Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The reader will notice along with this that the first line consists entirely of monosyllables. Typically, monosyllabic lines are difficult to scan, yet Frost, having written the poem almost entirely in monosyllables demonstrates by this his technical prowess, as the poem scans in perfect iambic tetrameter. And so, any lack of certainty we might first suspect is smoothed over by this regular rhythm. Frost, likewise, stabilizes the poem by the rhyme scheme of aaba/ bbcb/ ccdc/ dddd, without a single forced rhyme. This combination of regular rhythms and rhymes produces a pleasant hypnotic effect, which only increases as the poem progresses. The poem moves from a more conversational tone to the charming effect that characterizes the ending. The language does indeed demonstrate this change: we move from the colloquial "His house is in the village though" to the poetic "Of easy wind and downy flake// The woods are lovely, dark and deep."
The duality of the narrator's response to the woods is caught in the contrast between the relaxed, conversational idiom of the first three lines (note the gentle emphasis given to ‘think', the briskly colloquial ‘though') and the dream-like descriptive detail and hypnotic verbal music ('watch . . . woods', 'his . . . fill . . . with') of the last. Clearing and wilderness, law and freedom, civilization and nature, fact and dream: these oppositions reverberate throughout American writing. And they are registered here in Frost's own quietly ironic contrast between the road along which the narrator travels, connecting marketplace to marketplace, promoting community and culture - and the white silence of the woods, where none of the ordinary limitations of the world seem to apply. In a minor key, they are caught also in the implicit comparison between the owner of these woods, who apparently regards them as a purely financial investment (he lives in the village) and the narrator who sees them, at least potentially, as a spiritual one.
This contrast between what might be termed, rather reductively perhaps, 'realistic' and 'romantic' attitudes is then sustained through the next two stanzas: the commonsensical response is now playfully attributed to the narrator's horse which, like any practical being, wants to get on down the road to food and shelter. The narrator himself, however, continues to be lured by the mysteries of the forest just as the Romantic poets were lured by the mysteries of otherness, sleep and death. And, as before, the contrast is a product of tone and texture as much as dramatic intimation: the poem communicates its debate in how it says things as much as in what it says.
So, the harsh gratings and abrupt movement of lines like, 'He gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake', give verbal shape to the matter-of-fact attitude attributed to the horse, just as the soothing sibilants and gently rocking motion of the lines that follow this ('The only other sound's the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake') offer a tonal equivalent of the strange, seductive world into which the narrator is tempted to move. 'Everything that is written', Frost once said, 'is as good as it is dramatic'; and in a poem like this the words of the poem become actors in the drama.
The final stanza of 'Stopping by Woods' does not resolve its tensions; on the contrary, it rehearses them in particularly memorable language.
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.
Having paid tribute to the dangerous seductiveness of the woods, the narrator seems to be trying to shake himself back into commonsense reality by invoking his 'promises' or mundane responsibilities. The last line is repeated, however; and while at first it seems little more than a literal reference to the journey he has to complete (and so a way of telling himself to continue on down the road), the repetition gives it particular resonance. This could, after all, be a metaphorical reference to the brief span of human life and the compulsion this puts the narrator under to take risks and explore the truth while he can. Only a few 'miles' to go before 'I sleep' in death: such a chilling memento mori perhaps justifies stopping by the woods in the first place and considering the spiritual quest implicit in the vision they offer. Perhaps: the point is that neither narrator nor reader can be sure.
'The poem is the act of having the thought', Frost insisted; it is process rather than product, it invites us to share in the experiences of seeing, feeling, and thinking, not simply to look at their results. So the most a piece like 'Stopping by Woods' will offer - and it is a great deal - is an imaginative resolution of its tensions: the sense that its conflicts and irresolution have been given appropriate dramatic expression, revelation and equipoise.
If there is any generalization that is apt to describe Frost’s poetics, it is that his characters are almost always of two minds. John Ogilvie has noted the slight contrast between the speaker’s public obligations and his private will. The speaker, we may assume, is "half in love with easeful death." Yet, though the poem is an interior monologue, the speaker does not look inward; rather, he focuses on recreating in his imagination the sense of his surroundings. Indeed, he seems much more conscious of his surroundings than he is of the inner-workings of his mind (which, at least for the reader remain nearly as inscrutable as the dark woods). In such a way, the speaker by implication hints that the outer-wilderness corresponds to his inner one.
This is of course most evident in the final refrain in which the outward journey becomes a symbol for his inner journey, but it is furthered by the concentration on his perception of his surroundings; in other words, by opening his mind to the surroundings rather than sealing it off in self-referential language, he becomes what he beholds.
It is to be observed that "woods" is mentioned four times in the poem. Along with this one should also note that "I" is mentioned five times. These two realities, the subjective and the objective, are merged over the course of the poem. Such that, while the speaker focuses almost exclusively on the physical fact of his surroundings, he is at the same time articulating his own mental landscape, which seems ever-intent "to fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget." There is in the end the uncertainty in choosing between his death impulse and his desire to continue on the road of life. Which wins in the end, I think I know, but it scarcely matters; the speaker has had his solitary vision; whether he stays or goes, the woods will go with him and the reader, who are now well-acquainted with the coming night.
One of Frost's characteristic devices is to set up and undermine a case of the pathetic fallacy in such a way that both construction and collapse stay actively in play. In "Stopping by Woods," the undermining nearly precedes the setting up. "Must" gives the game away, as the speaker (exercising indeterminacy) interferes with the reality he observes, imposing his thoughts and feelings on it. "Darkest" contributes to the pattern. Is the evening, say, the winter solstice, literally darkest? Could it be, given the way that snow concentrates light? Or is "darkest" a judgment the speaker projects? In the next stanza, the speaker's "reading into" nature intensifies to the point where harness bells "actually" speak. Then, as if to emphasize that such speaking is a human addition to a speechless scene, we hear that the only other sound is the "sweep" of light wind on softly falling snow.
