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“There is no greater fallacy going than that art is expression”: or, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

November 20, 2009

In a September 1929 letter to his friend Sidney Cox, Robert Frost writes: “There is no greater fallacy going than that art is expression—an undertaking to tell all to the last scrapings of the brain pan.” I’d like to poke around a little and inquire into certain conditions of “authorship” that justify Frost’s dismissal of this “fallacy.”

The incompatibility of pure “expression” and “composition” stems first of all from the transformation—described by  T.S. Eliot, Frost, and other poets—of the subjective into the objective. I have in mind here the operation of “extrinsic” or “impersonal” motives upon “intrinsic” and “personal” ones. The idea that the “inner” materials of the artist are “re-formed” by the “outer” materials with (and in) which he must work—a language first of all, but then, within that language, the more confining disciplines of form and genre, say;—this idea helps us better understand a reading of “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” given by Frost himself in his 1946 essay “The Constant Symbol.”

Richard Poirier (1925-2009)

The cover of what remains to this date the best book ever written about Frost

Much commentary on “Stopping By Woods” has suggested that the poem expresses, in some way, a 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.” Frank Lentricchia makes a similar point about Frost’s winter landscapes in general, and quotes an apt passage from Gaston 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.” During Frost’s lifetime, however, the matter was handled much less sensitively. Readers 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 reports that Frost once spoke to him as follows (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. 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.”

William Pritchard, among the one or two best readers of Frost.

Frost often couples intimations of private suffering 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.” It is worth bearing in mind that, later in the conversation with Louis 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.”

The best general introduction to Frost ever done, tactful, succinct, crystal clear.

To similar effect, he writes in a letter to Sidney Cox: “Poetry is a measured amount of all we could say an [i.e., if] 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.” I think inevitably of T. S. 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.” He has in mind the sort of readers and writers Frost acknowledges here: “The right people know, and we artists should know better than they know.” In any case, Frost’s caveat to Mertins is probably meant both subtly 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 which give rise to a poem are in some way alienated by the poem in the result. His alternative reading of “Stopping By Woods”—the one he gives in “Then Constant Symbol”—is worth dwelling on, let’s say, as a roundabout contribution to a 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 that links the stanzas. He once remarked to an audience at Bread Loaf, again discouraging biographical (and too flagrantly 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.” The emphasis is on the performance of the writer and on the act of writing. Following are the poem and Frost’s brief comments on it in “The Constant Symbol”:


From the 1923 edition of "New Hampshire." I stumbled across this copy of the book at The Strand Bookstore in New York. It was priced at $4.00. Apparently no-one at the store had troubled himself to leaf through the pages and see whether any were signed or initialed. The initials were inscribed by the poet, apparently at a reading he gave at Vassar College on 9 December 1959.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

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.

from “The Constant Symbol,” as printed in the 1946 Modern Library edition of his poetry

In emphasizing the lyric’s form, in the brief remarks immediately above, Frost really only defers the question of theme or content. It is not that the poem doesn’t have a theme, or one worth a reader’s consideration. The form simply is the theme. If this seems surprising, that’s only because Frost’s emphasis makes for so complete a reversal in mood, in affect. 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.”

Cover of the second edition (1992)

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.'”

The "Paris Review" logo designed by William Pène du Bois.

And I’d point out further that Frost’s remarks, appearing as they do in “The Constant Symbol,” lend 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. Read in these terms, “Stopping By Woods” brings more fully into view the artist’s negotiation of the responsibilities of his craft. What may seem to most readers hardly a “meta-poetical” lyric—that is to say, a poem about how poems work, or about why poems are written—actually addresses the central concern of the poet as a poet—that is, when the form of the poem is, as I say, 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—a rhyme scheme that interlinks the stanzas—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.

