveys a larger mythology by including evolutionary metaphors and suggesting the passage of eons.

The change of tense in the penultimate line—to took—is part of the speaker's projection of what he "shall be telling," but only retrospectively and after "ages and ages." Though he cannot help feeling free in selection, the speaker's wisdom is proved only through survival of an unretraceable course of experience in lines ranging from 11-20.

The poem leaves one wondering how much "difference" is implied by all, given that the "roads" already exist, that possibilities are limited. Exhausted possibilities of human experience diminish great regret over "the road not taken" or bravado for "the road not taken" by everyone else. The poem does raise questions about whether there is any justice in the outcome of one's choices or anything other than aesthetics, being "fair," in our moral decisions. The speaker's impulse to individuation is mitigated by a moral dilemma of being unfair or cruel, in not stepping on leaves, "treading" enough to make them "black. " It might also imply the speaker's recognition that individuation will mean treading on others.


Frank Lentricchia."Modernist Quartet".
George Montiero."Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance".
Robert Faggen. "Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin". READ MORE!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Early European Response to Early America / New World

Foreword: The essay focuses on early American life beginning from the colonial period to the year 1800. It examines and evaluates the early European response to the New World/Early America, including response to the land itself and the natives. The essay takes a critical look at various prevailing ideas related with politics, slavery, religion and the role of women in the said period of time - Academic.

The discovery of the New World opened up a sea of opportunities for Europe. Countries like Spain and Portugal already had vast experience in colonization and conquest. Their ship navigation skills proved to be an added advantage. Driven by a strong desire to colonize Columbus’ New World, they were the first European countries to create vast colonial empires in the western hemisphere.

The English, French, and Dutch were comparatively slower to start; but in no way less interested or aggressive in claiming their share in the pie. The Spanish, Portuguese and French colonies sent home so much of wealth in the form of gold, silver, furs and sugar that it substantially stimulated the economy of Europe. This prompted other European countries also to see and seek westward.

The discovery of the New World had set the stage for an unprecedented upheaval and action. A real life high drama was waiting to be played out in two distinctly different worlds; one Old and the other New. The Old World prepared itself to launch a bold onslaught on the New World to establish its supremacy and ownership over the new territories. This war was destined to turn into a historic war of civilizations, a war of seismic proportions where countless people were ordained to perish or get maimed. The mist over the western sky and the dim waters of the Atlantic beckoned the explorers. Several west European countries were ready to cross the Atlantic to usher into a new world of hope, promise and mystery.

The scene that was waiting to unfold beyond the misty curtain of the Atlantic was indeed bloody and violent. The discovery of the New World had sounded the death bell for the natives of America who had been living in the western subcontinent for ages. William O Kellogg emphasizes, “More importantly, we know that there were Native Americans already in Americas” (1). Talking about the negative impact of immigrant invasion William O Kellogg writes, “The impact of Spanish settlement on the native American culture was overwhelming. In establishing their control, they destroyed much of the culture of the Native American” (17).
Until 1600 Spain and Portugal were the only European powers that had colonies in the New World.

The Spanish conquerors subdued and destroyed several native empires to establish huge colonies like Mesoamerica that stretched from present day Mexico to Panama. The Spanish established an authoritarian regime and ruled the natives with an iron hand. England, a late starter, started to make its colonies in the New World in the 17th century. The British were particularly harsh and ruthless towards the natives. They developed exclusive colonies for themselves with blacks forcibly brought from Africa working as their slaves. The British mercilessly slaughtered countless Native Americans or drove them further to the west in order to expand their empire.

The French and the Dutch, on the contrary, devised a system in which they managed to rope in support from the Native Americans. They created fur-trading empires in collaboration with the natives. Native Americans were allowed to retain their property and political autonomy in lieu of favorable trade relations. Hence, the colonial holdings of each European country developed in its own distinct way. The English colonies also differed from the rest because of the growth of self-government in them. This also marked the beginning of the colonies’ political development. During 1700-1750, the English appointed governors gave way to American- elected assemblies. The resistance from the British government and its officials could do little to stop this shifting of power-center in early America.

The New World saw the rise of a society based upon small and independent freehold farmers known as ‘Yeomen’. These farming societies loved their land very much. They also feared their land holding may not shrink due to population explosion; as witnessed in the 13 colonies of Britain. These colonies saw a phenomenal tenfold rise in population in a matter of just seven decades. The population of settlers increased from 25000 in 1700 to 250000 in 1770. In order to ensure that their kids must get their share of land, these farming societies pushed further inside in order to expand their land holdings.

This also showed their commitment to preserve the ‘Yeoman’ fabric of their society. Each push invariably resulted in further bloodshed and fresh battles with Native Americans or amongst European countries themselves. The farming societies of New England, Vermont, New Hampshire and Mid-Atlantic are a case in point. The rich poor divide was more evident in non-farming urban communities of early America. This gulf further increased towards the end of 18th century.

Religion and politics have always been intertwined in the history of mankind and early America was no exception. In early 1740s, some enthusiastic evangelical ministers, emboldened by religious revivals in England and Germany, visited the colonies in the New World. They called themselves the New lights and preached an open and democratic approach towards religion and Christianity. The established Church and the Old Lights took it as a threat to their existence and tried to oppose them tooth and nail. The Old Lights took political help from their supporters in various assemblies to curb the revivalists. The forward march of the New Lights could not be stopped either by the imposition of bans or violence directed against them.