Those two categories of evidence, the self-consciously imposed and therefore suspect yet understandable human one, and the apparently indifferent yet comfortingly beautiful natural one, seem to produce the description of the woods as "lovely" and "dark and deep," a place of both (dangerous) attraction and (self-protective) threat. The oppositions are emphasized by Frost's intended punctuation—a comma after "lovely"; none after "dark," and the double doubleness of attraction and threat complicates the blunt "But" that begins the next line. Which woods, if any, is being rejected? How far does recalling that one has "promises to keep" go toward keeping them in fact?
The poem's formal qualities, while not obviously "experimental," also contribute to its balancing act. The closing repetition emphasizes the speaker's commitment to his responsibilities. It also emphasizes the repetitive tedium that makes the woods an attractive alternative to those responsibilities. This leaves open the question of just how much arguing is left to be done before any action is taken. The rhyme scheme contributes to the play. Its linked pattern seems completed and resolved in the final stanza, underlining the effect of closure: aaba, bbcb, ccdc, dddd. But is a repeated word a rhyme? Is the resolution excessive; does the repeated line work as a sign of forced closure?
None of this is resolved; it is kept in complementary suspension. Similarly, the poem is clearly a made thing, an object or artifact, as its formal regularities attest; it is also an event in continuous process, as its present participial title announces and as the present tense employed throughout suggests. At the same time, the poem has a narrative thrust that tempts us to see the speaker move on (even though he apparently does not). Balancing, unbalancing, rebalancing, those acts are the life and soul of the poem; the act of the poet making it and the reader taking it.
In the phrase "lovely, dark and deep"; the loveliness partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous. The recognition of the power of nature, especially of snow, to obliterate the limits and boundaries of things and of his own being is, in large part, a function here of some furtive impulse toward extinction, an impulse no more predominate in Frost than it is in nature. It is in him, nonetheless, anxious to be acknowledged, and it significantly qualifies any tendency he might have to become a poet whose descriptive powers, however botanically or otherwise accurate, would be used to deny the mysterious blurrings of time and place which occur whenever he finds himself somehow participating in the inhuman transformations of the natural world.
Frost's emphasis on the dramatic and on the contestation of voices to find the best in poetry was an attempt to realize a need for self-possession rather than anything else. That need is in many ways the subject of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." As its opening words suggest--"Whose woods these are I think I know"--it is a poem concerned with ownership and also with someone who cannot be or does not choose to be very emphatic even about owning himself. He does not want or expect to be seen. And his reason, aside from being on someone else's property, is that it would apparently be out of character for him to be there, communing alone with a woods fast filling up with snow. He is, after all, a man of business who has promised his time, his future to other people. It would appear that he is not only a scheduled man but a fairly cordial one.
He knows who owns which parcels of land, or thinks he does, and his language has a sort of pleasant neighborliness, as in the phrase "stopping by." It is no wonder that his little horse would think his actions "queer" or that he would let the horse, instead of himself, take responsibility for the judgment. He is in danger of losing himself; and his language by the end of the third stanza begins to carry hints of a seductive luxuriousness unlike anything preceding it--"Easy wind and downy flake . . . lovely, dark and deep."
Even before the sleepy and drowsy repetition of the last two lines, the narrator is ready to drop off. His opening question about who owns the woods becomes, because of the very absence from the poem of any man "too exactly himself," a question of whether the woods are to "own" him. With the drowsy repetitiousness of rhymes in the last stanza, four in a row, it takes some optimism to be sure that (thanks mostly to his little horse, who makes the only assertive sound in the poem) he will be able to keep his promises. At issue, of course, is really whether or not he will be able to "keep" his life.
Credits: Richard Gray, American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, Richard Poirier, Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing and Clint Stevens.
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Monday, September 28, 2009
"Mending Wall"' is the opening poem of Frost's second volume, North of Boston. "Mending Wall" dramatizes the emancipating imagination in its playful phase, guided surely and confidently by a man who has his world under full control, who in his serenity is riding his realities, not being shocked by them into traumatic response. "Mending Wall" in the structure of North of Boston suggests, in its sharp contrasts to the dark tones of some of the major poems in the volume, the psychological necessity of sustaining imaginative 'supreme fictions'.
The opening lines evoke the coy posture of the shrewd imaginative man who understands the words of the farmer in 'The Mountain": "All the fun's in how you say a thing,"
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends a frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
It does not take more than one reading of the poem to understand that the speaker is not a country primitive who is easily spooked by the normal processes of nature. He knows very well what it is "that doesn't love a wall" (frost, of course). His fun lies in not naming it. And in not naming the scientific truth he is able to manipulate intransigent fact into the world of the mind where all things are pliable. The artful vagueness of the phrase "Something there is" is enchanting and magical, suggesting even the bushed tones of reverence before mystery in nature. And the speaker (who is not at all reverent toward nature) consciously works at deepening that sense of mystery:
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they would have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
The play of the mature, imaginative man is grounded in ironic awareness--and must be. Even as he excludes verifiable realities from his fictive world the unmistakable tone of scorn for the hunters comes seeping through. He may step into a fictive world but not before glancing back briefly at the brutality that attends upon the play of others. Having paid for his imaginaive excursions by establishing his complex awareness, he is free to close the magic circle cast out by his playful energies, and close out the world reported by the senses ("No one has seen them made or heard them made"). In knowing how to say a thing in and through adroit linguistic manipulation, the fiction of the "something" that doesn't love a wall is created; the imagined reality stands formed before him, ready to be entered.
Like the selves dramatized in "Going For Water" and "The Tuft of Flowers," this persona would prefer not to be alone in his imaginative journey:
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.”
