literature

A Way Through the Forest

Once I read a story about the American poet Robert Frost.

Somebody asked him why he insisted in writing poems with rhymes (rhymes were considered unfashionable  in the modernist 20th Century). He simply answered: “Writing poems without rhymes would be like playing tennis without the net”.

I don’t know if the story is true; it is a good story anyway, telling us a great truth: real freedom can only occur within a set of rules (and this is not just for literary creation: have you ever tried to play soccer on a playground with no lines?!).

In Frost’s poems, the rules that he freely chooses to follow add further meanings to his work. Take one of his most famous ones, a beautiful poem called Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

I don’t want to dive into detailed text analysis, now. I’d just like to concentrate my attention on rhymes (which is where we started from). The rhyme scheme followed in this poem is AABA, BBCB, CCDC, DDDD. Very simple indeed: the odd ending in each stanza becomes the dominant rhyme in the following one. This gives the whole poem a sort of inside movement, pushing it forward.

But wait a moment: what happens in the last stanza? The poem comes to its conclusion, so the movement ends, too. It looks (and sounds) like the stop of a heartbeat. In addition, the last line is repeated twice.

Repeating  the same line twice, probably with a different tone of voice, is a simple technical device to convey the idea that there is a deeper meaning in words (a meaning which is different from the literal one). So, those miles to go could represent more than a simple physical journey: the phrase could refer to the journey of life. If this is so, sleep represents (ça va sans dire) death.

In the light of this interpretation, we could go back and read the poem once again, this time working on metaphors. So, stopping by woods could mean contemplating the idea of suicide; the darkest evening of the year is the saddest period of one’s life (we could even think of depression); my little horse could be rationality, with all his calls to common sense. The game could go on endlessly, but the real point is that the whole investigation started from the repetition of a line and the trespass of a rhyme scheme.

Reading a poem is like recreating it, exploring the uncharted territory of meanings.

In this case, rhymes were like small white stones showing us the way through the forest.

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