Into My Own: The Misanthropy of Robert Frost

Poems are not social in any normal sense of the word. You have to spend a lot of time alone to write or read them. The reader might share them or even read them to someone else (it does happen) and you can say that this is a kind of socialness. Here we get a little closer to the truth.

But it’s still not the whole truth: the pleasure the writer and the reader receive from the excuse to be alone which a poem provides them is not identical to the thought of the pleasure they may bring other people. At least that’s not my experience. If it was, people would write fewer poems.

A lot of great poetry comes with a drop of misanthropy. Misanthropy comes in different guizes. It might appear as a preference for some abstract principle — like an idea, or history, or God over living, breathing people. With Robert Frost, it often comes as the desire to be alone.

Someone mentioned to me, after the first blog, that Frost’s ‘Into My Own’ was an odd poem to start off with. It is not an easy poem, or an especially well known one. It’s not that the poem isn’t easy to understand, line by line: it’s a wish, because it won’t happen: the trees really are only a ‘mask of gloom’, rather than the endless forest Frost wishes they were, stretching away ‘unto the edge of doom’.

So far, so simple. And the couplets keep the poem rolling on like that ‘slow wheel that pours the sand’ in the second stanza, as does the mirroring of the sounds within the lines. ‘Scarcely show’ is the sound that a breeze might make, though, like the breeze in the poem, it doesn’t shout about it. However, when we get to the third stanza, things begin to break down. What is Frost is saying about the people who miss him? Does he want them to follow him or not? And where does the final couplet come from? What did he think was true? Why is he surer of it now?

There is a difference between a poem making sense and having a meaning. Some people are suspicious of this. They see it as a license for obscurity, a kind of laziness – and sometimes it is used that way. But I don’t think that poems need to have meanings in the way a piece of prose does, or even that meaning emerges from them by some other mechanism. I’m more inclined to agree with Philip Larkin, when he argued that poems are expressions of emotions, though I don’t think, as he did, that these emotions need to be clear or simple.

One thing that is clearly expressed in this poem is the strength of Frost’s sense of independence. Equally clear is his refusal to feel sorry about it. In the third stanza, he says that doesn’t see why, if his friends miss him as much as they say, they should not follow him. In the last couplet, he is saying that he doesn’t think this journey into himself is one which will change him.

To make sense (if not a meaning) of these last lines, it helps to think about what usually happens in a story when the hero goes on an adventure: they change for the better. They become more useful to others. Not Frost! This is all very antisocial. It is also in stark contrast to the chummy, down-to-earth ‘farmer’ persona which Frost presented to the world for much of his career. Ian Hamilton, in his excellent introduction to the Selected Poems, points out that for all Frost’s earthiness, “the virtues that have been so widely thought to be endearing, are really much more negative than positive. They each have their harsh, misanthropic centre.”

‘Into My Own’ has a darker side still. What if the truth which Frost knows is that nothing is worth knowing, or that there is nothing to know? What is that ‘doom’ doing there? The critic Lionel Trilling pointed to the ‘utterly uncomforting and resolute sense of futility’ in Frost’s poems, and you can see that here. Whatever is being said, there is an almost inhuman certainty in the final statement.

And yet… when I first read this poem, I didn’t read it as negative at all. The combination of the emotion and the image appealed. Not only the joy in being alone, the bracing independence of it (although there was that) but also the specific image of the line of trees, which might hide something infinite. I like the cutaway nature of the edge of a forest. The sense of potential.

Then there’s the language. The tone is conversational. It is ‘one of his wishes’. That sounds less like a man who’s completed committed to disappearing off into the wilderness and more like someone who just enjoys entertaining the idea. And the idea is presented with such an easy, confident sweep in that second stanza: ‘fearless of ever finding open land’.

Frost achieves a tension between two feelings which may not be two different feelings at all: the carefree desire for independence and the misanthropy lurking alongside it. Independence: there is pleasure in it and there is something darker too. That is how it is. That, right now, is what many of us are missing.

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