Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Frost's "Mountain"


Visiting an unfamiliar region, the narrator of Robert Frost's poem "The Mountain" engages in a dialogue with a farmer. Their discussion of the mountain dominating the landscape establishes the usual contrast between nature and culture (between the mountain and the farms and towns around it). The similes that come up confirm, unsurprisingly, that attempts to domesticate nature are necessarily doomed to failure. But this is not the poem's last word: as figurative language itself becomes a theme of the poem, language in general and poetry in particular can be seen as creating the very contrast between nature and culture the poem would otherwise overcome.

In fact, the poem begins with a simile: "The mountain held the town as in a shadow." The implications of this shadow depend on a second simile a few lines later:

Near it seemed: I felt it like a wall
Behind which I was sheltered from a wind.

The mountain's apparent proximity makes its shadow a source of shelter from the elements. In the comparison to a wall, the natural shelter of the mountain appears as an artificial shelter protecting the town from threatening outside forces (here, the wind). However, this sense of protection later proves misleading:

Then I was wrong: the town of my sojourn,
Beyond the bridge, was not that of the mountain,
But only felt at night its shadowy presence.

The mountain may have felt like a shelter, but all one really has its "shadowy presence," with its much less protective implications.

At night, the comparison with a wall domesticates this "shadowy presence." During the day, in his dialogue with the farmer, the narrator identifies another way to domesticate the mountain:

"That looks like a path.
Is that the way to reach the top from here?— "

The route the narrator identifies could provide a means of ascent, but appearance is again belied by reality: "There is no proper path," the farmer explains. With the chance of an easy ascent blocked, the mountain remains wild in the midst of the farms surrounding it. There may be a way up "five miles back" that was "logged ... last winter"—but it is not here.

The mountain's relationship to the surrounding landscape is later even more unstable. The farmer describes the township's geography to the narrator, concluding with a description of the houses closest to the mountain:

... a few homes sprinkled around the foot,
Like boulders broken off the upper cliff,
Rolled out a little farther from the rest.

The houses are compared to boulders that fall from the mountain—that is, to the very thing that threatens them. The earlier attempts to "domesticate" the mountain failed, perhaps inevitably, but here, the mountain's "shadowy presence" makes even shelters that might otherwise seem safe into images of the failure to create reliable shelter, of the instability of the domestication of nature.

Earlier, the farmer makes an apparently paradoxical statement about the stream that flows down the mountain: "It's always cold in summer, warm in winter." At the poem's end, he clarifies the point:

"I don't suppose the water's changed at all.
You and I know enough to know it's warm
Compared with cold, and cold compared with warm.
But all the fun's in how you say a thing."

That is, when opposites are compared, when a paradox is presented, how one says it is more important than what one is actually saying. The poem itself does this when it expresses a desire for shelter or refuge through similes—the fun way to say something. But the poem goes on to undermine these similes of shelter, ultimately in the final simile itself (comparing the houses to the falling rocks that could destroy them). All this makes the poem's implications for poetry itself clear. As Timothy Steele's use of the phrase as the title of his book about prosody suggests, "all the fun's in how you say a thing" is a statement about poetry itself. Poetry is the fun way to say a thing that might not be as mysterious as the poem suggests. But "The Mountain" as a whole goes even farther: insofar as the similes in the poem are themselves examples of the "fun" way to say something, the mysteries and puzzles they generate are implicitly as easily explained as the paradox of the mountain stream. The mystery is not in the objects described; instead, it is generated by the language describing them, that is, by the linguistic pleasure of saying things in fun ways.

In this light, "The Mountain" acts out how poetry creates the contrast between nature and culture it purports to dissect. That contrast is the product of a desire not for shelter but for pleasure. "All the fun's in how you say a thing"—and only through that fun, "The Mountain" implies, through the excess created by poetry and by language itself, is the problem of nature and culture created.

[I used Frost's poem as a text for a composition class earlier this semester, and I was inspired to try to do something on the poem in the same amount of space I had assigned the students: 400-600 words. I failed the assignment: this is 825 words! :-) ]

[God I hate it that HTML won't let you indent first lines of paragraphs!]


Anonymous said...

No time to read it now; probably tomorrow.

I also thought that you can't indent in html, but you can. Check out my post about the Wiman poem. You'll see that it's possible. If you want I can give you a few helpful code bits, e.g. indentation, how to create links in comments, and the like.

Speaking of "Intensive Comp," I did find some essays on "The Lottery" (scholarly and not-so-scholarly), just like you 'told me to.' Do you want me to send them to you?

Nicholas Manning said...

My contemporary "mountain-imagery" poet par excellence is Philippe Jaccottet. You've probably read Andrew some of the mountain-oriented poems in the earlier volumes. Would make for an interesting comparison with Frost, though actually I'd never thought about it before.
"Cette montagne a son double dans mon coeur . . ." Or when his lilac Swiss mountains become transparent in their solidity, like light or like lace.
Transcendant stuff.

kort warg said...

