Mark Richardson

Mark Richardson: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

The idea that the "inner" materials of the artist are "re-formed" by the "outer" materials in which he works helps us understand the implications of the reading of "Stop- ping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" given by Frost himself in "The Constant Symbol." Much commentary on "Stopping by Woods" has suggested that the poem expresses a complicated desire for self-annihilation. The idea is well handled by Richard Poirier in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing: "The recognition of the power of nature, especially of snow, to obliterate the limits and boundaries of things and of his own being is, in large part, a function here of some furtive impulse toward extinction, an impulse no more predominate in Frost than in nature" (181). Frank Lentricchia makes a similar point about Frost's winter landscapes in general and quotes an especially apposite passage from Gas- ton Bachelard's The Poetics of Space: "In the outside world, snow covers all tracks, blurs the road, muffles every sound, conceals all colors. As a result of this universal whiteness, we feel a form of cosmic negation in action" (qtd. in Lentricchia, Landscapes 31).

During Frost's own lifetime, however, the matter was often handled much less sensitively. Indeed, critics sometimes set his teeth on edge with intimations about personal themes in the poem, as if it expressed a wish quite literally for suicide or marked some especially dark passage in the poet's life. Louis Mertins quotes him in conversation (and similar remarks may be found in transcripts of a number of Frost's public readings):

I suppose people think I lie awake nights worrying about what people like [John] Ciardi of the Saturday Review write and publish about me [in 19S8]…Now Ciardi is a nice fellow—one of those bold, brassy fellows who go ahead and say all sorts of things. He makes my "Stopping By Woods" out a death poem. Well, it would be like this if it were. I'd say, "This is all very lovely, but I must be getting on to heaven." There'd be no absurdity in that. That's all right, but it's hardly a death poem. Just as if I should say here tonight, "This is all very well, but I must be getting on to Phoenix, Arizona, to lecture there." [Mertins 371]

As does Eliot, Frost often couples suggestions 0f private sorrows and griefs with statements about their irrelevance. William Pritchard describes the practice well in pointing out how Frost typically "[holds] back any particular reference to his private sorrows while bidding us to respond to the voice of a man who has been acquainted with grief" (230). It is worth bearing in mind that, later in the conversation with Mertins, Frost says: "If you feel it, let's just exchange glances and not say anything about it. There are a lot of things between best friends that're never said, and if you—if they're brought out, right out, too baldly, something's lost" (371-72). To similar effect, he writes in a letter to Sidney Cox: " a measured amount of all we could say an we would. We shall be judged finally by the delicacy of our feeling for when to stop short. The right people know, and we artists should know better than they know" (CPPP 714). I think of Eliot in "Tradition and the Individual Talent": "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things" (Selected Essays 10-11). He has in mind exactly the sort of readers and writers Frost acknowledges here: "The right people know, and we artists should know better than they know." In any event, Frost’s subtle caveat to Mertins is probably meant equally to validate Ciardi's suggestion about "Stopping by Woods" and to lay a polite injunction against it.

But his turning aside of Ciardi's reading is more than an example of tact. He speaks out of fidelity to his belief that the emotions that give rise to a poem are in some way alienated by it in the result, and his alternative reading of "Stopping by Woods" is worth dwelling on as a roundabout contribution to the theory of personality and motive in poetry. Frost directs our attention not to the poem's theme or content but to its form: the interlocking pattern of rhyme among the stanzas. He once remarked to an audience at Bread Loaf, again discouraging biographical or thematic readings of the poem: "If I were reading it for someone else, I'd begin to wonder what he's up to. See. Not what he means but what he's up to" (Cook 81). The emphasis is on the performance of the writer and on the act of writing. Following are Frost's brief comments on it in "The Constant Symbol":

There's an indulgent smile I get for the recklessness of the unnecessary commitment I made when I came to the first line in the second stanza of a poem in this book called "Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening." I was riding too high to care what trouble I incurred. And it was all right so long as I didn't suffer deflection. (CPPP 788)

