The secretive-playful epiphanies of Robert Frost: solitude, companionship, and the ambivalent imagination.
In The Ambiguity of Play, Brian Sutton-Smith distinguishes seven thematic focuses that have helped theorists organize discussions of play: Progress, Fate, Power, Identity, the Imaginary, Self, and Frivolity (5). These categories have enabled investigators to clarify, respectively, ludic activities as diverse as children's play, games of chance, contests of skill and strategy, festivals and parades, theatrical fantasy, leisure, and humorous nonsense. Every one of Sutton-Smith's seven rubrics illuminates the playful epiphanies of Robert Frost. Progress, Fate, Power, and Frivolity are important but subsidiary. Some of Frost's visions recall stages in the developmental progress whereby a child learns to balance the demands of self and other. Frostian solitaries love to challenge fate and to assert their hard-won visionary power while deprecating their epiphanic achievement with comic whimsy.
But the categories that shed most light on the psychology of Frost's playful epiphanies are the ones Sutton-Smith calls Identity, Self, and the Imaginary. Sutton-Smith sees Identity (what I will call Companionship or Commmunity) as rooted in tradition, community feeling (or communitas) and cooperation, forces that validate one's identity or respectability in a social context. Because Sutton-Smith identifies Self with the drive that seeks out individual "peak experiences," I rename it Solitude to emphasize that it empowers Frostian characters' lonely epiphanic searches. And Sutton-Smith's idea of the Imaginary (I call it Imagination) is highly apposite to Frost's playful epiphanic practice.
Frost's playfulness is bound up with the quest for imaginative epiphanies, and Sutton-Smith shows how seriousness and play have been historically linked through Imagination. He connects Imagination to the poetic exuberance of Romanticism and to the satirical dialogism of Bakhtinian carnival, both of which blend seriousness with play: for the philosophic Romanticist Schiller, serious imaginative art was at the same time the most human form of play; obversely, Bakhtin finds the satiric-dialogic mood of carnival gaiety at the root of much serious literary protest. It is not surprising that Frost, well grounded in Romantic tradition, would blend seriousness and play in the epiphanic quest. But to this I would add that, for Frost, the drive toward Solitude and the equally irresistible need for a sense of communitas, like seriousness and play, encounter each other in the realm of Imagination. This psychologically crucial encounter, in a Frostian epiphany, is likely to be as anxiously ambivalent as it is intense, mysterious, and resonant.
To analyze the ambivalent interpersonal play-epiphanies of Frost I will identify both their subjective and objective features. (6) I define a literary epiphany as an experience felt by the reader to be intense, mysterious, and expansive in meaning--signifying more than such a brief moment would normally have any right to mean. (7) Using this definition of epiphany based on its subjective effects on the reader, I then identify, as objective criteria, recurrent formal features that, taken together, constitute a recognizable pattern unifying a given writer's epiphanic oeuvre. These formal indicators, derived from the thinking of phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, include (1) patterns of motion, (2) elements--in the ancient sense of earth, water, air, and fire, (3) shapes--often linked to elements, as trees are associated with earth or birds with air, (4) colors, including black and white, and (5) sounds and silences. After specifying the component features of Frost's epiphanic pattern, I locate and describe in detail his paradigm epiphany, the one privileged moment where the formal features of the pattern are most vividly presented and clearly developed. I devote the remainder of the analysis to more fragmentary or attenuated variants of Frost's paradigm, unfolding their implicit social psychology of epiphanic questing as ambivalent, conflicted play.
The strongest epiphanies of Robert Frost manifest a readily recognizable pattern of motions, shapes, elements, colors, sounds, and silences. The motion pattern features two contrasting types of movement frequently appearing together, as if to symbolize the necessary coexistence and interdependence of the two contrasting attitudes they express: solitary questing and community tradition, imaginative loneliness and companionship. (8) There is, first, the motion of the solitary seeker toward an undefined imaginative goal. In contrast, the person or entity embodying the values of communitas or would-be companionship in Frostian epiphanies has three choices: (1) not to move, (2) to move in a direction opposite or contrasting to that of the Solitary, and (3) to pursue the Solitary in a game of hide-and-seek, a frequent and favored motion scenario.
No type of Frostian epiphanic movement or immobility can attain its meaning except in contrast with its actual or implicit contrary. The solitary seeker and the collectivity, individual and community, confirm and define each other, though tensions are palpable. Frostian players of hide-and-seek are never "caught" except on their own terms or by their own consent. Yet solitude and companionship, the reclusive independence of the poetic wanderer (option A) and the conventional security of communitas (option B), need not be embodied in distinct persons in a Frostian epiphany. Instead, the two tendencies or "voices" often compete within the mind of a single epiphanist-persona who hovers playfully and guiltily between them--like "voices" of rebellious independence and parental caution in the mind of a growing child.
Frostian epiphanic shapes can be quasi-geometrical, natural forms, or barely definable flashings, flutters, or gleams. The predominant geometric shape in a Frostian epiphany is a rounded, circular, or cylindrical enclosure, formed by a tunnel, a well, a dark pool, a fern wreath, or trees in a forest. At times the dark enclosure may take a squarish outline, such as a dark house, or even a grey woodpile felt to contain a hidden, slow-burning fire. Among natural and nature-like forms, Frost favors trees and birds, or a birdlike white wave or fluttering book page. A single tree may be the locus or agent of a revelation, or a group of trees may be the epiphanic site. (9) Birds, associated with trees, are central to Frostian epiphany; Frost makes the two images evoke each other, and he links birds and trees to music. Lastly, Frost favors sudden flashings, flutters, or gleams of whiteness, often in dark enclosures or on dark backgrounds, and often related to his birds and waves.
