Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Snow | Poetry | Woods for the Trees

I will be writing today about Robert Frost’s most famous poem, which most of us have encountered at one point or another. But for anyone who doesn’t know the poem, here it is:

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

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.

-Robert Frost

I have started playing the guitar again recently, after having fallen out of practice for about a year. As a result, the tips of my fingers are in pain from pressing on the strings. This is because I have a job that does not allow a lot of time for sitting in my bedroom playing the guitar.

Our lives are structured in a way that force us to prioritise.

Wake up. Eat. Go to work. Eat. Do some more work. Go home. Eat. Go to sleep. Here are the imperatives.

Have friends. Find a soulmate. Go on holiday. Try and get your five a day. Keep an eye out for promotion opportunities. These are some of the optional add-ons.

So in this hierarchy, where does playing the guitar fit in? Honestly, it doesn’t unless you force yourself to ignore life’s limitless flowcharts. Learning a new chord or buying a new plectrum will not go anyway towards you landing the Henderson account down at the office, nor will it improve your diet. So why do we play the guitar?

This is an idea that Frost wrestles with in Stopping by Woods. He only feels able to stop and admire the woods that he passes through because the person who owns them ‘will not see me stopping here / to see his woods fill up with snow’. If he is caught stopping here, he will not be prosecuted, but he will probably be asked to give some sort of logical reason for why he has stopped on his treacherous journey through the snow to admire the view.

The most important character is the horse though. ‘He gives his harness bells a shake/ to ask if there is some mistake’. The horse sees no viability in stopping ‘without a farmhouse near’ to simply wallow in the beauty of the situation. If we take the horse for an emblem of animal nature, then Frost is presenting the idea that art goes against our very nature, in the hunter-gatherer sense.

What Frost is really wrestling with here is the tension between practical and spiritual necessities. It is an idea that is blanketing Britain at this very moment. As a country we are being pulled between the aesthetic beauty of a snow-glazed landscape and the practical and financial impediment of frozen travel-routes.

The horse has no need of poetry, nor does the man whose house is in the village. To read and write poems is to stop and think over the very nature of stopping and thinking. It is to take something perilous and get caught up in how pretty it is. And, of course, the world would stop functioning as it currently does if we all indulged this side of ourselves. If every office-worker, bus-driver, police-officer and doctor stopped on their way to work to admire the ‘easy wind and downy flake’ then there is no argument that deaths would be caused.

Frost knows this, which is why he makes good on his ‘promises to keep’. He would love to spend the night exploring the ‘lovely, dark and deep’ forests, but knows that life’s obligations are about more than stopping and taking in a nice view. Yet he does stop for long enough to plant the seed for his poem in his mind.

This is why the poetry section of every bookshop is small but non-existent. If we had no use for that side of our brain that just wants something beautiful to think about then there would be no poetry sections. Anywhere. But the point that Frost alludes to is that we need that balance. We need that small corner of entirely inefficient, solitary thought where we can just wallow in what words are capable of when we swirl them in the petri-dish.

Do we not also get the sense that what Frost is really relishing is the absence of all other people in this scene? The horse is pulling him back towards the village, certainly, but Frost is fleetingly, truly happy when left with nothing but the sound of ‘the sweep of easy wind and downy flake’. This is the instant that gives him the idea for the poem. In solitude. Uninterrupted.

He knows that soon he will have to return to the world of people, people to whom he has made ‘promises’, but he has enjoyed this moment’s rest from it all. It is a difficult choice for him to make though – so difficult in fact that he has to repeat his justification in the penultimate and final lines. He longs to sever his obligations and explore the woods, yet he knows that he must think practically.

If we take the ‘woods’ here to mean the creative process, then Frost is beautifully encapsulating the life of a writer. If he allowed himself to fully enter the woods and leave the world behind, then his work would have no basis in a world that any audience would understand. If he does not spend time with other people, then he will never be able to write as one of them.

People love this poem because it’s easy to remember; the rhyme of the third line of each quatrain reminds you how the next one will start. People love it because the final quatrain has enough of the gothic fairytale about it to capture the dullest of imaginations. People love it because Quentin Tarantino cack-handedly shoe-horned it into Death Proof.

I love this poem because it shows Robert Frost lying in the bed that he has made for himself, and still managing to give us one of the most beautiful pieces of writing in the English language.

Seasons Greetings,

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

1 comment:

  1. this is itself a wonderful piece of writing.