Saturday, December 4, 2010

Symbolism in Frost's Poetry

Symbols: Their Nature and Significance
Symbols are essentially words which are not merely connotative, but also evocative and emotive. In addition to their meaning, they also call up or evoke before the mind's eye a host of associations connected with them, and are also rich in emotional significance. For example, the word 'lily' merely connotes a 'flower' but it also evokes images of beauty and innocence. It also carries with it the emotional overtone of pity resulting from suffering or oppression. In this way, through symbols a writer can express much more than by the use of ordinary words; symbols make the language rich and expressive. Concepts which by their very nature are inexpressible can be conveyed in this way. Thus a symbol can be used to convey, "pure sensations", or the poet's apprehension of transcendental, mystery.

Frost's Complexity
Frost's poetry is easy and simple, but this apparent simplicity of his poetry is deceptive and misleading. In reality, he is a very complex and intricate poet, and this complexity arises from his extensive use of symbols. As he himself tells us in his article The Figure a Poem Makes, "he is by intension a symbolist who takes his symbols from the public domains." It is by the use of symbols that Frost enriches the texture of his verse and reveals the full significance and deeper meaning of particular situations and events. It thus becomes possible to read his poems at different levels. On the surface there might be merely a plain and simple narration or description, and the poem may be enjoyed as such. But a careful reading reveals the hidden and deeper meaning. When interpreted symbolically the scope widens, and the full implications of what Frost says are brought about. In his use of this oblique method, Frost is at one with such modern poets as T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats.
His Regionalism: Its Symbolic Significance
Frost is a great regional poet and the scenes and sights, characters and events of New England form the basis of his poetry. He does not depict all even of this limited region. There is a constant selection and ordering of material. Even of New England, he deals only with the region that lies North of Boston, and of this region, too, only with the countryside and country-dwellers. The result of this sifting and selecting of material is that his regionalism acquires a symbolic significance. The region of North of Boston becomes a microcosm of the world at large, and his Yankee characters become symbolic of human nature in all ages and countries. Emotional responses of his dramatis personae acquire a deeper significance as being symbolic of basic human responses. For example, the emotional agitation of the mother in Home Burial, and the fate of the servant in The Death of the Hired Man, are symbolic of the emotional stress and strain, isolation and alienation, which are the lot of humanity in the modern age. In this way, he is able to embody vast concepts and infinite depths within little space. Vast vistas are thus presented to the mind's eye, and the effect created is one of unlimited expansion. It thus becomes possible to read even the simplest of his poems at a number of levels.
'Natural Symbolism'
Warren Austin uses the term 'natural symbolism' to describe Frost's symbols, for they are all drawn from the ordinary, commonplace objects and phenomena of nature, and from the common everyday events and situations of human life. Such symbols have been used by all poets through the ages, because they come to the mind naturally and spontaneously. Frost's symbols are simple because they are drawn from the simplest sources, but they are also complex, for they express more than one concept, at one and the same time. A brief analysis of a few of his more prominent lyrics would suffice to bring out the characteristic feature of Frost's symbolistic technique.
Symbolism in 'Mending Wall'
Take for example the admirable lyric Mending Wall. Read superficially it is merely an account of two New Englanders, one of whom wants to build a boundary wall between their respective fields for according to him, "Good fences made good neighbours". The other does not consider the fence as at all necessary at that particular place. But the poem is not as simple as that. The fence here has a symbolic significance as well. It also symbolises national, racial, religious, political and economic conflicts and prejudices which divide man from man and come in the way of mutual understanding and harmonious relationship. Should such boundaries be demolished and the world should move towards universal brotherhood and the concept of one-world? Or have they some value and significance? Read on another level, the dispute between the two neighbours symbolises the clash between tradition and modernity, between age and youth. The young wants to demolish the old and the traditional, and re-build society, while the old uphold the value of the traditional and customary. Superficially the poem seems simple: the richness of its texture is revealed only on a symbolic interpretation.
In "Stopping by Woods"
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening has an equally rich texture and admits of several interpretations. On the surface, it is no more than a simple anecdote relating how the poet pauses one evening along a country road to watch the snowfall in the woods: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep", and as he gazes into the soft, silent whiteness, he is tempted to stay on and on, allowing his mind to lose itself in the enchanted grove. "His consciousness seems on the verge of freeing itself from ordinary life, as if it were about to dissolve in the shadowy blank, but his mind holds back from this." He remembers that his journey has a purpose. He has promises to keep and many miles to go before he can yield to the dream-like release which the woods seem to offer.
Says Lynen "this is the core of the poem, a moving personal experience exquisitely rendered. Yet in reconsidering it one cannot quite shake off the feeling that a good deal more is intended. The poem is not just a record of something that once happened to the poet; it points outward from the moment described towards far broader areas of experience. It expresses the conflict which everyone has felt, between the demands of practical life, with its obligations to others, and the poignant desire to escape into a land of reverie, where consciousness is dimmed and the senses are made independent of necessity." There is no overt symbolism in the poem, and yet the reader finds his vision direct in such a way that he sees the poet's purely personal experience as an image of experiences common to all. The wide scope of the meaning becomes obvious in the final lines, which state the conflict in a simple, realistic way; the poet will have to fulfil certain duties, before he can go to bed; but the "promises", the "sleep", and the "miles to go" widen to include more important aspects of his life and, further elements of every man's life. "Sleep here is of course, the well earned reward at the end of day's work; but reaching out beyond this, an indeed the whole poem transcends its rural setting, the idea of sleep merges with the final sleep, death itself." It stands in contrast to the snowy woods, whose temptation is to an irresponsible indulgence ending in the loss of consciousness: it is normal death, and release at the end of a life in which man has kept his promises and travelled the whole distance through human experience. As Lynen points out, "Frost's symbols define and explain each other." For example, the woods, the poet enjoys looking upon, are opposed to the promises he must keen and it thus becomes clear that they represent a kind of irresponsibility. Again, since the poet will allow himself to sleep only after he has kept his promises, sleep becomes a deserved reward in contrast to the unearned pleasure of looking at the woods. The wood in Frosts poetry is an ever-recurring complex symbol. It symbolises perilous or sensuous enjoyment, the darkness of ignorance, as well as the dark inner self of man.