Fascinated by the indefinable or ambivalent, Frost may blend sound with silence in his epiphanies. As just noted, birds and trees suggest music: panpipes appear as a forest emblem or "sylvan sign," and even morning-glory vines, a diminutive thicket, recall harp strings. Yet, paradoxically, silence--or the muffling of sound--may be as crucial to these epiphanies as music. The poet's song may be "swallowed up" by a throatlike enclosure of trees, or a distant violin may be heard, or a woman may have "on her lips" a song "only to herself," or pipes may be muted as a new music is pondered. We hear enigmatic or conflicted combinations or blendings of song and silence. Frost may use white noise--the rushing of leaves--to bridge sound and silence, music and tonelessness. Indefinability, indeterminacy, and the linking of opposite ideas open an area where limits are questioned, an ambivalent liminal zone or epiphanic border-realm.
The elements of earth, air, water, and fire interrelate in Frostian epiphanies. Earth predominates because of the sylvan emphasis; woods are abundant. Air is associated with birds, with the rustling music of tree branches, with the breath of song, or with the breath of spirit, of silence. An eddy in a pool may take on a strangely aery, birdlike epiphanic shape. And an abandoned woodpile may seem to burn, warming the forest with its hidden Heraclitean fire of decay. So all four elements contribute to the revelation of the Frostian reclusive seeker.
Just as Frost juxtaposes sound and silence in the ambivalent enclosure of his epiphanies, so, too, he shows a kind of elemental ambiguity embodied in glass, seemingly a solid but really a liquid in suspension. Combining brightness and colorlessness, transparency and reflected light, glass embodies a questioning of categorical limits, a material ambivalence. Frost varies the epiphanic theme of glass as water-mirror, crystal, and quartz, or--audibly--in the crystalline timbre of bells.
Frost, who loves indefinability, can question the limits of tonal and elemental categories, respectively, through the use of a sonar border-concept suggesting indeterminacy (the white noise or pitchless tones of rustling leaves) and by the ambivalent combination of vivid brightness and empty transparency in the solid-liquid anomaly of glass. He similarly questions color categories by making his epiphanic moments chiefly a matter of black, the non-color, and/or white, the all-color. (Sometimes the more indeterminate idea of invisibility may substitute for the negative notion of darkness or blackness.) An indeterminate, fluttering or vacillating, birdlike or wavelike white object may appear in a black enclosure, a tunnel, a well, a dark pool. Or a black enclosure may be starkly contrasted with a surrounding or adjacent whiteness (woods on a snowy evening). The category- questioning, the indeterminate, the all-or-nothing, the all-and- nothing--such is the focus of a Frostian ambivalent epiphany of blackness or invisibility, and/or blank, riddling whiteness.
I have stressed that Frostian solitary epiphanic seeking and community tradition, loneliness and sociability, define each other and thus imply each other by vivid contrast. But we also find in Frost a kind of attempted epiphanic compromise, a shared epiphany that is Solitary- or recluse-friendly, experienced by a select group--sometimes of three persons, like a nuclear family. In such revelatory if transient, always ambivalent compromise between the demands of solitude and society, a black-white contrast may no longer be required: a suspensefully irresolute, erect white "leaf" of an open book may be observed in a lighted room. Shared recluse-friendly epiphanies may show large areas of light: a silver cloud approaches a refulgent moon.
The ambivalent playfulness of the poetic seeker in a Frostian epiphany may involve willfulness, whimsy, mockery, caprice, or teasing--often a teasing secretiveness. Though we find in Frost a few privileged moments of relaxed and playful love, the playfulness in his epiphanies is more commonly of a troubled and troubling kind: it may be prankish, mischievous, (10) defiant, ironic, sarcastic, irresponsible, dangerous, even seemingly cruel. It may include feelings of guilt or profanation, at times engendering a twinge--or surge--of regret, an impulse to repent. Frost embodies the playful-epiphanic intermixture of disturbing ironies with appealing imaginative daring in variants of the myth of the willful or mischievous poet-child-god: satire-satyr Pan, self-enwreathed Narcissus.
