Feedback About Us Archives Interviews Book Reviews Short Stories Poems Articles Home

ISSN: 0974-892X


Jul 2015 - Jan 2016



“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep” - A Green Study of Select Nature Poems of Robert Lee Frost

Dr. Sidney Shirly

Asst. Professor of English, Department of English, Scott Christian College (Autonomous), Nagercoil (TN)


Robert Lee Frost was America’s Poet Laureate from 1958-1959. During his term as the nation's official poet he raised the country’s national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry. He won the Pulitzer Prize four times for "New Hampshire" (1924), "Collected Poems" (1931), "A Further Range" (1937) and "A Witness Tree" (1943). He received 44 honorary degrees, many government tributes and the Bollingen Prize posthumously. This genius hailed as the “American Bard” was praised by the then President John F. Kennedy as a poet who "has bequeathed his nation a body of imperishable verse from which Americans will forever gain joy and understanding."
Frost's poetry is largely based on his experiences with the life and scenery of rural New England, and it lends itself to a fruitful green study. Green study or Ecocriticism is an attempt to organize and understand the human and non-human interactions and interrelationships. It is further an attempt to reintegrate the human and the non human, to retrace the lost links between humanity and the world out. Ecocriticism is a method which helps to rediscover man’s intimate ties with nature. Nature is not that something out there that excludes the perceiver, the feeler and the thinker. It is not peripheral but holistic and complete and it is this aspect of Nature that influenced the writing of Frost. As Lawrance Thompson opines, Frost “portrays a variety of rural New England responses to the human predicament, not for purposes of recording ‘local color’ but rather to evoke universal extension of meaning” (11).
When Frost in his well known essay “The Figure a Poem Makes” refers to poetry as beginning in delight and ending in wisdom, he has in mind the balance of sensibility and substance, of emotion and thought, of airiness and weight. He believes that a poem must be a performance and this is the outcome of acute observation of his immediate environment. In many of his poems, Frost uses Nature as a background. He usually begins a poem with an observation of something in Nature and then connects it to some human situation or concern as in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”: 
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. (13-16)
In “Mending Wall”, after pointing out that there is something in Nature that does not love a wall, the poet leads us to the worldly wisdom: “Good fences make good neighbours” (27). In “Birches”, when the birches bend to left and right, the poet likes to think some playful boy has been swinging them. However he realizes that swinging does not bend them down to stay. This thought carries him further to ponder over the desire of human beings to escape from life which is “too much like a pathless wood” (44).  However they may try, like the birches bending down to the earth, they have to come down and face reality, for: “Earth is the right place for love” (52).
Frost’s involvement with Nature is so deep and intense that he becomes one with it and even uses it as a great symbol of life. His descriptions of Nature are outstanding for their suggestive power. What lends richness to Frost’s poetry is his acute and descriptive presentation of Nature in all its manifestations and his turning rich and varied experiences with Nature into the subject matter of his creative art. Nature enhances the understanding of the characters, action and message in Frost’s poems. His Nature poetry interconnects the world of Nature and the world of human beings. “His best poetry is concerned with the drama of man in nature” (138), comments Marion Montgomery. Frost’s poems are about human psychology. Elaine Barry aptly remarks that Frost’s poems are “Exploratory and speculative, they represent a lonely pondering on the central problems of existence: man’s identity and freedom, his defenses against an engulfing chaos, the place of human suffering and the possibility of salvation” (101). Rural scenes and landscapes and the natural world are used to illustrate a psychological struggle with everyday experience. The harsh reality of nature and the thoughtless expectations in the minds of man scarcely cohere to one another. “After Apple-Picking” is an allegory of man’s life ascending from the eager grasping of youth to the letting-go of age. When we are “done with apple-picking” (6), what we have failed to perform may look magnified: “And there's a barrel that I didn't fill / Beside it, and there may be two or three” (3-4).  However, if we face reality, feeling contented with what we have achieved, conflicts may vanish, and we can find fulfillment in life.
We learn from Nature the zones of our limitations. Within naturally imposed boundaries, we struggle to achieve whatever we may, with whatever talents we have. We learn that we cannot range beyond what our physical nature permits. The traveller in “The Road Not Taken” coming upon a fork in the path understands that he cannot travel both roads “And be one traveler” (3). He learns that choices have to be made and time, space and capability set zones within which man has to limit himself: “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference” (19-20).
Limits imposed by Nature are variously obeyed by man, after making a human attempt to break through the barriers. “The Mountain” describes a hill-country township so dominated by the “black body” of the mountain Hor. The poet says “The mountain held the town as in a shadow” (1). An elderly citizen recognizes the limits imposed by the mountain and says, “‘We can’t in nature grow to many more: / That thing takes all the room!’” (27-28). The land is vertical and stony and the few hill intervals are already under cultivation. So, man is forced to accept the restrictions imposed by Nature.
