Interpreting Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods”

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The Poem

The poem is perfect Iambic Tetrameter. And it’s one of the miracles of Frost’s genius that he could write a poem, without a single variant foot to break the metrical pattern, yet write one of the most memorable and memorized poems in the English language. Frost himself called this small poem “my best bid for remembrance” [Pritchard, A Literary Life Reconsidered, p. 164]. There are, after all, thousands of Victorian poems written in an equally perfect meter, but they are nothing if not forgettable. Since all the feet are iambic, I’ve only marked feet and one elision (which is unnecessary for most), but I’ve noticed many foreign language speakers reading this blog. Evening should be read as a bisylliabic, ev‘ning, rather than the trisyllabic ev-e-ning. Here it is:

Stopping by Woods by Robert Frost: Scansion

  • Frost recites Stopping by Woods:


  • Note: Since I’ve begun paying attention, I notice that many versions of this poem put a period after “deep” on line 13. The edition I use, The Library of America, does not. Frost biographer Richard Poirier in his book “Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing“, also takes time out to comment on this discrepency. He writes:

Work of Knowing…The woods  are not, as the Lathem edition would have it (with its obtuse emendation of a comma after the second adjective in line 13), merely “lovely, dark, and deep.” Rather, as Frost in all the editions he supervised intended, they are “lovely, [i.e.], dark and deep,”; the loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous. The recognition of the power of nature, especially of snow, to obliterate the limits and boundaries of things and of his own being is, in large part, a function here of some furtive impulse toward extinction, and impulse no more predominate in Frost than it is in nature. [p. 181]

I’ll bet this emendation is off the radar for 99 out of a 100 readers, but Poirer’s comment shows just how much, interpretively, can be read into the difference between a comma and period. Imagine what it’s like for editors of Shakespeare – whose texts are anything but authoritative. In the big picture, editors tend to agree on Shakespeare’s punctuation, but the turf wars happen in the details. If you carefully compare different modern texts of Shakespeare, you will notice differences in punctuation and even words.

But… back to Robert Frost…

An Interpretive  Tour

Rather than launch into my own interpretation of the poem, I thought it might be more interesting to sample what’s already out there (since it represents some of what I’d say anyway).

First to Poirer. His comments reflect one of the most common interpretations of this poem. Poirer writes:

The desire (which he openly reveals in certain letters to Louis Untermeyer) for peace and lostness, the desire to throw himself away, gets justified on occasions by his wondering if nature itself does not conspire with him by proposing that, at last, he “come in” to the dark woods. [p. 180]

Unfortunately, Poirer doesn’t reference any of these “certain letters”. Not that I disbelieve him, but if a biographer is going to cite an author’s texts to back up his argument, he ought to offer up a citation or two.

William Pritchard takes a different view. While he acknowledges the darker interpretations of this poem, and he acknowledges Frost’s own intimations from time to time, he also credits Frost’s statements to the contrary, something which Poirer does not do.

Literary Life ReconsideredDiscussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything siginificant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert… [p. 164]

Pritchard then continues:

…he wanted to direct his readers away from solemnly debating them; instead he invited them simply to be pleased with how he had put it. He was to say later on about Edwin Arlington Robinson something which more naturally could have been said about himself – that his life as poet was “a revel in the felicities of language.” “Stopping By Woods…” can be appreciated only by removing it from its pedestal and noting how it is a miature revel in such felicities. [p. 165]

And these comments remind me of my post on John Keats “Ode to Autumn”, and Stillinger’s own comments concerning style. In sum, great poetry isn’t always about (G)reat content, but about common  experience described (G)reatly. Great poetry, before free verse, had almost always been marked by the greatness of its expression. Shakespeare always drew on  everyday proverbs and subject matter. The life he experienced was the same as ours. His observations are the same as ours. (And this is what makes Shakespeare universal.) What makes him great was, in large part, his ability to elevate the common through the transcendance of his language and imagery, in short, through his poetic thought. This, I have to say, has largely been abandoned by the free-versifiers of the 20th Century.

