Lee Edelman: On "In the Waiting Room"

Commentaries on "In the Waiting Room" tend to agree that the poem presents a young girl's moment of awakening to the separations and the bonds among human beings, to the forces that shape individual identity through the interreleated recognitions of community and isolation.

[. . . .]

What, one might ask, is so strange about critical agreement on the literal events that take place within the poem?

One response to such a question might begin by observing that the text itself seems to undermine the stability of the literal. Certainly the poem appears to appropriate—and to ground itself in—the particulars of a literal reality or truth. Bishop takes pains, for instance, to describe the contents of the magazine read by the young girl in the waiting room. Not only does she evoke in detail its pictures of volcanoes and of "black, naked women," but she specifies the particular issue of the magazine, identifying it as the National Geographic of February, 1918. But Bishop, as Jerome Mazzaro puts it, "tampers with the actual contents." While that issue of the magazine does indeed contain an article on volcanoes—lavishly titled "The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes: An Account of the Discovery and Exploration of the Most Wonderful Volcanic Region in the World"—it offers no images of "Babies with pointed heads," no pictures of "black, naked women with necks / wound round and round with wire" (p. 159). In an interview with George Starbuck, Bishop, responding to the critics who noticed the factual "error" in her text, declared: "My memory had confused two 1918 issues of the Geographic. Not having seen them since then, I checked it out in the New York Public Library. In the February issue there was an article, 'The Valley of 10,000 Smokes,' about Alaska that I'd remembered, too. But the African things, it turned out, were in the next issue, in March." Bishop's clarification only underscores her insistence on literal origins—and her wariness of her own imaginative powers. For the curious reader will discover what might have been suspected all along: the "African things" are not to be found in the March issue of the National Geographic, either. In fact, that issue has no essay about Africa at all.

With this in mind we are prepared for the warning that Alfred Corn offers the unsuspecting reader. He notes that, just as the picture essay Bishop describes "is not to be found in the February 1918 National Geographic," so "Anyone checking to see whether Miss Bishop's aunt was named Consuelo probably ought to be prepared for a similar thwarting of curiosity." In the face of this, one might well pose the question that Corn then frames: "If the facts are 'wrong,' why did Bishop make such a point of them in the poem?" Or, to put the question another way, toward what end does Bishop attempt to appropriate a literal grounding for her poem if that poem insists on fracturing the literality on which it positions itself? Whatever answer one might posit in response to such a question, the very fact that the poem invites us to ask it, the very fact that the poem revises simplistic conceptions of "fact" or literality may answer objections to my remark that there is something strange about the critics' agreement on the literal events that take place within the text.

But a new objection will surely be raised, accusing me of conflating two different senses of the "literal," or even of using "literal" in a way that is itself not strictly literal. While there may be questions, the objectors will insist, about the text's fidelity to the facts outside of it—questions, that is, about the literal truth of the text—those questions do not prevent us from articulating literally what happens within that text. Whether or not Bishop had a real Aunt Consuelo, there can be no doubt, they will argue, that Vendler and Estess and Wood are correct in asserting that, literally, within the poem, and as one of its crucial events, Aunt Consuelo cries out in pain from inside the dentist’s office. And yet I intend not only to cast doubt upon that central event, but to suggest that the poem itself is less interested in the event than in the doubts about it, and that the critics’ certainties distort the poem’s insistence on confusion.

[. . . .]

This, then, is "Elizabeth"'s situation after her exercise in reading: sitting in the dentist's office while her aunt receives treatment inside, she looks at the cover of the National Geographic and tries to hold on to the solid ground of literality outside the abyss of textuality she has discovered within it. In doing so, she silences the voice of her own internal desire and conforms to the socially determined role that her shyness forces her to play. At the same time, however, she recognizes, as a result of her reading, the inadequacy of the inside/outside polarity that underlies each of her tensions—tensions that mount until they no longer admit of repression or constraint: "Suddenly, from inside, / came an oh! of pain."