This religious phase in the New World is known as ‘A Great Awakening’. This religious movement not only brought about greater religious freedom but also paved way for greater political autonomy in early America. The result was the American Revolution, a long drawn conflict of 13 British colonies with Great Britain in 1775 and the declaration of independence in 1776. The constitutional separation of the church and state came in 1777. Olmstead quotes a Congregationalist minister about his idea of this separation, "It was as dark a day as ever I saw. The odium thrown upon the ministry was inconceivable. The injury done to the cause of Christ, as we then supposed, was irreparable.” He was totally wrong.

Due to huge diversity in religion among the settlers, early America saw gradual erosion in the authority of the established church. Hence, the colonists realized that there was a strong need of establishing the new ideal of complete religious tolerance. After 1700, the cultural diversity of early America increased manifold. The influx of various African and European races and ethnic groups made it imperative for the colonial powers to find a common cultural identity rooted in English language. They knew that a common language would unite the colonists and would provide them with a common and shared experience of life in early America.

The status of women in early America wasn’t praiseworthy. According to Deborah A. Rosen, “Women throughout the colonies lived in patriarchal social systems that limited their autonomy and power.” They were subservient to men and were not allowed to participate in the political process or decision making. They led a very domesticated life burdened with endless domestic duties. They were sold for marriage or indentured labor.

No wonder, such marriages did not last long. Economically also, the women of early America were much weaker than men. Unjust laws were unmindful towards their welfare. The law decreed much less wages for women in comparison with men. Undoubtedly, the women of early America were an exploited lot. The Puritan church did no justice to them either. Any intellectual or literary pursuit followed by a woman was generally looked down upon and lambasted.


Works Cited

Kellogg, William O. American History the Easy Way . Barrons, 2003

Olmstead, Clifton E. History of Religion in the United States. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall,

Rosen, Deborah A. “Women and Property across Colonial America” The William and Mary
Quarterly. 10 April 2007


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Critical Literary Analysis of Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning"

"Sunday Morning" offers one of Stevens's first substitutes for Christianity: natural religion, or paganism. Stevens said very little about this poem after writing it, other than to note in 1928 that "the poem is simply an expression of paganism" and later, in 1944, to indicate that Hi Simons was correct in assuming that the poem suggests "a naturalistic religion as a substitute for supernaturalism".

Stevens tended to dismiss questions about or interpretations of this poem. His offhandedness about what remains perhaps his most anthologized work may suggest that he thought the poem's interpretation to be clear and obvious. His dismissiveness may also have implied that the poem's propositions did not preoccupy him further or later. And yet they clearly did: the "Sunday Morning" questions recur in various guises on through the writing of his last work.

One of the more traditional in form of Stevens's poems, "Sunday Morning" consists of blank-verse sections of varying lengths. The poem develops as an argument between two voices: the tentative, questioning tones of the woman, whose enjoyment of the pleasures of this world is cut by the awareness of death, and another, more authoritative voice that seeks to reassure her that the world is enough to satisfy, that in fact it is all the satisfaction there is. . . .

In the first section, the woman is enjoying "complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair", but the very enjoyment of life leads her to realize its transience, to remember her church--which she is nor attending at the time--and to allow fear and guilt to disturb her pleasure. The second section picks up the argument with the other voice, which asks, "Why should she give her bounty to the dead?" Should not this world provide compensation for the lost heaven? She should embrace her own divinity, the other voice suggests, and let herself be a mirror of the nature that engendered her and of which she is a part. . . .

One with nature, she should not try to separate herself from it and redefine herself as something unnatural or supernatural.

The third section takes up the hiistory of divinity, tracing godhead from the totally inhuman Jove through the partly human Jesus to the fully human god suggested by the poem. To invest the human with the divine would make earth into paradise, the sky becoming fully our own rather than a division between earth and heaven. The fourth section returns to the woman's perspective. She is not entirely willing to accept the argument because she realizes that the paradise offered is not permanent.

The other voice then assures her that there is a permanence, a permanence of the human, although not of the individual. To her claim in part 5 that she needs individual continuity, the other voice offers the consolation that "Death is the mother of beauty": the cycle of ripening, fruition, and decay causes desire, which would not exist without the realization of transience. The sixth section hypothesizes a static heaven in which the ripe fruit never falls; such a place would be boring, not beautiful. Only change causes beauty, and change entails beginnings and endings; hence, "Death is the mother of beauty."

The alternative to Christianity is suggested in "a ring of men" chanting "their boisterous devotion to the sun". Human energy should recognize the source of nature's energy as kin; this recognition would reestablish the participation of humans in nature, which is not so much mystical as actual. This argument is presented as a conclusive one, and the woman accepts it. Her recognition that Jesus is a historical figure and that she is alone, a part of "unsponsored" nature, frees her from the prison in which her traditional beliefs had locked her. The conclusion, a merging of the woman's perception with that of the other voice, is a Wordsworth-like picture of the sweet earth, with overtones of an elegy for the notion of personal immortality.

The joined voices proclaim that we are no different from the "casual flocks of pigeons" whose flight is not patterned but casual, and whose indecipherable movements or "ambiguous undulations" are nevertheless a form of untranslatable language, a kind of inscription or self-definition that is natural rather than superimposed. Stevens's later work is preoccupied with the notion that true order must be found in nature rather than forced on it, but he later finds orders different from the simple natural rhythms.

This poem uses the figure of the woman to work through the objections to the discarding of Christianity. Stevens himself is both the woman and her opponent. "Sunday Morning" is the first full presentation of Stevens's lifelong central motif, the search for a sustaining fiction. But the answers he provides are clearly problematic to him as well as to the reader. Parts 7 and 8 both seem to be conclusions, but they do not cohere. "Boisterous devotion" characterizes part 7: the reborn pagan males seek to merge with the life source, yielding their individuality to its larger identity. Part 8, however, is muted.