Anyway, it’s a view with which I’m sympathetic. Not everything in poetry has to mean something.

Belief and UncertaintyThat said, Robert Pack in defiance of Frost and, perhaps, Pritchard, manages to “interpret” the shaken harness bells. He writes that “the “little horse” in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” shows an instinct to return home, not to remain in the dangerously enticing woods…” [Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost, p. 147] Interestingly, Pack  finds a metaphorical link between Stopping by Woods and another of Frost’s poems: The Draft Horse. Pack writes of the horse in The Draft Horse, that “if freedom has any reality at all [it] exists only in the attitude [taken] toward their fate.” In this light, the horse in Stopping by Woods, serves as a reminder that one should not be too enticed by the deep, dark woods.

Robert Bernard Hass,  in his book Going by Contraries: Robert Frost’s Conflict with Science, picks up on the threat of suicide in Frost’s poem:

Going by ContrariesIn a 1931 comment to Elizabeth Sergeant, Frost remarked that when other writers began calling themselves “Imagists or Vorticists,” he started calling himself a “synechdochist”. This term, ripe as it is with religious connotation, is an apt description of the way metaphor actually operates in Frost’s mature poetry. Although he often uses the word to mean comparison or correspondence (e.g. “every though is a feat of association”), Frost also suggests that the forms we carge out of nature ectend beyond simple figures and feats of association and, in some mysterious way, connect the whole of reality. [pp. 152-153]

From this, Hass makes the following assertion concerning “Stopping by Woods”:

Unfortunately, as Frost learned through his own trials by existence, there are moments when an individual becomes lost to large “excruciations,” when the material world reists the will and exerts counterforces that have profound effects on the quality of life. Sometimes these froces have a dangerous, seductive quality to them, and there are moments when Frost’s work reflects a strong desire to surrender to the brute forces of nature as one way of eliminating their threat. The alluring landscape of ["Stopping by Woods"], for example, presents us with a figure of the will confronting alien entanglements so large that they actually invite the poet to unlock their deepest secrets. [p. 153]

Among the most thorough considerations of the poem occurs in The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost. Judith Oster, in her contributory essay calledCambridge Companion “Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor”, summarizes and discusses these conflicting interpretations: “[The poem] has been read as “simply” a beautiful lyric, as a suicide poem, as recording a single autobiographical incident, and everything in between. Our is not to adjudicate, nor to “fix” a meaning, but to allow the poem its openness…” Oster then asks: “Why hasn’t it just been taken literally?”

She continues:

To choose just one of any possible starting points, the word “promises”. In this context the beautiful scene  the word “pulls down” the experience from the merely aesthetic and sensual, but does so without diminishing that beauty or that feeling, without weighing down the poem. What results is a conflict between two undiminished forces: “promises” that would lead the speakers onward, and his desire to give in to his intoxication with the beauty and peacefulness of the woods. The pull between those alternatives can be seen as that between obligation and temptation, or most literally, between stopping and going on. ¶ If we decide to look at the situation literally, we would think about what staying might mean. Most obvious is simply that it’s too cold to stay there safely. The restfulness – the “ease” of “easy wind” and the “down” of “downy flake” begin to suggest an implicit metaphor, especially when combined with the “sleep” which must be postponed until promises are kept… Sleeping before stopping, then, adds to the notion of not-yet-doing the danger of no-longer-being. [pp. 161-162]

And finally, most importantly, she writes:

What can the poem mean? That is another issue: whatever those words in those combinations will allow without distorting their meanings, without introducing elements that cannot fit in the context of the poem as a whole… one could follow Frost’s advice to a graduate student to take his poetry “all the way.” Or one could feel chastised by Frost’s ridicule of those who say this is a “suicide poem.” Or one could ignore Frost altogether. [p. 162]

Another contributor to the Cambridge Companion offers up what is probably the most representative interpretation of the poem (if one accepts that the poem should be interpreted). John Cunningham writes:

Stopping by Woods - DraftThe opposition between humanity (the owner of the woods whose “house is in the” village and who will not see the speaker, the absence of “a farmhouse near”) and the purposeless natural phenomena (descending snow and night, the woods, the frozen lake) Frost establishes early. Even the horse “must think it queer.” Three times the poet uses some form of stop. The setting is becoming blank, undifferentiated whiteness, a desert place on “the darkest evening of the year,” literally an overstatement but metaphorically not so to the speaker. For him movement forward ceases; his choice is between the “woods and frozen lake,” either offering only death to one who stops. In effect the horse asks “if there is some mistake.” To have so stopped could well prove to be such. The “sweep/ of easy wind,” free of the thousand mortal shocks that one is heir to, and the “downy flake,” like warm bedding, entice the speaker to give up his human errands and to sleep in the void of death. The woods are “dark and deep,” not promising words in Frost, deep as the final absence of death, and “lovely” only in the temptation to shuffle off that they offer. With “but I have promises to keep,” the speaker and the poem pivot, rejecting the temptation, affirming his promises, a word with human connotations of duty and presence, and accepting the “miles [that he must] go” before he sleeps this might and before he “sleep[s]” finally in death. [pp. 269-270]

Cunningham then goes on to interpret the repetition of the last two lines as “congruent with the stacked-up accents at the pivot above…” Quoi? This gets opaque. Do you get it? I don’t. However, if he’s going to run with this interpretation (which, as I wrote before, is the standard interpretation) I think he misses a golden, interpretive opportunity in the last two lines.

One could interpret the last two lines as follows:

And miles to go before I sleep
[I have miles to go before I'm home and in bed.]

And then, much more darkly and deeply he writes:

And miles to go before I sleep
[And many more "miles" to go before I go to die.]

However, I’m not convinced by Cunningham’s assertion that the descending snow is a “purposeless natural phenomena“. Frost doesn’t give us any indication, within the confines of the poem, that we should think so. No matter what thematic material you might find elsewhere in Frost’s poems, it doesn’t follow that Frost’s use of certain images and ideas is always one and the same. They aren’t. Bernard Hass, himself, makes this observation:

….[as] inviting [as] those secrets [the alien entanglements of nature] may be to one who has grown “overtired” of his struggle with nature, Frost is equally aware that natural imperatives can also be beneficial. Just  as nature has an intrinsic capacity to increase entropy, it also has synthetic powers of regeneration and self-organization that, when left to their own creative devices, terminate in beautiful structures that are both pleasing and protective. [Going by Contraries, pp. 153-154]

In this light, it’s hard to see an “easy wind” and “downy flake” as mortal threats. They are more a recognition of aesthetic beauty. But of what kind? To this end, Cunningham reasons that the adjectives are to be construed as an act of seduction. That is, the “easy” winds are seductively easy, but deadly to one who tarries too long in their cold.

As far as this goes, I’m sympathetic with Cunningham’s interpretation; but I do not think that Frost is contemplating suicide. That’s over-interpreting the poem, in my view. I do think there is a recognition by Frost, in this poem at least, that there is something lovely in the contemplation of nature’s sleep – a recognition of its necessity and loveliness. But at no time does he actually claim to desire it. After all, he says, he has promises to keep. The last two lines withstand this interpretation. I have miles to go before I sleep tonight; and I have “miles” to go before my final sleep.

