Can you please discuss the poem "Desert Places," by Robert Frost?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The title of Robert Frost’s poem “Desert Places” is particularly intriguing. We normally think of “desert places” as vast areas of dry sand baked under the blistering heat of the sun.  We think of such places as treeless, without vegetation, and dead. The title of the poem is a bit ironic, then, considering that Frost’s speaker describes a small, snow-covered field surrounded by trees that are perhaps themselves tinged with snow. Thus the word “desert,” in the title of Frost’s poem, seems to refer to places of emptiness – a connotation important when interpreting the end of the poem.

The poem begins by describing a kind of change not associated with vitality and energy (as change often is) but rather with the opposite: “Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast” (1). The quickly falling snow and descending night will soon cover the field so that it will soon bear few if any traces of life or movement. At present the field is not entirely blanketed; instead, the speaker observes

. . . the ground almost covered smooth in snow,

But a few weeds and stubble showing last. (3-4)

The surrounding woods seem to engulf the field, while any animals living there are

now “smothered in their lairs” (6).  The word “smothered,” of course, suggests a kind of death, but now the poem shifts its focus from the field and its inhabitants to the observing speaker:

I am too absent-spirited to count;

The loneliness includes me unawares.

Now the poem becomes not merely an observation of external nature but a meditation on the nature of the speaker. The landscape looks lonely and thereby provokes in him (or reminds him of) a personal loneliness within himself.  Notice that the speaker does not call himself “absent-minded” (a familar cliché) but rather “absent-sprited.” To be absent-spirited is a far deeper and potentially more disturbing condition than to be “absent-spirited.” To be “absent-spirited” may suggest some loss of interest in life itself, or at least in the details of life one presently faces.

By the time we reach the third stanza, anything the speaker says about the field seems to reflect as well on his own state of mind:

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. (9-12)

Notice how the phrasing of this stanza is full of repetitions, such as the repetitions of “lonely,” “loneliness,” and “lonely” again, as well as the echoes of l’s, o’s, n’s, and s’s in those words – sounds which are variously picked up and echoed in such later words as “less,” “snow,” “no,” and “nothing.” Similar repetition occurs in “whiteness” and “benighted,” so that the effect of the entire stanza is almost a bit claustrophobic, even if highly musical.

In the final stanza, the speaker makes explicit what was earlier only implied: he is more afraid of the loneliness he feels within than of any mere external emptiness in nature. Perhaps he himself fears a kind of metaphorical, symbolic smothering by a kind of darkness, coldness, and loneliness in his own absent spirit.

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