The lushness of nature affords no participation mystique but rather suggests isolation and separation. The freedom the woman has won by relinquishing her Christian faith provides no real compensation except a sense of the vulnerability of all nature. Stevens allowed Harriet Monroe to publish the poem with part 7 last, embedding part 8 earlier in the narrative. It would seem that be did not know exactly where he wanted the poem to go or how seriously he wanted the paganism to be taken. Paganism does offer a form of transcendence, whereas simple identification with the natural cycles does not. His choice of elegy over energy seems to negate the scene of the sun worshipers, which then appears artificial and contrived in contrast with the poem's ending.

. . . "Sunday Morning," . . . though it rings with memorable language and sober reflection, . . . ironically inverts heaven's reward and earth's satisfactions, the top and bottom of the hierarchy, rather than devising a new structuring principle. The poem's several subject positions all confront the divine and spiritual with the earthly and bodily. . . .
Section I illustrates the drift from an appreciation of the here and now to an eschatological-oriented belief. "Complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair" first instigate a metonymical and spatial movement. The epicurean woman's whole being is drawn toward another realm, as her "dreaming feet" lead her to the "silent Palestine" of Christ's sacrifice.

The final "Dominion of the blood and sepulchre," however, can also be seen as the transformation of the opening coffee and oranges and "sunny chair" induced by the resemblances of metaphor. The woman's sensuous comfort thus finds its analogue in a theological symbol that also has its origins in a bodily life—the wine-and-bread celebration of the Last Supper and the Son's interment.

Picking up the strand of Christ's "blood" and humanity, section III inserts Christ's birth into a double structure. On the one hand, it contains three implied narratives of each of the three divine engenderings. On the other hand, it is a condensed "history" of the evolution of religions: from Jove's motherless "inhuman birth," to the virgin birth of Christ and its "commingling" of our blood, to the possibility of a totally human version.

Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.

On the surface one might say with Adelaide Kirby Morris that given this pattern, the woman "must then admit the possibility of evolution from 'the thought of heaven' to a divinity that 'must live within herself"' of section Il. Yet even Jove is measured by the "human" standard of the "king," the negation of "inhuman" and "no mother," and the pun in "Large-mannered" (reutilized in "The Man With the Blue Guitar"). The narrative of the evolution of religion depends on personification. In addition, the human "hinds" situate Jove hierarchically. They return to recognize the "commingling" (a seemingly nonhierarchical word) of human and divine that defines Christianity, and thus reinforce the hierarchy of earth and "virginal" blood below, and "star" and "heaven" above. The third stage projects an anthropomorphized paradise into the future, leaving "earth" and "sky" in an ambiguous relation.

The hierarchical bias of religious metaphors seems most confining, however, in the implied narrative of each divinity's engendering. These are clustered around the series of representations of human motherhood that ends by integrating "labor" and "pain" (of both working the land and giving birth) into the speaker's imagined "paradise." The vocabulary of this final vision is redolent with double registers that point to a metaphorical contamination of what Kirby calls the divine "within" by a concern with divine origin in the "sky" and "blue" (Mary's color) of heaven, and the "glory" of paradisal splendor.

The semantic organization of the entire section keeps returning to the mutual imbrication of physical and divine, even as the section's statements tend to reject past versions of the birth of divine figures because of their vertical perspective. On the other hand, such verticality imbues the stanza's temporal logic. In the story of the expulsion from the earthly Garden of Eden, paradise is origin and first home, while in the promise of a return to God's presence, paradise is heaven but also end as purpose, not only Montaigne's bout but the but he disputed. The reverie of the eschatological "Dominion of blood and sacrifice" that closes section I foreshadows the absorption of the mothering metaphor of section III into a vision of end, in a final hope that the "sky will be much friendlier than now." The course of an individual human life, the fertile engendering by and of "our blood," is made subordinate to the eschatological "enduring love" to which it is compared but can no longer attain.

The comforting touch to "all our dreams / And our desires" is given by the adage "Death is the mother of beauty" in section V. This formulation is so hypnotizing that it imposes the "need for some imperishable bliss" even on maidens' love, the prelude to mothering. Death "makes the willow shiver in the sun," mingling the promise of death with the maidens' love here on earth. When the phrase "Death is the mother of beauty" is taken up again to close section VI, it introduces another conceptual difficulty: death is a "mystical" mother "Within whose burning bosom we devise / Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly."

Thus, although the section's image of paradise is an image of earth frozen in a stilled moment, the transcendent, not the earthly, is what preconditions the focus of our desires on the sensuous lives embodied in "Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly." If the personification of death as a mother is a "bosom"/matrix for actual ("earthly") mothers, it creates a vertical tautology equating death as mother of transformed versions of earth with the earth as the engenderer of stilled figurations of (death's) paradise. Each seems the superfluous mimesis of the other.

Neither do the dynamic relationships that follow in section VII seem to develop alternative metaphors or an alternative structure. Helen Vendler calls this section Stevens' "poem of the Gotterdammerung," a representation of "anachronistic primitivism" in which "prophecies of a new divinity are wistfully and even disbelievingly made."

Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.
Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;

The archaism of the scene brings us back to our ancestral source as well as to a possible archetypal image of sun worship (already latent in the "sunny chair" of section I). Although Harold Bloom praises this section for the "new order" created out of its "metaleptic reversals of the poem's prior figurations," an order in which followers of the Nietzschean god among man manifest both "origin and purpose," the "return" to the sky can also be read as a repetition of the impeding structure of hierarchicalness found in Stevens' other religious metaphors. The chant denotes idolatry, the submissive worship of a "lord."

