I Sat Me Against A Tree

Neither Out Far Nor In Deep

Robert Frost is likely well-known as one of our major poets and I would imagine that many grandparents recall a few of his poems. Many of you may even know several titles. But I’d hazard a guess that of the corpus most of us (we the people) probably know two poems if any: “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken.”

Possibly you never thought that ‘Stopping By Woods” can be seen as a poem about suicide…but to know Frost with any familiarity is not to be surprised by that thought. He’s one of our darker poets even though no one seems to realize this.   And as for those divergent roads, we tend to think that Frost is celebrating the decision of the road “chosen” over the one not taken but framing the title in the negative gives it a peculiar weight of sorrow; perhaps that choice made all the difference in the worst way.

But here are two other poems to think on. One was unfamiliar to me while the other is a favorite (which may tell you why I wrote as I did above).

The first, from Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will, published in 1913 in London when he was nearly 40 (hardly a boy but with a boy’s will perhaps), is “The Demiurge’s Laugh.” According to the notes in my Collected Poems “the 1913 table of contents included notes that were dropped from later editions.” The “note” for this poem is two words: about science. It may not surprise you that this resonates with me if you know that the demiurge is, via the mind of Plato, “the artificer of the world,” and that this being is taken up by the Gnostics as the erring creator of the world and source of evil. We are not come out of divine love, but out of divine error.

So, the poem:

“The Demiurge’s Laugh”

It was far in the sameness of the wood;
I was running with joy on the Demon’s trail,
Though I knew what I hunted was no true god.
It was just as the light was beginning to fail
That I suddenly heard—all I needed to hear:
It has lasted me many and many a year.

The sound was behind me instead of before,
A sleepy sound, but mocking half,
As of one who utterly couldn’t care.
The Demon arose from his wallow to laugh,
Brushing the dirt from his eye as he went;
And well I knew what the Demon meant.

I shall not forget how his laugh rang out.
I felt as a fool to have been so caught,
And checked my steps to make pretense
It was something among the leaves I sought
(Though doubtful whether he stayed to see).
Thereafter I sat me against a tree.

Aside from the easy understanding of the error of chasing the demon (science-artificer) we have the poet coming to his truth.  I have little interest in the whole poem–not finding much that distinguishes it but for the title, the first line and the last as this seems the be the whole of the poem.  Feel free to disagree!

The first line, with echoes of Dante (can this echo anymore to 21st century readers? Perhaps there will be hypertext link…), offers a kind of generality.  He is running in the unvaried sameness of a single idea.  It is not a particular forest in a particular place and so the “wood” says “sameness” as much as sameness does. In between first and last lines he has changed his focus. “Thereafter I sat me against a tree.”  From wood to tree. From categorical idea to singular thing.

I’d also guess that this is Frost speaking about his writing or his development as a thinker and writer.  Note the “homespun” construction of “I sat me.”  This might allow us to read it as a posture too–the poet sits his poems against the tree.  His persona.  Also, one can complicate it further: the figure of a “me against a tree” is also a kind of “homespun” but here he is taking a position in relation to the tree so as to make poetry of that relation.  It’s not poetry about trees (or Nature) but poetry that uses the specifics of nature to create a text of mind thinking.

If we read it as a kind of ars poetica then we might deepen and darken that “ars” with our next poem: “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep” is a kind of argument against readers as much as it is one against humanity.

“Neither Out Far Nor In Deep”

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be–
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Let’s just bounce down the stanzas, shall we?

  1. “the people” is another generalization and so this is another poem describing a mind’s judgements.  We can even be explicitly political with the set up, “We the people…”  We are at the border of land and sea and along the ever-shifting sand and the people seem almost statues with no will to change positions or perspective.
  2. The hull: an item of interest that only makes me see the heads of the people bob up and down.  But if it is the ship of state then perhaps it is more instructive of the relation of that distant hull that moves to the gull, also standing.  The mirrored ground figures an kind of political narcissism here.  And it’s easy enough to see the people as “gulled” by the ship of state.
  3. There is truth somewhere, but the people will not direct there attention elsewhere to find it.  Even if they turned to see the varied land (your land, my land…) they would still be staring into the distance but…
  4. not far.  And not deep.  Easy enough.  Shallow, narrow, selfish people.  It is an ominous “watch” this kind of “people” keeps.  We could “hear” a religious design in this as well with “watchtower”–but this wouldn’t move us to any real difference from our “ship of state.”

Killer right?  No hope.  The poet who has stopped chasing the demon in the first poem sees the people in thrall to it.

But as well the people can represent readers who are not able to read Frost’s poetry the way he is saying to read him.  They are not looking into his work far or deep.

Do you have a favorite Frost poem that may now take on a darker hue?

Photo Credit: Lee Coursey

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1 Comment

  1. SS March 9, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    I can’t say I know much Frost, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels a slight bias against him in terms of intellectual weight thanks to middle school language arts classes! I think I also find rhyming in poetry to be very distracting. I say all this to acknowledge that I have not given Frost much time or attention.

    I think I read the first poem slightly differently, specifically the relation of the first and last lines. To me “wood” felt more isolated and specific, bland, and the tree more encompassing. I did not read “wood” as forest, but rather as a blur of sameness created in the image of trees indistinguishable from one another until he rests against one. But I felt him moving from the sameness of the isolated image of the wood, say a trunk, to the unique qualities of the tree as a whole, of something that could support him. I don’t know if this is actually different from what you were saying above. I think I moved from part to whole and not group to individual.

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