Robert Faggen

Robert Faggen: On "The Witch of Coös"

. . . Though the whole story appears to be a show the mother and son have developed for gullible visitors, the mother takes her spiritualism seriously and becomes troubled by some of its contradictions, particularly its failure to account for the material reality of the body as well as its desire to accommodate itself to the standards of proof of modern science. Inspired by "Ralle the Sioux Control," an Indian spiritualist who made her ponder the question of whether the dead "have souls" or are souls, she posits the persistence of a bodily, visceral presence, evoking the old religious controversy about what happens to the dead between the time of death and the resurrection. Caught between the Pauline view that in the resurrection we shall be given new bodies and the Neoplatonic view of purely spiritual resurrection, she fears the possibility of remaining in an earthly limbo. Christian and pagan intersect in her mind in a terrifying way, and she does reveal herself to be an old believer, despite the put-on way she appeals to the evidence of pieces of bone to accommodate modern skepticism:

[lines 1-20]

The story about the bones, however, exposes her desire to reanimate lost power, and the skeleton becomes a metaphor for her self. Like the dead, she too is "keeping something back," which makes her more compelling, threatening. Behind her story about the resurrected bones—a skeleton in the closet—is her deeper psychological fear and, above all, guilt about her past.

The story about the skeleton tells a great deal about her attempts to overcome the coldness in her marriage and the cruelty of men. Her husband, Toffile, faults her for going "to sleep before [she goes] to bed," but one senses that the conditions he has created for her are equally cool, and that he feared her sexuality as much as she feared his control, leaving "an open door to cool the room off / So as to sort of turn me out of it":

[lines 36-43]

As she presents the resurrected skeleton, she creates a fantasy of control over its passion, "balancing with emotion," and fear of its desire, fire emanating from its mouth and smoke from its sockets. And she reminds herself and the narrator that "in life once" the man used to come at her with hand outstretched, perhaps with some violence. Both fond of what she has provoked and fearing it, she exerts ultimate control by knocking its bones to pieces on the floor and keeping them for proof (or so she would like the narrator to believe!).

[lines 65-81]

More important is the way she uses her sorcery to seduce her indifferent husband, reducing his egregiousness, and demanding a display of sexual prowess:

[lines 90-103]

Toffile, her husband, never saw the skeleton, and she told him that she had trapped it in the attic, pushing the bed against the door, nailing it shut. The imagined proximity of the skeleton to the bed keeps excitement—through threat of intrusion and her fantasy—in the marriage.

As much as she is fascinated by the skeleton and uses it to torment Toffile it also becomes a taboo by which she remains faithful to Toffile and his memory. She will be "cruel" to the bones for the cruelty she once inflicted on her husband by her infidelity:

[lines 125-134]

We finally learn the deeper tragedy behind her storytelling: Toffile had killed the man who had an affair with her and buried him in the cellar. This was more than enough for both of them to be tormented by the idea of the skeleton, for their guilt in a crime, for the inadequate burial of the dead:

[lines 135-151]

What we find out or can infer about the "witch"'s life is more horrible than the story she might be concocting to sell to visitors. Sexual jealousy, murder, loneliness, and fear are the memorable aspects of her domestic experience. She refuses to become spiritually buried by her past, but her spiritualism cannot hide her dependence on the memory of the passion she inspired in her lover and in her husband and of the guilt over the tragedy that it created. Only at the end is there an exasperated disavowal of her attempt to hide her life behind the mask of spiritualism: "But tonight I don't care enough to lie— / I don't remember why I ever cared." If this is just another mask for the narrator, it is a doubt overcome when he sees her husband's name, Toffile Lajway, still on the mailbox.

From Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Copyright © 1997 by The University of Michigan

Robert Faggen: On "The Road Not Taken"

"The Road Not Taken" is an ironic commentary on the autonomy of choice in a world governed by instincts, unpredictable contingencies, and limited possibilities. It parodies and demurs from the biblical idea that God is the "way" that can and should be followed and the American idea that nature provides the path to spiritual enlightenment. The title refers doubly to bravado for choosing a road less traveled but also to regret for a road of lost possibility and the eliminations and changes produced by choice. "The Road Not Taken " reminds us of the consequences of the principle of selection in al1 aspects of life, namely that al1 choices in knowledge or in action exclude many others and lead to an ironic recognitions of our achievements. At the heart of the poem is the romantic mythology of flight from a fixed world of limited possibility into a wilderness of many possibilities combined with trials and choices through which the pilgrim progresses to divine perfection. I agree with Frank Lentricchia's view that the poem draws on "the culturally ancient and pervasive idea of nature as allegorical book, out of which to draw explicit lessons for the conduct of life (nature as self-help text)." I would argue that what it is subverting is something more profound than the sentimental expectations of genteel readers of fireside poetry. . . .

The drama of the poem is of the persona making a choice between two roads. As evolved creatures, we should be able to make choices, but the poem suggests that our choices are irrational and aesthetic. The sense of meaning and morality derived from choice is not reconciled but, rather obliterated and canceled by a nonmoral monism. Frost is trying to reconcile impulse with a con- science that needs goals and harbors deep regrets. The verb Frost uses is taken, which means something less conscious than chosen. The importance of this opposition to Frost is evident in the way he changed the tide of "Take Something Like a Star" to "Choose Something Like a Star," and he continued to alter tides in readings and publications. Take suggests more of an unconscious grasp than a deliberate choice. (Of course, it also suggests action as opposed to deliberation.) In "The Road Not Taken" the persona's reasons wear thin, and choice is confined by circumstances and the irrational:

[lines 1-10]

Both roads had been worn "about the same," though his "taking" the second is based on its being less worn. The basis of selection is individuation, variation, and "difference": taking the one "less traveled by." That he "could not travel both / And be one traveler" means not only that he will never be able to return but also that experience alters the traveler; he would not be the same by the time he came back. Frost is presenting an antimyth in which origin, destination, and return are undermined by a nonprogressive development. And the hero has only illusory choice. This psychological representation of the developmental principle of divergence strikes to the core of Darwinian theory. Species are made and survive when individuals diverge from others in a branching scheme, as the roads diverge for the speaker. The process of selection implies an unretracing process of change through which individual kinds are permanently altered by experience. Though the problem of making a choice at a crossroads is almost a commonplace, the drama of the poem conveys a larger mythology by including evolutionary metaphors and suggesting the passage of eons.

The change of tense in the penultimate line—to took—is part of the speaker's projection of what he "shall be telling," but only retrospectively and after "ages and ages." Though he cannot help feeling free in selection, the speaker's wisdom is proved only through survival of an unretraceable course of experience:

[lines 11-20]

The poem leaves one wondering how much "difference" is implied by all, given that the "roads" already exist, that possibilities are limited. Exhausted possibilities of human experience diminish great regret over "the road not taken" or bravado for "the road not taken" by everyone else. The poem does raise questions about whether there is any justice in the outcome of one's choices or anything other than aesthetics, being "fair," in our moral decisions. The speaker's impulse to individuation is mitigated by a moral dilemma of being unfair or cruel, in not stepping on leaves, "treading" enough to make them "black. " It might also imply the speaker's recognition that individuation will mean treading on others.

From Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Copyright © 1997 by The University of Michigan

Robert Faggen: On "The Wood-Pile"

. . . In "The Wood-Pile" the narrator finds in his frozen swamp ambiguous evidence of order and cultivation that does not yield simple revelations. The facts—the behavior of the bird and the woodpile itself—become hard to read in this ecologically complex environment.

The narrator's purposes remain obscure, though he seems ambivalent about them. Is he escaping, fleeing, or seeking something? At first he wants to "turn back" but then continues with "we shall see." See something literally or colloquially, as in "see what will happen"? There is a ruefulness in his recognition that he is "far from home":

[lines 1-9]

Ungraspable, beyond our naming or taming, the place is inhuman. One senses that the narrator is testing himself, attempting to overcome his fears and expectations in an environment indifferent to his ego. All the while he convinces himself of a decision and of his power of choice, both of which are soon mocked.