"A Dream Pang," Frost's playful, interpersonal epiphanic paradigm, displays--in a characteristic mood of intense ambivalence and uneasy equivocation--his recurrent motion pattern (hide-and-seek), shape (enclosure of trees), and interactive elements (woods and wind), his ambivalent blendings of sound and silence (muffled song, white noise of leaves), and the equally central related theme of invisibility. The oneiric power of this oddly unregarded (11) dialogic dream sonnet is exemplary, as is the Frostian dialogue between the perspectives of the would-be Companion in the opening octet and the would-be Solitary in the sestet's antiphonal response. The two-part epiphany is a play scenario involving secretiveness and pursuit, hide-and-seek:
I had withdrawn in forest, and my song Was swallowed up in leaves that blew alway; And to the forest edge you came one day (This was my dream) and looked and pondered long But did not enter, though the wish was strong. You shook your pensive head as who should say, "I dare not--too far in his footsteps stray-- He must seek me would he undo the wrong." (1-8) (12)
The dream game is by no means pure pleasure. It may be narcissistically gratifying that the Companion purportedly has such a strong wish to enter the forest where the Solitary is hiding. But this powerful desire of the Companion may be merely fantasized, while the enunciated reproach is all too real. The Companion's reluctance to "dare" to enter the forest may seem timid, but the reproof is bold: the Solitary has strayed from the true path and must "undo" such a "wrong." This accusation may be a spouse's or a lover's, but it sounds more like a parent's reprimand stipulating how the child must rectify the offense he has committed; one readily imagines the early childhood origin of the tense dream scenario. (13) Not only is the Solitary made to feel guilty in relation to an authoritative Companion, but even the poetic achievement he has effected through his solitude is highly equivocal: the swallowing of his song in leaves, as if in the dark cylindrical throat of the forest, threateningly renders the poet mute. But perpetually blowing leaves can magically make a lovely, quasi-musical rushing sound, and the Solitary may well feel comfortable surrounded by this waterlike white noise, auditory insulation from unwelcome human company. In the sestet we hear his revealingly equivocal reply to the proffered charge of aloofness:
Not far, but near, I stood and saw it all: Behind low boughs the trees let down outside; And the sweet pang it cost me not to call And tell you that I saw does still abide. But `tis not true that thus I dwelt aloof, For the wood wakes, and you are here for proof. (9-14)
The singer admits a continuing sense of guilt, or at least regret. Yet he rejects the imputation of willful coldness. The waking of the wood may mean that the slumbrous dream was not real anyway, that daytime reality has now supervened, replacing defiance with pleasant companionship. Yet the waking of the dream-wood may equally well mean that the nocturnal rebellion was real and that its reality survives into daytime--that the poet's triumphant, secretive defiance in the dream was real then and is real now. The guiltily playful epiphanist-persona, like a rebellious growing child, is torn between apology and apologia.
Everything about this playful-disturbing paradigmatic dream epiphany is uneasily ambivalent. The enclosure of trees muting the poet's voice is potentially incapacitating but reassuringly protective, too, of the Solitary's fragile independence. The kind of movement in Option A is bolder, more exploratory, than that of option B; the Solitary dares to venture into the dark enclosure, while the Companion does not. The Solitary will not allow himself to be caught except by his own consent, and only in the fantasy context of a concluded dream. His song may be silenced for a while, but the white noise of rustling boughs may well betoken an initiatory entry into a privileged oneiric if ambiguous realm of subtler, more puzzling poetic music. (14) Yet when the dream forest awakens, the rebellious quester, too, will awake to a sobering realization: no Solitary can be a poet without help of a hearer. In his conflicted epiphany scenario, the maturing singer demands respect yet feels partly culpable, not wholly secure. Using the categories of Sutton-Smith, we may say that in his playfulness the Solitary has shown Progress toward independence, has asserted Power, has dared Fate, and has courted the charge of Frivolity. Most important, Imagination has produced an epiphany of mysterious, intense if unstable power by playing Solitude against Companionship or communitas. The dream ritual has tested the Solitary's power to tease out or provoke the acceptance, or love, of his importunate, baffled Companion.
Six subtly balanced, conflicted epiphanies--"Pan With Us," "The Good Hours," "For Once, Then, Something," "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "The Hill Wife," and "The Wood-Pile"--show the role options of Solitary and Companion (or Community) competing within the mind of the epiphanist, with results ambivalently varying the play-impulse. Pan, a sylvan poet-child-god, is both older and younger than we might have thought. "His skin and his hair and his eyes were gray, / The gray of the moss of walls" (2-3); fearing he may be a superannuated ludic deity, he no longer knows what to do with his classical "pipes of pagan mirth" (26). But as "Pan With Us," the new era's newborn child, he becomes sufficiently Judeo-Christian to suit a more modern world ("Immanuel" means "God with us" [Isaiah 7.14; Matthew 1.23]). As Pan looks "At wooded valley and wooded hill," his heart knows "peace, for none came here"--with a few exceptions, kindred playful "children" who "tell no tales" (5, 11, 14-15)--so he is ready for a solitary sylvan epiphany, less peaceful than ambivalent:
He tossed his pipes, too hard to teach A new-world song, far out of reach, For a sylvan sign that the blue-jay's screech And the whimper of hawks beside the sun Were music enough for him, for one. (16-20)
In classical pastorals, oaten pipes were the rule; why are these pipes a sylvan sign? To indicate their kinship to birds in trees? But bird music is said to be better than pipes: is that because birds are closer to "god with us"? Postclassical pipes are now felt to have less "power to stir" than does "the merest breath of air" (22, 25): is that because air is newly conceived as pure spiritus, spirit? Is Pan now impotent, or has he found a new source of epiphanic power?
[T]he world had found new terms of worth. He laid him down on the sun-burned earth And ravelled a flower and looked away-- Play? Play?--What should he play? (27-30)
Looking away from sun toward the darkened earth, Pan, enclosed now within his own thoughts, poses a question but may well experience it as an ambivalent inward illumination, problematic for a poet: how can any kind of communally shareable music now express, or equal, the deep silence of a newly learned solitary inwardness of spirit?
