Roads Not Taken: Rereading Robert Frost

By Earl J. Wilcox; Jonathan N. Barron | Go to book overview

The Echo of Frost's Woods David Hamilton

EVERYONE KNOWS “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, ” and when remembering it, nearly everyone remembers right off, I should think, its repeated last line. Here is a unique moment in Robert Frost's poetry, and so a unique effect. Nor can I think of a close parallel in anything I have ever read. It is deeply satisfying, and strange, yet somehow, for all its strangeness, familiar. Hence it has monopolized our commentary, which to my knowledge has never gone far enough, for we are in the territory of Echo who is always a mystery and a provocation.

Who has not felt the return of Echo to have enlarged his or her voice? Echo is more demanding than rhyme and is, paradoxically, both quintessentially poetic and antipoetic. Exact repetition often seems a blunder, a want of grace, the way Homer nods, even though it is also one of the more profound markers of the Homeric poems. We go back and back to “wine-dark sea” and “clean-limbed Hera, ” and the more we repeat those words the more their suggestions expand.

For just as exact repetition can seem a defect, it can deepen the mystery so that poetry might be defined as, precisely, that which bears repetition. If so, the more repetition borne, the more poem. Consequently little seems more certainly a poem than a villanelle, a pantoum, a sestina, or a blues song, with all their demanding repetitions—so long as we are not bored. If we are bored, the work fails, for it has not borne repetition well. But when we read with deepening attraction—admittedly our less frequent situation—we have found a “maiden” all but “makeles, ” as another old poem that bore its repetitions well knew to put it.

For these reasons, it seems to me that the single best commentary on Frost's last lines is the anticipatory insight of Christopher Smart: “ECHO is the soul of the voice exerting itself in hollow places.”1 “Not the voice

____________________
1
Christopher Smart, Selected Poems, ed. Karina Williamson and Marcus Walsh (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 76.

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