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.
It’s amazing how you can read something multiple times, then come back to it and discover something new. I’ve often read Robert Frost’s “Desert Places” and admired it for the way it moves from an ordinary winter scene to the vastness of outer space to the familiarity of inner space. Recently I studied it more closely and found more to appreciate.
First, let’s note that this “nature” poem is not of the uplifting or sentimental variety. Instead we get a stark image of human isolation and loneliness in the midst of a desolate scene in which nature is blank and expressionless. It is striking that this northern winter image is compared to a southern “desert,” but this is but one in a series of striking contrasts.
We have white “snow” and dark “night,” both “falling fast”; “smooth” snow cover with “weeds and stubble” poking through; natural desolation and human “loneliness”; “blanker whiteness” and “benighted snow”; earthly isolation and the emptiness “between stars”; external and internal absence. The contrasts create a psychic drama as the speaker realizes, not only his own insignificance in the vastness of nature, but also that of the human species on its lonely planet.
This existential image of human isolation is conveyed in Frost’s characteristically familiar style. The predominately iambic meter, interlocking rhyme scheme, plain diction, sentence fragments, and use of dashes, all make the poem sound conversational, while the occasional irregularity of rhythm, reversal of word order and the use of words like “absent-spirited” and “benighted” offer a slight elevation of style. The whole is rendered as an ordinary experience that is accompanied by an extra-ordinary shock of recognition.
The winter scene is personified as lonely in stanza two but realistically depicted in stanza three as inanimate, having “nothing to express.” The emptiness “between planets” is associated with the emptiness of a “desert,” as both of those images, like the winter scene itself, serve as metaphors for psychic absence. Ironically, this message of disconnection is belied by the speaker’s ability to identify with the external world and the reader’s ability to identify with the speaker.
A poem about disconnection relies on connecting with disconnection. The comparative devices of personification and metaphor are used to create a sense of isolation and contrast. Earthly winter, the human individual, unearthly space, and the earthly desert are all connected by their shared disconnection. At the heart of human experience is this unavoidable contradiction between alienation (absence) and interconnected relationship (presence). We are connected in our isolation.
From a socio/political perspective the poem serves to elevate individualism over collectivism, yet it could be read as disrupting this false binary, suggesting that our ability to identify with and relate to what is external to us transcends our isolation and makes social relationships possible, indeed, perhaps redemptive. As Bertrand Russell wrote, “In human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that” (Autobiography Vol 1, pp. 219-221).
Viewed from a mythic perspective, the poem may suggest the Fall, death, loss, even apocalypse, but again, as spring is foreshadowed in the winter solstice, so redemption, rebirth, recovery, and resurrection are foreshadowed in the mythic cycle of eternal return.
All of this may seem to take us far afield from the original poem, but, as we connect with that poem about loneliness, we transcend our individualism; as we identify with human emptiness, we transcend our isolation.