Imagery is a literary device that can be found in most forms of literature. Sleep can be seen or used as an image of death. Death or sleep can be written in as the destination of the main character in the poem or other piece of literature. The destination can be portrayed as sleep or death in some poems. Is life more important death in the sense of the journey and not the destination?
In Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, the imagery that is seen within is such as death and sleep. The focus of this particular poem is to make it believable that it is more about the journey rather than the destination. In this poem it is easy to grab ahold of an old forest trail that is quickly being filled with fresh white snow in the late evening of the chilly winter night. The way it was placed in the line and stanza definitely helps readers understand the poem. Poems usually have a noticeable rhyme scheme, but sometimes they don’t, but the particular pattern that Frost used was very different from most poems. The pattern he used was different from more traditional poetry in the delivery, it provides a sullen yet soothing tone as the narrator or the unnamed man rides on his horse to get out of the words. This poem helped identify “sleep” as an image used for death. After close reading, it appears that this poem has a certain tone implying death:
“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.” (qtd. in Frost, 712-713)
As tempting as the woods may be, and as much as the rider seems to want to stop, he knows he cannot. Because the woods belong to a man, who would not know if he stops, it would be easy to just stop and “watch the woods fill up with snow.” In other words, to take a break from his journey, whether it be easy or hard. Perhaps he has no sudden desire to continue onward on the trail for any longer. The promises he has to keep, seems to be more of an obligation instead of a desire. This quote produces a certain quality that helps Robert Frost with the idea of sleep and death being almost one complete piece of imagery throughout his works. After close reading, the tone speaks with the appeal of getting to the next place before you can stop and rest. Resting either being death or a cycle of REM sleep. Feeling the cold weather on the darkest night of the year in the winter seems to suggest a lot of sadness and a frantic and unsettling tone for the rider to get somewhere unknown because of his “promises to keep”. The aforementioned excerpt provides an inside look to the rider and his horse to help understand that their destination may or may not be sleep or “an actual real life death”. The promises they have to keep, seems to me a bucket list, things to do before you die. They needed to keep going before they could rest. It almost seems as if Frost wrote it as if they couldn’t stop and rest until they reached their destination. Destination being interpreted either as death or sleep—or both.
“My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.” (qtd. in Frost 712)
Even the horse understands that this is something different, that maybe we don’t necessarily have to continue directly on the path. “The darkest evening of the year”, that alone sets the tone for the coldest night of the year, which would be the winter solstice, which could be interpreted as the way the body temperature decreases when dying as well. The way the narrator was feeling was upsetting to his horse. Things may never change and it’s hard to change something that’s been learned for long time. For this horse to suddenly notice the change of scenery and can sense something is wrong. With the change of this path that they’ve taken before, there seems to be nothing near. The way the words that Frost used in this stanza were unlike the words that writers wouldn’t necessarily use in everyday language. They offer a light and airy flow to the stanza and the rest of the poem. The horse understands that there is some kind of change and needed to communicate with his rider if they were really supposed to be here, where it was not familiar. It seems as though Frost wanted to make his readers understand the confused feeling of the different atmosphere from both the rider and his horse. “The only other sound’s the sweep, Of easy wind and downy flake” (Frost 712). Frost uses certain word choice to explain to his readers that in the stillness of the night the only sounds are the flowing of the wind and snowfall and the jingle of the horse’s harness bells. The way the words flow off of your tongue when you read the words off the page, the rhyme scheme he uses, which is one not seen often, makes his reader get into a rather pleasant rhythm. Frost uses words that could describe the journey of both rider and horse uses the imagination of his audience to help them understand the quality of his words and understand the tone he uses. By using the story, which offers a more concrete example of the journey of life, the audience can more easily understand his deeper meaning. People can more easily relate to a trip and the appeal of stopping in the middle of it, than they can the contemplation of life’s journey toward death.
