It’s time for my once-every-four-weeks piece in 3 Quarks Daily. This time it’s a bit of descriptive poetics, about Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” As Frost once wrote in a letter, his poems are “all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless” (I copped that line from Michael Andor Brodeur). This one certainly does.
Frost’s poems are like Dr. Who’s Tardis: It’s this innocent looking blue box around the corner, but when you enter Zoomm!! it’s off for a spin around the universe. If you you work it right, though, you return home, safe and revivified.
My post’s a nice piece of work, if I do say so myself. But also a bit embarrassing, as I seem to have described something in this much-analyzed known poem that other scholars have missed. That’s what I discuss next, going into my standard rant about the need for description of literary form. Then I conclude by pointing out that Frost employed a trick in this poem very much like one Coleridge used a century earlier in “Kubla Kahn” – now there’s a poetic Tardis if ever there was one!
The Road Literary Critics Don’t Travel
There’s nothing special about what I did with Frost’s poem. It’s pretty much straight-up formal description, with a bit of ever so slightly technical linguistics in it. By looking at a little tricky business with tense I show that this poem is – you guessed it – a ring-composition. Another one.
But who cares about such things? Well, some people do, but most literary critics do not. Because, for all that literary critics have nattered on about form, they’re not really interested in it. The discipline became mesmerized by hermeneutics in the middle of the last century and simply tossed poetics over the rail.
This is one of the best-known 20th century American poems. And yet it seems that none of its many critics have grasped this most fundamental aspect of the poem’s form, as though it just doesn’t matter. They’re not paying attention.
It’s rather like an arthropodologist who doesn’t know whether or not centipedes have exactly 100 legs and whether they typically have more legs than millipedes have. Yes, there’s lots of legs propelling those creatures over the face of the earth. Maybe even lots and lots. Exactly 100 or exactly 1000? More, less, a range? But you know I haven’t counted up to 100 since I was ten years old on the school fieldtrip counting all those bottles of beer on the wall. Boring!
Counting the number of legs on an arthropod is not difficult. You do have to know how to count, and you have to be careful, as you don’t want to skip any or double-count any. It’s not rocket science. It’s not deep.
But it’s necessary. And it’s the foundation for the study of morphological variety. If you don’t have a grip on that, you’re never going to understand evolution. Without descriptive control over his materials, Darwin wouldn’t have been able to see the pattern that he explained by evolution.
What patterns are literary critics missing because they don’t want to or don’t know how to analyze and describe the forms of literary texts? We patterns are lost to human understanding, what knowledge, because the stewards of these texts don’t describe them?
A Parallel in “Kubla Khan”
Now let’s look at “Kubla Khan”. Here’s the last eighteen lines, the second of the poem’s two movements:
37 A damsel with a dulcimer 38 In a vision once I saw: 39 It was an Abyssinian maid, 40 And on her dulcimer she played, 41 Singing of Mount Abora. 42 Could I revive within me 43 Her symphony and song, 44 To such a deep delight ‘twould win me 45 That with music loud and long, 46 I would build that dome in air, 47 That sunny dome! those caves of ice! 48 And all who heard should see them there, 49 And all should cry, Beware! Beware! 50 His flashing eyes, his floating hair! 51 Weave a circle round him thrice, 52 And close your eyes with holy dread, 53 For he on honey dew hath fed 54 And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Lines 37-41 set things up. In line 42 the poet makes a conditional statement which, logically, reaches to the end of the poem: “Could I revive within me...” That is, if I could do this one thing, then certain things would follow: 1 (44), 2 (45), 3 (45-47), 4 (48), and 5 (49-54).
Look at lines 48 to the end:
48 And all who heard should seem them there, 49 And all should cry, Beware! Beware! 50 His flashing eyes, his floating hair! […]
Technically, everything after “should cry” in line 49 is quotation. It’s what those (purely hypothetical) people would cry once they’d seen the (purely hypothetical) dome in air.
Quoted words are generally indicated by the use of quotation marks. But there are no quotation marks setting off those last five and a half lines. Did Coleridge forget? Or did he not want quotation marks? If not, why not?
In “‘Kubla Khan’ and the Embodied Mind” I argue at some length, and with diagrams, that as the poetic voice moves from “all should cry” to “Beware! Beware!” it simply slips into the voices of the criers. Quotation marks aren’t necessary because it is the poetic voice that (now) inhabits those words. It’s not quoting anyone else. It’s doing the speaking.
The reference point with respect to which one could judge these lines to be quoted, that reference point has been lost, forgotten, tossed aside. Why? Because that’s what poet’s do.
Well, Frost does something like that in “The Road Not Taken”. His poetic voice doesn’t move from one person to another. Rather, it moves from one manifestation of itself back to an older manifestation, and then returns.