Cite Your Brain

“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.”

— Robert Frost

Have you ever felt like Gollum when he wails “You ruins it” to Sam upon seeing Sam cook the rabbits he just caught?

Well, I felt like that earlier this year because I had to write a critical essay on Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Let me explain… I love the poem, but I’m not proud of the essay at all. It’s not my personal interpretation in the sense that it’s not how I have connected to the poem and interpreted it for myself (which would not be acceptable for this kind of essay). Rather it’s just the argument I found that fit best with the evidence I saw in the poem. But I in no way believe the argument I chose. It’s very much forced. On top of that, after submitting my first draft I had to remove some of the evidence that I thought was relevant to stay within the word limit. So it’s a truncated forced analysis to say the least. The essay is at the end of this post if anyone is curious.

So why the difficulty with this essay? It stems from the structure of the English critical essay.  Even though I sometimes find this form to be acceptable for responding to literature (as I did in the post beneath this one), I think it has many shortcomings and often deprives the analysis of a certain personality and richness. So writing a response to this poem in the required form was difficult for me not only because I do not like and have never liked the form that is imposed for this type of essay, but I am also very attached to this poem. It made me feel sick to over think it and to dissect it in such a ruthless manner.

For the English critical essay we are asked to present an argument regarding the piece and support it with evidence from the text. Which in and of itself does not seem so bad, but I have several problems with the required format.

1)      We are not allowed to use the first-person in presenting our argument. An argument in this sense is defined as an opinion supported by evidence. Clearly subjectivity is at play… So why are we not allowed to use the first person? The way I was taught to write these essays in high school was a way in which we had to stay away from the “personal” and format our writing to appear objective.  But why hide that it is in part subjective? If the argument stems from my opinion, why hide it in an impersonal manner? Why cover up our interpretations to make them seem objective? I’m not saying the essay should be just “I think…”s and “I believe…”s, but partially, why not? I think it’s even hypocritical to disguise it as something objective and universal- own up to your argument-it comes from you, and why is that a bad thing? There is no shame in exposing your unique human subjectivity. Additionally, I think that as art is so often related to emotion, your own reaction to a piece of art can be valid evidence in itself. Just my two cents.

2)      It’s often forced. I know this because of a particular term that I heard far too often from my classmates in high school. “Just BS-it”. BS=Bullshit. Translation: Make stuff up. Bullshitting is essentially pretending to be convinced that what you are writing has merit in order to complete the assignment. But, in reality you think something completely different or have no clue. Because more often than not we are forcing analysis where we don’t see anything to analyze. This is when the ruthless dissection of great works begins. We scrape the literary bones clean in hopes of finding any scrap that might satisfy the academic appetite. It seems sad to have to forgo our true responses even if its “I hated this poem or this book.” As long as the student is thinking critically about the language and effectively communicating reasoning for their perspective, than why not?

May be all of this stems from my desire for writing to be a creative process. Why is how it makes me feel or how it ties in with my personal experiences not valid evidence for an argument? After all, it’s the evidence I know best, shouldn’t that count for something?

The objective of the essay should be whatever you want it to be so long as you have an organized paper that presents an argument referencing the text and thinks critically about the language. As long as your thoughts are organized, I don’t see the problem with expressing your personal reaction. Or at least allowing for it to stand alongside other analysis.

Another question we can ask ourselves is: what is the use of literary analysis?  I think there are multiple. Firstly to develop writing skills- to be able to effectively communicate an argument- one that is easy to understand, concise, and supported by adequate evidence.  Easier said, than written.  After this point it gets more subjective. To understand works of literature better? That’s what one of my English teachers said when I asked her.  I’m not sure about that reason. To explore the author’s use of stylistic devices, and references, sure. I do think one use of criticizing literature is to discover what elements you like and why you like them and then use them in your own writing. But to understand? To me that implies there is only one interpretation.  Like understanding gravity.

And what about creativity? In such a rigid structure, where is the place for speculation- that uniquely human quality? At school in reports we are always asked to cite other sources (which is a good thing, don’t get me wrong)- but sometimes I think it takes away our voice! Cite your brain for once. Suggest, speculate, wonder, get lost in your thoughts a little… explore the branches of your mind alongside those of others. After all only you have the power to share the unique resource that is your own mind…

It also seems we don’t spend time enjoying the pieces of writing, rather we spend time ransacking them for every last analytical crumb we can shove into an essay. Unfortunately for me, “I like this poem because it helped me walk a lot of miles” would not have been an acceptable topic for this assignment. But, fortunately for me, I am free to write whatever I please here 🙂

It is, after all, one of the most dangerous and wonderful properties of art, that once shared it belongs to everyone and can be interpreted in a million ways.

Each person who experiences the art transforms it immediately. Accordingly I wanted to express my interpretation, my reaction to this piece- my way of making it mine- but not to suggest that it is the only interpretation or the author’s or anyone else’s, but merely to express and speculate for my own absorption of this piece.  And to share it and perhaps inspire discussion.

To me the poem is, as many others find it, beautiful in its simplicity and rhythm.  It’s about traveling and encouragement. About pace.  About the simple beauty of stopping and wondering during a journey. For me, it is a still and peaceful reflection whose conclusion is ambiguous, but not problematic, because it still helps you to keep going.