If the fact of a broken wall is excuse enough to make a fiction about why it got that way, then that same fact may be the occasion for two together to take a journey in the mind. For those still tempted to read "Mending Wall" as political allegory (the narrator standing for a broad-minded liberal internationalism, the thick-headed second speaker representing a selfish super-patriot) they must first face the line "I let my neighbor know beyond the hill." "Mending Wall" has nothing to do with one-world political ideals, with good or bad neighbor policies: on this point the title of the poem is helpful. It is a poem that celebrates a process, not the thing itself. It is a poem, furthermore, that distinguishes between two kinds of people: one who seizes the particular occasion of mending as fuel for the imagination and as a release from the dull ritual of work each spring an one who is trapped by work and by the New England past as it comes down to him in the form of his father's cliché. Tied as he is to his father's words that "Good fences make good neighbors," the neighbor beyond the hill is committed to an end, the fence's completion.
His participation in the process of rebuilding is sheer work--he never plays the outdoor game. The narrator, however, is not committed to ends, but to the process itself which he sees as having non-utilitarian value: "There where it is we do not need the wall." The process itself is the matrix of the play that redeems work by transforming it into the pleasure of an outdoor game in which you need to cast spells to make rocks balance. Overt magic-making is acceptable in the world of this poem because we are governed by the narrator's perspective; we are in the fictive world where all things are possible, where walls go tumbling for mysterious reasons. Kant's theory that work and the aesthetic activity are antagonistic, polar activities of man is, in effect, disproven, as the narrator makes work take on the aesthetic dimension. The real differences between the two people in the poem is that one moves in a world of freedom; aware of the resources of the mind, he nurtures the latent imaginative power within himself and makes it a factor in everyday living; while the other, unaware of the value of imagination, must live his unliberated life without it. And this difference makes a difference in the quality of the life lived.
The narrator of "Mending Wall" does not give up easily: he tries again to tempt his neighbor to enter into the fictive world with him and to share his experience of play:
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself.
All to no avail: the outrageously appropriate pun on "offense"--a linguistic emblem of the poem's spirit of play and freedom--falls on deaf ears. The neighbor won't say "elves," those little folk who don't love a wall; he will not enter the play world of imagination. He moves in "darkness," our narrator concludes, "like an old-stone savage armed." The characterization is philosophically precise in the logic of post-Kantian aesthetics; the recalcitrant and plodding neighbor is a slave to the rituals of the quotidian, a primitive whose spirit has not been freed by the artistic consciousness that lies dormant within. It is the play spirit of imagination, as Schiller suggests, which distinguishes the civilized man from his cave-dwelling ancestor--that "old-stone savage" who moved in "darkness."
The conflict in "Mending Wall" develops as the speaker reveals more and more of himself while portraying a native Yankee and responding to the regional spirit he embodies. The opposition between observer and observed--and the tension produced by the observer's awareness of the difference--is crucial to the poem. Ultimately, the very knowledge of this opposition becomes itself a kind of barrier behind which the persona, for all his dislike of walls, finds himself confined.
But at the beginning, the Yankee farmer is not present, and the persona introduces himself in a reflective, offhanded way, musing about walls:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
Clearly, he is a casual sort. He broaches no difficult subjects, nor does he insist on talking about himself; yet Frost is at his best in a sentence like this. Through the language and rhythm of the lines we gain a faint but unmistakable sense of the poem's conflict. Like the "frozen-ground-swell," it gathers strength while lying buried beneath the denotative surface of the poem. From the start, we suspect that the speaker has more sympathy than he admits for whatever it is "that doesn't love a wall."
Frost establishes at the outset his speaker's discursive indirection. He combines the indefinite pronoun "something" with the loose expletive construction "there is" to evoke a ruminative vagueness even before raising the central subject of walls. A more straightforward character (like the Yankee farmer) might condense this opening line to three direct words: "Something dislikes walls." But Frost employs informal, indulgently convoluted language to provide a linguistic texture for the dramatic conflict that develops later in the poem. By using syntactical inversion ("something there is . . .") to introduce a rambling, undisciplined series of relative clauses and compound verb phrases ("that doesn't love . . . that sends . . . and spills . . . and makes . . ."), he evinces his persona's unorthodox, unrestrained imagination.
Not only does this speaker believe in a strange force, a seemingly intelligent, natural or supernatural "something" that "sends the frozen-ground-swell" to ravage the wall, but his speech is also charged with a deep sensitivity to it. The three active verbs ("sends," "spills," "makes") that impel the second, third, and fourth lines forward are completed by direct objects that suggest his close observation of the destructive process. He appreciates the subterranean dynamics of the frost, he knows how spilled boulders look in the bright winter light, and he seems so familiar with the gaps that we suspect he has walked through more than a few (evidently with a companion).
The first line of "Mending Wall" is also notable because it functions effectively as a counterpoint to the farmer's "good fences" apothegm, which appears once in the middle of the poem and then again in the final line. The farmer is summed up by his adage, fittingly his only utterance; his reiteration of it is an appropriate ending to the poem because it completes a cyclical pattern to which the speaker has no rejoinder and from which he cannot escape. Beyond expressing an attitude toward walls, it evokes the farmer's personality through its simplicity and balanced directness. The basic subject-verb-object syntax of the five-word maxim is reinforced by the repeated adjective and by the symmetrical balance and rhythmic similarity of subject ("Good fences") and object ("good neighbors") on either side of the monosyllabic verb "make." The persona's initial observation, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," with its hesitations and indefinite circumlocutions, conveys not only a contrasting opinion, but also a different way of thinking from the tight-lipped Yankee's. Significantly, though the speaker's observation is reiterated later in the poem, it is not a self-contained statement. Unlike the farmer's encapsulated wisdom, it is a protest, a complaint leading into a series of tenuously linked explanations, digressions, and ruminations.
Throughout the first half of the poem the speaker contemplates the deterioration and repair of walls, strengthening our awareness of his two central traits; his whimsical imagination and his fine sensitivity to detail. He digresses to describe hunters who actively tear walls apart in search of rabbits. Then he returns to his own interest in a more mysterious, unseen, unheard, destructive power. With relaxed, conversational irrelevance, he launches in a discussion of the rebuilding ritual, objective physical description to a light touch of fantasy--"We have to use a spell to make them balance"--which is likely to be noticed only because of the suggestive hints made earlier to the strange force responsible for the gaps.
