Counterbalancing

J. Donald Crowley: On "The Wood-Pile"

"The Wood-Pile" is thoroughly typical of many of Frost's mature nature poems. At once narrative and dramatic, the poem seems astonishingly clear even on first encounter. There at its center are the solitary speaker, a familiar figure, and his story, this one—like Frost's others—told in the inevitably simple, straightforward and calm, almost laconic language that characterizes dozens of Frost's other narrative lines. There is the typical stripped minimum of physical action—walking. Here, as elsewhere, the walking is seemingly aimless, has no manifest destination: it is an epitome of Frost's conviction that "Calculation is usually no part in the first step of any walk" (402). But, again as elsewhere, however much the walking appears to lack direction, it is clearly mysterious in that it radiates a high sense of personal destiny. "Every poem," Frost once remarked, "is an epitome of the great predicament; a :figure of the will braving alien entanglements" (401). The speaker simply appears in our field of vision and—to use Yvor Winters' negative criticism in a positive way—seems to be "spiritually drifting." There is the familiar winter landscape, bleak, desolate, initially amorphous and forbidding. There is the appearance of the small bird and the speaker's curious pretense of talking with such creatures. There is the woodpile itself, like the tuft of flowers, the mending wall, the road not taken, the west-running brook, so enigmatically and hypnotically there. And there is the almost dreamlike state of meditation it induces, in some ways calling to mind the sleepy vision of "After Apple-Picking." Finally, there is what Frost called "the vocal imagination," the speaker's voice, his style: that particular quality of sound "which indicates how the writer takes himself and what he is saying . . . , the way he carries himself toward his ideas and deeds" (403). Frost once joked: "Let the sound of [Robert Louis] Stevenson go through your mind empty and you will realize that he never took himself other than as an amusement. Do the same with Swinburne and you will see that he took himself as a wonder" (298). In "The Wood-Pile" Frost clearly takes himself neither simply as an amusement nor as a wonder but as both.

On another level of its structure, beneath the relaxed surface of the language, the poem progresses by way of a series, almost a system, of oppositions, ambiguities, and contrarieties that might be called Hawthornian. "In order to know where we are," Frost has noted, "we must know opposites." The "frozen swamp" is the first obvious instance of this characteristic structural phenomenon and suggests immediately multiple ambiguities in the external landscape: hardness-softness, cold-heat, solidity-fluidity, stability-instability, a surface level and a dimension—as yet untouched but present—beneath the surface. All this is registered against the blankness, the flatness of the minimally specified "one gray day." In the first line, then, we have concentrated an action, a place, a time. There is also a typically Frostian subtlety in the simple prepositions surrounding the action and thus wrapping it in still another operative ambiguity: "Out walking in"—the phrase is so solidly idiomatic, so much a mode of common speech, that all its powers of suggestion (namely, the juxtaposition of externality and internality) are playfully hidden, buried beneath the plainness of the words themselves. This particular tension is elaborated in the relationships between lines 1 and 2. Whereas the first line addresses itself to a continuous physical action and the external landscape, the second is concerned with a pause and a turning inward to the mind of the persona and his fearful response to that landscape. The speaker's decision to "turn back" emphasizes the sharp disjunction existing between this particular mind and this particular reality. The fear and confusion are isolated only momentarily, however, since they are immediately answered to by the courage of the counter-resolution of line 3. There, as the grammatical shift from "I" to "we" signifies, it is not Frost's purpose to annihilate the fear but to use it: the fear and the courage, the will to proceed and the hesitancy to do it, now almost formally define two dimensions of the persona. He has become at once his own reassuring guide and cautious initiate. And since it is the "we" who shall see, what is to be discovered will be informed by both. Still another ironic opposition is in Frost's use of the negative qualifier "No" to decisively introduce the positive affirmation of "going on" and thus to undermine the negative preference to "turn back." It is as if there is in the persona's emotions a mathematical logic in which two negatives interpenetrate to form a positive. The playful blending of "amusement" and "wonder" here illustrates what Reuben Brower calls Frost's "delight of saying the ordinary thing and discovering that it is art."