In "Good Hours" the companionable and solitary ways of life confront each other more schematically but with comparable ambivalent playfulness and epiphanic mysteriousness. The two- part epiphany affords equal physical space first to solitary motion outward (option A), and then to the reverse motion back to communitas (option B). In part one the Solitary moves away:
I had for my winter evening walk-- No one at all with whom to talk, But I had the cottages in a row Up to their shining eyes in snow. And I thought I had the folk within; I had the sound of a violin; I had a glimpse through curtain laces Of youthful forms and youthful faces. (1-8)
A poet like every Frostian epiphanist, the Solitary strolls into the realm of fanciful imagination, where cottages, in fairy tale fashion, seem buried up to their "shining," magically bright glassy eyes in the customary Frostian epiphanic enclosures--here, vertical tunnels of snow (though these are, atypically, white enclosures, not dark ones). Music is distant and enclosed, while the human forms can be only glimpsed, barely perceived, so both sounds and shapes must be mostly imagined. That is the joyful prospect of the solitary venture. But, as the homeward journey shows, the hazard--and the unmistakable thrill--is ambivalence:
I had such company outward bound. I went till there were no cottages found. I turned and repented, but coming back I saw no window but that was black. Over the snow my creaking feet Disturbed the slumbering village street Like profanation, by your leave, At ten o' clock of a winter eve. (9-16)
The Solitary's imaginative acquaintance with the black-and-white emptiness of a snowy night is felt as if it were a kind of sin, his pleasantly guilt-ridden return to the sacred precincts of community life having the effect of a "profanation"--even after he has "turned and repented"! But the remorse is partly playful, hardly moralistic: it partakes of the guiltily stimulating epiphanic mystery of a child's risky play. (15) There can be no true "turning," no conversio, from the "sweet pang" that must arise from this delightfully ambivalent, stealthy joy. The sense of having "[d]isturbed" the torpid repose of a conventional (parental?) communitas by one's lonely boldness offers the indispensable defining context for an epiphany of solitary imaginings. Even if the shining eyes of the windows are now all black, the "good hours"--also the testing, trying hours--of the poem's title are those of departure and return.
The last three exhibits in this group of unresolved confrontational epiphanies wherein solitude encounters community in a context of varied types of playful caprice all feature the motif of glass or mirror (as in the shining window-eyes of the mostly-buried houses we just viewed), a theme that heightens ambivalence through its mutually contrasting reflectiveness and transparency. "For Once, Then, Something" opens with the voice of the community taunting the boy as he plays his mirror-game:
Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs Always wrong to the light, so never seeing Deeper down in the well than where the water Gives me back in a shining surface picture Me with myself in the summer heaven, godlike, Looking out a wreath of the fern and cloud puffs. (1-6)
The community-voice within the mind of the solitary epiphanic persona decries his desire to see himself reflected in a watery mirror as playful childlike Narcissus, so flatteringly enclosed in an epiphanic circular poet-praising wreath uniting the natural beauties of earth and heaven. (The classical hendecasyllabic meter chosen for this lyric melodiously prompts us to seek ancient mythic analogues.) But the reflectiveness of solitude has deeper resources, revealed in a category-defying epiphanic game of hide-and-seek:
Once, when trying chin against a well-curb, I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture, Through the picture, a something white, uncertain, Something more of the depths--and then I lost it. Water came to rebuke the too clear water. One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom, Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness? Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something. (7-16)
Quartz, which can be both crystalline-mirrorlike and white (the inclusive all-color), now seemingly appears at the bottom of the deep, dark well, the Frostian cylindrical epiphanic enclosure, to create a black-and-white epiphany of the ambivalences of poetic solitude: narcissism-transcending yet resolutely independent, reflection-penetrating yet reflective, questionable yet possibly, strangely, truth-telling. The epiphany is indeterminate, its meaning undecidable (only a seeming white "something" amid a dark nothing), a tantalizing perceptual and ontological hide-and-seek game.
In "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," where the color-transcending interrelated opposites black and white are starkly contrasted as a Solitary watches woods "fill up with snow" on the "darkest evening of the year" (l4, 8), the Frostian epiphanic motifs of music and glass together signal the Solitary's ambivalently capricious-but-privileged moment. When the horse gives its "harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake," playfully (16) dramatizing what seems the traveler's highly capricious choice to stop suddenly at the forest's border, we note in this signal a musical, crystalline token of an ambivalent revelation-to-come from a Frostian dark enclosure: "The woods are lovely, dark, and deep" (9-10, 13). "But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep" (14-16)--the voice of communitas tells of social responsibilities to be heeded, promises to be honored. Communitas directs the pattern of motion (along the social road of duty, not into the solitary wood of desire), yet it hardly has the last word. That final word, "sleep," belongs instead to the delights of the beckoning, re-echoing, dark sylvan enclosure, to the ominous deeps of ever-ambivalent solitary inwardness with its riddlingly two-sided closure-and-opening into unconscious sources of death-and-life. (17)
In "The Hill Wife," all the wife's problems in her troubled marriage focus epiphanically upon the "mystery of glass," and those torments prove so harsh that the ambivalent playfulness we expect in a Frostian epiphany comes chiefly in an ominous, mocking guise. The first three sections of this five-part lyrical narrative show the epiphanist-wife's gradual coming to awareness that the tensions of life with her spouse have made their little two-person community a claustrophobic nightmare. In "Loneliness," she finds repellent the returning birds' preoccupation with their "built or driven nests" (12), and in "House Fear" she realizes she prefers "the out- to the in-door night" (8), for the couple's home has become a tomb, a parody--we may say--of the Frostian dark enclosure of epiphanic deliverance. In "The Smile" the wife tries to puzzle out the cruel, teasing grin of a Solitary who has stopped by: "Perhaps he mocked at us for being wed" or "was pleased / To have a vision of us old and dead [....] He's watching from the woods as like as not" (8-10, 12). This shadowy herald or woodland mocker is a sinister variant of the teasingly elusive Frostian Pan.