Frost's control of tone during this desultory ramble is responsible for the speaker's ability to hold our attention and pique our interest. Even on successive readings, we are surprised by the implications of a given line or phrase, and we find ourselves gauging how much of a smile or frown accompanies each sentence. The imagined spell of line 18 dissolves in the jocularity of line 19: "'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'" Yet, just as quickly, the concrete, sensory images in the following line remind us of the real effort such work requires: "We wear our fingers rough with handling them."
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more.
The unceremonious sentence fragment and the deprecatory offhandedness of "just another kind" and "comes to little more" are unsuited to the earnestness of the preceding line; yet by now we are accustomed to incongruities, and we suspect that behind his capriciousness there is something on the speaker's mind. The allusion to an "outdoor game" evokes rivalry and competition, not only in wall repair, but also in wall destruction. This persona shows great appreciation of playfulness and recognizes many kinds of sport. If the wall builders participate in one "kind of outdoor game together," then they surely play another game against the wall destroyers: the hunters and those mysterious underground forces that wait strategically until the workers' backs are turned before spilling any more boulders. Hints of opposition and competitiveness soon gain strength in lines that effect a marvelous blend of natural fact and fanciful fabrication:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
This telling passage indicates how far the persona's imagination can carry him. It is true that the acidity of pine duff would prevent apple seeds from taking root, but simple arboricultural (tree cultivation) observation leads to a fantastic--and deeply revealing--personification. Although the speaker seems merely facetious, his imagery betrays antagonism as he ridicules the farmer, implying that he is too foolish and stubborn to see the incongruity of a rapacious invasion of apples (which are edible) seeking to devour pine cones (which are not). While attacking his neighbor's lack of open-minded amiability, the speaker is the one who exhibits antisocial tendencies. He is quick to think the worst, presuming that the farmer's concern with the wall is motivated by base selfishness, despite the latter's expressed interest in being "good neighbors."
Furthermore, it is not the farmer but the speaker who initiates the mending-wall ritual. Thus these lines heighten a still undefined tension and reveal surprising complexities while preparing us for the Yankee farmer's blunt precept: "Good fences make good neighbors." Such a forceful line crystallizes the poem's dramatic conflict by standing in salient opposition to everything the persona has said and, indeed, to his mode of speech. It is a remarkable and memorable line, not because of its inherent truth or quotability, but because of Frost's effective anticipatory presentation of an extraordinarily imaginative antagonism to "good fences."
Just as the twenty-five lines preceding the farmer's aphorism contribute to its impact, so do the sixteen succeeding lines that lead up to its reiteration. But once the conflict of farmer and observer has been made overt, the last section of the poem develops a contentiousness that further elucidates the differences between the two characters and reveals how little sociability there is between them. As the poem draws to its close with a chimerical vision of the farmer as "an old stone savage" the term "neighbor" seems increasingly ironic. The farmer looms not as an associate or coworker, but as an alien being whom the speaker observes, criticizes, and reflects upon while maintaining his distance and objectivity.
The two men--farmer and observer, insider and outsider--are separated by deep differences in perception, differences that the speaker does not fully appreciate. He thinks they are building a wall, but to his neighbor it is merely fence mending. A more significant contrast is suggested by the Yankee farmer's reliance on shibboleth (slogan or common saying) shows a form of mental enclosure in his case. Confident in his beliefs, he relies on traditional wisdom to suppress inquisitive or speculative tendencies. He concerns himself not with the whys and wherefores of walls but with the simple, practical fact (to him a fact) of their efficacy. His unwillingness to explain or debate his position implies that he feels there is nothing to be gained through communicating or exchanging ideas. If fences are good, then, conversely, too much closeness between neighbors must be undesirable. Indeed, there is no evidence that his "neighborly" relations with the speaker extend much beyond the laconic yearly ritual described in the poem. Satisfied to confine himself behind his personal wall of self-assumed taciturnity, he never converses with the speaker. He only repeats the aphorism he learned from his father, as if to keep from something original (or as if incapable of saying something original).
The persona, for his part, does not equate thinking with to adages; instead of accepting parental or neighborly authorities, he seems willing to "go behind" anyone's sayings, including his own. Even his tendentious investigation of whatever it is "that doesn't love a wall" is inconclusive, shifting as it does from the mysterious instability of walls to the foibles of the barrier-loving neighbor before finally dissipating in bitter complaints. But conclusiveness can hardly be the major concern of a speaker so given to equivocations (lines 21-22, 36-38), digressions (5-9), questions (30-34), suppositions (28-29, 32-35, 41-42), and outright fantasies (18-19, 25-26, 39-40).
After ranging from careful description to seemingly frivolous speculation, from shrewdness to willful illusiveness, and from subtle irony to urgent sincerity, the persona grows diffident toward the end of the poem about his own perceptions. He is particularly uncertain about how he should respond to his neighbor. Though wanting to "put a notion" in his head, he goes no further than conjecture: "I wonder / If I could." His claim that "Spring is the mischief in me" recalls the mischievous force "that doesn't love a wall," yet he does not try to make gaps in the farmer's mental fortifications. He indulges only in speculative, figmental "mischief," contemplating the crucial question he dares not ask: "Why do they make good neighbors?" He even undercuts his strongest comment with a qualifier: "He moves in darkness as it seems to me" (my emphasis).
Ironically (and there is much irony in this poem), although the speaker complains about his neighbor's unfriendliness, his own susceptibility to subjective vision and his willingness to let his imagination run away with him predispose him also to prejudicial attitudes He sees the wall and its symbolism virtually overwhelms him. By contrast, the farmer, who surely knows that "fence" is a misnomer for the country-style stone wall they are working on, sees no sinister implications in it and evidently uses the slightly imprecise adage to show his desire not "to give offense." It was a brilliant touch by Frost to use wordplay in exposing his persona's central misjudgment. For wordplay is the mark of the poet, and it is a poet's sensibility that so delightfully plays this speaker false. It is only in the imagination that the fence gives offfence, and it is only this visionary speaker who insists a wall cannot be innocent, cannot be the benign fence of the farmer's precept.
