Posted by: HAT | December 21, 2014

4th Sunday in Advent

a traveller on a horse on a snowy road through a wood at evening

Stopping by woods on a snowy evening, only different

Hi, Gang!

Today is the Winter Solstice – the longest darkness of the year. (The solar year, that is.)

It always seems appropriate on this holiday to reflect on Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” even though the poem is explicitly set on “the darkest evening of the year,” not the longest. It feels like the darkest. (Whether it is actually the darkest presumably depends on how the solar year aligns with the lunar year, which varies.)

This year, it seems worthwhile to pay some attention to the poem’s rhyme scheme: three stanzas, rhymed a-a-b-a; b-b-c-b; c-c-d-c; and a fourth stanza, which poses a conundrum of the relationship of rhyme and meaning. Superficially, the rhyme scheme of stanza four is d-d-d-d, which looks like a change.

It might be possible to interpret the change as a representation of closure. The critical word “sleep” carries the connotation not only of repose but of death, which ends enterprises like poetry-making, so there is nothing for verse four line three to point ahead to but more sleep/eep/eep ad infinitum. In this reading, the poem closes in on itself at the end; the scheme ultimately fails or meets with a dead end.

Alternatively, readers might be able to interpret the situation in verse four differently, as other than a change in the rhyme scheme, in at least one of two ways. (1) Verse four, line three might still point beyond the visible end of the poem, to its invisible but inevitable continuation; the imaginary or future verse five would potentially pick up where the traveler left off the day before and continue on its daily way, d-d-e-d, e-e-f-e, etc. But looking beyond the visible boundaries of the poem points the reader towards alternative (2) A reader might recognize “sleep” in verse four, line three as inaudibly yet intentionally different from “sleep” in verse four, line four. Recognize it as a non-rhyme that is superficially a rhyme; as a non-self-identical word that is superficially self-identical. Hear something different in sleep1 and sleep2, over the silence of that difference.

No doubt, the repetition of “sleep” should have given the reader pause already, and have given rise to the thought that “sleep” in these two different lines might not refer to precisely the same thing.

This reminds me of something:

Where language stops is not where the unsayable occurs, but rather where the matter of words begins. Those who have not reached, as in a dream, this woody substance of language, which the ancients called silva (wildwood), are prisoners of representation, even when they keep silent.

It is the same for those who return to life after an apparent death: in reality they were never dead at all (otherwise they wouldn’t have returned), nor are they rid of the necessity of dying some day; they are, however, freed from the representation of death. This is why, when asked about what they went through, they have nothing to say about death but find matter for many stories and many fine tales about their life. [1]

Tomorrow, the darkness will be a little shorter, with only three short days till Christmas.
[1] Giorgio Agamben, The Idea of Prose, trans. Michael Sullivan and Sam Whitsitt (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995) 37.


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