NATURE, CULTURE, AND LANGUAGE IN ROBERT FROST'S "THE 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!]