Its figures are derivative of ancient myth and Judeo-Christian successors of it insofar as they enact stories of "blood," the blood of sacrifice in the chant "of paradise, / Out of their blood, returning to the sky," and the blood of reproductive transmission. Blood seems to be the "natural" but male metonymy of the sensuality and sensuousness of maternal "desire/s" of sections II and VI. The section is an ingrown expression of the larger poem's central figures. But the chief impediment to creating a new structure, it seems to me, is the tautological end implied in this disguised eschatology. Indeed, "returning to the sky" closes the circle of the chant's being "of" paradise—a chant about but also from paradise. For the returning chant originates in paradise as well as in the men's blood; it originates, in sum, in the metaphors men have constructed to form paradise.

Thus not only in minor poems but in this major work in Harmonium we find Stevens mining the old theological metaphors even as he tries to debunk them. This metaphor-making depends on "using religious forms to deny religious forms." Stevens' figures rely on anthropomorphism since earth provides the analogues for the divine order. Attempts in "Sunday Morning" to give form to a human-centered vision of sensuous pleasure end up relating them to engendering and dying and to God-centered, transcendent value.

The religious metaphors tend to merge the implicit life-narrative into a circle or tautology. Jove and paradise in section II and the return of "men that perish" in the sun's "summer morn" are products of our collective metaphor-making ability or our ability to create ensembles of resemblances. The earth's pleasures are imbricated in rhetorical substitutions that never form any independent pattern but can only deplete the divine by taking an ironic view of the earth as model, as in section VI, or by conceding domination to a metaphor of transcendent power that closes the trope in on itself, as in VII.

The family of metaphors centering on motherhood and unfolding to include earth-birth and paradise-death itself illustrates the repeated linkage of questions of origin with questions of end. Sections III, V, and VI exploit metaphors of motherhood, but since the coherence is built on earthly and human figurations in relation to heavenly value, and since the poem's initial female dreamer desires yet doubts the adequacy of the earth, the value of the very concepts of earthly and heavenly paradise are contaminated. The euphoric section VII, on the other hand, turns the speaker's metaphors back around heaven and summer, as though bound to a "source." On the rhetorical level, the rivalry between two hierarchies locks the figuration of death into tableaux that leave the hierarchies intact.

Stevens's search for a rhetoric more than fiction and a nature less than an external fate begins with "Sunday Morning" and its realignment of the Emersonian and romantic dualities. The poem mourns at once the loss of Christian and romantic mythologies, which offer versions of the same fusion of temporal and eternal realities. "Sunday Morning" does not judge religion to be a fiction and Christ to be but a man in order to exhort us to a species of nature worship. For Stevens portrays the world of sense impressions as a fantastic play of surfaces.

The painterly interior, the various trees and fruits, "April's green," and the cockatoo, swallows, and pigeons—birds represented, literary, or "observed"—all become equally phantasmal, passing like "things in some procession of the dead." In these terms, the sun-worshippers of stanza seven reduce to mere "personae of summer," their bookish status reinforced by Biblical imagery, for pantheism would be as foreign as the religion of Palestine when the sky itself is "isolated" and appears as alien as the "icy Elysee" seems to a temporal speaker.

The poem proceeds by contrasting the surfaces and the depths of things: the surfaces of nature—its false flicks and forms, its rhetoric—contrast with its depths, which turn out to be internal to the subject. A "wide water" silently flows below the welter of visible and audible phenomena, and, in contrast to the sensory experience of surfaces, this archetypal river of the unconscious carries the truth of "blood." The river of meditation courses to death—the "dominion of the blood and sepulchre"—and to erotic reveries of "supple and turbulent" men; Christian and romantic mythologies only code its natural course.

Thus Stevens dislocates the Emersonian alignment of nature with fate and the mind with freedom. The imagistic contrast of light and dark in the first stanza corresponds to the thematic contrast of freedom and fate, life and death, rhetoric and truth, the claims of the life of the senses and the life of the mind. It is nature and its sensuous attractions that are free, and their extravagant, ornamental "rhetoric" cannot satisfy the mind. For the mind and its course of meditation give us access to the truth of Eros and Thanatos.

In Stevens's realignment, the mind alone knows nature: an undomesticated nature that is more than "a widow's bird" is accessible only in the meditation of the "virile" poet. When Stevens announces, "Death is the mother of beauty," he is talking not only about the changes in nature that constitute its rhetorical appeal to the senses—senses equipped to register and take pleasure in change—but about the truth of the mind. For the seasonal repetitions of nature are temporal changes and intimate death only to the human consciousness, and these temporal changes open up the mental space of remembrance and anticipation, of memory and desire (stanza 4), of poetry and its measures. Death is the mother of the imagination—of the mind and memory, the "muttering" that engenders "myths" in the "burning bosom" of a destructive mother. The final stanza reaffirms this alignment:

We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.

Our dependence on the "chaos" of natural processes, our "freedom" from sponsoring deities, and our being constituted "of that wide water" are grammatical appositives and substantive equivalents. The "wide water" is the "wide water" of stanza 1—the inseparable and inescapable concourse of Eros, death, and meditation that constitutes us and our freedom. In linking the mind with death, Stevens is able to displace the terms of the Emersonian debate: freedom and fate are no longer aligned with the subject and object. Stevens's existential project is to show that our freedom is our fate, our discourse is our nature, our imagination is our destruction.

"Sunday Morning" also marks the beginning of Stevens's stylistic development beyond the reductive dichotomy of rhetoric and meters that arrested Emerson's growth as a poet. In Stevens, the discursive and the Orphic modes are not polar opposites but inflections of the same conventional, exoteric, poetic voice.