This is an insightful essay. Like the way how domesticating nature and writing poetry are juxtaposed. Taming nature as an effort comparable to the attempt at getting a grip at the unsorted and sometimes even ferocious stream of inspiration... (or: am I reading more of it into it than out of it?).

In any case a very interesting essay.

Unfortunately, your blog always mocks my eyes after some minutes: that is, because of the blunt contrast of white and purple, the blog begins to flicker, and, after having read your texts, I always literally see the 'in-between-the-lines' poking fun at my optical interfaces: white lines in between the white lines...

Andrew Shields said...

Dear Kort Warg, how's the color now?

Anonymous said...

I'm not happy with " the usual contrast between nature and culture". Stating this in the first paragraph is just begging the question whether a alternative reading (one that e.g. states the interdependence of nature and culture or which takes a viewpoint where concepts of natural objects are seen as cultural objects and thus destroys the contrast) was possible.

If you say in your final paragraph that poetry creates the contrast although it also aims at dissecting it, you may cover the problem that the contrast is not a result of your analysis, because you provided the reader with good reasons to think so too. But I still think that introducing prerequisites should be hidden and not as explicit as in your case. The way one choses excerpts and how one analyses them will automatically reflect what one takes to be common sense. Presented like that, any resulting discussion will be about what is written in the poem and not about whether the contrast between culture and nature is actually usual or not i.e. about which prerequisites to choose. Prerequisites should be minimised as much as possible in order to claim necessity for your analysis.

People seem to be keener to discuss their opinions about texts than to actually discuss the texts at hand anyway. That's why close reading should encourage the reader to look at the excerpts himself and find out why the writer has the opinion he has.

Enough tearing for today. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

I have to admit I had some issues with the purple color as well. It's much better now; you just have to change the color of your links. Red on green is a killer on the eyes; so is the red on gray in the sidebar.

kort warg said...

Dear Andrew

contrast superbe now. Thanks. May be that coffee helps to adjust optical interfaces.

Andrew Shields said...

Kort Warg: "Taming nature as an effort comparable to the attempt at getting a grip at the unsorted and sometimes even ferocious stream of inspiration."

That is a very cool idea; it takes my basic claim in a slightly different direction. But nobody tames the mountain in the poem, or even can, yet Frost can write the poem.

Florian: "I'm not happy with 'the usual contrast between nature and culture.'"

Leave it to Florian to identify the sentence that I was somewhat uncertain about! I felt that "a contrast between nature and culture" would be mocked by smart-alecs who would find the contrast banal, so I second-guessed myself and wrote "the usual" and the following "unsurprisingly" to abate those potential critics. As your criticism makes clear, though, I should have listened to myself and not those voices (I was just hearing things again).

Anonymous said...

You were hearing things? That would be a cool title for your next collection of poems: Hearing Things. It would also refer to Heaney's Seeing Things (that's probably what makes it a nice title in the first place).

Now to your essay: It's too long! ;o)
No, seriously. The structure is very clear (you probably know this yourself), but you are quoting too many passages. The text feels a little chopped up by all those "bits and pieces" you throw in. Then again, this is a close reading and you are working with the text.

Are you trying to say, or claiming that the poem is trying to say, that without (poetic) language there wouldn't be a contrast/problem between Nature and Culture? (Let's capitalize these two, 'cause that's what we're talking about.) "[L]anguage in general and poetry in particular can be seen as creating the very contrast between nature and culture [...]." I hope I understand you correctly. If I do, then that's quite a statement and maybe you should've focused on it a little more. The first couple of paragraphs about Nature and Culture are not as strong as the last few about Language.
Nevertheless, the Nature/Culture part provokes some thoughts in my head, too, and makes me go back to the sections in the poem. The paragraph about a path not being there (or nearby) made me think of what I wrote in my essay (the importance of non-existence).

Nuff said.

Andrew Shields said...

Renew: "without (poetic) language there wouldn't be a contrast/problem between Nature and Culture."

Yes, that's what I claim the poem says. It is quite a powerful claim for the poem to make, of course. But it is safe to say that without language, there would not be culture, and hence there would not be a contrast between nature and culture.

The other part of the poem's claim about language is as important, though: language is a matter of pleasure ("fun"), not of utility (here, protection).

John Felstiner wrote me about my first paragraph and put his finger on the "but" at the beginning of the last sentence. He is right that this is not the right word; I wonder if an introductory "still" would work here, or even "and" (which has the added effect of shocking those who think one should never start a sentence with "and").

kort warg said...

It is impressing to read such massive postings as Florian's. Very subtle use of target language. Like prerequisites: for instance nature finally allowing cultures (isn't it a prerequisite then?). Still Florian talked about essay writing, not philosophy.

And why not tearing a paper into atoms?

As far as 'the usual contrast between nature and culture' is concerned I can't help having to suggest something as well.

Thinking about close readings close enough to count cellulose fibres in the page, I suggest the word 'usual' should be replaced. The contrast between nature and culture is not 'usual' anyway, no matter how 'unsurprisingly' it is discovered. Rather, I suggest the word 'habitual' to replace 'usual' (does it ring a bell to barkadog?).

