15 December 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/51

Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost

Here's a winter snow scene, but one that captures an emotion far from Currier-and-Ives coziness. The first two lines establish that the speaker is traveling, probably on foot since he is alone, and probably swiftly since snow is falling and it's getting darker; he glances into a field in passing, and the concentrated moment of that glance and the feelings and thoughts it evokes expand into the rest of the poem. Both snow and night are falling "fast, oh, fast" – the repetition gives the impression that the speaker is realizing both are falling even faster and more emphatically than he initially thought when he passed the field. He says he "looked into" the field as he was going past, which implies that he glanced over and took a quick look at it (and it appears to be a bit of an eye-catching break in the landscape; we're told later that it's surrounded by woods) – but to look into can also imply to investigate or examine, which is what the visual image of the snowy field causes him to do internally as he continues to go past. (Perhaps past is meant to carry with it not only the sense of moving beyond or away from something, but also an intimation of the past, as in, time that has gone by – combined with the night falling, we get a sense of subtle foreboding, of his life slipping away from the speaker). The snow has almost covered the field; only some tall weeds and stubble (which in this context means the cut stalks left from grain plants after the grain has been harvested – basically, straw) are still sticking up from the rising blanket of smooth icy whiteness.

It is in the first line of the second quatrain that we find out that the field is surrounded by woods – a human interruption in the forested landscape. The stubble implies that the field was farmed, but the farmers aren't much in evidence now, and we are told that "the woods around it have it – it is theirs." Again, as with "fast, oh, fast" the repetition lends emphasis to the perception – it's not just that the woods contain the field, but, more forcefully, it is theirs, as if the human interference that put a field there were only a brief interlude in a longer inhuman history. Even the animals we might expect to find in wood or field are "smothered in their lairs" by the falling snow (smothered presumably just means covered over entirely, yet here too there is a hint of death). Nothing is present here but the woods, and the break in them caused by the field, and darkness and snow which are gradually covering everything (and the one human observer, who feels himself present only physically and absent in spirit). It's in the fourth line of this quatrain that the speaker produces the description that ties the whole scene together and explicates it in human terms: loneliness. The word jumps out with such force and is emphasized by repetition so much in the following two lines that you have to wonder if it is not the true, delayed antecedent of the it that the woods are announced in the first line as having.

The speaker declares himself too "absent-spirited" to count in the scene, so absent that his spiritual blankness joins with the scene's prevailing blankness. The loneliness is unaware of him, but I think that unawares also implicitly modifies me: that is, not only is the landscape – the loneliness – unaware of him, but he himself is unaware, at least until he glimpses the field and has a haiku-like moment of perceptive being. And indeed we do not know anything about him, or why he is walking alone through the woods so close to nightfall, or what thoughts were preoccupying him before he glimpsed the field – loneliness gives us the key, since loneliness is a human construction, and therefore projected by him onto the landscape. It's telling that what he sees before him is not just loneliness, but deepening loneliness (it's interesting to contrast this poem with The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens, in which the speaker has a very different relationship to a similar emotion brought on by a similar sight).

In the third quatrain the speaker expresses why the loneliness will become more lonely (until it becomes less, presumably when spring arrives): the snow keeps falling, and the speaker seems to find a kind of terror in the blankness of the blanket of snow covering the weeds and stubble and animals under one undifferentiated white expanse (in this regard it's interesting to remember Chapter XLII of Moby Dick, on "The Whiteness of the Whale": ". . .  there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning [Moby Dick], which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me."). The snow is benighted, which can mean overtaken by darkness, but also a state, usually inducing pity or contempt, of intellectual or moral ignorance. The adjective reinforces the physical description earlier of night falling, and also connects to the covering blankness of the snow, which has no expression because it has nothing to express. It is a nullity, indifferent to his presence: if he lay down in the snow, it would cover him too, and freeze him to death without any conscious ill will or good intentions or any knowledge at all that he was even there).

It is a nullity that terrifies the speaker. He concludes by dismissing any thoughts of being frightened by the vastness of the universe and all those multiple stars empty of and indifferent to human life. Why look so far afield to sense his littleness and isolation? He can find the same fright closer to home (the warm connotations of home stress the contrasting intensity of the terrors, and their inescapability – the blankness will follow him indoors as well). In the last two lines the speaker says "I have it in me . . . / To scare myself with my own desert places." That is, the speaker realizes that the snowy field at dusk has evoked a loneliness and terror that are rooted in him even more than they are in the landscape (as he noted earlier, the snow has no expression and nothing to express; what it evokes in him is something inside him that is his reaction to the blankness). "[M]y own desert places" refers not only to the field (which might be near his home; perhaps he is the farmer who worked the field, and that's why he looked into it in the first place) but also to the "desert places" in his soul. The use of desert is interesting; it means not only desolate, lonely, empty, bleak, but also like a desert, that is, it conjures up a very different landscape from the snowy field. So the word subtly draws attention away from this particular image of isolation – the snowy field at dusk – that prompted the speaker's thoughts and moves your attention towards the underlying sense of arid desolation and loneliness and fear evoked by the sight.

I took this from the Library of America's Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays by Robert Frost.

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