Saturday, December 4, 2010

Frost's Major Themes: Alienation, Isolation and Loneliness

Man: His Solitariness
Robert Frost has written on almost every subject, but alienation and isolation, both emotional and physical, are the major themes of his poetry. His, 'book of people', North of Boston, is full of solitaries who are lonely and isolated for one reason or the other. Frost is a great poet of boundaries and barriers which divide men from men and come in the way of communication, and so result in lack of understanding and friction. Man is not only isolated from other man, but Frost pictures him as also alone and solitary in an impersonal and unfeeling environment.

Separateness from the Stars
This concern with barriers, barriers which result in alienation and loneliness, is a predominant theme in Frost's poetry. There are barriers at least of five kinds. First, there is the great natural barrier, the void, the space, which separates man from the stars. Man foolishly tries to bridge this gap, but all his efforts in this respect are of no avail. Such efforts only make him more conscious of his own littleness. As he tells us in the Lessons for Today, the contemplation of the ghast heights of the sky has a belittling effect on man and he is overwhelmed by a terrifying sense of his own solitariness in the universe.
In the poem entitled Stars, the poet tells us how man gets attracted by nature only to be disillusioned by it. Here, the stars shining in the sky at midnight do not lend any glory or state to the gazer. Rather, they produce a note of disenchantment:
"And yet with neither love nor hate
Though the stars like some snow-white
Mineroas' snow-like marble eyes
Without the gift of sight.
Elsewhere, in Astro Metaphysical, love of looking at the changing skies leads to an unwelcome situation:
Till I have reeled and stumbled
From looking up too much,
And fallen and been humbled
To wear to Crutch".
In another poem, we find how clever human plans to establish relationship with nature are thwarted. The protagonist of The Star-Splitter, purchases a telescope with the insurance money that he gets by burning his house down. He gazes at the stars but cannot escape the question that raises its ugly head towards the end:
We've looked and looked
But after all where are we
?
Nature's Wilderness
Secondly, there are the barriers, between man and the immediate natural world,—the barren and desert places—which man must conquer, reclaim and cultivate. He must constantly wage a war against such wildernesses, if he is to survive in an environment which seems hostile to him, which at least, is not meant for him and in which he is an alien. Says Marion Montgomery, "there are those souls, of course, who are content to have a barrier stand as a continual challenge which they never quite accept; such is the old teamster of The Mountain who lives and works in the shade of the mountain he always intends to climb but never does. And there are those who accept the challenge and go down in defeat; the deserted village of the Census Taker with its gaunt and empty buildings is evidence of such failure. The woman in A Servant to Servants has lost out to the wilderness by losing her sanity. Her days are spent in caring for the house while the men are away, and the emptiness of the world has overcome her. There are others on the border line of tragic failure. The Hill Wife, though not out of her mind, still has a fear of her house once she has left it, deserted it, and has to return to it. When she comes back she has to reconquer it:
They learned to rattle the lock and key
To give whatever might chance to be
Warning and time to be off in flight.
Courage is needed to reclaim at home. The preacher in the long poem Snow insists on going into the heart of the blizzard when he could remain overnight with his neighbours with no inconvenience to them or himself. But he must go and conquer the blizzard "Wherever there is failure, wherever the natural world has won out there are always the young who follow the restore where their fathers failed. In Generations of Men the boy and girl meet for the first time at the ruins of an old homeplace, sit on the edge of the cellar, and talk about families and the decayed places. In the end they are in love, or about to fall in love, and have made a pact to return and rebuild the old homeplace." Alone and helpless as he is, man must wage a constant war against his physical environment which is inimical to human existence.
The Otherness of Nature
Thirdly, Man's physical existence itself is a barrier which divides man from the soul or spirit of nature. While Wordsworth denied the very existence of barriers between man and nature, for Frost a wide gulf separates man and nature, spirit and matter. In a number of poems he stresses the 'othernes’s and indifference of Nature, and shows that it is futile to expect any sympathy from the spirit of soul which moves or governs the world. Individual man and the forces of nature are two different principles, and the boundaries which separate them must be respected. These boundaries are insisted upon. In Two Look at Two, the man and the woman do feel that there is an affinity between themselves and the buck and the doe that stare back at them. But such moments are rare. They are 'a favour', and even here there is the man-made fence of, 'barbed wire binding', which separates, "human nature from deer nature". In Most of It man is shown in all his terrifying loneliness by the behaviour of the buck:
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck—it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread.
And forced the underbush
and that was all
"The magnificent buck which swims toward him from across the lake is—'the most of it—all the nature can give. That this is so shows the completeness of man's isolation.” A Minor Bird also stresses the active barriers between man and nature. The poet is bored by the bird which sings at his window and wishes it away:
I have wished the bird would fly away,
And not seen by me have of day
Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could hear no more
Emotional and Social Isolation—Fear
Fourthly there are barriers which separate man from man. Such barriers come in the way of social communication, and lack of communication leads to social alienation and emotional isolation and loneliness. Mending Wall is an ironic comment on those who raise walls between themselves and their neighbours, because they think, "good fences make good neighbours". Read symbolically, the poem is a comment on racial, religious, national and ideological barriers which divide and separate man from man. Such barriers come to the way of human relationship, generate tensions, which result in neurosis and emotional imbalance verging on insanity. North of Boston is full of such emotionally isolated and alienated people. In the Home Burial there is a grievous lack of communication between the husband and the wife, and the mother's grief deepens into insanity. The shadow of their dead child is the barrier which divides them and alienates them from each other. The Death of the Hired Man presents a terrifying picture of the loneliness of a socially alienated old servant, Silas, who must work even in his old age to support himself. His pride keeps him away from his own brother, and his increasing inefficiency compels him to change his masters, and move on, alone and helpless, like a stricken deer. The group of poems entitled The Hill Wife offer flawless portraits of fear and loneliness. The essential loneliness of the human spirit is also expressed convincingly in poems like Acquainted with the Night, An Old Man's Winter Night, Stopping by Woods, etc. Desert Places points to a wasteland in the heart of man which is harder to bear than the wasteland of the surrounding world:
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars
on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
"It is a poem that overwhelms us what a sense of frightening forsakenness" Provide, Provide evokes an agonising emotion of alienation which no amount of bantering can attenuate or overcome. No one can miss the pronounced tragic tone of the ironic lines:
Die early and avoid the fate
Or if predestined to die late
Make up your mind to die in state.
Isolation from God
Fifthly, man's reason and intellect is the barrier that alienates him from God, his Maker. His rational bias deprives him of the bliss of communion with God. The theme of the Masque of Reason is that reason combined with faith alone can lead to understanding and wisdom. It is only through faith that man can work out his own salvation and make life agreeable.
Conclusion: Ways of Improving Human Lot
Thus in Frost's view man is a solitary, a stranger in this world, and so he remains upto the end. However, he can improve his lot, and make his life worth living, by recognising the otherness of other individuals. He should try to understand his own nature, and with self-understanding there would come greater and greater understanding of his environment and of his fellow men. With understanding would come an acceptance of the world as it is, and also of the differences which exist between man and man. He would then love his fellow men, as well as the world of nature, despite the barriers which divide him from both. Though barriers and alienation loom large in the poetry of Frost, it does not mean that he is against democracy or the brotherhood of man.  Speaking psychologically, Frost's concern with loneliness is an expression of his intensely felt need for human love, sympathy and fellowship. W.G. O'Donnell rightly stresses that, "Democracy and America find representative voices in both Frost and Whitman, both writers are concerned with brotherhood and fellowship, although each approaches the problem in an individual fashion. Whitman responds to the question of the attainment of democracy by writing the vague and formless song of the open road, by spreading out his arms in a universal embrace that gathers in North and South, black, white, yellow, and red, good and evil, the prude and the rake. Others may be divisive, selective, or exclusive, but Walt Whitman accepts everyone and with romantic gusto loudly affirms all aspects of life in America. Robert Frost believe no loss strongly in the value of affirmation, but looking at the world more realistically than Whitman does, he knows that if alienation could be overcome by the repeated affirmation of fellowship, it would have disappeared a long time ago.” It can be achieved only through faith, courage and fortitude. Man must accept the human condition and try to make the most of it.

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