With this we come back to where we began—back to the question of the voice and the question of the place from which the voice originates. But we return with a difference to the extent that the critical desire to locate or to define or to frame any literal "inside" for that voice to emerge from has been discredited as an ideological blindness, a hierarchical gesture. There is no inside in this poem that can be distinguished from its outside: the cry emanates from inside the dentist's office, and from inside the waiting room, and from inside the National Geographic, and from inside "In the Waiting Room." It is a cry that cries out against any attempt to clarify its confusions because it is a female cry—a cry of the female—that recognizes the attempts to clarify it as attempts to put it in its place. It is an "oh!" that refuses to be readily deciphered because it knows that if it is read it must always be read as a cipher—as a zero, a void, or a figure in some predetermined social text. Those critics, then, who read the poem by trying to place the cry, effect, instead, a denial of that cry which is a cry of displacement—a cry of the female refusal of position in favor of disposition. As a figural subversion, it wages war against the reduction of woman to the status of a literal figure, an oxymoronic entity constrained to be interpreted within the patriarchal text. It is against that text that the cry wages war, becomes a war cry to unleash the textuality that rips the fabric of the cultural text. To conclude, then, is only to urge a beginning, to urge that we attend to this cry as a cry of female textuality, a cry that links "Elizabeth" to her "foolish" aunt and to the tormented mother in Bishop's story, "In the Village." In this way we can approach the poem's cry, in Stevens's words, as the "cry of its occasion" and begin to engage the issues of gender and constraint that are so deeply involved in Bishop's story of "oh!"

from "The Geography of Gender: Elizabeth Bishop's 'In the Waiting Room.'" Contemporary Literature 26.2 (Summer 1985): 179-196. 

Stephen Yenser on "Memories of West Street and Lepke"

The first stanza of the poem is given over mostly to the speaker, who is living in a house on "'hardly passionate Marlborough Street,'"

where even the man scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans, has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate, and is a "young Republican."

The situation is reflected in the last stanza, where Lepke is seen "dawdling off to his little segregated cell full / of things forbidden the common man." Like the speaker, Lepke is isolated from other men; and in the fine lines that end the poem, this association is both confirmed and denied. . . .

"Memories of West Street and Lepke" is itself an "agonizing reappraisal," as is the whole of Life Studies; but this more or less explicit contrast serves almost to link the two men rather than to separate them, while the concentration on death and the "air / of lost connections", are remarkably applicable to the poetry of this volume. The same relationship obtains between Lepke and Lowell as does between the "lost connections" and the "sooty clothesline entanglements" that the poet saw from the roof of the West Street Jail. The figure of Lepke is more a mirage than a mirror image - as the "oasis" suggests - and consequently the technique of the poem itself exemplifies the "air / of lost connections." That there is a connection at some level between the poet-speaker and the gangster is intimated by Lowell's recollection of himself in "During Fever" as "part criminal and yet a Phi Bete." That description of himself is relevant to "During Fever" because the poem goes ahead to recall the "rehashing" of his father's character, but both the description and the "rehashing" are also relevantto this poem; if Lepke is a murderer in fact, the poet-speaker is one in intent. This is to put the matter too bluntly, perhaps, but what Lowell seems to suspect in these poems is that any man's murder taints other men.

Jessica Mayhew: “Go home, now, stranger:” The Use of Space in Early Auden

“Look, stranger, on this island now,”[1] commands Auden in the opening line of “On This Island.” The landscapes of Auden’s early poetry are landscapes of repression, as enclosed and solitary as his island. Like T. S. Eliot, he lionized detachment and austerity in poetry, taking Eliot’s description of poetic talent to heart: “What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”[2] It is Auden’s focus on space, not self, that gives his poetry form, a map of boundaries and borders, populated by figures that appear as an extension of the landscape. Stephen Spender observed this, and wrote in his journal, “I do not think of him having ordinary feelings and [what] I felt about his early poetry is the lack of any ‘I’ at the centre of it.”[3]