The two-part culminating epiphany begins with "The Oft- Repeated Dream," exemplifying Frost's own recurrent heralding of ambivalent solitary revelation by the shapes and sounds of tree, music (here varied as bird), and dark enclosure:
She had no saying dark enough For the dark pine that kept Forever trying the window-latch Of the room where they slept. The tireless but ineffectual hands That with every futile pass Made the great tree seem as a little bird Before the mystery of glass! (1-8)
Unlike her oblivious spouse, the wife is terrified of "what the tree might do" (12) because she resists the prospective solitary unknown that awaits her outdoors, even though she has been growing into the awareness that her shared indoor darkness is a far worse prison, a more fearful trap, than any new "dark" area or fate toward which the birdlike branches might be summoning her. The "mystery of glass" is an enigma with which Frost has challenged us before: it is the two-sidedness of solitude, narcissistically comforting as a mirror, yet unsettlingly unpredictable when it suddenly turns transparent and an epiphanic "breakthrough" occurs (as happened to the water- surface for the well-gazer in "For Once, Then, Something").
In the final section, "The Impulse," the wife enters into a truer, darker passage that will enclose--and disclose--her solitary epiphany of expanded, ambivalent possibilities. "With a song only to herself / On her lips" (11-12)--the half-silent, muffled, half-imaginary music of the lonely poetic quest--she "went to break a bough / Of black alder" (13-14), the Frostian sylvan sign of epiphanic readiness. At this point the wife's tree-sign becomes also birdlike--"Sudden and swift and light"--as her spouse, unable even to see her vanish into the distance, begins to think deeply on the epiphanically interrelated themes of solitude, flight, and dark enclosures:
Sudden and swift and light as that The ties gave, And he learned of finalities Besides the grave. (15-18)
The word "light" suggests not only weightlessness but a flash of bright possibility amid the negativity of the final darkness. Ironically, the despairing quest of the Solitary has been validated by her Companion. Now he knows she meant it. There was a time, perhaps, when she might have cared. Now, the birdlike lightness of her loosening of ties hints with playful, mocking sarcasm that life with him was worse than death.
In "The Wood-Pile," finally, an amiable observer shares with us an ambivalent epiphany of the random delights of solitary work-as-play. Here, the contrasting Frostian behavior options, Companionship and Solitude, are embodied respectively in the white-feathered bird and tree-supported wood-pile encountered by the meditative epiphanist on his casual woodland pleasure-stroll. Right at the start, the persona reports a symbolic internal debate he initially engaged in when, at one point, he said to himself, "I will turn back from here. / No, I will go on farther" (2-3). As in "A Dream Pang" where we saw that bold "option A" people go on "further" than do the cautious "option B" folk, we are again dealing here with a true Frostian solitary quester. A "small bird" flying ahead
thought that I was after him for a feather-- The white one in his tail: like one who takes Everything said as personal to himself. One flight out sideways would have undeceived him. And then there was the pile of wood for which I forgot him and let his little fear Carry him off the way I might have gone. (15-21)
This cautious bird, ever heedful of what others may think or desire, embodies the timid option B to be avoided, yet its white feather, an epiphanic marker, indicates that it is, despite itself, unwittingly a psychopomp or mysterious guide, indirectly leading the strolling option A seeker farther on, to the woodpile that will convey a deeper revelation. Though the partly sunken, clematis-bound, grey structure is about to collapse,
What held it ... on one side was a tree Still growing, and on one a stake and prop, These latter about to fall. I thought that only Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks Could so forget his handiwork on which He spent himself, the labour of his axe, And leave it there, far from a useful fireplace To warm the frozen swamp as best it could With the slow smokeless burning of decay. (33-41)
The bright inward burning, an epiphanic disclosure hidden in a palpably "grey" enclosure, is visible only to a perceiver with a lively (meta)physical imagination, playfully venturesome like the woodpile builder himself, a kindred spirit. The oblivious exercise of a boundless, exuberant energy, "fresh" tasks that are kept fresh by verve and impulse rather than bound by a cautious concern that takes things "personally"--all these betoken the playful attitude of the Solitary woodchopper, as also of "poets, whose work is `measured' no less than that of woodchoppers," yet whose "human creativity" is coessential with "nature's vitality" (Bagby 148). True, the peculiar warming of the woods by the woodpile's Heraclitean fires of slow energy-release profits no one, not even the forest: the provocative word "decay" climaxes the paradoxical episode. But such ambivalence is always central to a Frostian epiphany of playful solitary energy--unconstrained, oblivious, impulsive, "decadent" and enlivening.
Our final group of three Frostian epiphanies, dialogic but recluse-friendly--epiphanies each shared by a small congenial group--are conflictedly ludic in diverse ways: lovingly fantasizing (against a background of dark irony); philosophically bantering (against a background of relentless cosmic entropy); intriguingly if narcissistically exploratory. These three visions, appearing in dramatic narratives, are among the most intense, mysterious, and resonant of Frost's epiphanies.
