Clint Stevens

Clint Stevens: On "Fantasy"

Robinson Jeffers' "Fantasy" is a fine example of William Empson's seventh type of ambiguity, as explained in his classic Seven Types of Ambiguity. As he writes, this type of ambiguity "occurs when the two meanings of the word, the two values of the ambiguity, are the two opposite meanings defined by the context, so that the total effect is to show a fundamental division in the writer's mind" (192). Of course, this definition provides merely the starting ground for understanding the way Jeffer's poem works. What the reader is left with in the end is a sense of the absurdity and futility not only of war but of its naïve counterpart, the hope suggested in the pastoral images of peace. The poem opens: "Finally in white innocence." "Innocence tagged with "white" indicates by its superfluity an implicit irony, recalling to the reader that what is being presented here is indeed nothing more than a fantasy. It is through this irony that the reader recognizes the ambiguity in the subsequent images. Each of the following images, through a visual pun, operates in two different registers at once: one, the suggestion of a return to paradise; the second, the absurdity of such a return due to the proximity of the war. The visual puns operate much like the chief image in Stevie Smith's "Not Waving But Drowning," in which the person drowning appears only to be waving. In both poems, the meaning is created at the crux of a misinterpretation of the scene. Thus, in "Fantasy" what appears to be the joyful dalliance of fighter planes could be, in reality, a dog-fight. Similarly, the rose-petal wreaths could be explosions, and the doves "in the guns' throats" could be bullets. This same ambiguity operates in the next lines in which the dance and the whistles and bells could potentially be not a celebration but the helter-skelter of a city under attack. Jeffers has deliberately chosen these images because of their ambiguity, and it is in the tension between these possible readings that creates the meaning of the poem. 

The recognition of this tension prepares the reader for the next part of the poem in which the two opposing sides of the war, epitomized by "Hitler and Roosevelt" are hung "in one tree,/ Painlessly, in effigy." In terms of a political reading, these lines represents Jeffers' belief that the United States should not have participated in World War II. In Jeffer's view, Roosevelt is equally culpable for the horrors born of that war. Yet, in terms of the reading advanced here, these two figures further the concept of two opposing sides being suspended together; such that while overtly connoting antinomies, these lines imply at a deeper level an essential identity between them. Ultimately, any meaning we derive from the poem is not found in choosing one perspective over the other but in recognizing the essential delusiveness of both. The mind must revolt against the naiveté of the innocent perspective just as it rejects the experiential point of view. As Jeffers sees it, we betray ourselves in believing that one side of the war good and the other evil; both are, in the final reckoning, equally delusive and must be rejected.

 

To take their rank in history;

Roosevelt, Hitler and Guy Fawkes

Hanged above the garden walks

 

In the first line quoted above, we notice the obvious pun on "rank." Also, by introducing the figure of Guy Fawkes into the poem, Jeffers makes explicit the essential identity between Roosevelt and Hitler, who like Fawkes are portrayed as traitors to their country. In the context of the poem, the fact that Guy Fawkes Day is a slightly chilling celebration involving masked children asking for pennies that they might purchase fireworks (another significant visual pun), symbolically connected to the burning of Fawkes' effigy on that day complements nicely the array of visual puns mentioned above. 

In the final movement of the poem, the irony and the ambiguity become more difficult, as it is difficult to see how these "happy children" can "cheer,/ Without hate, without fear" in the presence of these men hanged in a tree. The primary purpose of this line is to again emphasize the central incongruity put forth in this poem. Yet this difficulty is in part passed over by Jeffers who moves us into the final line in which the antithetical perspectives of the poem are collapsed into a kind of inevitability: that even if a genuine peace could occur, its significance would be usurped by being identified with the time and place in which "new men plot a new war." The ending, like so many of Jeffers poems assumes a fatalistic perspective for humanity. As William Everson writes, Jeffers consumed by an intense consciousness of original sin, sees humans as "instinctually perverse." What began as a somewhat light irony and a slightly playful ambiguity ends in a synthesis in which the fantasy has been modified into a nihilistic recognition of the fictions we construct to make sense of, or to ignore, the horrors of a world at war with itself. Hope collapses at its juncture with despair. The idea that there could be any such thing as a lasting or real peace when identified with the equally ignorant view that the war had any real meaning self-destructs. Both are hung by Jeffers in effigy and burned. 

 

Copyright © 2003 Clint Stevens

Clint Stevens: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

This is an elegant poem. It is by no means the most psychologically rich poem Frost ever wrote, yet in its starkness and clarity we as readers only benefit. Perhaps the first thing we notice is that the poem is an interior monologue. The first line establishes the tone of a person musing quietly to himself on the situation before him: "Whose woods these are I think I know." He pauses here on "the darkest evening of the year," the point in time poised between the day and the night, between consciousness and unconsciousness, between waking and sleeping, between life and oblivion. There is a slight lack of surety in the speaker saying to himself, "I think I know," thus again signifying the meeting ground between what he knows and what he does not. These antimonies, his lack of certainty, and the muted sense of passion provide the tension by which the poem operates.

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. Richard Gray has marked this in explaining how 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."

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, or, to quote another poem which most certainly was influenced by this one:

On must have a mind of winter To regard the frost and the boughs Of the pine-trees crusted with snow

Richard Poirier has marked that "woods" is mentioned four times in the poem. Along with this the reader will 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.