The range and flexibility of Stevens's diction and blank verse enable him to incorporate the course of nature and the discourse of the mind in the same internal monologue. In the first stanza of "Sunday Morning," for example, he signals the shift from observation to meditation with a switch in diction from polysyllabic, Latinate words to one- or two-syllable, Anglo-Saxon words; with vocalic modulations from front or "light" vowels to back or "dark" vowels; with metrical variations like the increased use of trochees and spondees; and with an insistence on alliteration, assonance, and repetition:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

The fatal truth has been internalized as an inflection of a poetic language that traces the course of an explicitly eccentric and inherently rhetorical meditation.

The language of "Sunday Morning" remains nostalgic, however, and Stevens has difficulty in developing a form that does not rely on the "magnificent measure" of the English romantics yet can register the truth of rhetoric, the centrality of an explicitly eccentric poetic language. His development of a language both exoteric and central leads through an excessively rhetorical style that remains merely exoteric and thus is ironic about its decorative excesses. "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle," for example, engages this issue.

Isabel G. MacCaffrey writes that the methodology of the poem, as well as its subject, addresses the "relationship between opaque, visceral depths and dazzling verbal surfaces," and she suggests that the poem rejects its own rhetoric as "inadequate, bombastic, bland, or self-deceiving," so that another, counter "meaning" can be apprehended "behind the words," which is the "wordless world" of Eros and Thanatos. Stevens's rejection of his own rhetoricity comes in the lines
which pass judgment:

Last night, we sat beside a pool of pink,
Clippered with lilies scudding the bright chromes,
Keen to the point of starlight, while a frog
Boomed from his very belly odious chords.

In Harold Bloom's words, on "all amorous diction." Nevertheless, however inadequate it may be to Eros, rhetoric remains the necessary substitution by which love becomes love, for even the chords of the frog's mating call are natural substitutions for the "foremost law":

If sex were all, then every trembling hand
Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.
But note the unconscionable treachery of fate,
That makes us weep, laugh, grunt and groan, and shout
Doleful heroics, pinching gestures forth

The "foremost law" is itself apprehended in and as substitution. If we are fated, we are fated to substitute one thing for another, to remain at the edge, and to play with words—"le monocle de mon oncle"—stringing together metaphoric or phonetic substitutions. For the poem demonstrates that no one language is more natural or less rhetorical than another.
"This final movement of the poem, in contrast to the stasis of its beginning, is bridged by a passage at the very middle of the poem:

nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endured; or will endure
Like her remembrance of wakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

Taken it itself, the passage is truly beautiful. In autumn, when the swallows are sweeping through the air, gathering for their flight away from "their warm fields," the woman experiences a desire "for June and evening," for the time when she could take for granted the presence of "awakened birds" the next morning.

Thus the joy of "June and evening" which she desires and the joy of "April’s green" are torn by the poignancy of her sense that what she desires is absent and that the birds in autumn are about to be gone. The fixed spread of the cockatoo’s wings upon a rug has been transformed to a true consummation, the spread of the swallow’s wing as it reaches the peak of its upward movement. Implicit in this consummation is her recollection of birds that were just beginning to fly, wakened birds, testing "the reality / Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings"; and ominous in this consummation is her sense that it will be followed by the movement at the end of the poem, a movement "Downward to darkness, on extended wings."

Every passage in the poem, for that matter, is pregnant with the sense that one can experience beauty, can love a thing or person, only if he at the same time experiences the painful sense that the loss of that thing or person is imminent, that its mortality is a quality immanent in its living presence. It is Death that

makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.

These maidens have been caught up in the dreamy daze of the immediate present, very like the woman who was taking her "late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair." They sat upon the grass, their arms about their knees, gazing at the grass at their feet, relinquished after they had gathered it or simply because they are forgetting it in their dreaminess.

The shiver of the willow, willow, willow, however, brings the chill death into their presence and even the sun turns cold with the imminence of death. Unlike the woman in her sunny chair, they are ripe for love, they will taste not late oranges but new plums and pears offered them by their lovers, and they will "stray impassioned in the littering leaves," loving and loveable because feeling their oneness with "the leaves of sure obliteration."

Even the chant of the ring of supple and turbulent men, expressing their boisterous devotion to the sun, is quite different from any primitivism or barbarism based upon a mere acceptance of sensual indulgence as an ultimate good. Their devotion to the sun, unlike the comforts of the sun cherished by the woman in her sunny chair, is dependent on their mutual sense of frailty, on their constant sense that they will perish, on their feeling that their strength is as fragile, as delicate, as transient, as the dew upon their feet. They chant in orgy, it is true; but a part of their chant is the echoing hills "That choir among themselves long afterward." And those choirs of dying echoes establish a oneness between the men with their chant and the pigeons in their descent "Downward to darkness on extended wings."


Beverly Maeder. Wallace Stevens' Experimental Language: The Lion in the Lute. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Janet McCann. Wallace Stevens revisited: "The Celestial Possible."
Merle E. Brown, Wallace Stevens: The Poem as Act. Detroit: Wayne S U P, 1970.
Mutlu Konuk Blasing. American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Critical Analysis of Robert Frost's "Birches"

"Birches" (“Mountain Interval”, 1916) does not center on a regularly encountered and revealing natural scene; rather, it effectively builds a mosaic of thoughts from fragments of memory and fantasy. Its vividness and genial, bittersweet speculation help make it one of Frost's most popular poems, and because its shifts of metaphor and tone invite varying interpretation it has also received much critical discussion. The poem moves back and forth between two visual perspectives: birch trees as bent by boys' playful swinging and by ice storms, the thematic interweaving being somewhat puzzling. The birches bent "across the lines of straighter darker trees" subtly introduce the theme of imagination and will opposing darker realities.

