Week 523: Desert Places, by Robert Frost

This week another of my favourite Frost poems, a masterclass in profound simplicity. This is the darker, less folksy Frost that many prefer, lonely, self-doubting, alienated, the poet of ‘Acquainted With The Night’, ‘Design’, ‘To Earthward’ and ‘The Most Of It’. It is worth dwelling on that ‘absent-spirited’. Does that simply mean that his mind is elsewhere, perhaps in happier times and climes, or that the fight has all but gone out of him, that he is on the verge of surrendering to the desolation, almost relishing the fact that it asks of him nothing, offers him nothing and is not even aware of him? But then the last stanza is paradoxically defiant, a wryly stoical acceptance of his own condition: when he speaks of ‘my own desert places’ he is referring, of course, not only to the winter fields near his home but to the cold blank places in his own mind for which those fields serve as what the critics call an ‘objective correlative’. In the end it is a painfully honest poem that manages to conjure an affirmation, even a kind of austere beauty, out of desolation.

Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost


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