Vast Concepts within Little Space
"Even when the poet seems most determined to do no more than describe a scene or episode, his imagery has a significance which extends outward to range upon range of meaning." In "Out, Out", for example, he tells the story of how a boy loses his hand by accident while cutting wood and dies only a few hours after. The effect of pathos is so intense that one may at first suppose that this constitutes the poem's main value. But sad events do not in themselves create moving poetry. "Though Frost may seem only to describe, actually he has so managed his description that the boy's story symbolizes realities present everywhere in the human situation." The key to the poem's meaning is to be found in the fact that the loss of the hand causes almost immediate death:
"But the hand":
The boy's first outcry was a rueful laugh.
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man's work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled
Ordinarily an accident of this sort would not be mortal, specially when, as in this case, modern medical attention is within reach. "The doctor put him in the dark of ether" and there is no physical reason why he should not have recovered. His death is caused, rather, by his recognition of what the loss of a hand signifies in terms of this life:
"the boy saw all—... He saw all spoiled."
and that ended it.
The "all" that the boy sees is the complete ruin of his life. The hand has always been associated with power and creativity; in the boy's world, however, it is not just a symbol of these things, it is quite literally the means of life and livelihood. The boy sees that in losing his hand he has lost the possibility of ever becoming fully a man, not only in the sense of being masculine, but in the sense of achieving fulfilment. The poem implies that anything less than this completeness involves such a maiming that the individual, in an essential way, dies. "The story symbolises a tragic aspect of the human situation: the fact that man's economic means, for the very reason that they are mechanical in nature, can destroy him. The death may not always be a physical one, as in the boy's case, but a destruction of man's essential humanity."                                                                   —(Lynen)
Complexity of Frost's Symbols—Symbolic Imagery
An Old Man's Winter Night provides another good illustration of Frost's symbolistic technique. The poem is one of his finest, yet it has received very little attention. It depicts an old man alone in his farmhouse on a winter night. We see him first standing alone in a "creaking room", unable to see out of the windows, unable to remember why he has come there. The imagery emphasizes the very narrow limits of his thought: while, "All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him," he could not see beyond the frosted panes because of the lamp in his hand. "The light imagery is important, for it symbolizes consciousness, a consciousness lonely, and purposeless old age":
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew not what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
"The inner light goes out as he falls asleep, and all that remains is the concealed light of the wood stove and the pale moonlight outside. This faint illumination emphasizes the old man's torpor as he lives on, almost unaware, without kindred or reason for living. In the description of him asleep, the poet depicts his condition as a living death in which the simple processing of physical life continue to function in an automatic way, long after the consciousness which makes for real life has faded out":
The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted’
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
"The poem is not just a portrait of old age, but a definition of death itself. Through Frost's blending of old age, night, and winter, we see death as a disappearance of order and meaning." One might conclude that order and meaning in the external world depend upon the organizing power of the mind, and this is one important aspect of the symbolism in the poem. But the total meaning is more complex than this, for Frost also implies that there is a similar organizing power in nature. When the old man can no longer "keep" his house, farm and countryside, these are kept by the moon. "There are two kinds of order, the human and the natural; when the first fails, the second saves the world from chaos. Furthermore, if the moon can assume the power of the mind, there must be an essential affinity between the two kinds of order. "The poem may emphasize the pathos of old age and the horror of death, but it also implies a faith that though death always seems to threaten universal annihilation, order, meaning, and, therefore life itself, cannot really be destroyed." Further, the Moon symbolises not the thoughts of the day, active and practical, but those of reflection at night. It is primarily a symbol of the imagination, that special power by which the old man, if he were able, would "keep" his countryside. Thus the moon is an important symbol in the poem. It, "symbolizes the organizing power which dies for the individual when his consciousness fades but which cannot itself die, because, though it controls and exists within the physical, it is a principle." The portrait of the old man alone on a winter night symbolizes not only age and death, but any situation in which man's ability to keep watch upon his world seems about to fail. "The house and farm, when combined with the countryside, take on a very wide significance. The farmstead, like the house in which Eliot pictures Gerontion, suggests human institutions, society as a whole, and even an entire culture: and the countryside of the old man, the nation, and beyond this, the world." —(Lynen)
Frost's technique of communication is essentially symbolic and oblique. Fire and Ice, Two Look at Two, Most of It, Birches, Acquainted with the Night, Directive, Design, Departmental, etc., are all symbolic and reveal layers within layers of meaning on a careful reading. However, we will have to agree with Cleanth Brooks that often Frost states his themes, overtly and explicitly, and therefore, such poems lie outside the symbolic mode. For example, in Two Tramps in Mud-time the theme of the poem—the combination of avocation with vocation—is explicitly, and hence the poem and other such poems, must be read as simple lyrics, celebrating country charms characters and events. The symbolistic method of communication is essentially suggestive, oblique and indirect, and such explicit and direct statement do not square well with it.

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NeoEnglish System said...

Symbolism in Frost's poetry from Famous Publications was written by me. I have written more than 25 books on Literature and Linguistics for Famous Products.

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