Ultimately, the persona's imaginative and indecisive disposition renders him incapable of challenging the Yankee's confident maxim. But Frost has shrewdly made him both unable and unwilling to settle on an argument that might demonstrate what it is to want a wall down. The allusion to elves, though meaningful to the persona, would never appeal to the hidebound farmer; it is such a hopeless suggestion that it leads to a kind of surrender: "I'd rather / He said it for himself." Yet this concession only reaffirms the personality displayed earlier. The speaker's sensitivity to what he sees may excite his desire for action, but he is neither capable nor desirous of didactic argument. Though the Yankee farmer says little in the poem, we may not notice that the persona actually has less to say to break down those walls he finds so detestable. He can only imagine saying something, for he is an observer and a commentator, not a reformer or a philosopher.
In the closing lines of "Mending Wall" the Yankee farmer may seem to get the last word and leave his antagonist circumscribed--indeed, walled in--by an alien philosophy. But truly, the speaker has mended the walls of his own personality, and instead of combating an opponent, attempting moral or philosophical sallies, and worrying about victory or defeat, he has again taken an observer's approach to his neighbor. At the end he presents a highly imaginative and appropriately climactic response to the Yankee, envisioning him as a shadowy "old-stone savage." As he completes this portrait, he brings his own drama to its denouement. His deep feelings about walls have led him to challenge what he takes neighbor's antithetical position; but after recognizing the futility of debate, he returns to his original contemplative outlook.
This study of Frost's treatment of his persona in "Mending Wall" should be sufficient to establish that the poem is not primarily an expression of moral views on neighborliness. Contrary to the burden of critical opinion, it is less about neighborliness than it is about modes of thought, about language, perhaps even about poetry itself. To the speaker, the farmer is antipathetic because he seems so antipoetic: he distrusts the flow of words, ideas, and feelings. Lacking a playful imagination and the willingness to "go behind" a saying or a concept, he seems cut off from the poetic. But we must not forget that the failure of communication in the poem is mutual. And in truth, Frost's persona is the less communicative and the more hostile of the two. On the surface of it, at least, the Yankee's brief adage bespeaks more amiability than do the speaker's speculations and suspicious conjectures. Yet Frost offers no answers in "Mending Wall," no clues about who is right or wrong. He does not moralize: he demonstrates. And what he demonstrates is a conflict that commands our attention.
Credits: Frank Lentricchia, Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self and John C. Kemp, Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist.
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Friday, September 25, 2009
Holden tells his own story in the play. He selects incidents that seem important to him and interlaces these incidents with his opinions about life. This information is similar to the kind the therapist gets from his client. Unlike the therapist however, the reader cannot use questions to clarify his understanding and provoke new information. The reader-therapist must accept what is provided and infer what he can.
At the beginning of the novel, we assume that Holden has had some neurotic symptoms which resulted in his being sent to some place to recover. He tells his story from the perspective of having been there a while, but what progress he has made is unclear. "I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come here and take it easy" (Catcher).
Holden does not present events chronologically; he tells a story and when he is reminded of a past event he digresses to tell about that. While we recognize that it is usually significant to note what particular event evokes a particular memory or comment on life, for the sake of clarity and brevity, we will examine the overall themes in his life and not necessarily the events one by one as he presents them.
In Adlerian psychology, the individual is conceived as a unitary, goal-oriented, creative self. This means that a person is uniquely consistent and is aiming in a specific direction. He aims toward his own personally defined goal of success. All this is called the style of life, formerly the life plan.
An individual's style of life is formed at an early age and remains his way of dealing with the world. Holden is the second born of four children. While birth order is not destiny, it is important to realize that a child's psychological place in the family influences the attitudes he has and thus his life style. The family is the child's first social environment.
We do not know anything about Holden's relationship with his older brother when they were young, but Holden now seems to respect and admire D.B. He quotes him as an authority on good restaurants and good books and says "My favorite author is my brother" (Catcher). But Holden also resents his brother because he has a successful career writing movies. "He's out in Hollywood being a prostitute. If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies" (Catcher). Holden may be disappointed that his brother chose a commercial career, or perhaps Holden is really envious of this older brother who has "lots of dough" and drives a sporty car. Holden repeats so often that he hates the movies that we suspect it's an accusation against others for liking them.
As the younger brother of D.B., Holden is in quite a race. His pace-setter for achievement has achieved much success in society. Holden's striving for superiority is going to be under pressure, as he competes with his older brother. The result of this competition depends on Holden's courage and self-confidence. We can see that Holden feels discouraged when he says such things, as, "As a matter of fact, I'm the only dumb one in the family" (Catcher). "Dumb" seems to include more than simply lack of intelligence; it seems to indicate that he is the worst at everything.
In Problems of Neurosis, Adler notes, "If the second child loses hope of equality, he will... tend to escape to the useless side of life, and ... laziness or lying will pave the way to neurosis and self destruction" (Ansbacher). Holden tells us:
I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.... If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera (Catcher, 1965, p. 16).
He lies to the woman he meets on the train just so he can have something to talk about, and he lies when he's in a situation that he can't handle by saying that he's just had a serious operation. This clearly is a way Holden strives for superiority on the useless side of life. He brags that he is the best liar. Lying seems to be a way that Holden can feel superior because he controls the situation. Only he knows the truth so he can dominate and manipulate others. He can save face, cover any feelings of inferiority by lying.
The second child is also "rarely able to endure the strict leadership of others or to accept the idea of 'eternal laws' " (Ansbacher). He is a rebel who will oppose things because they are customary. For example, Holden's first words to us are:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like . .. and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it. In the first place, the stuff bores me ... (Catcher).
