Susheel Kumar/ Robert Frost’s Treatment of Nature in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Susheel Kumar,

Assistant Professor of English,

Govt. College Daulatpur Chowk (H.P.).

 

Abstract

The poetry of Robert Frost has many layers of meaning. Though his poems, on the surface level, seem simple and shallow, but a deeper study reveals that Frost is a great philosopher and realist who has delved deep to know the real meaning of life. The treatment of nature in his poems is not merely related to the outward beauty of the various facets of nature, but to reveal a deeper message through it.

Key Words: Nature, realism, layers, philosophy, thought.

 

Among the 20th century stalwarts like T.S Eliot, W. B Yeats, J. M. Synge, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost gave his remarkable contribution in the field of poetry. Robert Frost was a great American poet who was born in California on March 26, 1874. Quite early in his life, he lost his father and had to face many problems in life. As a boy, he didn’t show much interest in his studies. So, he worked in mills, took to newspaper reporting, taught in various schools and often wrote poetry. When he was in Howard College, he had an inspiration that he would become a teacher. But soon he realized that the academic atmosphere was not suitable for him. In 1912, he published his artistic genius- a reputed collection named, North of Boston before his death (1963). He wrote many immortal works including “Mowing, Stopping by woods on a Snowy Evening, The Onset , Mending Wall, Home Burial, After Apple Picking, Design” etc. .W.G.O. Donnel paid a glowing tribute to him in following words : “In so far as Frost is a voice of New England, he is a minor figure in contemporary literature: to the extent that he makes his New England universal in meaning and implication, he is a significant writer.” (174). It is because of his relentless efforts in the field of English poetry which provided him great name and fame. Some of the critics have even called him as the “Last Romantic Poet” in English literature.

Robert Frost’s poems, on the surface level, are seen very simple but, on the hidden level, his poems become too complex and difficult to understand. In his poetry, one can see the curious blend of simplicity and complexity. His poems like “Mending Wall”, “The Road Not Taken”, and “Birches” are complex and deeper in meaning. In “Mending Wall”, ‘wall’ symbolizes ‘disintegration or quarrel’. In “The Road Not Taken”, there is a choice that is to be taken up within few seconds. Here ‘road’ symbolizes ‘poetry’. In the same way, in “After Apple Picking”, there is drowsiness and sleepiness after having worked hard throughout the season. Here ‘sleep’’ means ‘death’. Robert Frost can be considered as a realist as far as his poetry is concerned. He himself was a farmer. So it becomes very easy for him to write about village and pastoral life like William Wordsworth. He has faced so many difficulties and problems while living in countryside. He does not write like William Wordsworth about daffodils, solitary reaper, skylark etc. William Wordsworth only writes about ‘Nature’ while Robert Frost writes about nature as well as practical life. For example, Home “Burial”, shows a conflict and clash between a husband and a wife when their first baby is died. In the same way, Apple Picker is also shown exhausted after having worked hard too much.

Robert Frost like W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot was a great symbolist of the 20th century whose poetry is replete with symbol and myths though his later poetry is equally complex and difficult. With the publication of Mending Wall, After Apple Picking, Home Burial, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and The Road not Taken, Robert Frost comes out as a complex poet having two meanings at the same time in the same poem. In Mending Wall, there a question is raised as by whom wall is needed and why people need walls at all. ‘Wall’ means ‘barrier, isolation and frustration’. After Apple Picking, is also a symbol of daily routine and systematic working of life. The meeting of white spider, heal- all and white moth means ‘death and destruction’. In the same way, in the Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening horse’s harness bells’ shake represents the call of duty.