We might at this juncture turn back to ask what gives rise to the fear in the first place. The question leads back to that "frozen swamp" and to the realization that the place is forbidding and inscrutable because it suggests nature in its least regenerate aspects. It is essentially primordial, totally unformed. Hinting as it does at a sweeping geological sense of time and age, it provides another, prehistoric tension with the fragile minuteness and ephemerality of the mere "one gray day."

In line 4 the speaker, going on, now, as it were, gives himself to the place. He is no longer "out" altogether but in some sense "in." The distance between mind and reality is now diminished even to the point of tactile intimacy implied in the word "held." He who would see submits willingly to being acted upon by the still undefined force within that which he would see. But the explicit oppositions and tensions persist: in the "now" an the "then," the one foot and the implied other, the "here" and the "Somewhere else." Even the syntax displays similarly precarious balances: "The hard snow held me" announces a categorical, absolute condition, and points to a sureness of footing and, concomitantly, an intellectual and emotional security. But the line moves on by way of a concessive clause that turns back on the earlier statement and attaches exceptional circumstances contrary to it. The sentence contains elaborated images of impenetrability and penetrability that are quietly paradoxical because of the conditions they are associated with. The impenetrability suggests sureness and constancy, the penetrability doubt and instability, even danger. What normally seem to be positive and negative connotations are equally mixed in each of these syntactical units, then, and they are joined in fact by a conjunction—"save"—whose playful punning transforms the usual logic of "except" and suggests that the categories of positive and negative have again interpenetrated. To see is, of course, to penetrate into the truth or meaning of a phenomenon or thing. In a Frost poem, however, to see is always to know that there is a point at which the thing to be seen resists and defies penetrability, a point of its being beyond which it is alas unknowable. "The Wood-Pile," like "Neither Out Far nor In Deep," is from this angle a metaphor about the process of penetration and the ultimate limits of that process: a metaphor about the process of the interpenetration of him who sees and that which is seen. It is at once, like so much of Hawthorne's work, an exploration into the wilderness and into the self, a journey at once out and in.

What the persona sees in lines 5 to 9 is merely a "view," since he has as yet penetrated very little—only enough, in fact, to be confronted with an overwhelmingly confusing verticality. He sees merely one-dimensional lines without shape, and the measure of his plight is that he cannot find a language to give a name to the place. But, although he is thus suspended between his desire for certainty and the fact of his fearful uncertainty, his uneasiness and doubt are now informed by his awareness of them. Trying to solve the riddle of the landscape, he comes to know something not so much about that landscape as about himself. He is, he says, "just far from home." If "just" points up the severe, even terrifying, limits of his knowledge at this point of the process, it also simultaneously emphasizes his diminished anxiety regarding those limits. The word at once generates a sense of terror and dispels it. The effect is almost that the terrors of "homelessness," of being lost in undifferentiated space, comprise a condition the speaker has known before and finds so persistent and multifarious as to demand his constant re-engagement.

The small bird now appears, and in a way that seems equally fortuitous and gratuitous. The speaker responds immediately by recognizing it as a dramatic projection of his own fearfulness. In the following lines, the bird's activity adds a horizontal dimension to the speaker's growing spatial consciousness; and, giving the scene intersecting lines, if not shape, it permits the speaker to have for the first time a perspective. Again, the process moves by way of the artful opposition between bird and tree and the little joke by which physical laws seem overturned: the bird "puts" a tree—that is, assigns it a specific material place—between itself and the speaker. The bird is clearly what the speaker has come so far to know best, and he comes to know it by way of what he has previously come to know about himself. As Frost's deliberately confusing pronoun references in lines 12 and 13 imply, the speaker intimately identifies with the bird at the same time he tries to assert his superiority to it. The condition that allows him this intimacy, however, is his physical separation from the bird, marked by the one tree standing between subject and object. The tree, like the mending wall, signifies one of those barriers without which the world would, for Frost, not make sense. The speaker's teasing identification with the bird leads to his awareness of himself as the source of the bird's fearfulness; and this, in turn, clarifies his own relationship with the larger, unredeemed scene, the source of his own fear, which is thus brought further under the control of consciousness. The speaker's awareness is now many- layered, and he now has words for what is at stake. The bird's white tail feather is, of course, that by which he is what he is: it is the unmistakable mark of his irreducible identity and, paradoxically, the sign of his surrender. His fear of its loss turns back on and elucidates the speaker's recognition of his homelessness. "Home" is now understood to mean that point in space where one is at ease, where the self "belongs," where identity is safe.