It is a reflex to either highlight the congruency between nature and culture (culture growing like a plant) or stating how far away from each other they are (but still then, culture resembles a bonsai tree, I bet).

Andrew: "Taming nature as an effort comparable to the attempt at getting a grip at the unsorted and sometimes even ferocious stream of inspiration." You are right to say that "nobody tames the mountain in the poem, or even can, yet Frost can write the poem".

I don't know which kind of writer Mr Frost was. May be that he turned any thought into something as brilliant as The Mountain. May be that he filled thousand of pages jotting down ideas, throwing half of it away unfinished.

My point was that in writing, the thing/prerequisite/idée fixe called 'inspiration' comes unverbalised, in pictures rather than words; then, to tame this, you have to find the words.

But this is enough coffee for one morning.

Anonymous said...

"But it is safe to say that without language, there would not be culture, and hence there would not be a contrast between nature and culture."

So you couldn't possibly imagine a culture without language? What if man never had started communicating through words in the first place? Certainly we wouldn't be where we are now. But I am also pretty damn sure we wouldn't be sitting in caves and eating a mammoth's raw meat. Back in the good old days, cavemen communicated through signing (not sign language) while they were out hunting said mammoth.

They may have practiced something remotely related to music—we can't prove the opposite. And what about all those cave paintings of wild animals which we can still look at today?
(Now don't start saying that music and paintings are language, too. Let's not go there. I'm only talking about "actual" language; the one with words.)

Culture was already colliding with Nature because man was already trying to take possession of everything, I daresay. Greedy little creature.

Oh, yeah. People started to settle down and live in "houses." I think that's pretty cultural. Then again, we can't know for sure that they did not actually have a word-based language and that this knowledge of language did not initiate the process of their settling down. (I feel like I'm cross-examining myself here.)

Still, there could be captial-C Culture without capital-L Language. Please prove me wrong. I'm eagerly awaiting your counterstrike.

Alright, no more rambling. This doesn't even have anything to do with "The Mountain" anymore.

Andrew Shields said...

Kort Warg: I like the word "habitual" here. Good choice.

Renew: Language arose 40,000 to 2,000,000 years ago, according to the Wikipedia summary of theories about the origin of language. Culture in the sense of agriculture arose at most 25,000 years ago in Melanesia. So if we want to get anthropological, while also connecting our definition of culture to the sense of culture in Frost's poem, then it seems safe to make the claim that I made!

But of course, "it all depends on what you mean by ..." :-)

Andrew Shields said...

Felix Christen asked me to post this comment for him:

This is a wonderful poem by Frost. And your essay is, as always with your work,
skillfully crafted.

The nature/culture distinction is a brain-teaser. The belief that the
distinction may precede language, or be independent of it, as one comment on
your essay suggests, does not make any sense to me. "Nature" is a comparably
recent notion, which--according to Heidegger, who I follow in this point--first
occurred along with the translation of the Greek word "physis" by Latin
"natura". The scope of "physis" was much wider. The distinction is, in short, a
distinction within (philosophical) language. If we want to answer the question
what "nature in itself" is--if indeed this question makes any sense--we may
simply lack the adequate means of expression. I always speak within a certain
cultural context, so my concept of nature will be expressed from the perspective
of that cultural context. "Landscape" is an even newer concept, only fully
developed by Renaissance landscape painting.

The poem is about a mountain, yet the description of the object faces a number
of problems, which relate to the otherness of the mountain and the fact that
neither the speaker of the poem nor the farmer has been on top of the mountain.
"There is no proper path," (v. 41) and, thus, the way from an agricultural
landscape to pure nature seems barred. The story about the spring on the summit
(vv. 66-67) has an almost mythical ring to it. No one has really seen it, not
even "the fellow climbing it" (v. 78) who simply reverts to another story about
a mountain in Ireland. Not even the name of the mountain is known for certain:
"We call it Hor: I don’t know if that’s right" (v. 97). "Hor" is a very curious
name. Horus is one the ancient Egyptian gods, whose name means "the distant
one," called "Horos" in Greek which, if I'm not mistaken, is related to
"horizon". The word "distance" occurs once in the poem (v. 76), which, long as
the distance to the summit may be, appears to be smaller when one is on the way
back down.

The discussion, on a thematic level, of the evasiveness of the mountain, leads
via naming directly to the question of language and, thus, to the poem as a
description of the mountain. Therefore, I think that your trias of nature,
culture, and language makes a lot of sense. What are we doing when we name a
thing? What are we doing when we write a poem? These are, to be sure, question
one cannot answer. They merely point at the double structure of poetry
(content, form) and the interwoven relationship of quidditas and modus. The
task of poetic writing is not only that of an adequate description of an object
(the mountain), which poetry shares with other modes of expression, but lies in
the specific way language is used, the linguistic structure of the poem.

--I hope you don't mind that I reply via e-mail. I guess I'm not much of a
blogger, even though I enjoy reading your blog.