He anticipates what would ordinarily be asked of him and refuses to give it. He uses "crap" in connection with a classical novel indicating that he is well educated on the useless side of life. He describes what we are interested in as boring. Holden begins rebelling before anyone is able to request anything. The exaggerated nature of this second child's rebellion tells us that he is indeed discouraged and lacking social interest.
Holden is not only a second born child however, he is also a middle child. Allie and Phoebe were both younger than him. Allie died of leukemia four years ago when he was eleven and Holden was thirteen. Phoebe is only ten, seven years younger than Holden. The distance between them now would suggest that he is not in competition with them. Holden describes them both as "sweet," and "intelligent" and says that "everyone" agrees.
When Holden is feeling what he describes as "lonesome and depressed" and what we would say is particularly inferior, he thinks of Allie and Phoebe. He has two early recollections of Allie that support the idea that Holden's younger siblings are "sweet" because they admire and like him, that is, they make him feel superior. The first recollection is a very short scene of Allie sitting on a fence watching Holden tee off his golf game. Holden says he knew that
Allie would be there when he looked behind him. The little brother is looking up to the big brother in admiration of his abilities, while big brother looks back at him. In the second scene, Holden remembers the time when he wouldn't let Allie come with him on a fishing trip. He told Allie that he was just a child, too little to ride that far on his bike. When Holden is depressed he starts talking to Allie and says, "Okay. Go home and get your bike and meet me in front of Bobby's house." (Catcher). Holden remembers when Allie wanted to be like him, to do things with him, and looked up to him. Holden feels superior in both scenes. He tells Allie to get his bike now because he misses the appreciator he had in Allie. When Allie died, Holden spent the night in the garage and broke all the windows with his bare hands. This is a rather exaggerated response to even the loss of a much cared for brother. It can be assumed that in addition to losing a beloved brother, Holden also lost a source of superior feelings when Allie died.
Holden's relationship with Phoebe appears to be similar to that which he had with Allie. Phoebe too admires and emulates him. She skates where he skated and "If you tell Phoebe something, she knows exactly what the hell you're talking about" (Catcher). In other words, Phoebe agrees with him.
In contrast to adults whom he almost always calls "phonies," Holden says, "God, I love it when a kid's nice and polite when you tighten their skate for them or something. Most kids are. They really are" (Catcher). Holden's feelings of inferiority are so great that he only feels fond of Phoebe and Allie because they are younger than him. He feels affectionate because he can be superior to them, benevolent, but nonetheless, superior. According to Adler, "Children who have a great feeling of inferiority want to exclude stronger children and play with weaker children" (Ansbacher). Holden is 17 years old, but he seems to be just such a child.
Though we know litde about Holden's mother, he offers some information that indicates indirectly that he was a pampered child. For example, his mother was apparently over attentive to his needs as he says, " .. .my mother, all you have to do to my mother is cough somewhere in Siberia and she'll hear you. She's nervous as hell.". He also tells us that mothers only see good in their sons and describes his mother and grandmother buying him presents and giving him lots of money. When Phoebe disobeys Mrs. Caulfield, she simply says "I don't like it" and changes the subject. Pampering leads to a self-centeredness and impaired social interest and leaves the child feeling uncertain because he is excused from responsibility. The child feels special, that he deserves the best and thus sets his goal of superiority accordingly high. Holden tells us:
I still act sometimes like i was only twelve. Everybody says that.... Sometimes I act a lot older than i am—i really do—for people never notice it. People never notice anything (Catcher).
These are the words of the pampered child who wants to be praised for all his accomplishments and who is angry and accusatory when he feels he is not getting adequate recognition.
The Adlerian perspective emphasizes the "key role the mother must play in preparing her child for a life of cooperation and contribution" (Ansbacher). By her example, Mrs. Caulfield teaches Holden how to deal with life crises. Holden describes how at first his "mother gets very hysterical", and in general "she's very nervous". In this first relationship where he should be learning cooperation and trust, Holden learns that one can use nervousness, the weapon of weakness, in difficult situations. Holden applies this lesson using depression as his way of coping.
Holden used his own creative abilities to interpret his mother's attentions as pampering. He has selected from her behavior the lesson that being nervous or hysterical is a way of dealing with problems. Thus, when faced with a situation that he feels inadequately prepared for, Holden lacks cooperation and uses symptomatology.
Holden's oversized inferiority feelings are in contrast to his extremely high goals of superiority. Thus he is sure to feel small and inferior. Adler comments that an inferiority complex "burdens the character with oversensitivity, leads to egotistical self considerations and self-reflections, (and) lays the foundation for neurosis" (Ansbacher). We can certainly see that Holden does have this foundation. His oversensitivity to the social amenities which he considers hypocritical leads him to say, "I can't stand that stuff. It drives me crazy" (Catcher). He has a similar reaction to people saying "Good luck" or "grand" to him. That he is overly involved in self consideration is illustrated time and time again as he describes his acute awareness of what he looks like, what he does in any situation. His marked inferiority complex is obvious when he comments that if life is a game then he's on the wrong side. This surely is what Adler refers to when he says that the person with great inferiority feelings "lives, as it were, in an enemy country" (Ansbacher). Holden's strong temper and passion, illustrated by the fist fight he gets into with his roommate because he dates a friend of Holden's; and his constant motion, wandering through New York City and from school to school, also indicate his deep sense of inferiority.
In contrast to these profound feelings of inferiority are Holden's extremely high goals of superiority. This goal shows itself frequently during his story. Appropriately, the first scene he describes shows his desire to be superior, and also his methods. He depicts himself standing on top of a hill watching the last important football game of the year. It was "supposed to be a very big deal" and so "practically the whole school except me was there" (Catcher). Holden literally and figuratively looks down on other people. Literally, he is on top of a hill so he looks down on them. They appear very little compared to him. He also "looks down" on them by defining what they think is important as trivial. It was supposed to be a big deal, but to him it's not. Another example of Holden's goal of superiority is his fantasy about having been shot and walking around with "a bullet in the gut" without anyone knowing. Finally he would avenge his honor, that is, get back at someone who made him feel inferior and he would be a hero.