Fact and Fancy play a vital role in Frost’s creative poetry. Though he is a realist, yet there is a delightful interplay of fact and fancy in his poems such as After Apple Picking, Mowing, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and Birches. The flight towards heaven in search of identity and perfection that human world craves for but a momentary touch with the perfect satisfaction. According to Robert Frost, earth is the right place to live in because earth is the reality. A man may remain in his dreams, but he has to come back to reality i.e. while living a man should discard heavenly joys and should realize the limitations of his earthly existence. Robert Frost’s attitude is neither gloomy nor one of sheer joys. He is often interested to accept that without darkness there would be no light, and without evil there would be little possibility of free choice. Choice is there in his poem The Road Not Taken, where he has to take a sure decision within few seconds. It is quite clear that the poet follows the one way out of the two which shows his positive attitude. In the same way, in After Apple Picking, there will be some signs of happiness and satisfaction after drowsiness and sleepiness. In Home Burial, though the first born baby is died which makes the situation serious, yet Robert Frost does not accept darkness to be superior to light.

Robert Frost is regarded as a nature poet like William Wordsworth who wrote about Nature as he saw it in a distinct manner. He is usually compared with William Wordsworth for the treatment of nature. He is spellbound by the beauty of snowfall or a misty morning, but he keeps a firm hold on reality and remains alert to the possible dangers that may happen beneath the surface. In fact, he was a practicing farmer like other rural people and their occupations are highlighted in After Apple Picking, Mowing etc. Such types of subjects become the aim of his poetry. He also employs the simple and plain language of the common man which appeals to the common reader. He developed the fine arts of stating serious issues in the simplest possible language. His literary merits have earned him a place of distinction as a major poet of the 20th century. Robert Frost has written many poems depicting natural scenes but has never isolated the Nature scene from human beings. But many critics criticize him by saying that he is not a poet of nature and can’t stand in front of William Wordsworth on the subject of nature poetry. Because William Wordsworth feels and places nature at quite high level in his life. That’s why he calls nature as ‘the anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, the guide, the guardian of my heart and soul of all my moral being’ (243). He firmly believes in “Nature never did betray/The heart that lover her.” ( 244)

To William Wordsworth, nature appeals to the inner soul of man’s life. He feels that Nature appears to have a holy plan for the betterment of humanity and she keeps a constant watch over man. That’s why William Wordsworth criticizes the modern man who does not have leniency towards nature. Because all the time, a modern man hankers after material things. He keeps on wasting his precious time in running after useless pursuits of wealth. It becomes clear in one of his most famous poems, The World is too much with Us in which he says:

 

The world is too much with us, late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature, that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! ( 140)

In the same way, he employs different subjects in praise of nature who, according to him, do never betray her true lover. In his beautiful poem, The Daffodils, a dream-like poem, provided the poet an immense relief and solace. Because at one glance he saw near about ten thousand daffodils singing and dancing in the cool breeze beneath a tree. The poet feels happy whenever he finds himself in a sad mood, he used to remind the scene of those ten thousands daffodils. In this way, we can make a clear estimate that William Wordsworth’s treatment of nature is definitely imaginative. On the other hand, as far as the treatment of nature in Frost is concerned, Robert Frost is quite imaginative as well as realistic in his approach and it is quite clear from his poems like : After Apple Picking, Mending Wall, Birches, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening etc. In Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, the horse-rider, the poet himself is captivated by beautiful scene of snowfall in the darkest evening of the year. Unlike William Wordsworth, Robert Frost does not remain in his imagination. Robert Frost realizes that he has committed a mistake in stopping in the woods and he has to go back to his home and has to perform many pending works before his death.