Even the central figures in the poems are unnamed, lacking an identity to anchor them to space. Instead, the strongest emphasis is on this portrayal of space, the psychic-geographical location; as Christopher Isherwood quotes Auden as saying, “the only exciting things are volumes and shapes…poetry’s got to be made up of images of form.”[4] The American poet Elizabeth Bishop explored similar themes within her own work, encapsulated in the alienated figure of “The Man-Moth,” through which a surreal view of New York City is presented. He “returns / to the pale subways of cement he calls his home,”[5] his loneliness shadowed against the routine of daily existence. Like Bishop, Auden has a strong dichotomy of home and stranger in his early poetry; figures are lost, or betrayed, or forced to roam in wild, unknown lands with a yearning for home, or else they are stranded in the domestic, unable to change their setting. However, there is a sense of transition in this poetry. Auden’s figures are free to roam the geographies of his poems, seeking the release of crossing the threshold. In “Questions of Travel,” Bishop asks, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?”[6] This questioning of where to be is reflected in the explorations of Auden’s characters. The poems discussed in this essay begin in 1927, away from home in isolation, and end in 1937, rooted in the domestic and struggling with issues of love, much like Auden’s own struggle to accept his sexuality.

“The Secret Agent” is an unrhymed sonnet, veering between desire in form, and repression. The reader is introduced to an indeterminate subject, an unnamed he, who is “seduced by the old tricks,”[7] and ultimately betrayed, leaving him in intense isolation away from home when “[t]hey ignored his wires.”[8] Auden maintains the form of the Petrarchan sonnet by including the volta between the octet and sestet, triggered by a change in location. A sense of space is therefore crucial in continuing the air of remoteness that exists within the Petrarchan form between the speaker and object of the poem. Indeed, Auden uses a translation of the Old English poem “Wulf and Eadwacer” for his final line of “[p]arting easily two that were never joined,”[9] referencing unconsummated love. However, despite Mendelson’s comment that “the guarded border between Auden and any real satisfaction is too strong to be breached by sex,”[10] the isolation is not merely sexual but spatial: “The nameless, faceless figures who inhabit these poems are too far off to be recognised, too isolated for speech.… Should they try and make their way back to community and purpose, they find their roads almost vanished, the rails blocked, and the bridges out.”[11]    

            The secret agent is lost in the lines of the poem, until he is “[w]oken by water / Running away in the dark,”[12] and even the landscape evades him, signaling “the moment when his entrapment and separation will be complete.”[13] This theme of running water continues through “The Watershed.” This time, an unnamed stranger wanders through a decaying mining landscape, but is frustrated by the way “[t]his land, cut off, will not communicate.”[14] Like the reader, he is a stranger to the space of the poem and so may roam freely inside the borders, but impact nothing. Gaston Bachelard claims that deep water is an “anthropo-cosmic fear that echoes the great legend of man cast back into primitive situations,”[15] and so faced with the isolation of “flooded workings,”[16] the stranger retreats to known, domestic borders. However, even though the stranger’s headlights invade bedroom walls, he “wakes no sleeper,”[17] remaining fixed in his space.

            Bishop’s questioning of whether a person should stay at home and think of here, or change location is seen very clearly in the internal struggle of “The Wanderer.” The figure is tied to mobility, flitting between his boundaries of the domestic and the wild, where “[d]oom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle,”[18] and constantly dreaming of home. As with the translation in “The Secret Agent,” Auden transforms the Old English “The Wanderer” into the history of the poem. According to Bachelard, “the house shelters daydreaming,”[19] and daydreaming is the essential nature of poetry. However, the memory is unable to record duration,[20] and so Auden’s poetry moves through space, not time, unlike Bishop’s focus on today. The wanderer is impelled by this unreachable history to roam, to be isolated as a “stranger to strangers,”[21] and within the secretive land which holds him, he dreams of home. This dream is echoed in the image of the sea as “houses for fishes.”[22] Auden claims, “I loathe the sea,” because of its formlessness, but by imposing a miniature domestic space onto it, its formless space is bordered, marked clearly by inside and outside.