Darkness occurs as a recurring symbol in some poems to highlight the fear and confusion of human beings in life. Dark woods, full of mystery typify the great concern of man for knowledge of the unknown that awaits him. They “seem to be his symbol for the uncharted country within ourselves, full of possible beauty, but also full of horror”,  remarks Malcolm Cowley. Loneliness and fear are entrenched in the isolated human heart that searches for warmth and illumination. “An Old Man’s Winter Night” is an unforgettable image of an old man, frightened of the scary night and walking here and there with a solitary lamp: “It’s thus he does it of a winter night” (28). Nature for Frost is a teacher who is hard and soft, and can destroy and thwart, frustrate and batter. What Nature teaches us is to relate to Nature, as well as to fellow human beings, instead of isolating and suffering.
Frost’s poems are stamped with individuals who accept the inevitable or who resist it. “A Servant to Servants” is filled with scenes of horror “When a storm threatened from the Dragon’s Den, / And a cold chill shivered across the lake” (30-31).  However the niece in the poem accepts this situation saying “By good rights I ought not to have so much / Put on me, but there seems no other way” (53-54).  The little girl in “Wild Grapes” is not able to act upon her older brother’s advice to “Let go!” (46) of the branch she clutches and resists. To her life is difficult and will be so till she acquires the ability to release her human hold on transitory things. What happens when we fail to resign to circumstances in life is graphically portrayed through the young wife of “Home Burial” unable to reconcile to the loss of her only child. She seems to plunge into madness and life shatters. Her condition resembles the storm fear which the poet refers to as probing the darker corners of individual lives: “Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build” (96-97).
In the presence of Nature, the poet turns philosophical. “West-Running Brook” is a poem on the understanding of the tension of contraries. It is a playful argument with a serious undertone. In the backward motion of the wave running counter to itself, “The tribute of the current to the source,” (75) the poet sees the origin of man. The west-running brook is also seen as the flow of existence moved inexorably by time towards decay. Thus Nature reveals many undercurrents to man who is in close contact with it.
Nature sometimes seems to hurt those who love it. In “A Minor Bird” Frost says “I have wished a bird would fly away, / And not sing by my house all day” (1-2) as the song irritates and hurts the poet. In “Dust of Snow” the crow’s action – the way it “Shook down on me / The dust of snow” (2-3) - is accidental and unintended, yet it changes the mood of the poet.
Frost reveals a variation of attitudes towards Nature which reveal different values at different times. There are moments when he feels that impermanence and transience are not only for the mortal human beings but also for Nature. In “Nothing Gold Can Stay” he says,
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour. (1-4)
The poet mostly regards Nature as beautiful but sometimes he sees the perilous side too. Nature at times seems malevolent, hostile and bestial as in “Storm Fear”. His “heart owns a doubt” “When the wind works against us in the dark,/ And pelts with snow/ . . . And whispers with a sort of stifled bark” (1-2, 4).  In “Fire and Ice” he projects the opinion of a few that “the world will end in fire” (1), and he believes that “for destruction ice / Is also great” (7-8). Nature is capable of destroying humans, but the struggle with Nature is a heroic battle. 
Though Frost is aware of the malevolent power of Nature, optimist as he is, he is able to see the rebirth that follows decay and destruction. “Man is whirled into the dynamic revolution of the whole world process of birth and death” in Frost’s poetry,  opines Vivian C. Hopkins. Spring and autumn scenes crowd Frost’s poems. He perceives new life burgeoning through the previous year’s waste. Old life goes under to build soil for the new growth. In “Blueberries”, Frost calls attention to the mystery of rebirth as berry bushes sprout from slag:
“That’s always the way with the blueberries, though:
There may not have been the ghost of a sign
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And presto, they’re up all around you as thick
And hard to explain as a conjuror’s trick.” (14-15, 20-21)
Awareness of balance in the eco-system is strong in Frost. Nothing in Nature goes to waste. In “The Wood-Pile” where the carefully cut and stacked maple tree is abandoned to the processes of nature “To warm the frozen swamp as best as it could / With the slow smokeless burning of decay” (39-40). The wood is not totally worthless as it goes to build soil for the new. Like the abandoned maple stack, human woodpiles are fast disintegrating into compost for another cycle and the process cannot be avoided. 
Nature in Frost’s poems is not just the easy pastoral landscape, nor is it an album of decadence. Descriptions of Nature are graphic and realistic and look like a series of photographs that make up an album of life. Frost has a knack of making the evanescent and impalpable aspects of nature concrete and distinct. The description of Nature in his poems makes it clear that the message is not confined to a people or a region, but to the whole humanity.


Works Cited

A Pocket Book of Robert Frost’s Poems. New York: Washington Square Press. 1967. Print.
Barry, Elaine. Robert Frost. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.. 1973. Print.
Cowley, Malcolm. “The Case Against Mr.Frost.” James M. Cox, ed. Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962. 36-45. Print.
Hopkins, Vivian C.. “Robert Frost: Out Far And In Deep.” R. K. Gupta, ed. Interpretations: Essays on American Literature. Madras: Jupiter Press Private Ltd., 1976. 130-51. Print.
Montgomery, Marion. “Robert Frost and His Use of Barriers: Man vs. Nature Toward God.” James M. Cox, ed. Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962. 138-50. Print.
Thompson, Lawrance.  Robert Frost. Minneapolis: Lund Press. 1959. Print.