Reproduced from a facsimile of the first edition of "The Temple" (1638)

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 next-to-last line of the poem with the first, thereby creating a symmetrical, circular rhyme-scheme, such as might have pleased George Herbert. (Cf. “Sin’s Round,” to the right, wherein the scheme makes a closed circuit of the poem, in keeping, of course, with its theme.) 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 nature . . . to 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 E.A. Robinson‘s poetry in the introduction he wrote for Robinson’s 1935 book King Jasper seems to apply rather well to “Stopping By Woods”: “So sad and at the same time so happy in achievement.” “Stopping By Woods,” in short, explodes the “fallacy” that “art is expression—an undertaking to tell all to the last scrapings of the brain pan,” in the following way: by intimating its darker concerns, even unto a vague desire for “extinction” (as Poirier puts it); and by sublimating these darker concerns, through the work of form, into an experience as “exhilarating” as had been whatever darkness lay behind the poem in its first impulse. Frost achieves—to borrow his best-known definition of what a poem affords the poet—his “momentary stay against confusion.” He “rides high.”

A few remarks further. I find “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” perfect in its diction. The clarity of it is such that any schoolboy might read it, and yet the poem nonetheless remains so rich and strange. Notice how gently Frost deploys what few metaphors there are in the poem, so gently as to make them seem hardly “metaphorical” at all. The woods are said to “fill up” with snow, quite as if they might somehow “contain” it. Notice also how “downy flake” both describes the mere look of the falling snow, and suggests such “down” as might be consistent with the alluring wish intimated in the poem to go into these “dark” woods and “sleep,” as if nestled in a kind of bedding. “Care charmer sleep, son of the sable night,” says Samuel Daniel, “Brother to Death, in silent darkness born.” Surely something of this conventional topic—sleep as “brother” or “second self” to death, which is everywhere to be found in English Renaissance poetry—lies back of “Stopping by Woods.” And yet, as I say, the few metaphors I’ve spoken of are as subdued in their effects as is the poem muted in its affect. And then, with that repetend at the poem’s end, we are carried off into what Frost liked to call “ulteriority”: the further reaches of the poem, whose darker implications Richard Poirier so well describes.

I should mention one more thing in closing. A controversy arose over the punctuation of line thirteen of the poem when Edward Connery Lathem altered it for his 1969 The Poetry of Robert Frost, which was, until the Library of America issued its Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays in 1995, the standard edition. Lathem re-punctuated the line: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.” As Poirier points out in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing, the punctuation of the original, where “dark and deep” are set as if in apposition to “lovely,” allows the “loveliness” to “partake of the depth and the darkness which make the woods so ominous.” By contrast, Lathem’s single added comma makes of the adjectives “lovely, dark, and deep” a mere series, each element of which separately modifies “woods.” In any case, the problem, to the extent that it was one, has been rectified, as I say, by the Library of America edition, which follows the original punctuation of Frost’s poems throughout.

N.B. For a link to such poetry by Frost as is now in the public domain, click here. For a link to the major works of Richard Poirier, click here. For a link to editions of George Herbert’s The Temple at the Internet Archive, click here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 25, 2009 9:01 PM

    OK, Thanksgiving has started, so it took me some time to finally read this.

    What a great and thorough article. It’s gratifying to see another blogger treat poets and poetry seriously, in the sense of writing an considered and in-depth article.

    T.S. Eliot’s quote made me laugh:

    “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.”

    If you really try to parse what Eliot is saying, it turns into airy nothing. It’s meaningless gobbledygook. Which is why so many readers project into Eliot’s statements whatever meaning they wish. But it does sound good, doesn’t it.

    I think it’s possible to read too much into Frost’s decision to repeat the final line (and I think a lot of close readers *have*). I remember some anecdote to the effect that Frost wrote the final line first, then sat flummoxed by what the penultimate line should read. He sat and sat and sat and finally, out of frustration, tried repeating the final line. Perhaps the genius wasn’t creative, but editorial. He saw the accident of thought as perfection itself – and was perfectly content to let the world assume he meant it from the start.

    I’m going to add your post to my recommended list at the bottom of my own post. 🙂

    • November 25, 2009 9:51 PM

      Thank you, Upinvermont! You seem to know all the lore about this poem, which has in fact grown over the years. Have you ever had to fend off, in a cordial way, in a cordial bar, some fellow tippler who informs you that “Stopping By Woods” is about Santa Clause? I have. More than once. That’s a “meme” that somehow got put into circulation twenty or so years ago, maybe in a high-school somewhere (who knows?). And then infection spread. 😉

      In any case, as I say, thank you, & thanks also for having taken the trouble to look into what I had to say about the poem in “The Ordeal of Robert Frost.”

      Take care,

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