This sense of proportion is central to Auden’s ordered domestic spaces. In “As I Walked Out One Evening,” the absurdist, idealistic declarations of the lovers are countered by the clocks, who invite them to “[s]tare, stare in the basin / And wonder what you’ve missed,”[23] suggesting that love is a false consciousness that distracts from the passing of time, which cannot be conquered, even by love. This is enforced by the strict rhyme scheme, but the clocks are also a human invention, and so are tied to the cultural/social construct of time. This is shown in the equally absurdist miniature domestic description:

the glacier knocks in the cupboard,

            The desert sighs in the bed,

 And the crack in the tea-cup opens

            A lane to the land of the dead.[24]

            The poem is again narrated by an unnamed character, whose observational stanzas bookend the clocks’ speech. Mendelson argues that “the subject of Auden’s love lyrics is the double subject of sexual success and emotional failure.”[25] In the figures of the lovers, Auden shows sexual success, but the central figure of the poem listens without comment as the clocks claim that “you shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart,”[26] their non-idealized view of love very different from that of the lovers. Despite this, the central figure is still isolated at the end of the poem, left by the lovers and the clocks, with only the river running on, marking continuous time beyond human conventions and the impassable border of the poem, much like the river in “The Secret Agent.” 

            In addition to marking borders, the river also awakens the agent to the primal need for companionship in the dark: “…he often had / Reproached the night for a companion / Dreamed of already.”[27] Despite dreaming of contact, the figure remains isolated; he knows that the parting will be easy because of the impossibility of unity. Richard Johnson claims that in Auden’s poetry, “the uniqueness of each person, and his capacity for loving, are based, at least in part, on his internal landscape.”[28] 

            The barren desert of the agent’s imprisonment, with the water running away, suggests the same sterility as the figure’s resignation to solitude and death. Similarly, in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” the central character’s inner landscape is reflected in the outer landscape of the poem. The clocks command, “‘Oh stand, stand at the window / As the tears scald and start,’”[29] directing the characters through the spaces of the poem, and pointing them towards “the world that waits beyond the enclosing walls of the self.”[30] However, if like in “The Wanderer” the house protects the dreaming that is poetry, here the perceived mobility ends at the window and presents a border to be breached. Mendelson argues that Auden never approved of his sexuality, but instead found ways to acknowledge it, claiming that “it was not his sexuality that mattered, but his isolation. And if the one could not be changed, the other could.”[31]

Auden’s sexual isolation reveals a striving to traverse across a boundary. Although Herbert Greenberg claims that for Auden, “islands represent isolation and withdrawal because they are detached from the mainland,”[32] “On This Island” shows a yearning toward contact made manifest through movement. The noise of the ocean penetrates the stranger, meandering through the chambers of his ear as the stranger wanders through the landscape of the island: “that through the channels of the ear / May wander like a river / The swaying sound of the sea.”[33] This haunting of the stranger’s inner landscape by sound is echoed in the way the view enters the stranger’s memory in the final stanza: “And this full view / Indeed may enter / And move in memory as these clouds do.…”[34]

            Although the central figure is still isolated and unnamed, like the characters who populate Auden’s earlier poetry, there is a fuller exploration of the thresholds of the poem, revealing a possibility of reaching and crossing edges like the mingling of physical and psychic space. However, this poem still maintains Auden’s typical austerity and restraint in the hesitancy of may. The character allows himself to be haunted by the space of the poem, in the same way that he haunts the island; this notion of haunting reoccurs throughout Auden’s early poetry as a way of reconciling a need for contact with isolation.