The transfiguring yet playful midsummer-night's-dream fantasy that constitutes the major shared but Solitary-friendly epiphany in "The Death of the Hired Man" might seem hopeful, yet that hope is ambivalently belied by the story's ironic outcome. The ne'er-do-well former employee Silas, now returned in ill health at haying-time, hoping to find work with the reluctant Warren and his wife Mary, is revealed as a true Frostian solitary by two epiphany-signaling objects: Mary tells of Silas's fondness for seeking water with a "hazel prong" dowser (Frostian magic- tree motif) and of Silas's skill at unloading his hay-bunches resembling "big birds' nests" (epiphanic bird theme [83, 93]). Warren is predictably put off by Silas, that proven misfit, now in worse shape than ever. But Mary's warm epiphany of welcome suggests she feels akin to the returned if ruined quester. A solitary epiphanist, she makes a mute music that hearkens back to the silent song of "A Dream Pang":
Part of a moon was falling down the west, Dragging the whole sky with it to the hills. Its light poured softly in her lap. She saw And spread her apron to it. She put out her hand Among the harp-like morning-glory strings, Taut with the dew from garden bed to eaves, As if she played unheard the tenderness That wrought on him beside her in the night. "Warren," she said, "he has come home to die: You needn't be afraid he'll leave you this time." (107-12)
As the Silas-like moon undergoes a "fall" that may be bringing down his whole world with it, Mary unlooses a fantastical unheard cosmic harmony, the musically dew-taut morning-glory vines varying the forest or thicket-theme allied to all the paradoxes of the ambivalent Frostian sacred place where sound meets silence and where darkness is infused with magic light (here, the generous moonlight of outgoing feeling that radiantly "pour[s]" like a luminous water of life into the enclosure of Mary's apron). Warren, the voice of conservative communitas, is reluctant to relent, but as the would-be mediatrix Mary perseveres, her epiphany attains a playful coda:
"He has a plan. You mustn't laugh at him. He may not speak of it, and then he may. I'll sit and see if that small sailing cloud Will hit or miss the moon." It hit the moon. Then there were three there, making a dim row, The moon, the little silver cloud, and she. (158-63)
The coda ensures the intensely ambivalent effect of the whole epiphany. As Mary watches her "hit or miss" game, it now seems that Silas may be the silver cloud, aligned with Mary and with the compassionate, radiant motherly moon in a syzygy, an astrologically auspicious lineup of luminaries in the night. Or is it a fatal bewitchment? (18) For the hopeful prospect is dashed as the poem and Silas's life come to a close. Yet the Solitary Silas at least returned to his former Companion(s) on his own terms, as did the epiphanist in "A Dream Pang"; Silas died peacefully, without humiliation, while it is Warren if anyone who, recalling Mary's tender words motivated by her epiphanic disclosure, may feel the familiar Frostian impulse to repent. (19)
"West-Running Brook," filled with a husband and wife's playful cosmologic theorizing or metaphysical banter, overcomes its incipient didacticism by a sudden dreamlike power (as we see an eddying wave transformed to a white bird struggling in an ominous dark pool) and an astonishingly ironic ambivalence (where individual life is seen to issue from a moment of unexplainable "regret" in an endless entropic streaming toward oblivion). The wife begins by suggesting that the eponymous brook, running westward while all the others in the region go east, can serve, in its contarious individuality, as emblem of their own special, mutually tolerant relationship: "We'll both be married to the brook" (15--making a privileged group of three, such as we find recurrently in Frostian group-epiphanies). The wife even thinks the brook is "waving" to them, but her husband protests:
"Why, my dear, That wave's been standing off this jut of shore- (The black stream, catching on a sunken rock, Flung backward on itself in one white wave, And the white water rode the black forever, Not gaining but not losing, like a bird White feathers from the struggle of whose breast Flecked the dark stream and flecked the darker pool Below the point and were at last driven wrinkled In a white scarf against the far-shore alders.) That wave's been standing off this jut of shore Ever since rivers, I was going to say, Were made in heaven. It wasn't waved to us." (17-29)
The wife--the Mary-figure of this scene--still wants to call the epiphany an "annunciation," and the husband, with nervous humor, allows her right to travel imaginatively in the privileged "lady- land" of Amazon-country (31-33). But as the joking banter continues, the husband's speculations darken like the stream and pool forming the dark epiphanic enclosure against whose power the white, birdlike, eddying wave perseveres in its perpetual contrarious strife. (20) He sees the entropic flow of things as
The universal cataract of death That spends to nothingness--and unresisted, Save by some strange resistance in itself, Not just a swerving, but a throwing back, As if regret were in it and were sacred. (56-60)
Life is death's conflicted play, involving death's "strange" remorse for its willful spending or squandering of exuberant energy down into the pit of the void. The white birdlike eddy in the Frostian dark epiphanic pool-enclosure is the solitary, contrarious power that resists the common flow; the eddy is the stubborn selfhood, "source" of life, braving the "stream that most we see ourselves in" (69). A triumph of ambivalence, one of Frost's darkest visions--our being enclosed and hurried on by the common flow of death--is also one of his most brightly playful, as the resistant, Solitary selfhood--so often prankish in his epiphanies--now becomes a holy thing, while only the dark death-flow is obliged to feel the paradigmatic pang of regret.
