BECOMING ONE WITH EMPTINESS: ROBERT FROST’S DESERT PLACES

weedsinsnow

Today I would like to discuss a “snow” poem by the noted American poet Robert Frost.  To understand the title, we must not mistake “desert” as meaning a hot, dry, sandy place.  Instead, Frost uses it in its old sense, meaning a place wild, empty, uninhabited, as we find it in the word “deserted.”

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.

Frost passed a field with night coming on, and watched the snow falling into it.  He saw the ground nearly covered and made smooth by the falling snow, with the exception of a few weeds and stubble sticking up out of it.

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.

He tells us that the snow-covered field gives no impression of being a “human” place; instead, it belongs to the woods around it — to Nature.  He tells us the animals are all “smothered” in their lairs — the burrowing creatures are hidden below ground, their entry ways covered over with snow.  So there is no living creature to be seen in that landscape at all, and the writer tells us that he is too “absent-spirited” to count as one — his mind is still and quiet, and so he finds he has become just a part of the loneliness of the place rather than an exception to it, in his passing.

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.

As lonely as that snow-covered field amid forest is, Frost tells us that it will become even more so, as snow continues to cover it more deeply during the night, turning the field into a smooth expanse of featureless whiteness, an even surface “with no expression, nothing to express” — something blank that of itself has no meaning, but just is.

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.

“They,” meaning people, “cannot scare me with their empty spaces between stars,” he says.  He is not troubled or intimidated by the discoveries of astronomy that reveal immense and empty distances between the stars in the sky — stars “where no human race is,” uninhabited like the snowy field.   They cannot frighten him because he already has such emptiness within himself, as he recognizes on passing the white and snow-covered field, and feeling one with it, feeling he is nobody, no exception to its emptiness. So it is within him to scare himself with the knowledge of the emptiness of things, and he has that realization far “nearer home” than the distant and vast emptiness between the stars.  It is in the snowy field and it is in himself.

Sometimes we, like Frost, can feel such emptiness in the world, and can feel ourselves part of that emptiness.  One has the choice of being frightened by it or of just accepting the peace of it, a peace that acceptance brings.

There is a peace in just “being nobody,” somewhat as in Emily Dickinson’s amusing little “anti-ego” poem:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

We do live in a “frog-filled” world in which people are constantly advertising themselves, which is one of the reasons why it is so pleasant to turn to “egoless” verses, verses in which the writer is one with the emptiness of Nature.

This poem of Frost’s reminds me of the prevalence of solitude in Japanese hokku, a solitude that has a hint of loneliness, but without a sense of pain or fear.   It is more like the natural solitude of someone like Henry David Thoreau.  We find it in Chiyo-ni’s excellent hokku, set not as night comes on, but rather on a winter morning:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

As Byron wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

There is a pleasure too in loneliness, as the old hokku writers discovered.

David

BEAUTY AND PAIN: DE LA MARE’S OLD SUMMERHOUSE

Today I would like to talk about a rather fascinating poem by the unique British writer Walter de la Mare.

It is a simple poem, and does not require much explanation. Its fascination lies in its atmosphere of that mixture of the sense of the passage of time and of sadness in solitude, a feeling we often find in hokku verses. The Japanese call it sabishisa, but we have no adequate single word for it in English, though the translation of the the old Latin expression lacrimae rerum — “the tears of things” — meaning the sadness inherent in the world as it is — points us in the right direction.

Here is the poem:


THE OLD SUMMERHOUSE

This blue-washed, old, thatched summerhouse —
Paint scaling, and fading from its walls —
How often from its hingeless door
I have watched — dead leaf, like the ghost of a mouse,
Rasping the worn brick floor —
The snows of the weir descending below,
And their thunderous waterfall.

Fall — fall: dark, garrulous rumour,
until I could listen no more.
Could listen no more — for beauty with sorrow
Is a burden hard to be borne:
The evening light on the foam, and the swans, there;
That music, remote, forlorn.

De la Mare shows us a summerhouse — one of those light and simple outdoor structures in which one can sit out of the direct heat and glare of the sun in summer. It is painted a pale blue, and its paint, applied long ago, is peeling and flaking off the walls. That alone gives us the feeling of time having passed, of a depth of years.