It helped and re-invigorated me many times in my life. First in the summer of 2010 when I was working with the California Department of Fish and Game surveying for pikas in the northern Sierra Nevada. I first starting repeating the last stanza to myself to keep myself going on long field days and try to keep up with Joseph, the guy I was working with who was a very fast walker. The poem was my companion to overcome exhaustion, to keep the rhythm and get away from the mosquitoes and on to the next survey site. But it was also a way for me to feel in touch with my experience and my surroundings, to acknowledge their pull on me. I made up a new version of the last stanza too –  inspired by the day we were rushing to finish a survey amidst the first drops of rain and distant, but approaching thunder:

The clouds are growing dark and gray

But I have pikas to survey

And not a moment to delay

And not a moment to delay

trying to follow Joseph
trying to follow Joseph

Then in the summer of 2012 I found myself in a similar situation. This time surveying for toads in Yosemite National Park. Joseph was replaced by a man named Paul, even more impressive in his speed and endurance amidst the Sierran slopes.

Where are you tadpoles?
Where are you tadpoles?

And right after Yosemite, I found its steady rhythm again on the John Muir Trail. Here it was less of a necessity, and more of a harmony for the joy that enveloped and surrounded me.  It was as if the poem had followed me there, or I had followed it, and now we flowed together.

Mather Pass on the JMT

It strengthened my belief in the beauty of not being finished, and in the beauty of consistent and continued effort.

I learned through repetition that one must keep one’s promises and earn one’s sleep (two things I really enjoy doing).

I found it yet again with the cadence of my footsteps when I started my quest for the 20 mile run and the again in my marathon training a year after.

It was for me about a state of in-between. I was caught between two worlds- that of travel and that of rest- though sometimes it seemed I was moving while at rest and resting while I moved.

Somehow I always felt I had promises to keep, but I was never able to pinpoint them all. Promise of not staying so I could go elsewhere too. The knowledge that it wasn’t time to rest yet even when I was weary. Promises of work I had to do. Promises of great expanses to cover. Promises that I sometimes wasn’t sure of. To myself? To others? But no matter, it was continuing the miles that mattered. That there will come a day without promises? But maybe I don’t want that day to come, because may be I need that driving force. A state of ambivalence, and yet a conviction that one must still keep going even if the reasons aren’t clear yet. In this sense the miles were a certainty, a firm path for me to follow, literally and figuratively. For me to move with physically and mentally. An internal drive and an external pull.

I still haven’t made full sense of it- but I don’t think I want to. It keeps me searching and stepping.





You Can Check out Anytime You Like, but You Can Never Leave:

Nature and Civilization in Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

The arrival of the 20th century and the second industrial revolution encouraged the movement of human beings away from nature and towards villages and cities. Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” published in 1923, explores human’s modern relationship with the natural world. The speaker’s struggle between his prudence and his longing for the woods, but ultimate decision to move on, reflects humanity’s desire to, but inability to escape the pull of civilization.

Frost’s word choice and use of symbolism exemplify the speaker’s simultaneously curious and prudent attitude towards nature. The speaker distances himself from the human world and approaches the woods, demonstrating his desire for nature. He presents the woods as being away from “the village” (2) and “a farmhouse” (6). This distance can be interpreted as a metaphorical distance between society, as represented by the manufactured structures of the village and the farmhouse, and nature, symbolized by the natural setting of the woods. However, once distanced, the narrator’s desire, though still present, is mixed with caution. The speaker describes the woods as “lovely” (13), suggesting he finds the woods beautiful, but also as “dark” (13) and “deep” (13), words that are more mysterious in their connotation.  On one hand they are suggestive of the unknown and of danger, but on the other hand their placement next to “lovely” through the use of the coordinating conjunction “and” suggests that they are more benign in their connotation – and instead perhaps allude to comfort and peace. These contradictory connotations show that the speaker finds the woods inviting, but is also wary of their mystery.

This wariness is also apparent in the speaker’s position. Frost’s choice of prepositions implies that the speaker never actually enters the woods. The speaker is, as noted by the title, “Stopping by Woods” and he is positioned “between the woods and frozen lake” (7). The preposition “by” implies that the speaker is next to the woods, but not within them. This is further substantiated by the use of the preposition “between” which shows that the speaker is neither in the woods nor the lake, but rather in a place separating the two. Trapped between his desire and his vigilance, the speaker acknowledges the beauty of the woods, but remains an external observer.

Although the speaker expresses a desire to be separated from civilization, he instead decides to move on when he remembers his ties to society. Frost’s use of an oppositional conjunction demonstrates that the duties that tie the speaker to civilization take precedence over his contemplation of the woods. The speaker recognizes the wood’s allure, “but [he has] promises to keep” (14). While the speaker acknowledges that the lines preceding this statement are true (his prudence and longing for the woods included), his promises oppose this truth because they follow the conjunction “but.” Accordingly the speaker’s promises act as an obstruction to the speaker’s desire for the natural world and in doing so put an end to his deliberation. Moreover, “promises” are social contracts and the speaker’s decision to recognize them indicates his unwillingness to break away from his civilized identity. He concludes his reflection by disengaging from the woods to adhere to engagements imposed upon him by society.

Though humans can temporarily dissociate themselves from civilization to enjoy nature; they can never truly leave society, because they allow their duties to call them back. In this poem, the enchantment the speaker experiences in the woods is insufficient to keep him there because of his failure to let go of the obligations that connect him to society. This poem is a powerful statement amidst the increasingly urbanized world of the 20th century, where one can travel where one likes, but never elude the imprint of civilization.

Published by Johanne Boulat

Johanne Boulat was born in French-speaking Switzerland, where she lives again now, but she grew up under the resplendent California sun. For 21 years she basked in the spirit of the Wilderness, which she discovered on hiking as well as literary paths. She received her Bachelor of Science in Animal Biology from the University of California, Davis in 2012 and since then has worked as a scientific field aid, a translator, a sales specialist, and a running coach. In 2018, she completed her master’s degree in English Literature at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. She now teaches English and Science at a local elementary school and dedicates her free time to the three “R”s: Running, Reading, and Writing.

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