            When “[d]oom…dark and deeper than any sea-dingle”[35] propels the man to leave his home for the isolation of the wilderness, an “unquiet bird”[36] haunts the landscape, emphasizing his loneliness through the impossibility of communication. Bachelard asks, “Where is the root of silence?…It is deep,”[37] and like in any space, echoes can be heard in the landscapes of Auden’s poetry. These echoes reveal a depth to the geographies that are closed in, while sound as hauntings lead the isolated characters to their thresholds. In contrast, Mendelson views the central subject of Auden’s early poetry as “their own failure to be part of any larger interpretive frame. Their metaphors refer to their own state of division and estrangement.”[38]

However, while the geographical space of Auden’s poetry is insular, and the characters’ mobility is unable to affect their situation and surroundings, the fact that there is movement through space suggests a yearning for change. Even Auden’s use of language creates rooms and spaces for the figures to move through, and by “multiplying hyphens, this syntax obtains words that are sentences in themselves, in which the outside features blend with the inside.”[39] This is evident in “On This Island.” The stranger is directed to look as, “the shingle scrambles after the suck- / -ing surf.…”[40] Here, the enjambment not only evokes the rhythm of the waves, but the split hyphen forces the stranger’s view to the eventual sight of the boat. This directional syntax is used much more aggressively in “The Wanderer.” In the first stanza, the comparison of doom to a “sea-dingle”[41] already creates a gully for the figure to wander into, and this half-indoors, half-outdoors pathway is further hemmed in by the amalgamation of hyphenated words. Indeed, it is not until he acknowledges that he has become lost, seeing “[b]irdflocks nameless to him,”[42] that he is propelled to a doorway, hearing “through doorway voices / Of new men making another love.”[43] Here, the figure realizes the possibility of human contact after the exclusion of unknown lands, directed through the architecture of language.

Auden’s preoccupation with created space began long before his early poetry, in childhood, when he “imagined himself an architect and engineer, the maker of a fictional landscape.”[44] However, these spaces provide the ideal metaphor for exploring isolation and entrapment stemming from his views on his sexuality. In his poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Auden announces that “poetry makes nothing happen,”[45] and this view is summed up in the insular nature of Auden’s early landscapes. The lonely, nameless figures that populate the poems can change nothing, but instead roam the self-contained geographies which reflect their own internal psychic spaces. Like Bishop’s quote, Auden’s poetry begins far from home and struggles toward a comforting, familiar place. However, in contrast to the poised indecision of Bishop’s unresolved questions of location, these characters wander ever closer to the boundaries of the poems, threatening eventually to cross the thresholds.



Auden, W. H. Collected Poems. Edited by Edward Mendelson. London: Faber and Faber, 1994.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.

Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Man-Moth.” The Complete Poems 1927–1979. New York: FSG, 1983, p.14.

Bishop, Elizabeth. “Questions of Travel” The Complete Poems 1927–1979. New York: FSG, 1983, p.93.

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. Whitefish: Kissinger Publishing, 1920, pp.39-50.

Greenberg, Herbert. Quest for the Necessary: W.H. Auden and the Dilemma of Divided Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Isherwood, Christopher. “Lions and Shadows.” In Critical Essays on W. H. Auden, edited by George W. Bahlke, 194–98. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1991.

Johnson, Richard. “Man’s Place: An Essay on Auden.” In Critical Essays on W.H Auden, edited by George W. Bahlke, 128–45. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1991.

Mendelson, Edward. Early Auden. London: Faber and Faber, 1981.

Spender, Stephen. Journals: 1939–1983. Edited by John Goldsmith. New York: Random House, 1986.


[1] Auden, “On This Island,” l.1. 

[2] Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 47.

[3] Spender, “Entry for 11th April 1979,” 355.

[4] Isherwood, “Lions and Shadows,” 196.

[5] Bishop, “The Man-Moth,” 14.

[6] Bishop, “Questions of Travel,” 14.

[7] Auden, “The Secret Agent,” l.4. 

[8] Ibid., l.7. 

[9] Ibid., l.14. 

[10] Mendelson, Early Auden, 37.

[11] Ibid., 4.

[12] Auden, “The Secret Agent,” l.10.

[13] Mendelson, Early Auden, 36.

[14] Auden, “The Watershed,” l.21.

[15] Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 23.

[16] Auden, “The Watershed,” l.8.

[17] Ibid., l.25.

[18] Auden, “The Wanderer,” l.1.

[19] Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 6.

[20] Ibid., 10.

[21] Auden, “The Wanderer,” l.9.