Then, almost a third of the poem describes how ice storms bend these trees permanently, unlike the action of boys; this scene combines images of beauty and of distortion. Ice shells suggest radiating light and color, and the trees bowed to the level of the bracken, suggest suffering, which is immediately lightened by the strange image of girls leaning their hair toward the sun as if in happy submission.

The fallen "inner dome of heaven" alludes to Shelley's "dome of many colored glass" to suggest the shattering of the ideal into everyday reality. Frost's speaker then self-consciously breaks from his realistic but metaphorically fantasied digression to say he would prefer to have some boy bend the birches, which action becomes a symbol for controlled experience, as contrasted with the genial fatality of ice storms. The boy's fancied playfulness substitutes for unavailable companionship, making for a thoughtful communion with nature, which rather than teach him wisdom allows him to learn it. Despite the insistence on the difference between ice storms' permanent damage to birches and a boy's temporary effects, the boy subdues and conquers the trees. His swinging is practice for maintaining life's difficult and precarious balances.

The third part of the poem begins with a more personal and philosophical tone. The speaker claims to have been such a youthful swinger of birches, an activity he can go back to only by dreaming. The birch trees, probably both ice-bent and boy-swung, stand for the order and control missing from ordinary experience. The "considerations" he is weary of are conflicting claims that leave him disoriented and stung. The desire to "get away from earth," importantly qualified by "awhile," shows a yearning for the ideal or perhaps for the imaginative isolation of the birch swinger. His "I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree ... / Toward heaven" suggests leaving earth, but he reveals by his quick apologetic claim that he doesn't mean that. He wants to be dipped down again toward earth, but the pursuit of the ideal by going sounds like death, as his quick apology acknowledges. Frost does less in this poem than in "After Apple-Picking" to suggest a renewed pursuit of the ideal in life rather than a yielding to death. His main pursuit is continual balance between reality and ideality.

In "Birches" Frost begins to probe the power of his redemptive imagination as it moves from its playful phase toward the brink of dangerous transcendence. The movement into transcendence is a movement into a realm of radical imaginative freedom where (because redemption has succeeded too well) all possibilities of engagement with the common realities of experience are dissolved. In its moderation, a redemptive consciousness motivates union between selves as we have seen in "The Generations of Men," or in any number of Frost's love poems. But in its extreme forms, redemptive consciousness can become self-defeating as it presses the imaginative man into deepest isolation.

"Birches" begins by evoking its core image against the background of a darkly wooded landscape:

When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy's been swinging them.

But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice storms do.

The pliable, malleable quality of the birch tree captures the poet's attention and kicks off his meditation. Perhaps young boys don't bend birches down to stay, but swing them they do and thus bend them momentarily. Those "straighter, darker trees," like the trees of "Into My Own" that "scarcely show the breeze," stand ominously free from human manipulation, menacing in their irresponsiveness to acts of the will. The malleability of the birches is not total, however, and the poet is forced to admit this fact into the presence of his desire, like it or not. The ultimate shape of mature birch trees is the work of objective natural force, not human activity. Yet after conceding the boundaries of imagination's subjective world, the poet seems not to have constricted himself but to have been released.

Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning

After a rain. They click upon themselves

As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells

Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust--

Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away

You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

Fascinated as he is by the show of loveliness before him, and admiring as be is of nature as it performs the potter's art, cracking and crazing the enamel of ice coating on the birch trees, it is not finally the thing itself (the ice-coated trees) that interests the poet but the strange association be is tempted to make: "You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen." Certainly there is no question of belief involved here.

The linkage of the scientifically discredited medieval sphere with the heaps of cracked ice suggests rather the poet's need to break beyond the rigid standard of empirical truth, that he himself has already allowed into the poem, and faintly suggests as well the kind of apocalyptic destruction that the imagination seeks when unleashed (the idea that the inner dome has been smashed clearly pleases the speaker). Eventually Frost in "Birches" comes round to exploring in much more sophisticated ways the complex problem broached by this statement from a later poem, "On Looking Up By Chance At the Constellations":

The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,
Nor strike out fire from each other, nor crash out loud.

The planets seem to interfere in their curves,

But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.

We may as well go patiently on with our life,

And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun

For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.

In "Birches" Frost looks not to natural catastrophe for those "shocks and changes" that "keep us sane" but to his resources as a poet:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

Manipulating the simile, the overt figure of comparison, is a dangerous ploy for the poet, implying often that be does not have the courage of his vision and does not believe that his mode of language can generate a distinctive perspective on experience. For Frost, however, and for any poet who is rooted in what I call the aesthetics of the fiction., the simile is the perfect figure of comparison, subtler even than metaphor. Its overtness becomes its virtue: in its insistence on the disparateness of the things compared (as well as their likeness) it can sustain a divided vision; can at once transmute the birches--for a brief moment nature stands humanized and the poet has transcended the scientific universe--and, at the same time, can allow the fictive world to be penetrated by the impurities of experience that resist the transmutative process of imagination. It is at such moments as this in Frost's work that the strategies and motives of a poetry of play are revealed. There is never any intention of competing with science, and therefore, there is no problem at all (as we generally sense with many modern poets and critics) of claiming a special cognitive value for poetry.

