Sunday, April 3, 2011

Desert Places by Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it - it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less -
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

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 last stanza of "Desert Places" has long haunted me, and I will admit that I could remember next to nothing about the first three stanzas before looking them up once again for this project. Let that be a slight against me, not against "Desert Places," which is excellent through and through, and a testament to the power of the final lines, which act like a volta, turning everything that came before on its head.

"Desert Places" opens with a scene of night snow falling in a forest, and manages to be both a reaction and not a reaction to that scene; indeed, a rejection of our very ability to react to nature. The scene is lonely--a word Frost repeats four times in its various forms--but it does not inspire loneliness in Frost, though his loneliness is like it. The loneliness beyond belongs to the forest only ("The woods around have it - it is theirs") and it includes Frost only "unawares."

In Frost one can read dim echoes of the Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, which were nature-obsessed, but nothing is transcended in "Desert Places"; there is nothing to transcend ("A blanker whiteness of benighted snow / With no expression, nothing to express." Nature is unknowable.

And so in that last stanza Frost turns, as the whole morass of twentieth century literature has, inward. Where we expect to find contrast we find similarity: a wasteland, a blankness like the snow-covered ground and the vast night sky ("empty spaces / Between stars - stars where no human race is.") It is hard to think of Frost as a modernist, but here is the essential modernist dilemma: the self, unmoored from the outside world, only to find that inner space is as fractured, empty, and unknowable as anything else. The vaster desert is within. Even the tight, mannered quatrains seem like a fatigued attempt to impose order on nothingness.

I love "Desert Places" because it frightens me. It shows why we are lonely even in the company of others, because our loneliness is so much more complex than mere solitude. It offers no comfort, but like "Carmen 85", speaks a truth that is difficult to find words for.

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