In emphasizing the lyric's form Frost really only defers the question of theme or content. It is not that the poem does not have a theme, or one worth a reader's consideration; the form simply is the theme. If this seems surprising, it is only because Frost's emphasis makes for so complete a reversal in mood. The mood of the poem at this second level of form-as-theme is anything but suggestive of self-annihilation: "I was riding too high to care what trouble I incurred." This is the kind of transformation Poirier has in mind when he remarks in The Performing Self (1971), quoting an interview with Frost originally published in the Paris Review in 1960: "If [a] poem expresses grief, it also expresses—as an act, as a composition, a performance, a 'making,'—the opposite of grief; it shows or expresses 'what a hell of a good time I had writing it'" (892). I would point out further that Frost's reading, appearing as it does in "The Constant Symbol," lends the last two lines of "Stopping by Woods" added resonance: "promises" are still the concern, though in "The Constant Symbol" he speaks of them as "commitments" to poetic form. Viewed in these terms "Stopping by Woods" dramatizes the artist's negotiation of the responsibilities of his craft. What may seem to most readers hardly a metapoetical lyric actually speaks to the central concern of the poet as a poet when the form of the poem is taken as its theme.

The question immediately presents itself, however, of a possible disjunction between form and theme, even as they seem to work in tandem. The "unnecessary commitment" that exhilarated Frost-the rhyme scheme—does in fact "suffer deflection" in the last stanza: here there are four matched end rhymes, not three. Promises are broken, not kept, as Frost relinquishes the pattern he carried through the first three stanzas. Of course, as John Ciardi points out in the Saturday Review article alluded to above, this relinquishment is really built into the design itself: the only way not to break the pattern would have been to rhyme the penultimate line 0f the poem with the first, thereby creating a symmetrical, circular rhyme scheme. Frost chose not to keep this particular promise, with the result that the progress of the poem illustrates one form of the lassitude that it apparently resigns itself to being a stay against-to put the matter somewhat paradoxically. Paradox is only fitting, however, in acknowledging the mixture of motives animating the poem: motives, on the one hand, of self-relinquishment in what Poirier calls Frost's "recognition of the power of obliterate the limits and boundaries of things and of his own being"; and motives, on the other hand, of self-assertion and exhilaration in what Frost calls the experience of "riding ...high." Frost's remark about Robinson's poetry in the introduction to King Jasper seems to apply rather well to "Stopping by Woods": "So sad and at the same time so happy in achievement" (CPPP 747].

A slighter example of dark emotion redeemed by poetic form and thereby brought to happy achievement is Frost's little poem "Beyond Words":

That row of icicles along the gutter Feels like my armory of hate; And you, you, you utter… You wait!

If the hatred truly were "beyond words" it could not have found expression, let alone expression in a poem. Here, form has "disciplined" the hatred to which the lines allude into the obviously very different mood and feeling that we get from reading the poem itself. The playful rhyme of "gutter" to "utter" has the peculiar subsidiary grace of suggesting the guttural tone in which the poem thinks of itself as being uttered. In his "'Letter' to The Amherst Student" Frost says that, so long as we have form to go on, we are "lost to the larger excruciations" (CPPP 740). "Beyond Words" helps us see what he means. Resources of rhythm and rhyme transform darker, chaotic emotions into the lighter, altogether more manageable one of what Frost liked to call "play." In "Beyond Words" this "play" is also felt in the tension between the iambic rhythms that underlie the lines and the more agitated rhythms of the spoken phrases. The only true "materialist," Frost explains in "Education by Poetry," is the person who gets "lost in his material" without a guiding metaphor to throw it into shape (CPPP 724). Here, a metaphor comparing icicles along a gutter to an "armory of hate," together with the sonic equation of "gutter" to "utter," essentially tame a troubling experience. "Beyond Words" offers an example of how hatred can find a profitable, even redemptive outlet—just as an urge toward self-relinquishment may find its outlet in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."


Another implication of Frost's reading of "Stopping by Woods" is that any distinction between form and theme must remain provisional. Relative to readings of "Stopping by Woods" as a poem concerned with possibilities of self-annihilation, Frost’s own reading seems rather too exclusively fixed upon form and doubtless has struck many readers as evasive. But in the context of the essay in which his reading of the poem appears, "The Constant Symbol," that reading is quite thematic in its concerns, not at all formalistic—as should presently become clear. And in the larger work comprising both the poem and his commentary on it, Frost is in fact interested in destabilizing the oppositions of theme to form and of content to form.