What he eventually sees are indications of life and form—the little bird and the woodpile—that do not conform to the uniformity of the trees; they are evidence of the Lucretian swerve of independence and order in a chaotic world. He attempts to infer some intention, purpose, or design from these facts, which resist comprehension. The bird, probably a white-tailed junco, becomes the target of the narrator's projections about purpose. According to the narrator, this bird is defensive, sure that he is after him for his white tail feather. But the narrator checks his own anthropomorphism with the wonderfully ambiguous qualifying phrase "Who was so foolish as to think what he thought." The real problem is the antecedent of the relative pronoun who, the bird or the narrator. Is the narrator foolish to try to think what the bird thought, or is the bird foolish for thinking that the narrator is after his tail feather? Both readings reveal something about the narrator and his quest for meaning:

[lines 10-16]

On one level the narrator appears to be mocking the bird for his paranoia and egotism, "like one who takes / Everything said as personal to himself." But the foolishness may be the narrator's for projecting onto the bird his own thoughts and his human tendency to see the world in terms of his own ego.

But the narrator's attention to the white feather in the bird's tail suggests that the bird may well indeed have something to fear; the narrator's attention to it betrays his lack of indifference to an unusual trophy, a thing of beauty, that he might want to capture or possess (not unlike the narrator seeking the trophy nest in "The White-Tailed Hornet"). The narrator asserts his own freedom from this desire with the line "One flight out sideways would have undeceived him," while confirming his own inability to liberate himself from this desire to take off "the way I might have gone," if he were still not bound to his instincts. The bird goes behind the woodpile, according to the narrator, "to make his last stand":

[lines 17-22]

Why does the bird go behind the woodpile? Probably not to make his last stand. Rather, the woodpile is the location of his nest, as the junco is the kind of bird who builds nests in fallen logs and close to the ground. The white feather, despite the attention of the narrator, serves the purpose of mating, not beauty for human eyes.

A carefully cut "cord," perhaps a play on chord, of the hardwood maple, it seems a religious sacrifice or a work of art, at least purposefully ornamented and finished by the clematis. But the clematis itself is seeking material upon which to grow. And it might also show the bird's real motive in going to the woodpile—seeking the seeds of the clematis for food. There is a network of growth and destruction. These aspects of the tangled swamp are lost on this seeker of ordered perfection comprehensible in human terms:

[lines 23-34]

Its isolation and age are remarkable indications of what appears to have been an inexplicable and, more important, deliberate action of waste. The environment overwhelms, threatens, and destroys any angular form of human order that can be imposed upon or made from it. The tree growing next to it—like the Darwinian Tree of Life, which encompasses both life and extinction—supports the pile, while the man-made stake and prop are "about to fall." The human destruction of a tree to create form is subsumed by the larger Tree of Life. . . .

The speaker of "The Wood-Pile" seems surprised that someone could build such an altar as the woodpile, "far from a useful fireplace." As a form set against the chaos of nature, it appears to serve no survival function, and that is its glory. What kind of individual would do this?

[lines 34-40]

The speaker's revelation is ambiguous. His own quest for perfection (the white feather, the perfect work of art) is mocked by the thought of a creator who moves on from form to form. There is a Lucretian lesson in this, that the fear of death and the concern with immortality are likely to produce fear and foolishness. The woodpile is an example of waste for its own sake. Its creator moves on with little concern for how others perceive what he has done or for the future of what he has made. But was his motive the "sheer morning gladness at the brim," as the speaker of "The Tuft of Flowers" said in hope of discovering a common faith? If the woodpile is a metaphor for a human effort at form or art or individuation—free from practical constraints—it reveals only that all attempts at transcendence lead back to some form of ecological function in the material world: "To warm the frozen swamp as best it could / With the slow smokeless burning of decay." The woodpile takes on a life of its own. Like Darwin, Frost moves past thinking about who made the cut wood, a creative agent of change, to the wood itself, which serves a purpose even in its death. Indeed, its presence and decay allow for clematis, and the clematis provides seed for birds. And it does in its decay actually allow enough warming so that trees can grow, from the bacterial breakdown into methane, though the phrase ''as best it could" indicates the limits Frost tends to ascribe to any single effort. The woodpile with its apparent merging of formal and final causes at the hands of an absent creator would be an example of l'art pour l'art were it not for the fact that its apparent ecological function defeats the projections and hopes of the narrator. Here too, Daphne eludes Apollo. The speaker would be as indifferent as the bird, as indifferent as the woodchopper, and indifferent to the woodpile itself as its purpose and design collapse into the swampy chaos of biological interpenetration and transformation. The conclusion expresses a recognition of the vanity of human pursuit in a pluralistic and inhuman universe.

From Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Copyright © 1997 by The University of Michigan

Robert Faggen: On "Home Burial"

. . . In "Home Burial" a wife's angry reticence becomes a moral rebuke to what she perceives as her husband's brutal and selfish way of mourning the death of their first child; the gender hierarchy of civilized and uncivilized, ordered and chaotic, male and female, becomes remarkably fluid. The death of their child, one of the most disturbing possible events in a marriage and an undermining of a fundamental biological order, threatens the purpose of their relationship and reveals, instead of love, a void. The drama of their argument reveals the intensity of her personal interests beneath her mask of piety and the force of her husband's will beneath his postures of care and reasonableness. Their debate about the limits of grief becomes defined by gender and whether there is any common human ground on which to continue their relationship and a family.

Amy's declaration of the loneliness of death and others’ inability to grieve appears to conform to the Aristotelian view that excessive grief is "unmanly," associated with women who are closer to chaotic nature than men. . . . In "Home Burial" this ancient distinction becomes complicated. Amy remains impervious to fellow mourners and provides a powerful though flawed rebuke to her husband's grief and temporary control, which may be little more than the virtue of maintaining his own power within the home. Amy becomes the relentless idealist in a world of survival demands. . . .

Though "Home Burial" focuses on Amy's need to escape the confines of the house and marriage, we learn that her husband found some of his own escape outside the house digging his son's grave, no doubt a form of relief from his wife 's moral control. When the narrative begins, we find Amy in a position of metaphoric superiority, at the top of the stairs, silent and refusing her husband's gaze from the bottom. Her silence becomes a barrier she has created to torment her husband and force him into a confrontation with her fears, one of which is the physical force he exhibits as he "mounts" above her seeking to penetrate her reticence. The absence of question marks at the end of the husband's "questions" reveal the extent to which they are more accurately demands, if not threats:

[lines 1-19] 

She was first the object of his gaze, and one senses that her extra looks back were intended to offset his controlling stare. The narrator tells us that she was "looking back at some fear."

Here, as in "The Witch of Coos" or "The Fear," the woman's ability to reanimate fear, while seemingly irrational, serves an important moral role, to unsettle the complacency of civil and domestic control. . . . Amy has succeeded in rousing fear in her husband, sufficient fear for him to break his own barrier of silence and demand to know what it is she sees. She denies his ability to see, and she demeans him as imperceptive and crude, becoming a "blind creature." The husband, not Amy, has been reduced to brutishness and lower mental capacity.

The husband's response to the challenge reveals part of what Amy fears: she is being used as a childbearing intrument in her husband's house. The husband "frames" the family graveyard with the window—diminishing its size and, figuratively its import—turning it into a portrait in his family gallery. And he makes the terrifying analogy between the bedroom and the graveyard, revealing his own ability to lacerate Amy with but a few words. Love leads not only to death but to the memorial of his people:

[lines 20-29]

He refers to his own relatives in an extraordinarily cold way, nuking an analogy between their persons, "broad-shouldered," and the "slabs." The "child's mound" remains the one as yet indeterminate part of the "family plot," to which Amy has become destined to contribute. Her pain and anger bear resemblance to the feelings and actions of Laban's third wife in "Place for a Third," as she refuses to be buried with the previous two and become another of his "children in a burial row." In the death of Amy's child she sees her own death and burial as part of his family story.