[22] Ibid., l.10.

[23] Auden, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” ll.39–40.

[24] Ibid., ll.41–44.

[25] Mendelson, Early Auden, 230.

[26] Auden, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” ll.55–56.

[27] Auden, “The Watershed,” ll.11–13.

[28] Johnson, “Man’s Place: An Essay on Auden,” 130.

[29] Auden, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” ll.53–54.

[30] Mendelson, Early Auden, 237.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Greenberg, Quest for the Necessary, 34.

[33] Auden, “On This Island,” ll.5-7.

[34] Ibid., ll.17-19.

[35] Auden, “The Wanderer,” l.1.

[36] Ibid., l.13.

[37] Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 180.

[38] Mendelson, Early Auden, 10.

[39] Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 213.

[40] Auden, “On This Island,” ll.12–13.

[41] Auden, “The Wanderer,” l.1.

[42] Ibid., l.19.

[43] Ibid., l.19–20.

[44] Mendelson, Early Auden.

[45] Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” part II, l.5.

Albert J. Von Frank: On "Desert Places"

The poet sees the snow and the night descending together, black and white, working together to muffle sensation and obliterate perception; yet they work against each other, paradoxically, to heighten perception. The snow works against the night, giving ghastly light whereby to see the darkness, while the fast falling darkness gives urgency to the need to see, for the opportunity will not last long. What the poet sees is truly "for once, then, something." In the moments before obliteration he sees something with a positive existence, something he can put a name to—a field. He knows it is a field because, for the moment, positive signs of its identity remain: the "few weeds and stubble showing last." It is important to understand, then, that this is a cultivated field and not a natural clearing in the forest; it is nature given purpose and identity by man. Like the snow and the night, the weeds and stubble set up crosscurrents of meaning. The stubble is more clearly the hint of man's presence, the aftermath, quite literally, of man's contact with the land, while the weeds—which can exist only in (and therefore define) a cultivated area—remind us of nature's persistent reclamation of the artificial. What the snow smothers, in addition to everything else, is the vital conflict which the juxtaposition of "weeds and stubble" suggests.


As the snow piles on, obliterating all distinction, the field becomes—as the first line three times tells us—an inanimate, dead thing, unmarked by, and unreflective of, the care of man, the very thing which gave it its positive identity as a field. Remove the signs of man's involvement, and it straightway ceases to be "for once, then, something" and can only be identified negatively: it is the nothingness at the center of the encircling trees; it is the nothingness which can only be known by the positiveness which surrounds it and which can only be named in the indefiniteness of a pronoun. This annihilation is figured as death, the ultimate weight of which in cosmic fashion smothers all life, leaving the poet alone in a dead universe, touched, himself, by the death that smothers.

Confronted with the deadness, the spiritlessness, of the external world, the poet notes that he, too, is "absent-spirited"; he, too, is "included" in the loneliness, which is to say the separateness, of the universe of material objects. The paradox here is to be included in separateness, and one arrives at a perception of that paradox by recognizing the plurality of material existence and understanding one's own place in the universal array of physical facts—that is, in nature. This sense is akin to if not identical with Emerson's discovery, made "too late to be helped . . . , that we exist." For Emerson, however, we exist in positive relation to higher values; the essence of our meaning consists not in separateness but in unity. For Frost (thus far in the poem) the persona exists negatively, just as the field may be said to exist negatively. More specifically, the field (no longer a field, properly speaking) is known as the emptiness which disturbs the continuity of the woods; similarly, the poet-observer is defined by his absent-spiritedness and thus by his isolation. The analogy between the condition of nature and the condition of personal psychology is a romantic concept and one perfectly in accord with the ideas of Emerson or Wordsworth. In "Desert Places," however, the implications of the analogy are necessarily and entirely reversed since what is analogous in the persona and the field is the quality of discontinuity. For Wordsworth, and for many subsequent romantic writers including Emerson, the analogy between states of mind or dispositions of the spirit and the sympathetic universe was uplifting because it implied, or rather presupposed, an active positive alliance, a radical continuity, through God, between man and nature. Nature lives and spiritually supports us, even though it is composed in large measure of inanimate objects, because we live and God has allowed us to invest it with our lives. Wordsworth expressed this reciprocal relation when he said, "That from thyself it comes, that thou must give / Else never canst receive" (The Prelude, XII, 276-77). Frost appears, in the first three stanzas, to have reversed these implications. The analogy between man and nature appears operative, but the reciprocal relation is negative rather than positive; pluralistic rather than monistic; fragmented in its stress on aloneness rather than unified; deadly rather than life-supporting.


