Judith Oster: On "An Old Man's Winter Night"

We do not know why the old man is alone, only that he is. We do not know whether the state he has reached in this poem is the result of his aloneness or the cause of it; it is with the state of his life as we find it that we must deal. We feel in this old man a shutting-out that keeps him more frighteningly alone. Here we find salvation neither in a human relationship, nor in communion with the outside world, nor in devotion to a task. There is no sense here of the old man's existing for anything or anyone at all. With his memory failing him, eroding his sense of purpose, the old man strengthens his ego by a stubborn taciturnity, and he protects himself by scaring away what frightens him rather than by inviting in what comforts him. Nowhere in this poem of terrible aloneness are we admitted to the man's feelings of loneliness. We are admitted only to his feeling "at a loss," to his concern with "he knew what," to his consigning of the snow to the moon, and to his falling asleep. If anything, the man seems more alone because we are not admitted into his feelings. Were we sitting in the room with him, we might not be admitted to them either, for in his concern with "he knew what" (and in that triple-stressed sound of the sentence), we feel a taciturnity, a stubborn unwillingness on his part to communicate and, more pathetic still, an unwillingness to admit, perhaps, that he did not know, could not remember what he was concerned with. Thus he not only keeps to himself in the sense of being without others, he keeps his ideas and his feelings to himself.

We are told he was a light to no one but himself—and a quiet light at that—"and then not even that," possibly not fully in touch even with himself He also holds a light, a light that prevents his "giving back the gaze" to the out-of-doors because he is tilting it back toward his eyes. The light he was unto himself and the light he holds unto himself work together to intensify the man's isolation: we understand that his aloneness is not simply the absence of another person in the house or the fact that no one is caring for him; it is that he means nothing to anyone. Moreover it means that he illuminates nothing for anyone else, and we have no way of knowing if he even wants to or was ever able to. This keeping of his light and his concern to himself seems to have some bearing on the man's relationship with the out-of-doors, for his very aloneness makes the world outside and the world in the cellar especially frightening. He could use his light to look out by holding it at the window to do so, but he tilts it toward his eyes. While the tilting could have been involuntary, or for no conscious reason, the result is the same: he cannot see the outside. Had he wanted to "give back the gaze," he could certainly have done so. He may not have cared, or he may have feared what lies outside, in which case the tilt of the lamp prevents his seeing out, protects him from what seems to be "looking darkly" in. The two lights work together, for were he to have cast light outward in either sense, to have been a light to another, to have shone his light out the window, the out-of- doors would not seem to be "looking darkly in at him." With another he would be able to "keep house"—to have a home; this way the house is a "keep"—a fortress against hostile forces, but not a real home. As it is, he reflects only himself and his condition, haunted by what he imagines threatens from without. Even the conjunctive "where" contributes to the sense of his imprisonment in the self: it is not clear what we are to take as the reference of the relative clause "where now he sat." Is it the "light" he was sitting in—his own light, that is? Is "himself" the antecedent? But if we think about it, it is all the same, for he remains locked in that reflexive circle of self, the light he was , only unto himself, the light he shone back toward himself, and the implied passiveness of that sitting.

What light he has will finally depend on the moon—late-arising, broken, chaste, cold, and undependable—and it is to her that he will consign "his" snow, "his" icicles. The moon, "such as she [is] ," is better for holding his possessions, such as they are. She will fulfill his need, perhaps, to feel in possession of something, particularly of the snow and icicles on his roof, as if their very coldness, preserved as it would be by the moon, better at such a charge than the sun, was a part of him. The "empty rooms" seem to have invited the stars—separate stars—of frost. The cold snow and ice seem all he has to give, all he has that he wishes preserved, both of which meanings are inherent in "to keep."

Yet in that dim and frozen atmosphere we hear noise, the noise he makes to scare the cellar and scare the outer night. We hear what must be his futile attempt to scare them back. The night "has its sounds, familiar…But nothing so like beating on a box. "Are we to assume that the poem means that nothing is so familiar a sound, nothing so hollow, nothing so "scary" by virtue of its loudness as beating on a box? We cannot be certain whether the man actually beats on a box, but we cannot escape the image of a man doing so to scare away the sounds, to drown them out, to make a sound when he cannot generate enough light, and the act of a man alone beating on a box seems even more frightening than noises from the cellar or the out-of-doors.

The hollowness and the emptiness of the place and the life are reinforced by the auditory image of resonating sounds and further dramatized by repetitions within the poem—words and structures that echo one another: "Scared" appears three times, "light" "moon," "keep," "night," "one man," "clomping," and "what kept him" twice. (Notice, too, the visual effect on the page of lines 10 and 11,4 and 6.) In this context of man alone, scaring the out-of-doors, consigning snow and icicles, creating voiceless sound by clomping, or maybe by beating, the echoes could seem mocking indeed.

"Most telling, though, is the echo effect in the description of his disturbed sleep: he sleeps, and "the log that shifted…disturbed him and he shifted…but still slept" (italics mine). It is almost as if he is one with that log. Box-beating and clomping over, light put out, he sleeps like a log, moves when the log moves. It is almost as if in the man's aloneness, his connection with no one, no purpose, his lack of connection even with himself and his thoughts, he is less than fully human—not even connected with nature, for the log is no longer alive. It is another example of the deathward pull inherent in the unbroken circle of self. This is an old man's winter night, but we are not allowed to rest the blame for his condition simply on age. What kept him from remembering was age, but we are made to see, at the end, that not only can one aged man not keep a house, but that one man—any man alone—cannot keep a house, a farm, a countryside any better than this.

From Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and The Poet. Copyright © 1991 by the University of Georgia Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Judith Oster: On "An Old Man's Winter Night" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Judith Oster Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and The Poet
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