Robert Frost’s lyric Stopping by woods on a Snowy Evening is a romantic poem. It deals with concern of fact and fancy. The poem can be read on these two levels. One is incomplete without the completion of the other and vice-versa as both are essential in order to have a coherent whole. The poet or the speaker or the horse-rider is very well aware of the fact that he is on a journey to which he has to complete it in quick succession of time. He also knows very well about his aim, path, and obligations. He seems to go through the woods deliberately by following the path and by realizing his obligations. On the surface level, the poem is just a record of a part of the poet’s journey through the woods. It looks very simple and convincing that the poet or the speaker stops in the woods with his horse. When the poem opens, the horse-rider or the speaker is shown present among the woods standing by the side of his horse. Though it is the darkest evening of the years, yet the poet can see many things around him. He can feel the darkness as well the downy flakes. He can feel easy wind as well as can see the farmhouse. By the time, he enquires about the master of the farmhouse who is possibly not inside it. The poet feels that its owner may have left the place for the fear of heavy snowfall in the woods. Moreover, there is no one who may help him if any problem occurs. That’s why, the speaker feels that he has already left the place. But one thing that is more important to note that the poet or the horse-rider is much pleased to see it, though there is nobody. Though there is complete silence around him, yet he can feel great hustle-bustle inside him that has captivated him as how to know about the owner of the woods among them he is standing. For the horse-rider, the owner of the farmhouse must be a godly figure who possesses such beautiful woods. Moreover, he must be an intelligent fellow who knows very well the events to be occurred. Actually, there is continuity of snowfall, but horse-rider’s continuity is stopped in the woods. The poet finds himself among the seventh heaven of happiness. He considers it to be a perfect place for him. Now he experiences the orderly life in a balanced way. Balanced in the sense that now he knows nothing about material and artificial world. He knows nothing what is happening outside the woods. In reality, he does not want to be indulged in the outside reality. He finds himself contented and satisfied in the woods. For him, now everything is happening in a right way. His this mentality reminds us Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes in which he experiences the same ecstasy :

 

The year’s at the spring,

And day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hill side’s den-pearled;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in His heaven

All’s right with the world. ( 27)

Here we are reminded of the same cheerfulness experienced by Old John sitting under the Oak tree in William Blake’s poem The Echoing Green where he feels his childhood days being revived:

 

Such such were the joys

When we all, girls and boys,

In our youth time were seen

On the Echoing Green. ( 13)

Actually, Old John, a symbol of ‘songs of experience’, is happy to see the ‘songs of innocence’. Same the case is there with the horse-rider who is in the woods. Here the horse-rider is the symbolic of ‘songs of experience’ whereas the woods stand for ‘songs of innocence’. Thus, The Echoing Green connects to Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Thus, the stopping of the horse-rider in the woods is very significant. Significant in the sense that the poet feels himself to be very lucky that he has the opportunity to see the beautiful objects of nature around him. Such objects are natural as well as impartial. They have nothing to do with the outside reality. They are always present there. In reality, they leave their impact only on the onlookers and wayfarers who have an eye to appreciate the beautiful scenes, sights, scents and objects of nature. Such pleasant atmosphere thrills the poet from within. Same bliss is, perhaps, experienced by William Wordsworth in his autobiographical poem Lines Written in Early Spring while sitting in a grove:

 

The birds around me hopped and played,

Their thoughts I cannot measure-

But the least motion which they made,

It seemed a thrill of pleasure. (22)

Both Robert Frost and William Wordsworth start considering the objects of nature as living realities. Both feel that human beings should have their eyes to worship the objects of nature. No doubt, the woods remain cold and remote from the trials and tribulations of human life, yet they project themselves to be their true friends who permanently visualize the ideals of beauty and happiness as aesthetically as possible. It is clear and sure that the poet is there consciously. But soon after some time, his conscious- self converts into sub-conscious one on the same spot. From the world of reality, he goes into the world of imagination; from fact to fancy and material to spiritual. Then a time comes, when he forgets everything not only about himself but also the physical world. He seems to be hypnotized by the beautiful objects of nature. He seems that he has submitted his will in the will of nature. In nutshell, he has surrendered himself to nature. While experiencing the imaginary or fanciful world, he seems to have now no will, no material desire, rather he wants to stay there for the time being. For him, it is, perhaps, the happiest time of his life. He wants to capture those moments of his life in a way that they may be helpful for him in his future life. No doubt the evening is cold and the darkest, even then the horse-rider wants to enjoy through and through. Then he starts asking questions from his personal self:

 

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. (149)

Here the sub-conscious level of the poet strongly reveals that he can do anything while experiencing the frozen evening. He knows that he is far away from the maddening crowd of the 20th century people. He also knows that he is all alone and can experience the natural objects at the utmost level. Moreover, when his conscious level reveals that there is no one except the horse-rider and his horse, his sub-conscious level becomes elated. Thus, the conscious and sub-conscious levels of the poet help him to have an effect of fact and fancy; reality and imagination; physical and aesthetic worlds. Physically, the poet feels that there is no one in the farmhouse; aesthetically, he feels that he himself is in the lap of nature. On the physical level, he can see the frozen lake, farmhouse, snowfall and easy wind. But on the hidden level, the poet is caught in the woods to answer the mystery of life. Now he has to experience strange fascination and inexplicable terror simultaneously. Here ‘dark woods’, perhaps, are the symbolic of ‘pathless wood’ which are either to be selected or to be rejected at a certain time. Thus, there raises a question of choice that is either to be decided or selected or rejected. Here we have two more examples from his two different poems; one is from Birches where the poet, being a birch-swinger declares:

 

Earth is the right place for love

I do not know where it is likely to go better. ( 186)

 

Secondly, on the other side, in his poem The Road not Taken, the poet says :

 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less-travelled by,

And that has made all the difference. (240)

In the present poem, both the conscious and sub-conscious levels of the poet are working simultaneously. They evoke feelings of ‘rasa’ as experienced by Bharat Muni in his Natyashastra and catharsis by Aristotle in his Poetics. In such a blissful atmosphere, the horse-rider seems to forget everything. He forgets his aim, directions and duties. This is the time Robert Frost wants his readers should experience the same. For him, it is an ideal state of mind just as William Wordsworth considers. This is what Robert Frost’s imaginary treatment of nature is. But this treatment changes into realistic one when the horse-rider is made aware of the fact by the horse that he has committed some mistakes by stopping in the woods. Perhaps, horse is the symbol of ‘call of duty’ or ‘sense of realization’. We feel that his role in the poem is to create realization in the poet from fancy to fact; from imaginary world to realistic one. It is this point that differentiates Robert Frost from William Wordsworth. This is the first point from which Robert Frost moves towards realization from ‘self’ to ‘society’ and of course from ‘being’ to ‘becoming’. Now the horse-rider finds himself in the process of continuity. He does no longer want to remain in the woods by seeking pleasure of the beautiful objects of nature. He understands the massage provided by the horse through shaking its bells. The sound produced by the bells represents the external reality and world. Actually, the horse does not understand what is going on inside the mind of its master. After a long interval, the ‘call of duty’ creates such a sound that its master comes out of his trance like position. The horse-rider, in actual sense, is completely lost in the world of imagination by forgetting the world of reality. This is the basic difference that is often occurred between William Wordsworth and Robert Frost. While Wordsworth remains in the world of imagination whereas Robert Frost experiences both the worlds of imagination and reality. For example, in Wordsworth’s sonnet The world is too much with Us, the poet creates such a romantic and an imaginary atmosphere that he finds himself completely indulged in the world of imagination from the very first word to the end of the poem, though he has bitterly criticized the material world as following:

 

Great God! I’d rather be

A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forelorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn. (140)

Thus, William Wordsworth does never come out of his ‘pleasant lea’, the symbolic of his imaginary world. Rather he keeps on enjoying the beautiful objects of nature while being busy on the same place.