Having penetrated the mystery of her fear and revealed his own capacities for cruelty and his own less than elevated motives, she erects new barriers, pleading that he desist: "Don't, don't, don't, don't," as though her words portended violence. Retreating to a posture of male reason—"Can't a man speak of his own child he's lost?"—the husband irritates Amy even more by referring to it as "his child." The underlying issue here on both sides is possession, self-interest, and control. She seizes control again by attacking his innate lack of ability to speak, a crudeness inherent in men: "I don't know rightly whether any man can" (rightly could refer both to her "knowledge" and to the ways of men). But I doubt that Amy believes that her husband does not know how to speak. His words and her silences speak powerfully of their individual and conflicting interests. Amy makes him dance, forcing him back on himself and demanding behavior that suits her interests. We wonder who the "someone else" was that Amy fled to after an earlier argument—a lover or comforter. No doubt Amy fears her husband's violence, revealed not only by her desire to leave the house but also by his promise not to come down the stairs:

[lines 39-44]

The narrator's observation of the husband sitting with his "chin between his fists" calls attention ominously to physical force that might have been used in the past. Any wants her husband to bend to her demands, but she may also want to be independent of him altogether. The husband feels the strain of meeting his wife’s demands of beauty, and, while he wants to please her, he also wants to remain true to his sense of self and purpose, which is inextricably bound up with his "being a man."

As soon as he asks to be "given a chance," he then veers to reducing her concerns to her sex, to her "mother-loss." Frustrated that he must "partly give up being a man / With women-folk," he suggests an "arrangement" by which he’d "keep hands off" anything she might name. Language on her part has become not a source of miscommunication but, instead, a barrier that she can erect. But words alone may not be the only failure or offense. He may well be "hands on" in other ways that are terrifying. In a couplet riddled with negatives, what seems to be a plea for no barriers, he seems on the verge of recognizing that there is no love in their marriage, only fear and competing interests:

[lines 45-55]

His maxim that "Two that don't love can't live together without them. / But two that do can't live together with them" indicates how little actual love exists without completing the dialectic with a child, both a bond and a barrier.

The husband feels the pressure of her moral judgment, pleading for her to talk about her grief "if it's something human," a phrase that barely conceals his anger at being reduced to a brute. Her sentimental unworldliness becomes to him just as inhuman. Both their excesses threaten to undermine the possibility of any domestic order and leave the question of what it means to be human balanced across gender lines:

[lines 56-67]

He emphasizes Amy's grief as particular to her sex, a "mother-loss," even while wondering whether this way of grieving may not be innate but taught, something she was "brought up" to think. Referring to her upbringing reduces her to the status of a selfish child, one who does not recognize that sacrifice (or waste) is the essence of the larger scheme. Amy retaliates by reducing her husband to a brute, his logic nothing more than a "sneer."

In recounting his digging of their child's grave, Amy demonstrates her ability to speak and characterize in a way that reinforces her husband's lack of verbal ability and, thereby, his lack of humanity. Her portrait of him depicts a coarse unfeeling laborer, associated with dirt and "everyday concerns":

[lines 71-90]

Richard Poirier notes the novelistic detail with which Amy recounts her husband's activity right down to "the stains on your shoes / Of fresh earth from your own baby's grave." More than detail, the hurling of the phrase "stains on your shoes" becomes a metaphor for her heaping sin on his soul. Her husband's response of laughing and accepting his curse echoes the urging of Job 's wife to "Curse God and die" (Job 2:9), only in this situation the wife has replaced God as the moral authority. The husband feels cursed both by the loss of a child as well as his inability to make his wife understand him, something she attributes to the innate qualities of his sex.

Amy's interpretation of her husband's words in the kitchen reveals, ironically, that her husband may be far more subtle and sophisticated in expressing himself than she understands. Her question is really an accusation, and she believes not only that he would not care but that he is fundamentally incapable of caring:

[lines 91-99]

She takes his saying "Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build" quite literally as some musing about the weather and fence building and fails to recognize the power of his own metaphor. The time it takes for a birch to rot represents the husband's naturalistic way of talking about what his loss means and has everything to do with what is in "the darkened parlor." Amy thinks in terms of civilization and parlor culture, her husband in terms of survival against the natural decay of elements. The birch fence is, like the child, a barrier between the threatening environment and his future as well as a barrier between himself and Amy.

