Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth ins now,
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 where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
Robert Frost, from A Further Range
Just as I dislike unexplicated lyrics, I find un-commented poetry a missed opportunity. Therefore I have included a fairly brief comparison of this poem with another of Frost's most famous works, Tree at My Window. I have not reproduced that here, but someone else has kindly done so here.
In Robert Frost’s poems Tree at My Window and Desert Places, there are a number of differences between the two poems, but also some subtle similarities that are not obvious on first inspection. To what extent these poems are alike is worthy of discussion.
The central theme of Tree at My Window is surely companionship. Frost discusses at length the union he feels with a tree just the other side of his window. The image of the window is simultaneously one of reflection and of observance, which Frost combines to give the poem an air of introspection. The tree is "taken and tossed", while Frost himself is "taken and swept" – the similarity of the lines is obvious, and while it is debatable to what extent Frost sees the tree as his equal, it is apparent that there is at least some likeness between the two. Frost says his mind is "so much concerned with … inner weather" – an examination of himself.
On the other hand, the key theme of Desert Places is quite the opposite – that of loneliness. Frost claims that "that loneliness will be more ere it will be less". My interpretation of this is that it is only when we have dared to explore our own deepest recesses that we can truly relate to others. Again, there is an element of introspection in the poem, providing a parallel with Tree at My Window even when the subject matter is so distinct.
There is also another form of loneliness present in the two poems. In Desert Places, there is not just the personal loneliness of Frost’s divorce from people, but a cosmic loneliness that places humans as alone in the universe, as Frost refers to "stars where no human race is." Likewise in Tree at My Window, his strong bond with the tree sets them apart from everyone else – as if in a universe of their own. Perhaps the modern reader finds such universal loneliness terrifying but, in typical style, Frost encourages us to face this disturbance and it embrace it fearlessly. "They cannot scare me with their empty spaces," he claims. Likewise, in Tree at My Window there is no resentment of the world outside his local union with the tree. Instead, the emptiness elsewhere drives him closer to his companion. "I have it in me so much nearer home," writes Frost, "to scare myself with my own desert places" – that is to say, how can we fear the vacuum around us while we still have such a vacuum inside? The aspect of introspection is again evident.
Frost is often fascinated by the meaning found in our small existences within such a vast universe, and in other poems such as Birches shows that he does not dismiss the human influence as meaningless simply for being transient. In Desert Places, he again explores the value of personal experience that is almost insignificant on a wider scale. "In a field, I looked into going past" emphasises the importance of the self in an experience, even though his lamentations on loneliness show that he does not believe being alone is the ideal configuration for a person. That is to say, there must be a certain irrational inflation of the importance of oneself if we are to find any meaning in life. Personal experience is valuable.
Tree at My Window, however, explores another aspect, namely relative experience and interaction. Frost does not yet tackle the experience of a single person in the context of the whole universe, but he does broaden his scope and begin to draw comparisons between his own circumstance and that of the tree. He does this in the very same lines that were discussed regarding companionship, which demonstrates that to relate to someone, or something, else, we must share an experience with them. In the case of Frost and the tree, their experiences are necessarily different but in some sense parallel. The tree’s "vague dream-head" is "so much concerned with outer", while Frost is concerned with the "inner". It could be argued that Frost therefore sees himself as more contemplative while the tree simply aims to survive. However, I would say that this difference is a necessary part of the very different creatures these entities are, and that there is no tone of superiority in Frost’s structure. By dove-tailing the two phrases together, balancing the comment about himself with the tree on either side, Frost suggests an equality of the two. Their experience draws them together even though the nature of the experience is inevitably distinct.
The reader may see Frost’s claim that "not all [the tree’s] light tongues talking aloud could be profound" as Frost asserting his intellectual superiority over the tree. However, I believe Frost is challenging the very nature of profundity as seen by living beings, as if something so cosmically insignificant could surely not have any conception of the Truth. In Desert Places, Frost doubts whether even he himself can have any grasp on a wider meaning, as he says he is "too absent-spirited to count." Disputing the existence of profound understanding in any living thing is a theme common to both poems.
Frost continues his scepticism regarding significance and profundity on to a challenge on the existence of personality. The tree has a "vague dream-head", while his lonely nature has "no expression, nothing to express." The absence of character is another theme common to the two poems. Perhaps this is a consequence of seeing events in an absolute context, the disturbing prospect discussed earlier, where the individual counts for nothing and flair is trivial. The insubstantial nature of the tree’s "head", shaped so much like a brain, perhaps shows Frost’s fear that ultimately our thoughts are for nothing. For a poet so occupied with introspection, the concept that thinking is hopeless is certainly a worrying prospect. And yet Frost tackles it head on, and while the poem is not overtly optimistic, it offers the hopefully suggestion that, once we have weathered the worst of it, the loneliness "will be less."
Returning to the opening lines of Desert Places, Frost emphasises his loneliness as dark descends – "night falling fast, oh, fast" he says, the rapid rhythm changing to stilted syllables as the fear of loneliness sets in. Tree at My Window, however, shows another aspect to the onset of night, as Frost writes "when night comes on, let there never be curtain drawn between you and me." In a sense this too demonstrates the inherent loneliness of darkness itself, as shutting the curtain would disconnect him from his only companion, the tree. On the other hand, it shows that being in the darkness need not be so lonely – although Frost cannot always see the silhouette of the tree in the darkness, simply the knowledge that it is there is enough to reassure him. I believe that this whole image of the night shared between the two poems is a metaphor. Although life on this earth may have it eyes shut to wider meaning of the universe, and is therefore in "darkness", within that darkness we can still be consoled by other people in the same situation. The tree and Frost may be divorced from reality by the all-pervading darkness, but knowledge of one another’s existence is enough to give meaning to their lives. The same could be said for us and thus Frost manages to reconcile his feeling that thoughts and character are meaningless on a wider scale with his own belief that human life is not pointless. Indeed, if the wider universe is as materially empty as Frost repeatedly suggests, then life on Earth is quite the opposite of pointless – our planet is the 'worthwhile' part of an otherwise vacuous space.
In conclusion, I would say that the two poems Tree at My Window and Desert Places have a similarity in the philosophy behind them that is not obvious from the immediate appearance of the poems. Frost explores his own feeling of isolation in the world, by exploring himself and then his relationship with another being. In typically bold style, he confronts his doubts regarding whether flair or inspiration have any value and ultimately concludes that within the small scope we are forced to consider, they certainly do.