On the other hand, Robert Frost believes in both sides of the world; imaginary and realistic. Robert Frost takes the help of the horse very cleverly whereas William Wordsworth is all alone. After having tasted the world of imagination, the horse-rider takes delight in his horse’s harness bells a shake. Here he feels that he has wrong decision of stopping in the woods by consuming too much of his precious time. He should not remain in the woods though they are fascinating. They represent the worldly temptations. Then, he also realizes that he cannot afford the luxury of losing himself completely in the black and white silence. He also realizes that all that glitters is not gold. Beauty is temporary whereas duty is permanent. He comes to know that for the time being, he may come under the impact of worldly temptations and may forget his aim, direction and duties, but he cannot accept his spiritual death or barrenness. He wants to be an active, alive and agile all the time in life as follows:

 

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. (149)

Here the horse-rider has completely left behind the world of imagination and has accepted the world of reality. He seems to be fed up with world of imagination. But it does not mean that the horse-rider is a nihilist rather he is an optimist or even a synecdochist. He just wants to enjoy the life to the fullest. So, he decides not to follow what beautiful aspects of nature ask to perform from him. Rather he does what he wants to do. This is clarified when he declares that the woods are, no doubt, beautiful and fascinating, but they are equally dark and cold. Even in that rare scene of the darkest evening of the year, the horse-rider experiences a ray of hope and light. He realizes that life is made up of ups and downs; joys and sorrows as they are essential parts of life. And we should accept them whenever we need them. He knows that there are attraction, fascination and temptations, but we should not completely come under their impact and behave like their slaves. Rather we keep on performing our action towards our destined goal or destination. In this material world, we have our specific purposes to achieve. So, we should not be indulged in day-dreaming and ivory-towers. For a common reader, it may be a trivial experience, but for the horse-rider, it is just like his second birth. Same lesson we find in H.W. Longfellow’s inspiring poem A Psalm of Life in which he lays stress to lead active, energetic, positive, purposeful and determined life:

 

Life is real ! Life is earnest !

And the grave is not its goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than today. (23)

Here the horse-rider seems to be purposeful and determined. His goal is clear even in the dark forest. He becomes active and energetic even in the freezing cold. Even in a short soliloquy, many questions are springing from within realizing his phantoms of duties. This being found himself within and without; beauty and sense of duty, he chooses the path of duty. In nutshell, he overcomes his conflict and comes out as a decisive fellow whose destination is yet to be achieved. In a sense, he leaves the emotional world and adopts the practical one – his destined path. Thus, he rejects the lovely and fascinating woods by declaring them as dark and deep, and accepts the path of ‘promises’ his destined path. His this final decision brings him crystal clear enlightenment and cathartic feelings. He has now the revelation of ‘Truth’. He decides to give shape to his journey by stepping out of from the woods. His strong sense of performing his duties is on high tide. He cannot live without performing his promises. Being fully aware of the fact that he has to cover long distance in order to materialize his promise, he cannot cling to the woods.

Here the poet has repeated the last line twice in order to project the horse-rider’s sense of duties. Here the word ‘sleep’ is described twice. The first ‘sleep’ means the sleep at night that every human being experiences. It is short and temporary. Before occurring that short and temporary sleep, the horse-rider has decided to reach at his final destination. Perhaps, it may be his home or something else. Perhaps, before starting his journey he might have promised to his wife, children and parents that he will reach home well in time as well as safely. Perhaps, his children are waiting for his arrival with precious gifts to which he might have promised earlier. Thus, for the sake of fulfilling his so-called promise, he rejects the beautiful scenes of nature and restarts his journey. Here the second ‘sleep’ seems to be very symbolic and philosophical because it is not an ordinary one. It seems that the mysterious ways of beautiful scenes in the darkening forest have clarified him the true meaning of life showered by God. He comes to conclusion that life is precious and earnest. He has no right to waste it in useless activities. He has some higher and nobler tasks to be done which are possibly undone. God has provided him perfect shape, sense, system in the universe and it is up to him how to utilize and how to act in present better than yesterday. Thus, for him living present is more important than that of the dead past which is gone. Thus, he learns the lesson of performing determined and purposeful acts only. Finally, he discovers that he has to do a lot of things in his life before his final ‘sleep’. Here ‘sleep’ means ‘death’. The horse-rider has, perhaps, purposefully decided to do what he wants to do. Here, he is self-confident and self-reliant. He has chosen the practical and realistic world by rejecting the imaginary one. He considers it to be fruitful and purposeful. He decides to pursue and achieve things with specific mode by working and waiting patiently. Here, the horse-rider seems to be more serious, complex, wise and systematic than ever. From the first word ‘whose’, the poet reaches to the ‘sleep’ gaining, achieving more maturity than ever. From darkish area, he moves to the knowledgeable world where he can look back, take decisions and experience vistas. From the world of ignorance, he moves to the world of intelligence and from the world of imagination to the reality. Thus, we can say that Robert Frost was right when he used to say that we should take delight in the objects of beauty the imaginary world and when it is too much, we should realize the reality and live for the living. We agree with but what W.H. Auden has said: “His poems on natural objects are always concerned with them as foci for mystical meditation or starting points for fantasy, but as things with which and on which man acts in the course of the daily work of gaining a livelihood.”( 261)