In his playful and redemptive mode, Frost's motive for poetry is not cognitive but psychological in the sense that he is willfully seeking to bathe his consciousness and, if the reader consents, his reader's as well, in a free-floating, epistemologically unsanctioned vision of the world which, even as it is undermined by the very language in which it is anchored, brings a satisfaction of relief when contemplated. It may be argued that the satisfaction is greatest when it is autonomous: the more firmly the poet insists upon the severance of his vision from the order of things as they are and the more clearly that be makes no claim for knowledge, the emotive power of the poem may emerge uncontaminated by the morass of philosophical problems that are bound to dog him should he make claims for knowledge. Both poet and reader may submerge themselves without regret (because without epistemological pretension) in aesthetic illusion.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter of fact about the ice storm,

I should prefer to have some boy bend them

As he went out and in to fetch the cows--

Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,

Whose only play was what be found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.

The shrewdness in Frost's strategy now surfaces. While claiming to have paid homage to the rigid standards of empirical truth in his digression on the ice-loaded branches, what he has actually done is to digress into the language of fictions. When he turns to the desired vision of the young boy swinging birches, he is not, as he says, turning from truth to fiction, but from one kind of fiction to another kind of fiction: from the fiction of cosmic change and humanized nature to the fiction of the human will riding roughshod over a pliable external world. And the motives for all of this fooling? I think there are two: one is that Frost intends to fox his naturalistically persuaded readers; a second is that this is what his poem is all about--the thrusting of little fictions within alien, antifictive contexts. As he evokes the image of the boy, playing in isolation, too far from the community to engage in a team kind of sport, he evokes, as well, his cherished theme of the imaginative man who, essentially alone in the world, either makes it or doesn't on the strength of his creative resources. And now he indulges to the full the desired vision that be could not allow himself in the poem's opening lines:

One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again Until he took the stiffness out of them, And not one but hung limp, not one was left For him to conquer. He learned all there was To learn about not launching out too soon And so not carrying the tree away Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise To the top branches, climbing carefully With the same pains you use to fill a cup Up to the brim, and even above the brim. Then be flung outward, feet first, with a swish, Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

One figure seems to imply another--the image of the farm youth swinging up, out, and down to earth again recalls the boyhood of the poet:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig's having lashed across it open.

For anyone but Frost the "pathless wood" is trite. But for him it carries a complex of meaning fashioned elsewhere. The upward swinging of the boy becomes an emblem for imagination's swing away from the tangled, dark wood; a swing away from the "straighter, darker trees"; a swing into the absolute freedom of isolation, the severing of all "considerations." This is the transcendental phase of redemptive consciousness, a game that one plays alone. The downward movement of redemptive imagination to earth, contrarily, is a movement into community, engagement, love--the games that two play together:

I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

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.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk,
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

One really has no choice but to be a swinger of birches. In the moment when, catapulting upward, the poet is half-granted his wish, when transcendence is about to be complete and the self, in its disdain for earth, has lofted itself into absolute autonomy, nothing having any claim upon it, and no return possible, then, at that moment,, the blessed pull of the earth is felt again, and the apocalypse desired by a transcending imagination, which seemed so imminent, is repressed.

At the end of "Birches" a precious balance has been restored between the claims of a redeeming imagination in its extreme, transcendent form, and the claims of common sense reality. To put it in another way, the psychic needs of change--supplied best by redemptive imagination--are balanced by the equally deep psychic need--supplied by skeptical ironic awareness--for the therapy of dull realities and everyday considerations.

The philosophy articulated in "Birches" poses no threat to popular values or beliefs, and it is so appealingly affirmative that many readers have treasured the poem as a masterpiece. Among Frost's most celebrated works, perhaps only "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" ranks ahead of it. Yet to critics like Brooks and Squires, the persona's philosophical stance in "Birches" is a serious weakness.

The didactic and philosophical element that some critics have attacked strikes others as the very core of Frost's virtue. Perhaps impartial observers can accept the notion that "Birches" is neither as bad as its harshest opponents suggest nor as good as its most adoring advocates claim. "Birches" . . . contains three fairly lengthy descriptions that do not involve unusual perspectives.

In fact, the most original and distinctive vision in the poem--the passage treating the ice on the trees --is undercut both by the self-consciousness of its final line ("You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen") and by the two much more conventionally perceived environments that follow it: the rural boyhood of the swinger of birches and the "pathless wood," which represents life's "considerations". As a result, the poem's ardent concluding lines--its closing pronouncements on life, death, and human aspiration--do not arise from a particular experience. Instead, they are presented as doctrines that we must accept or reject on the basis of our credence in the speaker as a wise countryman whose familiarity with birch trees, ice storms, and pathless woods gives him authority as a philosopher.

Since in "Birches" the natural object--tree, ice crystal, pathless wood, etc.--functions as proof of the speaker's rusticity, Frost has no need for extraordinary perspectives, and therefore the poem does little to convince us that an "experience," to use Langbaum's words, "is really taking place, that the object is seen and not merely remembered from a public or abstract view of it." This is not to deny that the poem contains some brilliant descriptive passages (especially memorable are the clicking, cracking, shattering ice crystals in lines 7-11 and the boy's painstaking climb and sudden, exhilarating descent in lines 35-40), and without doubt, the closing lines offer an engaging exegesis of swinging birches as a way of life.

But though we learn a great deal about this speaker's beliefs and preferences, we find at last that he has not revealed himself as profoundly as does the speaker in "After Apple-Picking." It is remarkable that the verb "to like," which does not appear in Frost's non-dramatic poetry prior to "Birches," is used three times in this poem: "I like to think";"I'd like to get away"; and "I'd like to go". The speaker also tells us what he would "prefer", "dream of", and "wish". But while his preferences are generally appealing, and while they seem intellectually justified, they are not poetically justified in the sense that Langbaum suggests when he discusses the "extraordinary perspective" as a "sign that the experience is really taking place": "The experience has validity just because it is dramatized as an event which we must accept as having taken place, rather than formulated as an idea with which we must agree or disagree".