The Ordeal of Robert FrostIn reference to Frost’s poem as a suicide poem, Mark Richardson, author of The Ordeal of Robert Frost, observes Frost’s own irritation at the suggestion:

During Frost’s own lifetime… critics sometimes set [Frost's] teeth on edge with intimations about personal themes in the poem, as if it expressed a wish quite literally for suicide… Louis Mertins quotes him in conversation:

“I suppose people think I lie awake nights worrying about what people like [John] Ciardi of the Saturday Review write and publish about me [ in 1958]… Now Ciardi is a nice fellow–one of those bold, brassy fellows who go ahead and sall sorts of things. He makes me “Stopping By Woods” out a death poem. Well, it would be like this if it were. I’d say, “This is all very lovely, but I must be getting on to heaven.” There’d be no absurdity in that. That’s all right, but it’s hardly a death poem. Just as if I should say here tonight, “This is all very well, but I msut be getting on to Pheonix, Arizona, to lecture there. ” (Mertins 371) [The Ordeal of Robert Frost, p. 190]

Typical of Frost however, he still leaves open the door, saying to Mertins later:

“If you feel it, let’s just exchange glances and not say anything about it. There are a lot of things between best friends that’re never said, and if you — if they’re brought out, right out, too baldly, something’s lost.” [Ibid]

Richardson writes that Frost’s “subtle caveat to Mertins is probably meant equally to validate Ciardi’s suggestion about “Stopping by Woods” and to lay a polite injunction against it.” Richardson then picks up on Pritchard’s observation concerning the “felicities of language”, even alluding to Frost’s comments on E.A. Robinson (later on the same page):

Frost directs our attention not to the poem’s theme or content but to its form: the interlocking rhyme among the stanzas. He once remarked to an audience at Bread Loaf, again discouraging biographical or thematic readings of the poem: “If I were reading it for someone else, I’d begin to wonder what he’s up to. See. Not what he means but what he’s up to” (Cook 81). The emphasis is on the performance of the writer and on the act of writing. [p. 191]

And again, we come back to the idea of expression, rather than content, being (if not the heart of poetry) an equal part. Richardson adds that by “empasizing the lyric’s form Frost really only defers the question of theme and content. It is not that the poem does not have a theme, or one worth a reader’s consideration; the form simply is the theme.” The same could be said for much of Keats’ poetry and his Ode to Autumn. Richardson quotes Poirier, in reference to Frost:

“If [a] poem expresses grief, it also expresses–as an act, as a composition, a performance, a ‘making,’ — the opposite of grief; it shows or expresses ‘what the hell of a good time I had writing it.” [p. 192]

Where does all of this lead? Here’s what I think: I read the poem as both an act and performance, to be enoyed as an act and performance, and as a meaningfully suggestive poem – an acknowledgement of the lovely, dark and deep thoughts that are never far from our every day thoughts and lives. Nature will bring to all of us the same sleep it brings to the dark woods, but first we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.

Frost on Stopping by Woods

Browsing through the used bookstore a couple weeks ago, I stumbled on a little book called Robert Frost an introduction: poems, reviews, criticism. I think it’s been out of print for a good many years, but it has some choice quotes concerning Stopping by Woods. All the quotes are apparently from Reginald L. Cook, “Robert Frost’s Asides on His Poetry”,  “Frost on Frost: The Making of Poems” and “The Dimensions of Robert Frost”. Here they are:

  • …When he reads “Departmental,” which he once referred to as “my iridium poem; its hard and useful,” he says, ironically, that he intends sometime to write thirty pages of notes for the scholiasts. He once remarked that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was the kind of poem he’d like to print on one page, to be followed with “forty pages of footnotes.”
  • “Stopping by Woods” contains “all I ever knew”.
  • …”Stopping by Woods” is, he says, “a series of almost reckless commitments I feel good in having guarded it so. [It is] … my heavy duty poem to be examined for the rime pairs.” [Note how Frost, once again, praises the expression of the poem, it's form, rather than it's content.]
  • …”That one I’ve been more bothered with than anybody has ever been with any poem in just pressing it for more than it should be pressed for. It means enough without its being pressed.” And, in a biting tone, he adds, “I don’t say that somebody shouldn’t press it, but I don’t want to be there.” Often he has spoken out against the “pressers” and over-readers. “You don’t want the music outraged.” And of “Stopping by Woods” he says that all it means is “it’s all very nice but I must be getting along, getting home.” Yet no true reader leaves the discussion there. He knows as well as the poet does that what is important is how the poet played with “the constant symbol” implicit in the making of the poem. “Everything is hinting,” Frost reminds us.
  • … “Stopping by Woods” came to him after he had been working all night on his long poem entitled “New Hampshire.” He went outside to look at the sun and it came to him. “I always thought,” he explains, “it was the product of autointoxication coming from tiredness.”
  • The most ascerbic and closest-cropped expressions of his [Frost's] wit are reserved for the analysts of literature who try to pick a poem clean and miss its intent. When a friendly critic asked if the last two lines in “Stopping by Woods” referred to going to Heaven, and, by implication, death, the poet replied, “No, all that means is to get the hell out of there.”
  • …Frost starts out perfectly free in his poem. “I can have my first line any way I please,” he says, and he is right, “But once I say a line I am committed. The first line is a commitment. Whose woods these are I think I know. Eight syllables, four beats- a line – we call it iambic. I’m not terribly committed there. I can do a great many things. I did choose the meter. What we have in English is mostly iambic anyway. When most of it is iambic, you just fall into that – a rhyme pair – I’d be in for it. I’d have to have couplets all the way. I was dancing still. I was free. Then I committed a stanza:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

He will not see me stopping here is uncommitted. For the three rhymes in the next stanza, I picked up the unrhymed line in the first stanza, and rhymed its end-rhyme “here” with “queer’, ‘near’ and ‘year,’ and for the third stanza I picked up ‘lake’ from the unrhymed line in the second stanza and rhymed it with ‘shake,’ ‘mistake’ and ‘flake.’ For the fourth stanza I picked up ‘sweep’ from the unrymed line in the third stanza, to rhyme with ‘deep’ and ‘sleep.’

“Every step you take is further commitment. It is like going to the North Pole. If you go, you have to bring back witnesses – some Eskimos! How was I going to get out of that stanza? It’s going to be like the Arabian Nights -one story after another. By the third stanza you have a sense of how long a poem is going to be. It’s ‘sweep’ I’m committed to:

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.

For my poem is a commitment to convention. That’s what it’s a symbol of . The form of regular verse – Greek, Latin, English – is a symbol of commitment.

“The interest is the quarrel with those commitments. When I read a poem, I ask myself: What is the main point in the argument? Where is the insincerity in the argument? Having comitted ourselves to go to the North Pole or to our love, we have to believe we have been to the North Pole or that we have been in love. The modern poet who uses free verse or new experiments quarrels with the commitment to convention. His revolt is based on that, that all life goes false by its commitments. Consequently, I look at a poem very examiningly, very suspiciously. I don’t want to think that the poem is a compromise with the rhyme.”

  • “What it [the repeat of the final line] does is save me from a third line promising another stanza …. I considered for a moment four of a kind in the last stanza but that would have made five including the third in the stanza before it. I considered for a moment winding up with a three line stanza. The repetend was the only logical way to end such a poem.”

And finally, here is Frost himself:

[Audio http://poemshape.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/53-stopping-explanation.mp3%5D

The Poem’s Form

Lawrence Buell, in The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, calls the poem a Rondeau [p. 111]. Every definition I’ve read of Rondeau, including The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, offers up a definition that has nothing, whatsoever, to do with “Stopping by Woods”. It’s likely that Buell is being very liberal in his use of the word Rondeau. That is, Frost’s poem is a rondeau in the sense that there is a recurring rhyme scheme that takes as its rhyme the one unrhymed word of the stanza before. Most critics would probably call this a nonce poem – meaning that the rhyme scheme is unique to the poem.

  • Note: [May 29] I just received a comment from Gemma who points out the Frost’s Rhyme Scheme is the same as that found in Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Kyayy’ám’s Rubaiyat. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics calls it the Omar Kyayy’ám Quatrain. Since Fitzgerald’s translation was published in 1859 and quite famous in its day, it’s possible (if not likely) that Frost saw it at one time or another. I myself grew up with a copy in my grandmother’s house – the only book of poetry she owned! I still have it but haven’t looked at it in a long time. That said, Frost himself (from his own comments above) seems to imply that the rhyme scheme developed organically (was of his own making).  For more details on the Rubaiyat, check out the link in Gemma’s comment.