Counterbalancing the gradual emergence of clarity and shape in the landscape is the gradually emerging personality of the speaker: at every stage of the poem, we know the speaker only to that extent which the speaker himself has come to know and understand the landscape. Frost once remarked that if the style of a poem "is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do" (351). The cautious sobriety and reserve within the vocal imagination as it initially addressed the outer terror are now cut across by a tone of humorous self-parody as the speaker engages in reflection. Now he can indulge in the quietly extravagant joke of a pathetic fallacy—"like one who takes / Everything said as personal to himself." Now too, however, the speaker's enlarged awareness and confidence are juxtaposed to, and measured by, his own self-deception. The speaker is himself deceived in thinking that the way for the bird to become "undeceived" is simply to flee the scene—to go "the way I might have gone." The bird, given free play, does not flee but, willing to get lost in order, apparently, to find itself, goes behind the woodpile. He seeks it out as a refuge, a home, in a final effort to discover and preserve identity in this place. Bird and man now embrace the woodpile, bind it by both courage and fear; and what the speaker sees there is conditioned, then, by his awareness of the bird on the opposite side. The logic of this perceptual symmetry, of course, is that the pile of wood has consolations to offer the man—consolations against the threat of formlessness, mindlessness, absence of order. And consolations there are indeed, in the lovely wholeness, the solid three-dimensionality of the woodpile. Here is, at last, the physical universe filled out in shapely and substantial form, caught in a moment of exacting perception that sees into it with a clarity and completeness incorporating at once modes of analysis and synthesis, modes of physical labor and intellectual love: "It was a cord of maple, cut and split / And piled—and measured, four by four by eight." The moment of perception constitutes a symbolic reenactment of the original building of the woodpile. The cutting and splitting and piling refer us simultaneously to the fact of the pile of wood and to that process by which it came to be. The speaker imaginatively duplicates all of the separate, divisible stages of the process of physical activity and then, in an evaluative act of measuring, finds a language—"four by four by eight"—that expresses perfectly the fact of its fully unitary and integrated wholeness of being. Process and fact, energy and form, coalesce and become one in a single continuous act of perception, and in that act the courage and fear have themselves been transformed into love and meditative forgetfulness.

The moment is a perfect illustration of Frost's distinction between what it means to believe in things and what it means, on the other hand, to believe things in (339). The latter is the special task of him who would be poet and person. In this symbolic reenactment, the speaker believes into existence an entity which was potentially there in the emerging but partial lines of the earlier stages of his journey inward. The woodpile, according to Frost's poetic theory, had its beginnings "in something more felt than known" (339). While in one sense, then, the speaker only "reveals" and "discovers" the woodpile, in another he can be said to have "made" it. We have here what William James, in "Humanism and Truth," called a quasi-paradox: "A fact virtually pre-exists when every condition of its realization save one is already there. In this case the condition lacking is the act of the counting and comparing mind. . . . Undeniably something comes by the counting that was not there before. And yet that something was always true. In one sense you create it, and in another sense you find it."

Like the white tail feather, the woodpile is totally singular. It is a far larger, more elaborate and complex symbol of individual form and identity. In its four-by-four-by-eightness there is a marvelous solidity as well as form, a substantiality that makes it not only palpable but, at least initially, permanent. In its apparent permanence it has a homeostatic capacity that heroically confronts the ephemeral and formless flux of the entropic environment. But just as soon as the speaker has become aware of its shape and form—its thereness—he is compelled, notice, to describe it in terms of what is not there: "And not another like it could I see." Thus, in the very process of celebrating the magnificence of its being, he uses language, has a perception, that points ironically to a sad sense of the diminishedness of things. Frost was himself fascinated by what he called "carrying numbers into the realm of space and at the same time into the realm of time" (333). In the same essay, he later quotes Einstein that "In the neighborhood of matter space is something like curved" (334). What Frost has done in "making his count" of the woodpile's dimensions is to carry those numbers into time, and in doing so he has transformed the straightness and angularity of the landscape into curves, into roundness and sphericity. This transformation is initially hinted at, I think, in the multiple suggestiveness of "cord," which is not only the specific name given to 128 cubic feet of fuel wood but, here, a pun on the mathematical term denoting a straight line which joins two points on an arc or curve. The change wrought in the speaker's perception of the scene is a brilliant poetic realization of Frost's conviction that "We are what we are by elimination and by deflection from the straight line."