Amy charges that her husband and the world are "evil" because they cannot grieve sufficiently, cannot follow the dead into the beyond. The inescapable self-interest of all human beings, or at least her husband, leads her far into the position of an ascetic Christian's denial of the world, one that would make life impossible:

[lines 100-107]

Her eloquent expression of despair—"from the time when one is sick to death, / One is alone, and he dies more alone"—reverses Jesus' words in John 11 after the resurrection of Lazarus: "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the son of God might be glorified thereby." Her despair denies a facile Christianity and affirms the necessity of a heroic existential suffering similar to what Kierkegaard described in The Sickness unto Death as evidence of man's ascendancy over beast: . . . Amy comes close, then, to sounding like a representative not of nature but of Christian philosophy and its assertion of the distinction of man from other creatures. She sees her own being "sick to death," a sickness that is unending because "To be saved from this sickness by death is an impossibility, for the sickness and its torment—and death—are precisely to be unable to die." Though powerful, Amy's stance renders family survival impossible, a form of immoral purity as it attempts to transcend the demands of survival. She may not sound like Antigone or Cordelia, but her piety may be at least as damaging as theirs.

Her attitude describes a crisis in civilization that Freud commented on in "Our Attitude toward Death" (1915), published the year after North of Boston; "Consideration for the dead, who no longer need it, is dearer to us than the truth, and certainly, for most of us, is dearer also than concern for the living." Freud and Frost challenge Christian culture to conform to a conception of truth provided by science, one in which the demands of survival reign. Amy refuses to conform to manly and scientific conceptions of the limits of grief, and her war with her husband is an attempt to make the world conform to her standards and accept her authority: "I won't have grief so / If I can change it. Oh, I won't, I won't!" Her husband must realize that failure to meet her demands will result in the dissolution of the home and his concern for furthering his people.

In treating her complaint as a form of therapy, her husband condescends to her and makes her pain seem just talk. For her to give in would be to give up being who she is, and she pushes her threat beyond "talk." Her husband's lack of tender love and rationality is unmasked in the final exchange, as her refusals push him to threaten force to keep her. Her "I won't" is met with a decidedly passionate "I will":

[lines 108-116]

The proliferation of dashes in the last two parts indicates a world of emotional reality beyond words, a world that is actively, physically threatening. The dash after "will!" indicates that she has escaped the house and brought him to taking action. The drama lacks closure or "settling down," but this ambiguity is precisely what reveals the power struggle lurking beneath moral and ethical positions.

The line between grief and madness is a fine one, and Amy’s desire to escape can be seen as a response to the suffocation of servitude.

From Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Copyright © 1997 by the University of Michigan.

Robert Faggen: On "After Apple-Picking"

"After Apple-Picking," one of Frost's greatest lyrics, blends the myth of the Fall with consequences of modern science. The "two-pointed ladder" figures as both the instrument and the technology of tropism toward "heaven" that ultimately leads to the oneiric hell of uncertainty and of waste and struggle. Order, progress, and the harvest of knowledge are as much a part of the inextricable order of the garden as the great tree upon which we sway precariously:

[lines 1-6]

In such a casual phrase as "there may be two or three / Apples I didn't pick upon some bough" we feel the speaker's indifference toward perfection. The rest of the poem moves away from heaven, which has been the theological place of perfection, to meditation on exhaustion from contemplation of the world's immense ungraspability, its superfecundity and waste.

The image of the ladder will evoke that of Jacob's dream as well as Emerson's more metaphysical use of that ladder in "Experience." We also see the ladder failing as a human construct by which to transcend nature. The opening line of Frost's poem enforces a sense of physicality—"two-pointed" and "sticking through a tree." The latter phrase sounds sexually suggestive, as does the "long scythe" in "Mowing." Unlike Jacob's, this ladder is a human construct that rests and depends on the tree and is left to nature as an artifact of human effort. And the speaker's oncoming dream is not of angels but, rather, of the details of apples and of labor. If anything is retained in the allusion to Jacob, it is the sense of an impending struggle.