The third stanza appears at first the weakest on several counts. The purpose it serves seems primarily mechanical. It is necessary to shift the focus from the poet himself back to the scene before him in preparation for the final statement in the last stanza. The first two lines, as Reuben Brower has pointed out, achieve a "Poe-like melancholy," though perhaps by equally Poe-like mechanisms—the use of the archaic "ere" and the mournful reiteration of the word "lonely." A further weakness of these lines might consist in the inadequacy of the physical phenomenon which prompts them. Presumably the quondam field will become lonelier or less expressive than earlier because the snow is now deep enough to hide not only the "weeds and stubble showing last," but also the very contours of the land. Since the annihilation of the identity of the field was earlier accomplished when all signs of its use, its pragmatic definition, were covered, this added touch may strike the reader as gratuitous or insignificant by comparison.

The stanza does, of course, accomplish an intensification of mood, though again almost in spite of itself. The gentle hint of "ere it will be less" must be rejected if these lines are to be read as a genuine concentration of despair. The implied rebirth in the necessary melting of the snow and the reemergence of the field as a real thing is an unassimilated lump of hope, working for the moment in stubborn defiance of the tone and meaning of the poem as it stands at this point.

More subtly in defiance of the tone and meaning is the paradoxical assertion that the "blanker whiteness" has "nothing to express"—a proposition which the very existence of the poem appears to jeopardize. "Nothing" actually becomes "for once, then, something" in a context which is consistently negative. The intensity of nothingness—that is, the intensity which is insisted on in the third stanza—begins to lend to that nothingness an almost palpable reality. It is, after all, that quantity which had defined the field and defined the poet; and because nothingness is thus the landmark by which realities are known, it becomes a real, and in a sense a positive, quality. It is truly a case of nothing having escaped Frost's observation; he is like the listener in Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man" "who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." Frost evokes a similar awareness in "Neither Out Far nor In Deep" by what Trilling has called "the energy with which emptiness is perceived." That Frost could work such a paradox on us is only to say that he makes emptiness real for us as readers of the poem.


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.

The protestation of the first line appears to Reuben Brower "a bit flamboyant." "The scary place," Brower writes, "is thrust off 'there' by the emerging man of wit, by the mind that won't give way to 'absent-spiritedness.' But the gesture . . . opens a worse form of terror by bringing fear where the poet lives most alone." This reading depends on the assumption that the last stanza is essentially disjointed; that something has occurred between lines two and three that leads the poet to reconsider the confident defiance he has just, perhaps too heroically, expressed. In other words, in explaining the sense of the last stanza Brower finds an implicit "but" before the third line. To be sure, the poem has proceeded by crosscurrents to such an extent that it would be easy to see another one here, but in this instance the relationship between ideas seems to be causal rather than antagonistic—a transition which is perhaps better expressed by "because": They cannot scare me with their empty spaces because I have it in me to scare myself with my own desert places.

The other assumption implicit in Brower's reading is that the recognition of private deserts in one's own mind involves "a worse form of terror" than the vision of a dead universe. This assumption also needs to be examined, but first it is necessary to determine who "they" are in the opening line of the stanza and why they cannot scare the poet.

Brooks and Warren have suggested that "they" are astronomers, and, insofar as astronomers adopt an inorganic, physical, and scientific viewpoint and speak for a standard, accepted view of the universe, the suggestion is not amiss. But if the intrusion into the poem of prosaic astronomers seems unduly reductive of Frost's intended ambiguity, it might be more appropriate to take "they" to mean nature itself, pluralistically figured, since nature has been felt throughout the poem as a collection of material objects.