Once he exists in a definitively three-dimensional physical universe, the speaker muses on the fourth dimension in trying to penetrate further into the meaning of the physical fact. Immediately, he meditates on—has a creative vision about—what is not there, what is quintessentially impalpable and increasingly indefinite, what is further and further back in time and of completely mysterious origin. Whereas the physical journey moves forward in space, its ultimate outcome is an inward journey, a meditation, which is a heightened mode of "turning back from here," an action no longer informed by fear alone. The implied and emergent curves of the woodpile the speaker's vision now makes explicit in the imagined loops of the runner tracks he cannot see; and these imagined curves in turn lead the speaker back into an awareness of the actual curved lines explicit in the woodpile itself: the warping bark, the sunkenness, the strings of clematis circling round and round. But the Hawthornian tensions and polarities, of which those curves are the ultimate expression, persist: between the imagined facts and the observable realities, in the references to different points in time, between the one side and the other, between what the clematis had done, what the tree is still doing, what the stake and prop are about to do. All these details catch, in a single, powerful image, a moment of process in which exquisite physical and spiritual form and imminent formlessness, growth and decay, stasis and flux fully interpenetrate, the implications of each participating in and giving value to the other. Now, although the speaker is completely at home in this place, his meditation does not lead to any reassuring consolation or benevolent resolution that would cancel these tensions and contrarieties; instead, it reaffirms and heightens them. For if the speaker's turning inward to the mind is a turning outward to the imagined identity of the woodcutter, and thus implies a consoling movement from solitude to human relationship, it also leads simultaneously to the speaker's recognition of his still distant separation from that imagined home with the "useful fireplace." The very process by which the speaker, along with the frozen swamp, has been warmed by the woodcutter's selfless and forgetful act of love issues in no comfortable, Emersonian notion of transcendent compensation. The condition of distance, of being "far from home," still attaches, as does the implied need to continually "turn to fresh tasks." Space and time have indeed been redeemed within the process of the speaker's vision to the extent that the woodpile as fact and process—as seemingly senseless material waste—is now endowed with a poignant significance and spiritual usefulness. But the implications of that redemption presuppose the necessity of continual other ones at different times, in different places. Seeing the woodpile in all its magnificence, the speaker sees also that its heat warms "only as best it could." And while there are duration, clarity, and beauty in the "slow, smokeless burning," they are apprehended in a vision that focuses on the inexorable fact of decay. The woodpile and the loving vision it induces only momentarily stay the confusion of a universe moving toward nothingness.

The condition of lostness, of homelessness, is not finally overcome; we are, at the end, still more aware of tensions than of unities. Whatever triumph there is lies in the fact that homelessness has now been defined and formalized by intelligence and love, by the process of growing awareness by which the woodpile and the poem have simultaneously come to be. In one sense, Frost himself provides the best gloss on the way the poem works when he says that "it makes us remember what we didn't know we knew" (394). He would agree with William James, I think, that "All homes are in finite experience" and that "finite experience as such is homeless." The process of the poem does not take us from an attitude of fearful doubt to one of certainty in the immutable. Instead, it begins with a felt doubt that arises out of the formless inscrutability of a new place and takes us to an affirmation of that doubt, which, now formalized, persists even after the loveliest but inevitably mutable forms of that place are fully understood. Frost's persona cannot stay there at the woodpile: his existence, it is clear, presupposes the necessity of perpetually walking on to an endless series of other new places equally unformed. What he walks on to, conscious all the while of the roads he does not take, is most often, as Frost says in "Directive," "a house that is no more a house / Upon a farm that is no more a farm / . . . in a town that is no more a town."

 

From "Hawthorne and Frost: The Making of a Poem." Frost: Centennial Essays. Copyright © 1973 by University Press of Mississippi.