Perhaps the best example of how lofty Holden's goals are is the scene he describes to Phoebe when she challenges him to name one thing he'd like to be. He replies:
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.... I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going. .. (Catcher).
Consistent with Holden's expression of love for his younger brother and sister and children in general, is his desire to be the only big person around. Holden's goal of superiority, to be the big hero and to have everyone's destiny in his control is obvious. Clearly it is removed from possibility, removed from common sense, and hence, he can only attempt to realize it on the useless side of life.
Lack Of Social Interest
Holden's lack of social interest, that is, lack of feeling of fellowship and empathy with others, has been implied in most of his story. It is further illustrated by the fact that all of his contacts with people are disappointing. For example, he says, "Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad" (Catcher). He feels lonely: "I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden. I almost wished I was dead" (Catcher). These experiences are the result of his rejection of society. " . . . if I were a piano player . . . and all these dopes thought I was terrific, I'd hate it" (Catcher). At no time does Holden express any concern for anybody but himself. Only once does he do anything nice for another person. That was when he bought a record for Phoebe, but he breaks it by accident before he gets it home. Typical of the neurotic, Holden expresses his lack of social interest in overgeneralizations about the way people are. Throughout his story, Holden says such things as:
People always ruin things.
People never think anything is anything really.
People are always hot to have a discussion when you're not.
People never believe you. (Catcher)
Clearly, Holden lacks the courage to cooperate in an adult world.
We have referred to a difficult situation that has precipitated Holden's developing symptoms. In this case, the exogenous factors do not seem to be so much related to a particular incident as they do to Holden's age. His first symptoms appeared at age thirteen, the onset of puberty and when he was first sent to prep school. Two of the three major life tasks come into focus at this time in life and Holden seems ill prepared to meet them.
The task of occupation is presented because Holden is enrolled in a school which is designed to help him prepare for college and hence, an occupation. He must stop being a little boy and begin making specific plans about what he wants for an occupation. He must succeed in prep school in order to live up to the expectations of an upper-middle class male. Holden has been expelled from four such schools. The experiences he describes occur just after he has flunked out of the fourth school and must go home and face his parents. We know that he excels in English and that he places a high value on being intelligent, but his fear of not being superior causes him to act lazy so he will have an excuse if he fails. Holden describes all the schools as being full of "phonies", criticizes their procedures, and generally expresses anger towards everything they represent. He participates in only the less admirable adult behavior such as smoking, swearing, and drinking. In this way he can justify not accepting the responsibility that prep school requires. He strives to be superior on the useless side of life.
The other task that Holden must actively deal with is sex and love. Not only has he reached the age of sexual maturity, but he is also in a situation where he has the opportunity to get involved in intimate relationships with the opposite sex. Sex, women, and love are the most common topics of conversation at this all-male school. Holden's peers all express their opinions about this issue and thus he is challenged to make some decisions about how he will approach this problem of life. In this task, too, Holden must give up being a little boy and assume some adult responsibility.
Over and over Holden expresses the importance he places in loving the woman he has sex with. He tells us that a girl has to be intelligent and genuine, and that physical and spiritual love must be combined. In sum, he says, "I have to like a girl" (Catcher). But Holden lacks the courage and cooperation necessary to meet this task. He would really like to run away, avoid the issue, and continue being a pampered child. He frequently says that he wants to get in contact with Jane, the girl he likes and respects, but is never "in the mood." Instead, Holden dates girls like Sally whom he describes as the "queen of the phonies" (Catcher), calls on prostitutes, or tries to pick up older women in bars. In this way, he can justify rejecting growing up.
Adler has noted that neurotic patients only know contradiction and antithesis (Ansbacher). Because Holden finds maturing and facing adult responsibilities too difficult, he describes all of adulthood as phony while being childlike is genuine. We see that Holden does not want to grow up when he describes why he likes the museum: because "everything always stayed right where it was" (Catcher). The carrousel, too, is nice because it always plays the same song, "Certain things they should stay just as they are" (Catcher), he says.
Holden's great feelings of inferiority and his high goals of superiority combined with his lack of social interest result in his inability to deal with the life tasks of sex and occupation in a useful way. He hesitates to grow up; however he must develop excuses in order to save face. He must reject adulthood by defining it as less desirable than childhood.
Holden attempts to save face by shining more rather than being more. His principal excuse is that incidents are unimportant. He delays telling that he's been expelled and then says, "I forgot to tell you about that. They kicked me out." (Catcher). He is always saying that things he doesn't like are boring and uses being bored as an excuse for doing as he pleases. (Note earlier reason for not telling about his childhood.) "I call people 'prince' quite often when I'm horsing around. It keeps me from getting bored or something" (Catcher). When the pampered child wants attention, he says he gets bored and, for example, starts tap dancing in the men's bathroom. "All I need's an audience" (Catcher), he says, and reveals his real feelings. Similar to the use of boredom as a way of trying to appear superior, is his saying that he doesn't care when faced with a difficult situation. "I'm partly yellow, but mostly the type that just doesn't give a damn" (Catcher). By saying that he doesn't care, Holden tries to cover up his feelings of inferiority. These neurotic excuses are typical of the way he avoids dealing with the issues of school (occupation) and sex. Holden is "never in the mood" to have a genuine exchange with the girl he cares for and he doesn't want to bother with all those phonies at school. His excuses reveal the hesitating attitude which Adler found characteristic of the neurotic.