Three terms concern us: content, theme, form. In approaching some poems it is necessary first to describe the content. Reading Wallace Stevens's poem "The Emperor of Ice Cream," for example, we may say that it describes a funeral—a statement about content. (By contrast, nothing could be plainer than the content of most of Frost's lyrics, especially "Stopping by Woods.") In any event a critic needs some intelligible ground against which to work in speaking of the theme, or if you prefer, the "concern" of the poem—what it aims to draw our attention to as readers of poetry. What the poem "has in mind" is not to be confused with what it "has in view," though the two categories often overlap. "The Emperor of Ice Cream" may or may not have a funereal theme; "Stopping by Woods" mayor may not be "thinking" of a man in a sleigh. Form is still another matter, and to address it a critic usually has to define and stabilize for purposes of investigation some notion of theme to work against. Which yields these three (somewhat unstable) concepts: what a poem describes—its content; what it has in mind—its theme; and how it holds together—its form.

Whatever a critic's terminology, it is perhaps inevitable that she rely on each of these concepts. I am suggesting that Frost's critical theory and practice show how they are exchangeable: each term must be considered for its place in a kind of escalation of significance in which theme, form, and content change places. This is, it seems to me, the meaning of Frost's definition in "The Constant Symbol": "Every poem is an epitome of the great predicament; a figure of the will braving alien entanglements" (CPPP 787). Here is a theme which is not one: that is to say, a theme which stands in no comfortable opposition either to content or form. "Figure" works in three senses here: in the sense of metaphor; in the sense of "subject" or "theme," as when we say that a painting is of a human figure; and in the sense of "pattern" or form. The "figure" or pattern a poem makes may "pose" and become either the content or the theme of a particular poem; that is, a poem may either have that pattern "in view" or "in mind." In Frost's reading of "Stopping by Woods," for example, the figure that poem makes, its rhyme and stanza scheme, becomes its "figure" or theme. But it is not enough to say that a poem is a "figure"—whether we mean metaphor or theme—of the will braving alien entanglements: it is also an example of it, not merely a representation, and this directs our attention to the act of description in a poem rather than to the things it describes. More precisely, it extends the category of "things described" (the content) to include also the act of description. Considered in this light the content of every poem "written regular" (as Frost says) is this "figure of the will braving alien entanglements." His reading plainly undermines the distinction between form and content: the container becomes the thing contained—which brings us to the very heart of the matter. This exchange and merger of container and contained—of outside and inside, form and content—is central to Frost's understanding of motive. When he writes to Lesley Frost: "I want to be good, but that is not enough the state says I have got to be good," the observation quite naturally occurs to him in connection with a discussion of form in poetry. This suggests the broader implications of the fact that outer motivations become indistinguishable from the inner motivations of the agent—whether he is a poet writing a poem or a citizen simply endeavoring to be good. It is as impossible to define the essential motive of "Stopping by Woods"—intrinsic? extrinsic? personal? formal?—as it would be to define the essential motive of the desire to be virtuous. In both cases the motive is the product, not the antecedent, of engagements with alien entanglements—that is, with the coercive motives, however benign, of form and state.

Since this points to the indissociability of external and internal motivations it naturally bears closely on the question of personality in poetry. To say that a poet "expresses" himself is to assign priority to intrinsic motives as against extrinsic ones and to elevate autobiographical impulses above the act of composition. Furthermore, in putting content above form, expressive theories of poetry necessarily assume a stable opposition of message to vehicle, in which the former remains uncontaminated by the latter. Thinking of poetry in terms of expression inevitably engages the battery of assumptions Derrida skeptically describes in "Signature Event Context": "If men write it is: (1) because they have to communicate; (2) because what they have to communicate is their 'thought,' their 'ideas,' their representations. Thought, as representation, precedes and governs communication, which transports the 'idea,' the signified content." In Frost's Derridean-Burkean grammar the sentence must always read: a poem is expressed, which captures the mixture of external and internal motives he finds in himself and in writing. No pure governing intention precedes a poem to be embodied in it. We must speak instead of a "succession" of intention. 

