(John goes over to the coat rack and puts on his old slicker as if to go. Then he stops, as if changing his mind, turns around and pulls a chair to the edge of the stage. Headdresses the audience thoughtfully.)
When Robert Frost gave readings, he would present a minimum number of his poems and comment very little on them. He preferred to ramble about politics, berate others who he felt were in competition with him or talk about teaching and the process of writing. When asked questions about a specific work, he often gave contradictory answers: “Oh, it’s just a little winter scene, don’t read too much into it.” or “That was the evening I was considering killing myself.” He put on a bit of a contrary New England farmer act. I know how that goes. We from Wisconsin like to do the same thing when we find ourselves in sophisticated surroundings, such as New York City or Los Angeles. It’s called being a “country slicker.” You play dumb so others underrate your abilities, often to their detriment later. But my guess is that Frost was up to something else that has to do with why his poems are cited today by everyone from writers of New Age self-help books to political conservatives.
What are the central metaphors of these poems by Emily Dickinson, Carl Sandburg, T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas: “After Geat Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes,” “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” “Fog,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night?” A metaphor is talking about one thing in terms of another. It’s a comparison that helps us understand something complex or abstract or unfamiliar by showing its similarities to something concrete that we are familiar with and can more easily grasp. Here are a few lines that tell you the metaphors of the titles I’ve just given. “As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow— / First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go–” “Because I could not stop for Death– / He kindly stopped for me— / The Carriage held but just Ourselves— / And Immortality.” , “The fog comes / on little cat feet.” “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table” “Do not go gentle into that good night.“ Grief is compared to freezing, dying to a carriage ride, fog to a kitten, night to an etherized patient and death to sleep. Unless you’re an English, major my guess is you only may have known one or two of these.
Now tell me the central metaphor of these poems: “The Road Not Taken,” “The Mending Wall,” “Home Burial,” “Birches,” “After Apple-Picking” and “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Night”? Easy, the central symbol is right in the title. But what is it being compared to? The answer to that question is, I believe, a third trait of Frost’s greatness and the real reason his poetry soars. Here’s what he said about the importance of metaphors:
Poetry begins in trivial metaphors…and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, “Why don’t you say what you mean?” We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and indirections–whether from diffidence or some other instinct… The only thing that can disappoint me is a lack of enthusiasm and my own failure to make metaphor. My ambition has been to have it said of me: He made a few connections.”
Let me distinguish between two types of metaphor. What I’ll call a “closed metaphor” directly draws the comparison—death is like sleep, for example (this is a simile, or expressed rather than implied comparison, but still a type of metaphor). We understand and have experienced sleep, whereas if we want to get some feeling for death, which we have not experienced firsthand, we need to use a comparison. To the left on a blackboard (if we had one) we could make a column of the traits of sleep and then connect some with traits of death in a column to the right. Some traits they share that easily come to mind are: a lack of consciousness in both or, perhaps, being weary at the end of the day is like being weary toward the end of life. We might draw some conclusions that are less sound, i.e., we wake up from sleep therefore there must be resurrection after death; but aptness (as well as originality) determines why one metaphor is better than another. In the poems by Dickinson, Sandburg, Eliot and Thomas these comparisons are drawn out.
On the other hand what if there were a metaphor in which all we had were the column of traits on the left, and the heading to which they were to be compared on the right—an “open metaphor”? In a long metaphoric work we would call this a parable, or if it involved animals, a fable. But this “open metaphor” is precisely what Frost does in his poems. He gives us one side of the comparison then forces us to find the correspondences to the other. This is why I believe he did not want to give us his definitive interpretation of his pieces. He’s encouraging us to become poets. How does he get readers to make the leap? He chooses a picture that seems silly if we only take it literally.