Thus, we can make an estimate after reading Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” that even at the time of suspense and darkness he could create such an interesting poetry which is, perhaps, missed even by the great worshipper of Nature, William Wordsworth. Robert Frost always picked up simple and ordinary subjects and made them extra-ordinarily brilliant with his creative genius and talent. That’s why many of the critics call him superior to William Wordsworth in the field of nature poetry. Overall, his contribution in English poetry is remarkable and extra-ordinarily brilliant. No doubt, both are extra-ordinary and genius yet there are some differences between them. It cannot be denied the fact that both employ beautiful aspects and majestic subjects for their artistic creativity. Both write about mountains, rivers, streams, seas, flowers, rustic life, stars, moon, peasantry life or pastoral life. Robert Frost looks beyond the local to the universe so that he may find universal truth in his poetic talent. According to him, man should be factual and should act according to the needs of the human beings. The present poem is, thus, a recollection of a horse rider’s soul-awakening journey that drives him into the world of continuity. For the time being, he stops, enjoys beautiful objects of nature, and then realizes his mistake of stopping in the woods and restarts his journey to experience the cyclic process of birth- death- rebirth. Thus, restarting his journey indicates his rebirth in the woods and he accepts it from the core of his heart by following his voice from inner to external. This is, in real sense, a journey from ignorance to knowledge; from darkness to light and of course from imaginary to the realistic world.

Works Cited

Armstrong, James G. The Death Wish in Stopping by Woods. CE, March 1964.

Asnani, Shyam M. Dark Deep Lovely Woods of Robert Frost. The Banasthali Patkrita, Year 5, No.14.

Dabbs, J Mcbride. “Robert Frost: His Personality”. The Southern Review, Autumn 1966.

Dhavale , V.N. “Frost and Wordsworth”. Indian Journal of American Studies. Vol. 7, No.2 , July 1977.

Dwyedi, Suresh Chandra. “A Critical Examination of William Wordsworth and Robert

Frost as Poets of Nature”. Kashi Vidyapith Annual Journal. Chatra Sangam,1972: Delhi University.

Khanna, V.K., Minakshi F. Paul. The Blossoming Mind. Macmillan, First Published 2012: New Delhi.

Khanna, V.K., Minakshi F. Paul, BK Bhardwaj. A Step Ahead. Oxford University Press:  Second Edition: New Delhi.

Sen, S. Robert Browning: Selected Poems. 21 Edition, 2002. Unique Publishers, New Delhi.

Sen, S. Robert Frost Selected Poems. Unique Publishers, New Delhi 1986.

Sen, S. William Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey: A Critical Evaluation. Unique Publishers,2010: New Delhi.

Singh, Jagdip and Praveen Kumar. The Threshold. Second Edition, 2003. Macmillan India Ltd.: New Delhi.

 

 

 

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