By Lorraine Lordi
The Robert Frost Farm in Derry, N.H., isn’t much of a farm. Never was much of one when Frost lived here, either. It’s a simple, white New England clapboard house on a small plot of land that thousands of travelers pass by every day without a second thought.
Today, though, I give it a second thought. I stop.
It is still winter, a dark season doomed to bleakness and sighing. Winters would have moved in much the same way from 1901-1911, when Frost settled here. As northeast winds shook this humble wooden house, I imagine him drafting his poems at his kitchen table long after his wife, Elinor, and their four young ones had gone to bed.
“The terrain of my poetry is the Derry landscape, the Derry farm,” Frost once wrote.
This Terrain, where I’m standing, remains hallowed ground for poetry lovers. For here is where America’s most popular poet gathered ordinary, natural images that touched his soul: stone walls, icy brooks, birch trees, apple orchards, dead leaves, dense woods, snowflakes. And, sometimes, stars.
Even folks who don’t admit to liking poetry like Mr. Frost’s. The simple images make it easy to read, they say. Easy to understand. But standing out here between a sunset sky streaked with plum-orange and a brown ground still clinging to snow, I wonder: Was life really that simple for Frost? Or did he use this uncomplicated Derry landscape to mask life’s deeper dilemmas?
As a teacher of literature and one envious of those who create worlds of words surrounded by whiteness, I like to keep a poem with me. Today, I’ve tucked two of Frost’s in my jacket. I couldn’t decide which one I needed more: the one about starting or the one about stopping. So I brought both.
This first one, “The Road Not Taken,” speaks about making a tough choice when both paths in front of you are “really about the same.” In the poem, the narrator stands a long while before deciding to follow the “one less traveled by.” His maverick decision often inspires readers not to follow the crowd. But was the traveler’s decision the right one? Was it that simple?
I don’t think so. There’s this one little word in this poem that haunts me. The traveler in the poem reflects on his decision with a “sigh.” Is he sighing with relief or, perhaps, with regret? In the path of a lonely wind today I sense regret. In truth, the traveler can never know how life might have turned out had he taken the other path. He can’t know. Nor could Frost.
Like the traveler, Frost struggled with his career choices. Should he stay in Derry? Or should he move his family to England? Traveling overseas allowed his poetry to flourish. He became famous. In his old age, though, Frost confided, “We should have stayed farming when we knew we were well off.”
As the poem sighs, “Way leads on to way.” Once he became famous, Frost never farmed again.
Sometimes, though, you look at that long road ahead and wonder if you have it in you to keep going. At times, life isn’t all that you thought it would be. In the dark of winter, especially, you can’t picture your days getting better. In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” that’s what I see — a man doubting the value of his life as he stops “to watch the woods fill up with snow.”
Most folks, however, see this popular Frost poem as a depiction of a quaint New England countryside: peaceful woods, a little horse and “downy flakes” of snow. That may be the picture on the canvas from afar, but step up close. Look deeper. You may see that Frost’s message isn’t so simple.
From the start, this poem raises a complex question: Why would someone venture out alone in a snowstorm on what is “the darkest evening of the year”? Silent, snowy woods may be lovely. But they are also, the poem starkly warns, “dark and deep.”
Poets, like saints, are bound to reveal truth no matter how uncomfortable it may be. About his close friend, the poet, Richard Cook once wrote, “He thought of the universe as a dark place with intermittent glints of light.”
Though one can’t confuse Frost with the character in this poem, Frost did, according to biographers, struggle with lifelong depression. In addition, he outlived his beloved wife and four of his children, and he agonized over his sister’s mental illness. And yet, despite wanting to stop, he picked up his pen and wrote for “miles and miles” before he slept.
The sun is setting. It’s time for me to leave these deep woods, gray rocks, bare trees, where I sense the complex inner landscape of Frost’s soul. My own, too. I bow and take my leave. The golden streaks of this fading sunset reveal the poet’s abiding truth when spring stays buried beneath the snow: We write our way through darkness on the beams of an inner light that guides us along the miles we have to go.