Friday, September 24, 2010

Frosty Friday

There are some authors I sometimes feel the urge to dislike on general principle, but then I read something of theirs and must admit that the urge to dislike proceeds from a vague sense of the writer and has little or nothing to do with their actual writing. Margaret Atwood is one such author. Robert Frost is another.

Oh, don't get me wrong—I have nothing against Frost specifically, but his homespun, traditional, how-pastoral-is-New-England verse always seems so incredibly out of step with the raw modernist angst of a T.S. Eliot, or the playfulness and textual audacity of an e.e. cummings, or the thematic and metaphorical complexity and depth of a W.B. Yeats or W.H. Auden (as a side note, I've always wondered: modernists—what's with the initials?). By contrast, Frost at first glance seems quaint.

But then, if you actually pay attention to the poetry, you find darkness and ambivalence imbued in the rustic verses that belies their faux-naturalist, rocking-chair wisdom. There are exceptions to this, of course, the biggest example to me being the old favourite "The Road Not Taken"—which, besides its simplistically allegorical subject, always strikes me as nauseatingly self-congratulatory. (As an answer, I would pose Ellen Degeneres' great life lesson, "Don't take the beaten path. Unless you're lost in the woods, and then by all means, take the beaten path.")

At any rate, this is all apropos of reading, in my first-year class this week, what is about my favourite Robert Frost poem:


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

OK, basic stuff out of the way first: Petrarchan sonnet, rhymed ABBA ABBA ACAACC. The fact that Frost limited his choice of rhyme to three speaks to the poem's technical proficiency, but also wends an aural theme through on the A-rhyme that subverts the stereotypical conception of the purity or perfection of "white" with disease ("blight") and darkness ("night"). That he employs the sonnet form, especially a Petrarchan sonnet, is suggestive: a genre traditionally given over to a particular form of love poetry praising the specific features of one's beloved here frames an ambivalence or even revulsion at a particularly aesthetic brutality encountered in nature. Indeed, we don't lack for love sonnets that use the unalloyed beauty of nature as a useful analogy for the beauty of the beloved (Shakespeare's "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" for example), or which are more or less paeans to nature itself ("Upon Westminster Bridge" by William Wordsworth); Frost's sonnet here could itself almost be taken initially as such a poem, but for the mention of "death and blight" in line four, and the last line of the octet, which renders the lovely twinned images of the "snow-drop spider" and "flower like a froth" at best sinister, at the worst murderous.

But as I say to my students frequently, often a key to a poem's theme and meaning is in its title, and here "design" is the idea greeting us at the very outset and reappearing in the sestet's concluding couplet "What but design of darkness to appall?— / If design govern in a thing so small" as answer to the question of what could have caused this cruelly picturesque serendipity of white on white on white. "Design" is of course a loaded term, so bound up as it has been of late with creationism's stalking horse intelligent design—but the ostensible "design" of a benevolent creator has always been a point of faith and contention since before Darwin, and has given rise to such standard Sunday-school questions about the existence of evil in the world, or the purpose of pernicious animals from mosquitoes to great white sharks. The key repeated word in the sestet is the interrogative "What …?" which begins the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth lines. What, indeed?

Those of us who view the universe as ordered by chance would likely describe the image the poem's central image as uncanny—which, to adapt Freud's definition of the term, refers to the familiar being rendered odd, disquieting, or eerie. The striking conjunction of white flower, spider, and moth is a splendid poetic coincidence (assuming Frost didn't invent it whole cloth, which, even if he did, hardly matters), for it highlights the brutal calculus of survival that makes a mockery of our sentimentalized conception of nature. (When bringing up this point in class yesterday, I used as an example the requisite five minutes in every television special on penguins in which we see them bloodily eaten by leopard seals or killer whales—not as poetic as Frost's image perhaps, but effective, because everyone loves penguins. I could also point to the fact that penguins will push each other off the ice to see if the water is safe).

Frost's theme here however has a significantly atheistic overtone, echoing the cri de coeur of all those who point to such cruelty as evidence of God's non-existence. Certainly, "Design" functions as a useful poetic rebuttal to the belief in an omnipotent, interventionist God whose hand is visible at all levels of creation, and without whose say-so nothing happens. Frost does however leave things in question: there is an ambiguity in the sestet, which while suggesting the absurdity of design, leaves the possibility open. That possibility is at best deeply ambivalent: if there is design at work, the poem suggests, it is of "darkness."

To return to an earlier point, the re-tasking of the sonnet form is one of the more interesting aspects (for me) of the poem: typically, the sonnet proceeds as a question and answer, with the octet posing a "problem" and the sestet rhetorically or symbolically resolving that problem. Something like ninety percent of love sonnets do the following: "Oh, my love is so beautiful; but she will age and wither and die; but I shall immortalize her in this poem so her beauty will live forever." (Yes, there's a reason people find poets somewhat self-absorbed). Frost does not invert that structure per se, but rather deliberately compounds the problem posed in the octet (i.e. the conjunction of flower, spider, moth) with his trio of rhetorical questions in the sestet. If we find any resolution, it is a deeply disquieting one, and encourages us rather to take comfort in the randomness of the universe.


Fred said...

The poem asks the same question as Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The concurence of events leading to the death of the travellers as a figure of God's design. But there is in Frost's poem an macabre image of prayer to such a God--the arc is upwards, the flower, to the spider, to the dead moth, a macabre imitation of supplication, and at dawn no less. In the image we have the sense we are moving towards meaning, but that soemthing is missing (really is there a God to receive this offering?). The design is not formed by God, or nature, but by the poet. In a move equal to Wallace Stevens, Frost conveys the idea it is the poet who imposes the design on all this, even by the design of the poem which holds the design of the image together. In reality it is coincidence which brought the three (flower, spider, moth) together, but it is the poet who welds them togather as a single form. Whereas, Yeats' built up his images form the "rag and bone shop" or Eliot pulled together the fragments of a dying world, Frost is as well engaged in this modernist drive towards, not meaning, but form from the elements of his own natural world.

Fred said...

I forgot to add, there is also in Frost's poem that Blakeian impulse seen in "Tyger Tyger." This tiny example of God's handiwork may pass by unnoticed but for the eye of the poet, who comes to see in it a greater question of the universe.