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ALBERT B. CASUGA, a Philippine-born writer, lives in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, where he continues to write poetry, fiction, and criticism after his retirement from teaching and serving as an elected member of his region's school board. He was nominated to the Mississauga Arts Council Literary Awards in 2007. A graduate of the Royal and Pontifical University of St. Thomas (now University of Santo Tomas, Manila. Literature and English, magna cum laude), he taught English and Literature (Criticism, Theory, and Creative Writing) at the Philippines' De La Salle University and San Beda College. He has authored books of poetry, short stories, literary theory and criticism. He has won awards for his works in Canada, the U.S.A., and the Philippines. His latest work, A Theory of Echoes and Other Poems was published February 2009 by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House. His fiction and poetry were published by online literary journals Asia Writes and Coastal Poems recently. He was a Fellow at the 1972 Silliman University Writers Workshop, Philippines. As a journalist, he worked with the United Press International and wrote an art column for the defunct Philippines Herald.

Thursday, May 8, 2014



Desert Places: Meaning Analyzed

Earlier in the foregoing discussion of poetry analysis, an analysis on the cognitive level was done on Robert Frost’s “Desert Places.” Analysis on the associative level should confirm the interpretation of images and symbols used in the structural parts of the poem. What seems to have come out as a crystallization of the interpretation was the recognition of an experience bordering on “emptiness, a feeling of ineffectuality, loneliness, and spiritual barrenness.” Is this borne out by the poetic utterance?

Apparently, the interpretation could be proven textually. For instance, the reader will recognize that Frost is concretizing a dramatic experience of a man’s realization (thought and feeling) of how he cannot be scared by external emptiness or barrenness because he himself is barren and feeling empty. This is the ultimate dread that comes to a man who finds out for himself that he is his own graveyard.

How does the text arrive at the above? Consider the context or situation used by Frost. A man looks into a field that he passes by at what appears to be dusk; he sees the snow falling, the ground covered with snow, the weeds choked, only the stubble of vegetable life juts out; the animals freeze to death smothered in their lair. The physical desolation affects him and he realizes that he is absent-spiritedly enveloped in that gloom. But he cannot be scared with this emptiness swallowing him; he himself is empty—he blends with the physical desolation. This is the poem’s literal context. Is there a figurative or symbolic context? Is it not enough to recognize the literal context?

Even from the literal context, the reader can conclude that the choice of images interpreted in the cognitive level was felicitous. There is a confirmation of the reader’s interpretation of the experience in the literal context. Of what use is it then to determine whether or not the author meant also a symbolic context? Since art does not remain as an esoteric expression of something particular to one man, but that it must be made universal by virtue of its being a communicator or purveyor of phenomenal awareness (knowledge) and truth (both universal objectives), it should follow that the subjective experience of the poet becomes objective. Therefore, from the concretized particular, it becomes a concretized universal.

How does one know that the artist has accomplished this? He ordinarily indicates this through the use of his language or medium, and the devices available within that medium – these being themselves universal structures,

In the case of “Desert Places,” the experience of emptiness does not happen only on a physical-literal level. When the persona (the “I”) blends with the desolation of the nature he senses, the emptiness is now experienced on a psychological level. It is, therefore, removed from the literal; it makes a leap to the metaphysical. The artist must use his medium to accomplish this. He should not depend upon the appreciator’s ability to connect meanings obtained from the physical qua the metaphysical.

Besides, the literal experience is not which is of value ultimately to the appreciator. Otherwise, this literary contour of an experience might have been better appreciated if encountered on the real level. Life is always superior to art—value-wise. What is of value to the appreciator is the realized experience synthesized from the literal level. The intellectual delight he experiences from an identification of an experience through the artist’s dexterous arrangement of his objectifying details is also one such valuable wage for the appreciator.

The reader will further recognize that Frost must have intended a symbolic context for the poem because he uses the figures of speech like personification ---

“The woods around it—it is theirs” (italics to emphasize active possession)
The loneliness includes me unawares.
. . .
And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will become more lonely. . .

A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

. . .
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces.

(All the italics indicate action which inanimate objects would not ordinarily be endowed with.)

--- and synecdoche – the association of the external desolation with the internal desolation of the persona. The personification can only indicate the author’s intention of making the external forces exert their influence on the persona in order to achieve the “leap” from the physical to the metaphysical.

Does this context justify the earlier interpretations made about the significance of the images and symbols? If it does not, then the interpretations are irrelevancies.

Concretizing the state of feeling and thought of the persona, Frost uses a dramatic incident where he shows the man acting and reacting to his state. This culminates in an assertion about his state which reveals the moral persuasion of the persona; i.e., “I have it in me so much nearer home/To scare myself with my own desert places.” Frost articulates these states through the protagonist’s point of view in order to reveal the meaning which leaps from the physical to the psychological, from the external to the internal, or even vice versa. It is the person that feels who is most qualified to talk about an internal state.

The Words Have It

Of course, the foregoing was arrived at by this writer via the words and their peculiar arrangement as well as use in the poem.

The reader recognizes the physical context (situation) in which the dramatic incident happens through the preponderant sounds used by the poet (consciously or unconsciously) that stick out throughout the poem. Why? Could the author have used them to suggest the physical events happening --- the falling of snow, the sound it makes, the sound of the wind that accompanies the fall of snow and night? These sounds become onomatopoeic seen (or heard) against the context. The alliterative quality of these sounds suggest further the literal context; viz.,

Snow falling and night falling fast oh fast
. . . smooth in snow
. . . stubble showing

The continuant phoneme “f” and the sibilant “s”, “st”, and “sh” cannot but produce an auditory image of the physical conditions obtaining in the context of the poem. Suggestive of the wind, “f” is a phoneme which is phonated with a continuing flow of the breath. “S” not only suggests the sound of the snow but also the hush punctuating the desolation the persona is confronted with.