In "Snow," finally, an extremely enigmatic two-part epiphany is offered by a willful persona who may well be the poet's most intensely ambivalent ludic Solitary: the epiphanist Brother Meserve perpetually plays unsettling games of psychological hide-and-seek with his friends and relatives. Boyish and high- spirited, Meserve is as narcissistic as his name (accusative pronoun, imperative verb) may imply. Whenever he feels the urge to preach on behalf of his Racker sect, Meserve blithely leaves his wife and ten children and ventures out to brave snowstorms; since his life is at risk, he burdens with nervous apprehension not only his long-suffering family but also worry-wracked friends like the Coles, into whose home he intrudes at unlikely hours. Yet Meserve's deeper, epiphanic mission is to awaken people's imaginations to things they have looked at but never seen: (21)
"That leaf there in your open book! It moved Just then, I thought. It's stood erect like that, There on the table, ever since I came, Trying to turn itself backward or forward, I've had my eye on it to make out which: If forward, then it's with a friend's impatience-- You see I know--to get you on to things It wants to see how you will take; if backward, It's from regret for something you have passed And failed to see the good of." (116-25)
The "impatience" and "regret" ascribed to the enigmatic white book-leaf are the impulsiveness and repentance of the Frostian conflicted willful-whimsical Solitary epiphanist, the explorer-and-transgressor who defies communitas and "racks" people's routine lives with his risky games. The ambivalent "part one" indoor epiphany culminates in "part two" outside:
"There where There is a sort of tunnel in the frost-- More like a tunnel than a hole--way down At the far end of it you see a stir And quiver like the frayed edge of the draft Blown in the wind. I like that--I like that. Well, now I leave you, people." (191-97)
An obscure white quiver at the end of a dark tunnel in the "frost"--the poet-preacher and his willfully whimsical creator both like that, as Frost hints by "signing" his surrogate's epiphany. A stir of bright but indeterminate meaning barely emergent from a dark cylindrical enclosure initiates and emblematizes the capricious, intermittently rewarding game of pursuit, of epiphanic hide-and-seek, that the Solitary seer plays with his community of hearers, or with the voice of communitas internalized within his own dialogically active mind. Elusive meanings of the epiphany play hide-and-seek with the Solitary epiphanist, who in turn plays hide-and-seek with his Companion(s) or Community. This double hide-and-seek game of ambivalent epiphanic power is the Frostian Solitary's way of life.
(1) "`Spot of Time' in Frost: Beddoes, Vaughan--or Wordsworth in `Stopping by Woods'?" Robert Frost Review (Fall 1993): 24-28.
(2) Seven of Frost's ten best epiphanic poems are found in A Boy's Will (1913), North of Boston (1914), and Mountain Interval (1916). The other three are "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "For Once, Then, Something," both from New Hampshire (1923), and the title poem of West-Running Brook (1928). Beginning roughly with the 1928 book and with A Further Range (1936), Frost's "very manner of voice changes. Metaphorical indirection gives way to explicit generalization. The forms of satirical discourse and epigram are introduced to convey his opinions more directly. The poet's old game of hide-and-seek is still evident but now is carried on more by means of a bantering verbal irony" (Ogilvie 73-4). I build here on Ogilvie's seminal remark regarding the "hide-and-seek" tactic.
(3) Citing the couplet "It takes all sorts of in- and outdoor-schooling / To get adapted to my kind of fooling," Cook sees Frost "playing perilously at the confluence of opposing forces" (228, 235). Edwards (245) finds Frost most playful in animal anthropomorphism; for Beacham (246) his play centers on irony.
(4) Faggen (2) contrasts such critics as Trilling and Jarrell, who saw "terror" in Frost, with more recent writers (Poirier, Oster, Monteiro) for whom Frost is "less a terrifying poet than a playfully ironic one." Focusing on conflict in Frost's epiphanies, I intend not to slight terror in favor of play.
(5) See especially 214-31 for summary paraphrased here.
(6) See my other work on epiphanies: "The Aestheticist Epiphanies of J. D. Salinger: Bright-Hued Circles, Spheres, and Patches; `Elemental' Joy and Pain." Style 34 (2000): 117-31; "`Controlled Panic': Mastering the Terrors of Dissolution and Isolation in Elizabeth Bishop's Epiphanies." Style 34 (2000): 487-511; "Failed Verticals, Fatal Horizontals, Unreachable Circles of Light: Philip Larkin's Epiphanies." Moments of Moment: Aspects of the Literary Epiphany. Ed. Wim Tigges. Amsterdam: Rodopi P, 1999. 353-74; Patterns of Epiphany: From Wordsworth to Tolstoy, Pater, and Barrett Browning. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1997.
(7) My second and third criteria are borrowed from Ashton Nichols's The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth-Century Origins of the Modern Literary Moment (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1987) 28.
(8) My emphasis here parallels that of Richardson (3-4) on Frost's "decision not to weight the values" of "rebellion and conformity" or Dionysus and Apollo as "one-sidedly" in favor of Dionysian rebellion as Mencken had done, but rather to locate tendencies toward both change and permanence in every individual.
(9) Ogilvie (65) has noted the poet's "preoccupation" with "the recurrent image, particularly in his earlier work, of dark woods and trees." "The necessity for participating in both worlds, the worlds of self-in-society and self-in-seclusion, sets up a rhythm of continual advance and retreat which informs Frost's entire poetic expression.
`Trees' and `mankind' are alternately sought and avoided as circumstances direct" (67)--an insight I build on here. Ogilvie shows how trees yield to the imagery of stars as the poetry later becomes more generalized and impersonal (74).