After looking at other Robert Frost poems to see if there is a connection with similar tones and if they all somehow related to death. Using “Acquainted with the Night” by Robert Frost as well as “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, I wanted to see if there was any inclination towards death or sleep in both and if they connected all the way through. It does at least hint towards a feeling of some kind loneliness that is similar to death, maybe depression:
“I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.” (qtd. in Frost)
This excerpt speaks of being surrounded with the feeling of isolation and depression. The repetition in the first stanza of walking in and out of the rain makes it seems as this has happened before. Just like in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, there is an abundant feeling of sorrow and loneliness that struck me that is in this poem as well. The tone of this poem does not necessarily have the same exact tone as “Stopping by Woods”, but it adheres to the same sadden tone that appears throughout Frost’s pieces. “The image of self that we are left with in ‘Acquainted With the Night’ is an image of frozen will, of feet stopped, with darkness all around and no constructive act forthcoming” (Lentricchia). In this analysis of “Stopping by Woods”, Lentricchia explains that this particular Frost poem does compare to the others that he Frost had written. The imagery that Frost uses in all of his works is very creative. These two poems by Robert Frost are alike in sense of tone and that it is actually in most of his poems that the tone was sadness or depression and death. It is abundant the tone and the usage of words throughout his poems.
Another poem that also went along with the idea that sleep is an image of death is “Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson. This poem has interestingly opened up a new way for thinking about loneliness as the image in partner with death close behind. There is almost an overwhelming sense of trying to almost cheat death and then it comes back to you. This quote particularly brings me to believe that in life you’re so busy that you don’t stop for anything other than a complete task. But in the end, death is always there for you. That sounds terrible, but that is the tone that is coming from this piece from Emily Dickinson. This whole poem is very sullen. It’s as if Dickinson wanted her audience to receive that this poem was more focused on immortality as a human being, rather than just death itself, but it is integrated in later on:
“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.” (qtd. in Dickinson 583)
What is to be interpreted from the carriage ride? What exactly does Dickinson want her readers to understand? That maybe, life could be viewed as the “carriage” to death? Immorality, being the other presence in the carriage, maybe it is a representation of what we wish we could be? The entire carriage ride seems as if they took a ride back in time to see how the narrator’s life had gone. Whether or not she made the “right” choices, whether or not she “followed” the rules. It is almost as if the way that Emily Dickinson wrote the poem to say that maybe sometimes in life that people could be and are quite possibly and entirely “too busy” to just lay down and die.
Ayesha Ashraf, a lecturer and PhD English Scholar at Lasbela University of Agriculture, has a research paper about analyzing two particular poems to see if the representation of death was abundant in different types and styles of writing from different authors. The two poems having certain aspects that caused Ashraf to be able to connect some of the same themes in “Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson and “A Soldier” by Robert Frost. These two poems have an overall sense of death and misery but also in the end they seem to elevate in tone and seem to promise a happier feeling throughout the readers.
“Death is a mystery because it does not show any plans rather
embraces one all of a sudden as narrator in the poem is busy in
her life but death takes her away. It can come any time and catches
anyone it likes whether one is busy in merry making in this mortal world
or busy in troubles.” (qtd. in Ashraf)
In “Because I could not stop for Death” Dickinson personifies death as a small character. It’s almost as Dickinson made Death appear in this poem as a person that had been passed over so many times and forgotten. In the second stanza, Dickinson writes:
“We slowly drove–He know no haste
And I had to put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility–” (qtd. in Dickinson 583)
Dickinson wrote that Death had no haste whatsoever, he was in no hurry for the narrator to come along on this journey and die, which is read as if Death was patiently waiting for the expiration of the narrator to come. Dickinson talks about and allows her audience to understand this picturesque version of her daily routine. Dickinson provides an extensive amount of personification as well as other literary devices in “Because I could not stop for Death”, she makes her readers think or read into the fact that the narrator and Death’s character may have a relationship or known each other. It almost seems as if Death took time out of “his day” to take her on this journey and enjoy it as well. Could her labor and leisure be looked at as her life per se? There was some confusion when I read over the stanza about Death and the narrator stopping at the House. Could the House be used a symbol of a coffin in the ground having been put into the ground? Or is it a symbol or purgatory and that she could always be in this in-between where she will be for eternity?
In “A Soldier” by Robert Frost, Frost uses tones and word choices that proceed to captivate his readers to make them aware of the effects of war on these soldiers. The poem goes on to state the effects of battle that have worn the soldiers down and they, the soldiers, lay their weapons down on the ground. The tone could be taken as understand the sacrifice of battle on young men and women as well as the knowledge of how death is coming.
“Our missiles always make too short an arc.
They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect
The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;
They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.” (qtd. in Frost)
Frost depicts an image in “A Soldier” to his readers that in the end when the soldiers die, they will return to the earth and rest there in death.