From The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and His Poetics. Copyright © 1997 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

Mark Richardson: On "The Road Not Taken"

The ironies of this poem have been often enough remarked. Not least among them is the contrast of the title with the better-remembered phrase of the poem's penultimate line: "the [road] less travelled by" (CPPP 103). Which road, after all, is the road "not taken"? Is it the one the speaker takes, which, according to his last description of it, is "less travelled"-that is to say, not taken by others? Or does the title refer to the supposedly better-traveled road that the speaker himself fails to take? Precisely who is not doing the taking? This initial ambiguity sets in play equivocations that extend throughout the poem. Of course, the broadest irony in the poem derives from the fact that the speaker merely asserts that the road he takes is "less travelled": the second and third stanzas make clear that "the passing there" had worn these two paths "really about the same" and that "both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black." Strong medial caesurae in the poem's first ten lines comically emphasize the "either-or" deliberations in which the speaker is engaged, and which have, apparently, no real consequence: nothing issues from them. Only in the last stanza is any noticeable difference between the two roads established, and that difference is established by fiat: the speaker simply declares that the road he took was less travelled. There is nothing to decide between them. There is no meaningful "choice" to make, or rather no more choice than is meaningfully apparent to the "step-careless" politician of Frost's parable of decision in "The Constant Symbol."

Comical as "The Road Not Taken" may be, there is serious matter in it, as my reading of "The Constant Symbol" is meant to suggest. "Step-carelessness" has its consequences; choices—even when they are undertaken so lightly as to seem unworthy of the name "choice"—are always more momentous, and very often more providential, than we suppose. There may be, one morning in a yellow wood, no difference between two roads—say, the Democratic and the Republican parties. But "way leads on to way," as Frost's speaker says, and pretty soon you find yourself in the White House. As I argue throughout this chapter, this is the indifference that Frost wants us to see: "youthful step-carelessness" really is a form of "step-carefulness." But it is only by setting out, by working our way well into the wood, that we begin to understand the meaning of the choices we make and the character of the self that is making them; in fact, only then can we properly understand our actions as choices. The speaker vacillates in the first three stanzas of "The Road Not Taken," but his vacillations, viewed in deeper perspective, seem, and in fact really are, "decisive." We are too much in the middle of things, Frost seems to be saying, ever to understand when we are truly "acting" and "deciding" and when we are merely reacting and temporizing. Our paths unfold themselves to us as we go. We realize our destination only when we arrive at it, though all along we were driven toward it by purposes we may rightly claim, in retrospect, as our own. Frost works from Emerson's recognition in "Experience":

Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. ...If any of us knew what we were doing, or where we are going, then when we think we best know! We do not know today whether we are busy or idle. In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered, that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us. (Essays 471)

Frost's is an Emersonian philosophy in which indecisiveness and decision feel very much alike—a philosophy in which acting and being acted upon form indistinguishable aspects of a single experience. There is obviously a contradiction in "The Road Not Taken" between the speaker's assertion of difference in the last stanza and his indifferent account of the roads in the first three stanzas. But it is a contradiction more profitably described—in light of Frost's other investigations of questions about choice, decision, and action—as a paradox. He lets us see, as I point out above, that every action is in some degree intemperate, incalculable, "step-careless." The speaker of "The Road Not Taken," like the politician described in "The Constant Symbol," is therefore a figure for us all. This complicates the irony of the poem, saving it from platitude on the one hand (the M. Scott Peck reading) and from sarcasm on the other (the biographical reading of the poem merely as a joke about Edward Thomas). I disagree with Frank Lentricchia's suggestion in Modernist Quartet that "The Road Not Taken" shows how "our life- shaping choices are irrational, that we are fundamentally out of control" (75). The author of "The Trial by Existence" would never contend that we are fundamentally out of control—or at least not do so in earnest. 

From The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and His Poetics. Copyright © 1997 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Mark Richardson: On "Mending Wall"

The speaker of that poem allies himself with the insubordinate energies of spring, which yearly destroy the wall separating his property from his neighbor's: "Spring is the mischief in me," he says (CPPP 39). This alliance at first has the effect of setting the speaker against the basic conservatism of his neighbor beyond the hill, who as everybody knows never "goes behind his father's saying": "Good fences make good neighbors." But the association of the speaker with insubordinate natural forces should not be permitted to obscure an important fact, which has been often enough noticed: he, not the neighbor, initiates the yearly spring repair of the wall; moreover, it is again he, not the neighbor, who goes behind hunters who destroy the wall in other seasons and makes repairs. So if the speaker is allied with the vernal mischief of spring and its insubordinations, he is nevertheless also set against them in his efforts to make the stones of the wall balance and remain in place: "Stay where you are until our backs are turned!" he wryly says to the stones. Here, in fact, the speaker is rather like those of Frost's earlier poems "Rose Pogonias" and "October," each of whom, in imagination at least, attempts to arrest the naturally entropic and destructive forces of nature in the hope of achieving a momentary stay against confusion. In "Rose Pogonias," for example, we read:

We raised a simple prayer      Before we left the spot,  That in the general mowing      That place might be forgot;  Or if not all so favored,      Obtain such grace of hours,  That none should mow the grass there      While so confused with flowers.