(10) Muldoon (128) cites Frost's letter to Leonidas W Payne Jr., 1 November 1927, acknowledging "my innate mischievousness."
(11) Maxson, who repeatedly misreads "blew alway" as "blew away," finds this poem "not of uppermost importance among the sonnets" of Frost (31). Other critics barely mention it.
(12) All citations of poetry are from Frost's Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays. Parenthetical references are to line numbers.
(13) For Maxson (31) this poem "introduces the male/female, husband/wife conflicts and relationships that would be featured so prominently in North of Boston and beyond." But when, after the dream, the speaker says that "the wood wakes, and you are here for proof" (14), the word "here" doesn't have to mean "here in the bed," though Oster (145), too, speaks confidently about "the physical presence of his wife in their bed." The first few times I read "A Dream Pang" I envisioned the poet's mother standing in the doorway. If the poem does depict a husband-wife relationship, it is one that seems closely patterned on the way a child may feel in relation to a parent: vulnerable, rebellious, defensive, yet ready to fantasize a peace pact.
(14) Squires (49), in a comment on the speaker's withdrawal into the swallowing leaves, notes that although the poem's first two lines "suggest that in being lost in nature Frost feels a loss of self, or at least some challenge to the self," the "moment when bearings disappear is often also a fructifying moment."
(15) Poirier overemphasizes the extent to which the speaker is "joking" in using the word "profanation" (though "by your leave" does lighten the tone). "Any sanctities being violated are of the most trivial, social sort--to bed by ten" (Poirier 91). But violations of childhood sanctities are no small matter to children, and Frostian epiphanies retain the dreamlike intensity of permanent long-term memories. The speaker is not simply "making a show of being properly penitent" (Richardson 69).
(16) But such anthropomorphic "playfulness has a grimly serious side, for this man's impulse to perceive feelings in his horse could be saving him from freezing" (Edwards 237).
(17) The final two lines "in their repetition are a sleepy, final attempt to deny what in fact is already happening," a "hypnotic halt," a "full spellbound stop" (Coale 103). "The traveler wants to believe that his place is with his promises, but the hypnotic, repetitive sound of the final stanza suggests that his vow will be neutralized by his inaction" (Greiner 383).
(18) It is "as if she knows and is thus potentially implicated in the spell by which the collision of moon with cloud will signal (cause) Silas's death" (Kearns 19).
(19) Poirier (108) objects to the "hygienically fine feelings" Mary's perspective may elicit, but Kilcup (87) sees in the poem a "romantic yet realistic conclusion: death and love converge."
(20) For Bartini (356), "Whiteness to Frost" is "inscrutable mystery and passionless Being, tamed by metaphor. It is akin to Eliot's whimper, and never resounds with Melville's roar." But Bartini's contrast may be overdrawn: the white wave-bird's struggle is passionate, even desperate, and we hear no whimper.
(21) "Like the wave thrown back against its current [in "West-Running Brook"], the image of the book leaf is [...] of a consummately ordinary (yet strange, charming, even magical [I would say "epiphanic"] moment in an ongoing process" (Jost 41).
Bagby, George F. Frost and the Book of Nature. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1993.
Bartini, Arnold G. "Whiteness in Frost's Poetry." Massachusetts Review 26 (1985): 351-56.
Beacham, Walton. "Technique and the Sense of Play in the Poetry of Robert Frost." Tharpe II 246-61.
Coale, Samuel. "The Emblematic Encounter of Robert Frost." Tharpe I 89-107.
Cook, Marjorie. "Acceptance in Frost's Poetry: Conflict as Play." Tharpe II 223-35.
Edwards, Margaret. "The Play of `Downward Comparisons': Animal Anthropomorphism in the Poems of Robert Frost." Tharpe II 236-45.
Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: Uof Michigan P, 1997.
Frost, Robert. Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays. Ed. with annotations by Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson. NY: Library of America, 1995.
Greiner, Donald J. "Robert Frost's Dark Woods and the Function of Metaphor." Tharpe I 373-88.
Jost, Walter. "Civility and Madness in Robert Frost's `Snow.'" Texas Studies in Literature and Language 39 (1997): 27-64.
Kearns, Katherine. Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.
Kilcup, Karen L. Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradition. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1998.
Maxson, H. A. On the Sonnets of Robert Frost. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 1997.
Muldoon, Paul. "Notes Towards an Ars Poetica." Essays in Criticism 48 (1998): 107-28.
Ogilvie, John T. "From Woods to Stars: A Pattern of Imagery in Robert Frost's Poetry." South Atlantic Quarterly 58 (1959): 64-76.
Oster, Judith. Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and the Poet. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1991.
Poirier, Richard. Robert Frost and the Work of Knowing. NY: Oxford UP, 1977.
Richardson, Mark. The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and His Poetics. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1997.
Schapiro, Barbara Ann. Literature and the Relational Self. New York: New York UP, 1994.
Squires, Radcliffe. The Major Themes of Robert Frost. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1969.
Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.
Tharpe, Jac, ed. Frost: Centennial Essays I. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, n.d.
----. Frost: Centennial Essays II. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1976.
MARTIN BIDNEY, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Binghamton University, is the author of Blake and Goethe: Psychology, Ontology, Imagination (1988) and Patterns of Epiphany: From Wordsworth to Tolstoy, Pater, and Barrett Browning (1997). His epiphanological essays also include studies of Philip Larkin, J. D. Salinger, and Elizabeth Bishop.
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|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2002|
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