dark and snowy woods

Desert Places

Introduction

When the speaker was “going past” a “field” which was “almost covered smooth in snow”, he notices “all animals are smothered in their lairs”. He recognises his own physical and psychological “loneliness” in the inescapable sadness of the barren landscape and even the “empty spaces” in “stars where no human race is”. The speaker feels he is “too absent to count” but these thoughts cannot scare him because he has his “own desert places” closer to “home”. Robert Frost’s Desert Places is a vivid exploration of how we need to overcome our own troubles and fears in a world that is indifferent to our existence.

Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

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.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Setting

The poem is set in late evening when the snow is falling heavily. On an initial reading, the description of the weather and its impact on the landscape might be interpreted as pathetic fallacy with the cold darkness and chaotic snow representing the speaker’s awful anxiety.

Frost does produce an uneasy urgency in the opening lines with the repetition of “falling” and, of course, “fast”. Notice how the quick alliteration of /f/ into the next line also adds pace to the rhythm and the interjection “oh”, echoing the vowel sound in “snow”, conveys the speaker’s anxious reaction to the swift-falling snow. There is also the assonance of the deep “a” sound in “falling”, “fast” and “past” which occurs on the stressed syllables. This creates an appropriate tumbling effect mimicking the snowfall and the speaker’s turmoil.

Although the “ground” is “almost covered smooth in snow” and a “few weeds and stubble” are still showing, the speaker knows there will be “a blanker whiteness of benighted snow”, suggesting his mind-set will also become bleaker.

Frost is using both the old-fashion denotation of “benighted”, which described something being overcome by the night”, and its modern definition of intellectual or moral ignorance. This pun, connecting the physical world to human thinking, might signify his own lack of enlightenment.

We are all troubled by doubts and fears. Frost’s depiction of the scene could be a reflection of those emotions.

Loneliness

The rural setting is established by the straightforward references to the “field” and “woods”. The sense of isolation is increased by the image of “all animals are smothered in their lairs” and how the speaker is “too absent-spirited to count”. Put simply, he is alone in this desolate landscape and this could reflect the spiritual wilderness he is suffering on his journey.

Seamus Heaney commented: “And where does that line about being ‘too absent-spirited to count’ arrive from? Does it mean that the speaker does not matter? Or something else?” He added, “The speaker is so hypnotized by the snow swirl that he doesn’t count as consciousness anymore, he is adrift instead, in the dream of smothered lairs”.

It is important to note that the speaker describes the scene as “lonely” when he says “the loneliness includes me unawares”. One definition of the adjective “lonely” refers to remote places devoid of human habitation so it is an appropriate word in that sense because the world “includes” him that “loneliness”. When he repeats “lonely” and “loneliness”, he is describing the increasing isolation of the place due to the continuing snowfall and the “night falling fast”.

The more common use of “lonely” is that depressing feeling caused by being alone. Again, on first reading the poem, it may seem that the landscape symbolises the speaker’s despondency.

However, that vulnerable “loneliness” in the “woods” is nothing compared to the vast “empty spaces / Between stars”; a concept the speaker feels the need to repeat: “on stars where no human race is”. The vacuum is emphasised by the obvious enjambment separating “spaces” from “between”.

By juxtaposing the emptiness of the woods with the emptiness of space, the speaker reduces the significance of the terrestrial setting and, perhaps, ridicules the loneliness he projected on to the scene.

Home

There is something comforting in the belief that the world shares our moments of sorrow and happiness – a sympathetic and divine hand that helps guide us through life. However, the harsh landscape offers no comfort to the speaker. For example, the personification of “snow” as “benighted” suggests it is without morality and knowledge. It remains a “blanker whiteness” which has “no expression” and “nothing to express”.

In his biography of Robert Frost, Parini (199) describes how the poet “apparently quarrelled frequently” with his mother about his seeming ‘atheism’, although Frost consistently defended himself against this charge” and once called himself a “freethinker”.

Therefore, this lack of communication with the world is probably not an argument against the existence of God, but simply a pragmatic view that we need to deal with “our desert places” which are “nearer home”. No matter what challenges and disasters “scare” us, we cannot rely on divine intervention for help.

The Desert Places

The title “Desert Places” might refer to the bleak “field” and “woods” because very little can survive in such harsh conditions. The “weeds” and “stubble” are not particularly picturesque and suggest the speaker is uncomfortable looking at the scene. The way the “animals are smothered in their lairs” could reflect the speaker’s sense of suffocation.

Alternatively, the title could be a metaphor for the universe and its “empty spaces”. A third reading of the title suggests it symbolises the speaker’s mind and spiritual wasteland.

Finally, the speaker mentions his “home” in the final stanza. It should signify comfort, love and security, but it is also being associated here with “desert places”.

Interestingly, the word is derived from the Latin verb dēsĕro, which meant to abandon or quit, and it still retains that definition. Perhaps all of these possible locations are forsaken and the poet feels completely alone.

Comprehension Questions

  1. How does Frost create a sense of urgency in the opening lines? Consider his choice of words, especially the various types of repetition.
  2. What is the significance of the adverb “almost” used to describe how the “ground” is “covered smooth in snow”?
  3. How is this reinforced by the “few weeds and stubble showing”?
  4. Why are the animals “smothered in their lairs”?
  5. How does this scene make the speaker fell at the end of the second stanza?
  6. Explain why will the “field” and “woods” become “more lonely”?
  7. In your words, describe how the speaker feels in the third stanza.
  8. Why do these “empty spaces” not “scare” the speaker?
  9. Suggest why the speaker links the “stars” to the “field” and “woods” he was “going past”.
  10. What might be the speaker’s “own desert places”?
  11. How does the poem’s structure help convey its key themes?

Further Reading

The bleakness of the woods in Desert Places is a stark contrast to the beauty the speaker experiences in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening so it worth comparing both poems. You might also want to consider Frost’s desire to explore the “dark” trees in Into My Own because it offers another reading of the woods.

Parini, Jay (1999) “Robert Frost: A Life”.

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