The rhyme scheme approximates both the physical situation and the psychological condition of the persona; i.e., the sound of the elements in nature; the painful numbness that cuts the persona when he realizes it is not the external scene which is desolate and empty – he is empty. Note the rhyming sounds:

1 2 3 4 --- Stanza Number

st s s s

st s s s

o ou o o --- The moaning quality of
this sound suggests pain
(therefore internal)

st s s s
Why is the “s” sound preponderant? Why are the sounds of “o” (snow, count, snow, home) enveloped in the third line of the envelope quatrain? Aside from suggesting the wind, the flakes, the loneliness, does not the arrangement in the structure of the stanza even suggest that internal condition which colours the external realities? Or, if the reader looks at it from another angle, do not these elements assailing him from the outside with their hush and desolation grip the persona in a vise where graphically the stranglehold could look like the following?

st s s s st s s s

st s s s st s s s
{ { { { } } } }
o ou o o o ou o o
{ { { { } } } }
st s s s st s s s

A. The persona looking at the external circumstances.
B. The external conditions “including him unawares.”

“Despair to mock us from above / Despair to mock us from below.”

It is granted that Frost may not even have intended this verbal significance. That does not prevent the reader from drawing a meaning out of the tonal elements. But what Frost may agree with is that, while his choice of words may have been intuitive, it may have been a result of his artistic discipline – his openness (his imagination’s) to the demands of his experience for a medium appropriate to its content; i.e., sounds lending themselves to the creative context because they are the most appropriate partners of the content-experience. Symbolization in the imagination prior to utterance has taken place; the symbols were selected spontaneously by the controlling aesthet5ic experience being concretized by the artist.

Frost uses an irregular rhythm (preponderantly trochaic pentameter). Does this help suggest the meaning? If this is the concretization of a dramatic realization of one’s emptiness made painful by loneliness how does the trochaic beat suggest this? If the trochaic beat consists of the strong stress followed by the slack or unstressed unit of sound (syllable), would not such a combination help in concretizing the intensity of the internal condition of the persona which colours the external signs of desolation? Or it could even be the other way around; i.e., the external conditions (“loneliness includes me unawares”, “they cannot scare me with their empty spaces”) making the persona realize his own emptiness (a feeling of helplessness, hence, slack or lax stress). If the irregular metre pattern is used, it is demanded by the personality of the persona who may --- from the literal context – be judged as any man who reflects on the dread “so much nearer home,” his desert places.

Did Frost intend this? Whether or not he did will not prevent the appreciator from gathering some significance from this rhythm. If Frost did not deliberately choose such a rhythm, this would neither be a reason for declaring the meaning from the rhythm irrelevant. It is a firmly established fact in the articulation of the medium in art that utterance is conditioned and/or shaped by the content. Intuitively, the artist uses a rhythm which is demanded by his experience (assuming that he is sensitive to the energies of his medium – in this case, the energies of the language). The medium in this case becomes a completion device – it completes an otherwise vague or peripheral experience stimulating the artist. This is better explained in the discussion of structure as an “agent” of meaning.

The reader will have, at this point, noticed that meaning may not only be derived from the literary energies of the words. Of course, the significance obtained from the foregoing elements may further be confirmed by the words as content agents.

For instance, the reader should not think it curious that there appears to be a stutter-like repetition of words like “falling”, “it”, “loneliness”, “lonely”, “no expression”, “nothing to express,” “scare.” These are key words that shape the content. All of them connote the experience described through the eyes of the persona – the experience emotionalized through his attitude. The redundancy is deliberate. The stutter-like succession of “it” in the second stanza objectifies the anxiety of the persona; the falling of snow and night is his pall of gloom; the loneliness of the individual who finds his puniness a source of quixotic strength, his defiance his absurd resignation. The paradox is understated.

Aside from the personification with which Frost advances his figurative context, he uses the subtle cogency of an understatement to telescope, as it were, the heroic defiance of the persona. The dread is real, but it is as real only as it is dreadful to the ruling mind of the man. The figure underscores the modern man’s acceptance of the existential curse: he is free to suffer – but with courage and grace!

Structurally, Frost’s choice of a central image is apt. The desert of snow, as has been previously pointed out, is a conceit worthy of the understated paradox in the poem. It is a desert within and without. It is coldness of the empty and the barren which is juxtaposed with this Gobi of dead things. Their structural order concretizes the growth of the realization in the persona. Since it is the external that forces him to react, the physical description in the first two stanzas cannot but be concluded in his (the persona’s) assertion in the final stanza. That means the growth of the internal condition was gradual; i.e., from the external stimulus (first two stanzas) to the internal, subjective reaction (final two). The dramatic context demands a chronological arrangement of details; hence, the internal via the external conditions.

If there was a choice of stanza form, the poet could not have made any better decision. The envelope quatrain lends itself naturally to the suggestion of the persona’s experience; i.e., the angst within which he accepts – something engendered if not reinforced by his apprehension of the physical desolation without. The enveloping lines (first, second, and fourth) bear on the third unrhymed line, aptly ending with the long “o” phonemic sound, one with a mournful colour because it “moans”.

On both contextual and structural levels of meaning, the reader will readily derive the expression of the dramatic realization of a man’s coming to terms with his own desert places. The meaning suggested in the cognitive level by the imagery is, therefore, confirmed by the articulated medium (includes the literary devices). The meaning established, the reader can now point out that the purpose of the poet as artist is the concretization of such experience. Subsequent criticism of the work of art as far as its formal excellence is concerned is pegged on the author’s achievement of this purpose in terms of his medium and content.

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