In "Desert Places," then, Frost is commenting on one of the most basic romantic assumptions about the universe—that it is essentially responsive to man, that we are its vital force, its reason for being. . . . What Frost realizes at the beginning of the last stanza is that nature's empty spaces are truly empty—not only of matter, but of meaning and that it is only meaning that can scare. The tune is not in the tree, and the lesson of emptiness is not between stars.

Here, in the last stanza, the major paradox of the poem is resolved. The third stanza asserts that the "blanker whiteness" had "nothing to express," though the deadly heavy pall of nothingness was itself a very considerable thing for the "blanker whiteness" to have expressed; and were it not for that very effective expression, the poem would have had no subject. Realizing now, in the fourth stanza, that the idea of nothingness, of emptiness or aloneness, is generated from within the mind outward and not placed in the mind from exterior nature, obviously the "blanker whiteness" truly does not and can not express, but is a mere canvas on which the observer builds out his own inherent conceptions. The tune is not in the tree; the tune of nothingness is not in the snow. Thus what seemed paradoxical in the third stanza is, when seen from the vantage of the fourth, a simple statement of fact. The "blanker whiteness" has "nothing to express"; it has, literally, no meaning.

If meaning does not inhere in nature, it exists only in the mind, just as Emily Dickinson affirmed. Frost agrees with entire explicitness: "I have it in me," he says, contrasting the substantiveness of the "it" with the "nothing" that the snow has to express. "I am," in other words, "the repository of meaning." This implied assertion, in turn, gives final development to a major theme of the poem—that of location. The field has been transformed from a positively defined entity into a thing which exists only in relation to exterior fixities, by the agency of the snow. The snow, in addition to symbolizing death, symbolizes an allied concept—doubt, that quality which undermines self-knowledge and self-containment and makes us look outside ourselves for points of reference. The poet is located by a quantity which appears to be exterior, the pervasive nullity of a dead universe. But when the poet-observer comes to understand that he is himself the repository of meaning, he is relocated—or, more properly, he locates himself as definer, namer, potentially as poet—and puts himself positively at the center of the universe. The experience he observes in the field—or rather the romantic misunderstanding he has of it—literally pulls him out of himself and makes him so vulnerable to the apparent deadness that he is nearly smothered in the rarified atmosphere of aloneness and homelessness. The poem restores him to himself, equips him with a sense of who and where he is, defined positively this time, in relation to nature and to the objects to which he will give meaning poetically. He is brought home: "I have it in me so much nearer home," he says. Here again we are dealing with two concepts which are related as cause and effect. He can locate "home" because, for the first time in the poem, he can see that there is something in him which does not exist elsewhere, and that "something" is the potential to create meaning.

Perhaps the modernity of "Desert Places" is most clearly seen in its acceptance of a universe without inherent prior meaning. There is, in the last stanza, a note almost of relief at the realization that one is not tied to a dead universe; that is, to a universe whose overarching principle is death and separateness. Rather he finds a universe without overarching principles, without prior meaning—a universe which he, as a poet, can fill up and fill out with meaning from his own life. For Frost this insight and the prospect it affords represent a tremendous freedom. "They cannot scare me," seen in this light, is simply another way of saying "the universe cannot impose upon me."

For Frost, meaning is a thing people use to bridge separateness and to bring order out of real, not apparent, chaos . . . The analogy which exists between man and nature was not, for Frost, established by God, but is continually being created by man's own imagination: each time one draws an analogy between man and nature, one does so by an act of the will, not in accordance with the scheme of the universe but in defiance of its essential schemelessness. . . . What led the poet-observer into despair at the beginning of the poem was his Wordsworthian assumption that the analogy does exist a priori; by the end of the poem the mistake is discovered.

from "A Study of Frost's 'Desert Places.'" Frost: Centennial Essays. Copyright © 1973 by University Press of Mississippi.