The Secretive-Playful Epiphanies of Robert Frost: Solitude, Companionship, and the Ambivalent Imagination

By Bidney, Martin | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Secretive-Playful Epiphanies of Robert Frost: Solitude, Companionship, and the Ambivalent Imagination


Bidney, Martin, Papers on Language & Literature


Surprisingly, no one has yet tried to find a pattern that can unify the major epiphanies in the poems of Robert Frost; no study of the poet in the last thirty-five years even contains any variant of "epiphany" in its title (though Robert F. Fleissner invokes the related "spot of time" (1)). I seek here to identify the pattern of thematic focuses, recurrent formal features, and psychological implications unique to Frost's epiphanic style or "signature," his distinctive manner of epiphany-making.(2) Two thematic concerns distinguish the strongest poetic epiphanies of Robert Frost: playfulness (3) and interpersonality. A playful epiphany is an ambivalent one. Because epiphanic moments convey a discovery with deep implications, a playful epiphany creates a conceptual tension, an emotional ambivalence: is the episode a revelation or a mere frivolity? Equally fraught with tension is Frost's awareness that the solitude often required for epiphanic experience must define itself in relation to one's need for social validation. Frost presents his doubly ambivalent epiphanies of playfulness in the conflictual (4) context of the "relational self" (Schapiro).

In The Ambiguity of Play, Brian Sutton-Smith distinguishes seven thematic focuses that have helped theorists organize discussions of play: Progress, Fate, Power, Identity, the Imaginary, Self, and Frivolity (5). These categories have enabled investigators to clarify, respectively, ludic activities as diverse as children's play, games of chance, contests of skill and strategy, festivals and parades, theatrical fantasy, leisure, and humorous nonsense. Every one of Sutton-Smith's seven rubrics illuminates the playful epiphanies of Robert Frost. Progress, Fate, Power, and Frivolity are important but subsidiary. Some of Frost's visions recall stages in the developmental progress whereby a child learns to balance the demands of self and other. Frostian solitaries love to challenge fate and to assert their hard-won visionary power while deprecating their epiphanic achievement with comic whimsy.

But the categories that shed most light on the psychology of Frost's playful epiphanies are the ones Sutton-Smith calls Identity, Self, and the Imaginary. Sutton-Smith sees Identity (what I will call Companionship or Commmunity) as rooted in tradition, community feeling (or communitas) and cooperation, forces that validate one's identity or respectability in a social context. Because Sutton-Smith identifies Self with the drive that seeks out individual "peak experiences," I rename it Solitude to emphasize that it empowers Frostian characters' lonely epiphanic searches. And Sutton-Smith's idea of the Imaginary (I call it Imagination) is highly apposite to Frost's playful epiphanic practice.

Frost's playfulness is bound up with the quest for imaginative epiphanies, and Sutton-Smith shows how seriousness and play have been historically linked through Imagination. He connects Imagination to the poetic exuberance of Romanticism and to the satirical dialogism of Bakhtinian carnival, both of which blend seriousness with play: for the philosophic Romanticist Schiller, serious imaginative art was at the same time the most human form of play; obversely, Bakhtin finds the satiric-dialogic mood of carnival gaiety at the root of much serious literary protest. It is not surprising that Frost, well grounded in Romantic tradition, would blend seriousness and play in the epiphanic quest. But to this I would add that, for Frost, the drive toward Solitude and the equally irresistible need for a sense of communitas, like seriousness and play, encounter each other in the realm of Imagination. This psychologically crucial encounter, in a Frostian epiphany, is likely to be as anxiously ambivalent as it is intense, mysterious, and resonant.

To analyze the ambivalent interpersonal play-epiphanies of Frost I will identify both their subjective and objective features.

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