With other maneuvers, Holden demonstrates his desire to run away from these issues. By being lazy, Holden flunks out of four prep schools. He escapes facing the problem of what he's going to do with himself, yet is able to maintain the posture that he could do something very superior if he wanted to. The distaste he expresses for all the schools he attends is just another way of avoiding the issue. "Disgust is a gesture of aversion.... This affect can easily be misused by being made an excuse for removing oneself from an unpleasant situation" (Adler). Holden also physically runs away when he leaves school early, but does not go home. During the few days he spends in New York City he escapes through anonymity, alcohol, etc.
Holden's pampered life style has left him inadequately prepared to deal with life problems in society and so he has defined the society as phony. In this way he can continue to feel superior. However, this "exclusion tendency," is Adler called it, is not without its drawbacks. It begins to narrow his circle of activity to an uncomfortable extent. Holden is interested in literature and the fine arts, but he finds that he can't go to plays because "if an actor acts it out, I hardly listen. I keep worrying about whether he's going to do something phony every minute" (Catcher, 1965, p. 117). By defining the world as phony, Holden has a full job watching out for any phoniness and thus has an excuse not to cooperate and get on with the business of life. As with any symptomatology, this way of escaping is unpleasant—less unpleasant than facing life's tasks, but unpleasant nonetheless. Holden forewarns us that he is going to become more extreme in his measures of avoidance. He says to Sally, "I mean did you ever get scared that everything was going to go lousy unless you did something? ... I hate (school) . . . But it isn't just that. It's everything" (Catcher).
Holden now makes two rather senseless plans to run away from having to live a cooperative life in society. In them we see how desperate he is feeling, how far from common sense he has moved, and how really neurotic he is. His first plan is to run away to Vermont, where he thinks he can avoid people. He fails to think about how he would support himself and abandons the idea when Sally refuses to accompany him. His second plan is to hitch hike out West and get a job. "I didn't care what kind of job it was, though. Just so people didn't know me and I didn't know anybody.... I'd pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes" (Catcher), so he wouldn't have to talk to anyone. He goes on to say that he would have a rule that "nobody could do anything phony" when they visited him. "If anybody tried to do anything phony, they couldn't stay" (Catcher). All the time he is making this plan, he is walking through the streets of New York talking to his dead brother, saying, "Allie, please don't let me disappear" (Catcher). Holden's useless goal of superiority becomes clear. He is so ill prepared to face life's tasks that he feels he needs to control everyone around him. If he feels that they place any demands on him he will label them as phony and isolate himself from them. This is the only way he can continue to appear superior with such extraordinary feelings of inferiority. He fears that otherwise he will disappear.
Holden's story ends when the one person, with whom he still feels good, the one person who makes him appear superior, challenges him. Phoebe shows him that he has rejected everything and yet she refuses to let him find excuses or run away. He cannot label her phony because she admires him too much. He cannot escape from his responsibilities because she insists on following him when he tries to run away. He has no choice but to relinquish his excuses and go home. "I felt so damn happy all of a sudden.... I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don't know why" (Catcher), the certain relief of having been discovered.
Holden completes the novel by saying that he went home, got sick, and came to "this Place." The exact nature of those symptoms we don't know, but they seem unimportant because we can be sure that they support the pattern we have seen.
Essence of the Matter
An Adlerian interpretation has been made of the life of Holden Caulfield as he presents it in Catcher in the Rye. As the second son in the family, Holden has lost confidence in himself. He feels discouraged and thus adopts a life style based on a mistaken way of feeling superior. He resorts to lies and rebellion. He is able to feel fond of his younger brother and sister because they admire him and hence make him appear superior.
The pampering Holden received and/or interpreted in his childhood contributed to his self-centeredness and impaired social interest. Holden wants to continue being the pampered baby and so is faced with quite a predicament when he is expected to assume some adult responsibilities at prep school. His experiences in childhood have helped prepare him to deal with such a quandary since he has a mother who handles problems by being nervous.
Holden demonstrates his feelings of extreme inferiority in a number of ways. His oversensitivity implies an accusation against others for being phony and driving him crazy. He has a strong temper and thus gets into arguments and fights wherever he goes. In short, Holden acts as if he were living in an enemy country where anyone could attack him. "Attack" in this sense means expose his inferiority.
Holden's lofty goals of superiority are illustrated by his fantasies. He imagines himself the tragic hero with a bullet in his guts and as the catcher in the rye. Holden presents himself as the only genuine and sensitive person in a world of phonies. By hating society, Holden is able to pretend that he is superior without having to be competent. He shines more rather than being more because he lacks adequate social interest to deal with adult problems in a productive way.
When Holden reaches adolescence and must face the life tasks of sex and occupation, he is unprepared. At this age, Holden must give up his childish ways and accept some adult independence. He is faced with the decision of how he is going to relate with the opposite sex and how he is going to prepare himself for a career. But Holden does not want to grow up. He is too self-centered, and too invested in appearing superior to risk competing in the adult world.
Confronted with this situation, Holden must create excuses in order to avoid these tasks. His feelings of inferiority are so great that he is afraid he will not succeed. Without social interest, Holden lacks the courage to grow up. Thus, Holden becomes a bitter, hateful young man. He defines the adult world as disgusting, boring, and most of all, phony. He runs away from school, from his family, from his friends, and finally, himself. This brings on the onset of his neurotic symptoms which he simply describes as being "sick." The Adlerian perspective shows that Holden does not get sick, but rather he suffers from profound discouragement about growing up.
Ansbacher, H. L. (Ed.) Alfred Adler: The science of living. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1969.
Ansbacher, H. L. Adlerian psychology: The tradition of brief psychotherapy./Mir»«*/ of Individual Psychology, 1972,28, 137-265.
Ansbacher, H. L. & Ansbacher, R. r. Alfred Adler: Superiority and social interest. New York: Viking Press, 1964.
Ansbacher, H. L. Ansbacher, R. R., Shiverick, D., & Shiverick, K. Lee Harvey Oswald: An Adlerian interpretation. Journal of Individual Psychology, 1967, 23, 24-34.
Credits: Joanne Irving University of Vermont