#44 “Desert Places” (Robert Frost)

Robert Frost liked to invoke his own name, at least from a distance: he loved to write about winter and spring, with their snow, frost, thaw, and refreezing. “Desert Places” is probably his frostiest poem. In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” despite the overtones of suicide, there’s at least a pony. In “Desert Places” we are left “with no expression, nothing to express.”

I’d like to digress for a moment to praise a small verbal detail that “Desert Places” shares with many other poems in the Countdown. At several junctures in “Desert Places,” Frost repeats a word, or most of a word, that he’s just used. “Snow falling and night falling.” “Lonely as it is that loneliness.” “No expression, nothing to express.” “Between stars – on stars.”

Think of others we’ve recently looked at. In “They Feed They Lion,” lines like “pounded stumps, out of stumps.” In “Inniskeen Road,” the sequence “being king . . . a mile of kingdom, I am king.” Or in “An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum,” the phrase “Awarding the world its world.”

I am not talking here about the thematic repetition of a key word at several points across a poem, which is inevitable in any kind of focussed writing. Rather, the device I’m pointing to is an immediate repetition of the same word, usually a pretty common word for which there are a lot of synonyms.

In prose writing, this might be a flaw. A teacher might tell a composition student to hit the thesaurus and find some synonyms to use for the purpose of variation. Or maybe it doesn’t even get that fancy: prose writers sometimes avoid repeating the same word just because they don’t want to bore their audiences or sound like their vocabulary is tiny.

As often, poetry breaks the rules. I am struck by how great poems, so often, find that the exact right word is the word that’s just served as the exact right word: and that using it over again makes the language stronger, not weaker.

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6 responses to “#44 “Desert Places” (Robert Frost)

  1. When I first read the title of this poem I automatically pictured a barren desert with sand. But after I read the poem it dint make much sense till I got to the third stanza where his emphasis seems to be on loneliness. I thought that makes a little sense naming “Desert Places.” We discussed this in class too how this could mean dessert. But when I got home I decided to look the word “desert” up and here is what I found, “barren and inhabited; desolate”, “to leave empty or alone; abandon.”
    Now it made sense to me and made me love the poem even more than because of its simplicity. I feel like he described the word desert through the poem, for example, “All animals are smothered in their lairs.” This means the animals have “deserted” the land. Then the word “lonely” being emphasized in stanza three, the way I see it relating to the title is how a desert is isolated, and when one is in a barren desert they are isolated as well.
    I enjoyed this poem and still an thinking of the other meanings it could have.

  2. I think that the fact that Frost repeated these simple words over and over somehow made them seem more important; there always seems to be an emphasis on something when it is repeated. I particularly enjoyed this poem, but found it odd that the only breathing or moving thing was the speaker. However, the speaker mentions that he is so lonely he is “too absent-spirited to count,” so he doesn’t really even matter; it’s as if he isn’t really even alive. As mentioned in class, the loneliness seems to include him; no one is aware of him, and vice versa.
    I feel as though the “few weeds and stubble showing last” may be a metaphor for something, like the last sign of life. I also find it strange that the author states that “they cannot scare me with their empty spaces,” but yet he is able to scare himself in places that are uninhabited? Possibly this is because these places he can scare himself in are “so much nearer home,” so he is more familiar with them, and sees them more often full of life. Perhaps the desert places are symbolic of something else however; I am not sure what that may be.

  3. Loneliness is and can be scary. Depression is a very serious illness. A person can be in a room full of people and yet feel so alone… One can feel “too absent-spirited to count.” Staring out at the world and watching as others live and laugh can be painful. I think the phrase “All animals are smothered in their lairs” can refer to people in general being home with their families full of love…smothered with love and affection. I think that in the first stanza, the “snow falling and night falling fast,oh fast In a field I looked going past” can mean that the world and people come and go and time flies quickly. The “few weeds and stubble showing last” can mean maybe that he is going into his deep depression or taking his last breath and the time flies as he watches and waits for his end. Weeds and stubble are people, maybe, that he sees at the end whether in his imagination or the maybe the recollection of those he saw last. Not being afraid of empty places can signify the ground…death. The “between stars—on stars where no human race is” is the sky where one goes after death. As for scaring himself with his “own desert places” simply might mean that he might be afraid to end his life but at the same time it is “so much nearer home” and he will not be afraid after all. So many people suffer from depression and many times we are too busy to pay attention to someone suffering. We are not hearing what the person suffering is trying to say. One might tell them that they need to get over things and just move on, but for some people it is not that easy. We must remember that depression is an illness and we must try to be more aware of signs and we must try to help that person. If we cannot, we should at least try to get the person to see someone that can help. We would regret losing someone and then see that what they felt at the end was “A blanker whiteness of benighted snow with no expression, nothing to express.”

  4. When I first read the poem I got the image of a desolate farm. It seems as if the speaker is overly emphasizing the vastness of the poems surrounds to give a feel of how small and insignificant the speaker actually is within the world. The speaker even begins to talk about things larger than his own world when mentioning “between stars—on stars where no human race is. I have it in me so much nearer home”. To me this is an attempt to portray how utterly alone the speaker is. The speaker is of equal distance to others as the stars are to one another. By using the simplistic repetition of words that we may deem unimportant in normal conversation Frost puts a little extra meaning into this piece. The words he chooses to repeat such as fast, lonely, theirs, and scare all have a negative connotation in the poem. It just deepens the reclusive nature of the speaker. However the sadness may seem great the speaker says “I am too absent-spirited to count;” make it seem as if he does not really mind being alone. He is not bothered by the fact. The speaker feels no need to count his top eight friends or foes. The speaker is just living in his own world without a care of whom he knows or who he doesn’t. The poem is a mellow one; it is about loneliness but also about the acceptance of loneliness. Fore, the speaker has too many desert places to be worried about others.

  5. I thought this poem was going to describe a desert or take place in a desert. I think the poem is describing someone who is lonely and lost in the cold. When we are lost it feels as if somebody left us out in the cold. The poet wants us to understand how he feels because he continues to repeat himself. I think the animals are in the poem because sometimes when people are lonely they turn to animals for a comfort. This poem is good on describing feelings

  6. The simplicity and imagery of this poem are what I believe to set it apart. It does have a core feeling which Robert Frost is trying to convey, loneliness, which he portrays beautifully. At the end of this poem I think is where the speaker really opens up to the audience, although throughout the poem I hink he is constantly alliterating to himself, such as when he speaks of all the animals in their burrows (he counts himself in that bunch). none the less, at the end of the poem is when he dives into his own psyche. He tell that he will not be scared of the empty space in nature when he is already scared of the empty space within himself. I enjoy the progression of the poem, which allows a time of reflection in the beginning then a concrete resolution at the end, which is very much so derived from hat he sees in nature.

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