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Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Shadowy Life of Robert Frost


If you were to ask the average person to name a 20th century poet, chances are that a large number of people would name Robert Frost. Frost’s poetry has become legendary in modern times. He holds a unique place in the pantheon of elite poets as one of the best (or at the very least most popular) of the modern era.

One of the many attributes that make Frost unique is his interpretation of nature. Unlike most people, Frost seems to be not only unappreciative of nature, but he also associates nature with sadness, as opposed to most poets/writers who view nature as a thing of beauty. For Frost, nature is not beautiful, inviting and warm, but rather a world of darkness and emptiness. In reading and comparing the poems “Desert Places”, “The Road Not Taken”, and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (two of his most popular works) one can clearly see Frost’s view of nature as dark, lonely, and cold. Frost’s depiction of nature is a result of his personal hardships that in turn define nature as dark, lonely, and cold but also give the reader the reassurance that eventually everything will be ok. By understanding this reality, one can come to a greater appreciation and understanding of what Robert Frost is trying to convey through poetry.

The best way for a reader of poetry to understand Frost’s poems is to realize that Frost himself was a man well acquainted with grief. Frost lost several members of his immediate family to death in various ways. His wife died in the middle ages of her life, and three of Frost’s children also passed away unexpectedly, one committing suicide. Losing so many members of his immediate family must have taken a toll of Frost and served as influential moments in his life that shaped his character. Along with losing so many people to death, Frost also saw one of his daughters and a sister, succumb to mental illness. Suffering such tragedies would surely affect the mind of any human being, and Frost was sure to reflect upon those experiences at length during his life. These events come to life throughout his poetry. His ability to use nature as an outlet for his grief is more than apparent, and as Frost himself stated, “I’ve never written a poem without a person in it.” 

Being that Frost was used to death and grief, it makes sense to see images of dark, lonely and cold places in his poetry. In the poem “Desert Places”, Frost refers to the darkness of nature in the first line when he writes, “Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast. In a field I looked into going past.” Frost relates the rapidly approaching darkness with the coldness of snow. The feeling of emptiness in this particular setting, and in Frost’s life, helps us understand the field Frost “looked into going past” as possibly looking back to better days.

The darkness of Frost’s work and its interpretation can also be applied to his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The ending of this poem states, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep/ But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep.” Here the image of a dark, snow-covered forest seems enticing to Frost. He appears to be longing to enter them, but then realizes he has “promises to keep.” What promises? Clearly this is left up to the interpretation of the reader, but can be better understood when taking Frost’s life experiences into account. Perhaps the woods serve as an escape from the painful realities of life. This interpretation would help to explain Frost’s realization of the promises he has to keep, and the miles he must go before being freed from the pains of his life. Frost could have been thinking back on the promises he had made to dying loved ones. Thinking on those promises then serve as the strength to avoid the woods, and to continue on the painful, but correct path.

In his poem “The Road Not Taken” Frost writes about a traveler coming to a fork in the road, and having to decide which route to take. He mentions how the traveler justifies to himself that he can take one rout and save “the first for another day!” This justification eventually gives way to reality when Frost writes, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way/ I doubted if I should ever come back.” The traveler’s justification makes it easier for him to stay on the course that has been chosen. Undoubtedly, many readers will look to this passage (and this poem) and relate it to those individuals in life who have made good choices, which have made “all the difference.” Frost however, may have seen this differently. The passage might signify mankind’s ability to justify the decisions they’ve made, so that they are able to feel better about the things they’ve done. There is no doubt that a person who has faced grief and tragedy would reflect on such things.

Throughout these three poems the reader is able to see the picture of emptiness and loneliness that Frost has painted. There are however, reassuring tones that reach out to the reader and reassure him/her that everything is going to be alright. “In Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” Frost depicts the traveler as aloof in the world when he writes, “Between the woods and the frozen lake/ The darkest evening of the year.” Frost then mentions the fact that the traveler is not alone. The traveler’s horse, “gives his harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” The reader may interpret the horse to be confused as to why they have stopped, but perhaps Frost was trying to say something else. The horse could have been trying to reassure the traveler that he is not alone, and that he (the horse) is also along for the ride. This reassuring interpretation helps the reader understand why the traveler continued on his way, instead of stopping at the inviting farmhouse.

This theme of reassurance after the darkness of nature is evident also in “The Road Not Taken.” In this poem a traveler comes to a fork in the road. After choosing which path to endure the traveler looks back on the journey, realizing that the path he/she has taken was the correct one. Frost takes courage in the conclusion of this poem when he writes, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-I took the one less traveled by/ And that has made all the difference.” After all the struggles and difficulties of choosing and enduring a chosen path, Frost proves here how everything works itself out in the end. By taking Frost’s life experiences into account, the reader can better understand what a dramatic and fulfilling moment it must be to choose the road less traveled, and all that was learned on the way.

Robert Frost is no doubt a man defined by his personal sufferings. The fact that Frost had to learn how to deal with such tragedies throughout his life helps us to understand the motives behind his poetry. In all likelihood, had Frost not endured such hardships, there is a good chance that his poetry would have been much different. It was only through enduring personal trials that Frost was able to portray nature in its dark, lonely and cold elements. In the end however, Frost’s ability to come to terms with the difficulties of life, give the added reassurance in his poetry that everything will be just fine and, “that has made all the difference.”

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