Unlike the contemplative lyrics Frost selected for North of Boston, however, "Birches" does not present a central dramatized event as a stimulus for the speaker's utterance. Although the conclusion seems sincere, and although Frost created a persuasive metaphorical context for it, the final sentiments do not grow dramatically out of the experiences alluded to. Yes, the speaker has observed ice storms that bend the birches "down to stay", he has "learned all there is / To learn" about swinging birches and he has struggled through the "considerations" of life's "pathless wood".

But the relationship of these experiences to his present utterance--the poem--is left unclear. We would be more willing to accept what Squires calls a "contradictory jumble" of images and ideas if we were convinced (as Eliot and Pound often convince us) that the diverse materials had coalesced in the speaker's mind. Frost's confession that the poem was "two fragments soldered together" is revealing; the overt, affected capriciousness of the transitions between major sections of the poem indicates that instead of striving to establish the dynamics of dramatized experience, he felt he could rely on the force of his speaker's personality and rural background.

It may seem arbitrary to press too hard the issue of honesty in this poem. Art, after all, relies on fantasy and deception. Yet there are different types of fantasy and many motives for deception. If we are confident that an artist has kept faith with some personal vision or inner self, we can accept falsification of many things. When Frost presents himself as a farm worker, for instance a mower wielding his scythe or apple picker resting his weary body--the fantasy seems sincere and convincing. When we consider Frost's career and personal history, however, we may wonder about his motives in falsifying the character of his childhood. The resulting images lack originality and inspiration. Surely "Birches" contains some vivid and forceful passages, but when a line or phrase gives us too strong a sense of the poet's calculated effort to validate his speaker's rusticity, the spell of the poem, its incantatory charm and imaginative vision, is threatened. Fortunately, in "Birches" this threat is hardly noticeable, certainly not overwhelming or repellent, unless we want it to be.

The first twenty lines of "Birches" clearly hint at Promethean tendencies. The poem is set at that time of the natural year which most suggests imaginative stirrings: the springtime moment in the imagination's life when it begins to rouse itself from winter lethargy. Though immobilized by their wintry covering of ice, as the Eolian "breeze rises" the birches move "and turn many-colored / As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel." "Soon," warmed by the sun, they "shed crystal shells," like the human beings of "Sand Dunes" casting off dead external coverings to take on new shapes and new vitality. The evidences of that spiritual molting, as many have noted, echo the Promethean outreach of ‘Adonais’: "Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away / You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen." And, though the birches are permanently "bowed" by the ice storm, they remain suggestive of aspiration: "You may see their trunks arching in the woods / Years afterwards," still straining toward that inner dome of heaven.

In the poem's central fiction, Frost adroitly converts the birches from emblems of Promethean aspiration to emblems of natural fact conquered by that aspiration. Rather than an ice storm, the poet "should prefer to have some boy bend" the birches; this fictive explanation represents more clearly the central presence of human activity, and human domination of the natural ("One by one he subdued his father's trees"). The comparison used to describe the care which the boy takes in climbing to the very "top branches" of the birches—"climbing carefully / With the same pains you use to fill a cup / Up to the brim, and even above the brim "—reminds us that this is not only a poem about trees but a celebration of spiritual thirst.

But, in the last third of the poem, where he explicitly reads in the act of swinging birches a lesson for the governance of one's imaginative life, Frost draws back from the Prometheanism implied earlier in the poem: "I'd like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over." As that latter line suggests, the visionary assertion of "Birches" is ultimately less extreme than that of "Wild Grapes." As Richard Wilbur notes, the echoes of Shelley in this poem are ultimately used to argue against Shelley's Prometheanism: "’Birches,’ taken as a whole, is in fact an answer to Shelley's kind of boundless neo-Platonic aspiration".The famous closing lines of the poem clearly move toward a reconciliation of human aspiration and earthly reality .The poet hopes that "no fate" will "willfully misunderstand" him "And half grant what I wish and snatch me away / Not to return. Earth's the right place for love."

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

The proper role of the mind or spirit is seen here, not as a conquest of the natural, not as a transcending of earth or a "steering straight off after something into space," but as an integral part of a larger process of give and take, "launching out" and return. The young girl in "Wild Grapes," because of her "not knowing anything" about "letting go," about accommodating natural fact, is carried off by the birch in that poem like a fish caught by a fish pole. The mature speaker of "Birches," on the other hand, knows how to use natural fact to reach its uppermost limits, to climb "Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more," but then to accept the end of the trip and be returned by the tree in a kind of cooperative effort. The imagination here again asserts its freedom and autonomy by dominating natural fact; but then, refreshed by that flexing of imaginative muscle, it "comes back" to natural fact to "begin over," now willing to accept the different but also "almost incredible freedom," as Frost puts it elsewhere, of being "enslaved to the hard facts of experience".

Such a return or reconciliation would, for Blake or Shelley, amount to surrender. But Frost, like most other American nature writers, does not suggest Blake's or Shelley's kind of inevitable struggle to the death between imaginative perception and natural fact. Like Emerson in his more restrained moods, Frost believes that, in the final analysis, the two forces are capable of cooperating to achieve meaning.

Frank Lentricchia. Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self.
George F. Bagby. Frost and the Book of Nature.
John C. Kemp. Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist.
Mordecai Marcus. The Poems of Robert Frost: an explication.

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