“How often,” he says, “from its hingeless door I have watched the snows of the weir descending below, and their thunderous waterfall.”

He is there now, but he is also — mentally — there in the past. He looks out of the opening in the summerhouse, a “door” that is not really a physical door, just an open doorway — down the slope toward the river and its weir. A weir is a kind of low dam built across a river, over which the waters pour continuously, with a pool held behind it and the flow of the river continuing beyond it. The poet recalls how he has gazed out at that weir in times past, watching its “snows” — meaning the white fall of water cascading over the weir –and listening to “their thunderous waterfall,” the sound of the water plunging down from all along the top of the weir to the river below.

But in telling us that, de la Mare inserts a parenthetical statement to tell us that as he watched the weir, a dry leaf caught in a swirl of wind inside the summerhouse made a dry, rasping sound on the worn bricks of the summerhouse floor, a movement and sound “like the ghost of a mouse.” That too gives us a sense of the passing of time, because the rasp is not “like a mouse,” but rather slightly eerie, like “the ghost of a mouse.” De la Mare enjoys injecting a sense of the eerie into his verses.

He again gives us the sense of the passage of time as he describes further his attention focused on the weir and its falling waters, and what he experiences is

Fall — fall, dark, garrulous rumour.

The sound of the plunging waters is continuous, and though their appearance is white, their sound to him is dark, a garrulous (like continuous, pointless babble) rumour. Here rumour is used to mean a persistent noise.

The poet hears this sound until he can listen no more, and here we get to the heart, the essence of the poem:

–for beauty with sorrow
is a burden hard to be borne:

That is an idea we do not often hear, but it is commonplace in hokku; that in beautiful things there is also sorrow, because beauty is transient in this world. As Robert Frost wrote, “nothing gold can stay.” Every adolescent who has a first crush on some beautiful person knows from experience — even though it may be in retrospect — that with beauty comes a pain so deep as to be felt physically.

For de la Mare, that beauty is the faded summerhouse, the rasping leaf swirling on the brick floor, the white water cascading over the weir and its continuous, loud “dark” murmur, and with those,

The evening light on the foam, and the swans, there;

And then

That music, remote, forlorn.

Does he hear a distant, lonely melody from a nearby house? Or does he mean only the music of the weir and its sights, or perhaps a remembered melody from the past?

I like to think he means the first, with the sound of the water coming from the river, and the thin, lonely sound of someone playing a piano drifting, half heard, across the lawn to the summerhouse.

A characteristic of de la Mare’s poetry is that he often does not wish to tell us the whole story; he just presents us with an atmosphere, with things caught in the sense of time long passing, and then he lets us feel the emotions and think the thoughts thus aroused within us. Did he come to the summerhouse with sorrow? Or did the sorrow come with the summerhouse?

David

THOMAS HARDY ON AGING: I LOOK INTO MY GLASS

Thomas Hardy, by Walter William Ouless (died 1...
The poet and novelist Thomas Hardy

Yesterday I happened upon an obituary for the younger brother of someone I knew many years ago.  It had a photo.  When I last saw him, he was a good-looking boy of about 13 years.  It was a shock to see what time (and I suspect smoking) had done to him.

Thomas Hardy wrote a sad poem about aging.  It is not like the TV commercials that tell older people their golden years have come, that life is just going to get better and better.   Instead it is a very realistic look at aging and a lonely life.  Let’s examine it part by part:

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”

One may think of this as spoken by a man or a woman, but given that it was written by a man, that is the course we shall follow.

Hardy says he looks “into my glass,” meaning his “looking glass,” an old term for a mirror.  And when he looks into the mirror, he sees what all old people see — his “wasting skin.”  “Wasting” here means just what happens to the skin as one ages — it dries and wrinkles and discolors, it loses its fresh appearance, and it is obvious that it has lost its strength and youth.  Its former smoothness and tautness is gone.   The term reminds us of a “wasting disease,” one that gradually consumes the body and its tissues.  So Hardy looks in a mirror and sees in his aging skin and features that he is subject, as  Buddhism would say, to sickness, to old age,  and to death.

By “Would God it came to pass,” he means “I really wish it had happened that….”  People once used expressions like this, and sometimes still do, such as “I wish to God I had studied for that exam!”  But why does he wish his heart had shrunk too?