In Lyric Time Sharon Cameron has pointed out that the speaker's dreaming, begun before the event of the poem, appears to begin again during the poem and announces its recommencement sometime after the poem. I will add to this observation that Frost is repeating the strange mixture of fact, dream, labor, and knowledge found in "Mowing"—"The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows"—reminding us of the inescapable limits of consciousness. In "The Koine of Myth," Northrop Frye describes the way human types persist, and he specifically addresses the figure of the ladder. The ladder, he observes, began to break down as a metaphor after the eighteenth century as a construct that symbolized the path from God to earth, the scala (Latin for ladder), or chain of being. In moving between dream and objectivity, the ladder and the human laborer sway precariously on the verge of disintegration. As Frye observed: "Within the limitations of human life, the most highly developed types are those whose lives have become, as we say, a legend, that is, lives no longer contemplating a vision of objective revelation or imprisoned within a subjective dream." In Frost, to use Frye's terms, action and awareness continually clash with each other in a way that ultimately prohibits the establishing of a lasting mythos. "Essence" is inextricably tied to matter and to sleep, "the scent of apples" and " drowsing off." The sensuous pull of the earth overcomes the speaker:

[lines 8-17]

Though claiming some mystery in "the strangeness" he "got from looking through a pane of glass," the speaker reminds us that this looking glass is but a temporary instrument and inextricable part of the fluidity from which it came: a drinking trough used for bodily rather than spiritual sustenance. It both enables and distorts sight. If the faces God as Job did in the theophany or as Jacob did after wrestling at Peniel, it is an overwhelming and immediate physical manifestation of the facts of growth, "stem end and blossom end," as well as the "flecks of russet" and not the Pauline promise of seeing God spiritually face to face in the future. His dreams are not of angels or of heaven but of the troubling abundance and waste of apples that are beyond his "picking," expressing the physical "ache" of his foot, his sensuous desire to touch. Moreover, the preponderance of first-person pronouns expresses an ego inspired and burdened by its own desire:

[lines 18-29]

The obsession with the physical and sensuous approaches a literalism by which the speaker seems to transfer his anxieties of exhaustion to the apples, so many thousands of which are beyond the control of his selection. "Magnified apples" merges both the oneiric world of human desire and the scientific world of instrumental examination. Close examination of nature in its great plurality and in its waste ultimately diminishes the significance of the observer. At once he sees ,the massive abundance and waste of nature, which overwhelm his own desire:

[lines 30-36]

The largeness implied by "ten thousand thousand" and "earth" along with the diminished sense of human control parallels the grandeur Darwin attributes to natural selection in contrast to man's selection. . . .

If man is a laborer, Darwin tells us, then nature is a far greater one. Our "view" is "imperfect." The laborer of "After Apple-Picking" works in a state that is a continual confusion of dream and knowledge, between the human idea of nature and its elusive reality always on the verge of transformation. A consciousness of a limited view and of a larger process of selection to which we are subjected is the darker fruit of our own knowledge. And what are wasted apples for humans who select for beauty and perfection become food for a hibernating woodchuck or further the spread of apple seeds.

The apple tree evokes the loss and displacement of the Fall—the Tree of Knowledge. But it also becomes the dominant metaphor of life and death in the new scripture of Darwin. Darwin's Tree of Life represents both nature's diversity as well as the common descent and destiny of all living creatures including man. In his emphasis on survival no creature or branch is given certain privilege in the hierarchy; no future is certain. It is therefore not surprising that, after considering , the apples ''as of no worth," the apple picker wonders about the relation of his own "sleep," a metaphor for loss of control and death in our self-consciousness, to that of another creature, "the woodchuck," for whom sleep hibernation is at least protection against the environment:

[lines 37-42]

The apple picker, however, turns to another creature at the end of his labor only in hope of finding a way out of his troubling isolation and fears—and there may be no way out of what he can "describe." He persists on the ladder, somehow failing to accept the biology of sleep (and the purpose of dreaming to keep us asleep), while other creatures have gone. The gerund in the tide expresses the perpetual refusal to submit, as does the gerund in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Just in the final line expresses a diminished sense of "human sleep," a diminished sense of the labor, knowledge, and aspiration by which our species once thought itself elect.


From Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Copyright © 1997 by The University of Michigan