And in "October":

O hushed October morning mild,  Begin the hours of this day slow.  Make the day seem to us less brief.  Hearts not averse to being beguiled,  Beguile us in the way you know.  Release one leaf at break of day;  At noon release another leaf;  One from our trees, one far away.  Retard the sun with gentle mist;  Enchant the land with amethyst.  Slow, slow!

The happy irony of "Mending Wall" is this: the speaker in this case allies himself with the destructive energies of nature, not against them as in "Rose Pogonias" and "October"; but at the same time he ritually initiates the wall-building exercise that so inefficiently resists and contains those same energies. The speaker of "Mending Wall" is obviously of two minds: at once wall-builder and wall-destroyer, at once abettor and antagonist of seasonal entropies. I would point out further that his impatience with his neighbor's aphoristic turn of mind is significantly (and playfully) qualified by the admonitory aphorism he himself devises and twice repeats, clearly delighted at having thought of it himself: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," he says in a tone that by the poem's end almost acquires an air of finger-wagging, country pedantry. The difference is that, unlike his benighted neighbor, the speaker of the poem does indeed go behind his own favored aphorism to play both sides of the fence. In short, the two opposed men in the poem fairly shape up into one, and his name is Robert Frost.

At last, then, we have alternative aphorisms about walls and fences, and the truth of the matter resides in the "gap" between them that this famously mischievous poem opens up. In this way "Mending Wall" at once acknowledges the limitations of walls (and aphorisms) and also their seductions and value. As has often been pointed out, this dual

theme is embodied even in the movement of the blank verse lines of "Mending Wall," which subtly play both within and against the metrical and structural impositions of the iambic pentameter line. When his speaker has in view the energies that disturb walls and boundaries, Frost's prosody vagrantly resists the regularities of his metrical contract:

Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it And spills the upper boulders in the sun And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Enjambment and metrical variations—trochaic feet for iambic ones, spondaic and pyrrhic substitutions, and so on—contribute subtly to the theme of these lines. It is exactly as Pope would have it. How better to, describe a disordered wall than in lines themselves disordered? At such times Frost's blank verse recalls "Tintern Abbey," in which Wordsworth describes those "hedgerows hardly hedgerows" in eloquently unruly lines. In any case, here—as at a number of moments in "Mending Wall"—metrical and rhythmical patterns work in a kind of loosely running counterpoint characterized more by "formity" than by "conformity," as Frost might say. By contrast, when Frost imagines the reconstruction of the wall as the two men labor, the rhythm and meter of his lines coincide quite exactly:

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill; And on a day we meet to walk the line And set the wall between us once again. We keep the wall between us as we go.

Here, end-stopped lines are the rule: grammatical and rhetorical units more or less confine themselves to their prescribed ten-syllable boundaries. And there is little or no rhythmical variation against the basic iambic grid, which reasserts itself in these lines rather as the wall it- self is "reasserted." Other such examples of Frost's metrical dexterity in this poem might be given, but these two suffice to suggest how tightly integrated in "Mending Wall" are form and theme.

In sum, the speaker of the poem exhibits, both in his manner and in his actions, a certain flexibility. He unsettles walls that he also always repairs; he is at once Apollonian and Dionysian. Once again—as in the introduction to King Jasper and "The Future of Man"—Frost's conservative and rebellious tendencies are perfectly balanced, just as the "intransigent" and "accommodating" tendencies of the speaker of "Good Hours" are metrically and thematically balanced ….

We might also regard "Mending Wall" in light of what Frost says in his 1934 letter to his daughter Lesley about the doctrine of Inner Form. The "neighbor beyond the hill" is all on the side of conformity, the speaker of the poem (at least by his own account) all on the side of formity. Frost himself—and here we should perhaps distinguish him from his speaker—stands at the dialectical intersection of these two opposed terms, for as he says in "The Constant Symbol" about the "discipline[s]" from "within" and from "without": "He who knows not both knows neither."

From The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and His Poetics. Copyright © 1997 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.