When Hardy speaks of his heart, he is actually talking about his emotions — about his ability to love and to be hurt.  It was once thought (and we still speak of it that way) that the heart was where the human emotions were centered in the body.  That is why we hear people say, “She was heartbroken when her boyfriend left her.”  So Hardy is saying that he wishes his emotions — his capacity to love and be hurt — had shrunk as thin as his skin — had weakened and lost strength like the skin of his face and neck in the mirror.  But why?  He tells us:

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

He wishes his emotions had weakened so that he, “undistrest,” meaning without distress — without mental suffering — could “lonely wait” his endless rest.  By this he means that he could wait alone for death (“endless rest”) to come, without being hurt so much by the people who formerly seemed to like or love him, but who now ignore him, “by hearts grown cold to me.”  If his ability to “feel” had shrunk like his skin, the coldness of other people would not hurt him as it obviously does.

This is a common complaint of the old.  Not only are their friends and relatives dying, but also the living people around them — often younger — find old people no longer interesting, so they begin to ignore them, to make excuses for why they have not visited or called.  Loneliness is one of the most difficult parts of aging.  And sometimes that is as true for people who have children as for those who do not.

In keeping with this, I recently heard a few clever words that are often all too true.  A man said,

When I was in my teens, I used to worry constantly about what other people were thinking of me.  Then when I got past 40, I began not to worry so much what other people thought of me.  Now that I am in my 60s, I realize that nobody thinks of me at all.”   There is an old song with the line, “Nobody loves you when you’re old and grey.”  Gay people have their own version: “Nobody loves you when you’re old and gay.”

Both mean the same thing.  When youth and good looks or beauty pass — when you are no longer a possibility for romance, which depends so much on youth and appearance — others lose interest.  As people get older, they gradually become first insignificant and then increasingly invisible to the young.  They often simply do not matter any more.

Hardy was obviously very hurt by all of this, and that is why he wrote:

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

He continues:

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

Time, of course, is what ages us and steals our youth.  Hardy sees time as a negative force — a force that to make him miserable,  “part steals, part lets abide.”  The part it steals is of course the freshness and youthfulness of his face and body, which is now looking shrunken and wrinkled; and the part it “lets abide” — allows to remain — is Hardy’s ability to feel strong emotion and to be deeply hurt by the indifference and coldness of other people toward him.

It is precisely this continuing ability to be hurt and made very unhappy by others that “shakes this fragile frame” (meaning his weakening, aging body) “at eve, with throbbings of noontide.”

Hardy is using “eve” (evening) in a dual sense; he means by it both the “evening” of life — old age — which comes before the “night” of death” — and he means, I think, the evening of the day, when one is often alone with one’s thoughts and emotions.  It is at this time — in the evening of life and in the evening of each day — that Hardy’s fragile, aging body shakes with sorrow and weeping, with the “throbbings of noontide,” meaning the emotions of the height of one’s life that do not weaken and shrink as one grows older; so while the skin wrinkles and loses its vigor, the emotions, Hardy says, unfortunately and definitely do not.  That is why he is left hurt and shaking with weeping and alone in the evening of his life, in the evening of the day.

It is a simple poem, but very powerful and representative of the feelings of countless lonely, elderly people.  It is definitely what I call an “old man’s poem,” or an “old woman’s poem.”  And it is brutally honest.

It is hard for young people to grasp the reality of such a poem, because inherently — like Dylan Thomas in Fern Hill — young people feel the world is theirs, that they will live forever.  Intellectually they know that is not true, but they do not yet realize and fully grasp the fact.  That is why aging is such a shock to many people.  And in a culture in which youth and beauty are so glorified, we have the sad picture of people trying to stave off or deny the inevitable — plastic surgeries, hair dyes, and endless other processes or products intended to mask the realities of life and time.

The problem for the young in understanding this poem, then, is not so much in understanding it intellectually, which can be easily aided by explanations such as I have given here.  The problem lies, rather, in their difficulty in feeling how deeply true it is, because it expresses one of the fundamental realities of life — that everything is transient, that ultimately there is nothing to hold onto, neither person nor object, that there is no material,  unchanging island in a sea of change.  A young person who realizes that is mature beyond his or her years.  But generally it is something the young do not wish to think about.

David