At the beginning of the post, I asked how a poem so metrically regular could, nonetheless, feel so dynamic. Returning to The Cambridge Introduction to Robert Frost, Timothy Steele, in his essay entitled “Across Spaces of the Footed Line”: the Meter and Versification of Robert Frost, offers the most insightful analysis I have come across. He writes:

Because iambic structure often is compounded of non-iambic elements of English word-shape and phraseology, a poet like Frost can initiate, within the basic iambic rise-and-fall movement, all sorts of counter-currents to the prevailing rhythm. An exemplary instance of these modulatory West-Running Brooks occurs in stanza three of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’:

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

In the first two lines, Frost uses mainly monosyllabic words, and of the two two-syllable words, one is rear-stressed. As a result, divisions between feet and those between words largely coincide, and this in turn produces a strong sense of rising, iambic rhythm:

He gives || his har || ness bells || a shake
To ask || if there || is some || mistake.

In contrast, the remaining two lines feature four fore-stressed disyllabic words. Consequently, words more often cross foot divisions than end at them. Even as the iambic fluctuation continues, the lines have a falling, trochaic character, which in turn suggests the sweeping movement of wind and snow:

The on|| ly oth || er sound’s || the sweep
Of eas || y wind || and down || y flake.

Frost’s first version of the line about the wind and flake read, “Of easy wind and fall of flake.” He may have made the change not only because he wanted a more descriptive word for the snow, but also because he intuited that the rhythm would benefit from a more descending flow than “and fall of flake” could give. [pp. 133-134]

On to my own comments…

The other facet to consider is line length versus phrase length. Notice how the first two lines are also two succinct syntactic phrases. They are essentially each a complete sentence. Frost eases this confluence of line and phrase in the next two lines through enjambment – Stopping by Woods: Manuscriptboth lines comprise a single sentence. The first stanza’s confluence of line and thought mimic the poet’s own deliberation. He stops. He considers the land owner. He decides the land owner won’t know he’s “tresspassed”.

The next stanza then relaxes just as the poet himself relaxes. The form and sensibility of the poem are in prefect congruity. All four lines of the stanza comprise a single sentence. The reader will, perhaps without explicitly observing this trick, subconsciously register the effect and the poet’s relaxation.

The third stanza doesn’t repeat the first two. (Each stanza is different.) The first two lines comprise one sentence while the closing two lines comprise another. The poet is divided, just as the stanza is divided between two sentences. The horse reminds the driver that their travel isn’t through, but the poet remains distracted by the easy wind and downy flake.

The syntax of the final stanza breaks each line into discreet phrases. The poet is matter of fact. First, and yes, the woods are love, dark and deep; but more importantly, I have promises to keep. The spell of the woods are broken. The speaker of the poem returns to miles he must travel before he sleeps.

The point in all this is to demonstrate that there are more ways to vary a metrical poem than through the varying of meter. Line lengh, phrase and syntactic sense, if well-played against and with each other, can have a powerful and dynamic effect on a poem.

Frost’s small poem is a masterpiece.

Anyway… if you enjoyed this post and have questions or suggestoins, please comment!

Further sources of information:

  • A new & recommended post that examines the poem as aesthetic statement. Fascinating.

  • Modern American Poetry • This is a collection of essays culled from various authors and critics, possibly the most helpful offering on the web – similar to my own approach but without the multimedia.

Poetry Everywhere

  • Clicking on the Image will take you to PBS.ORG where you can watch Frost read Stopping by Woods.
  • Answers.Com offers two interesting essays by authors who are not among the “big guns” of Frost criticism.
  • Sparknotes offers a brief  little overview of the poem and a possible interpretation. These are followed by study notes if you’re in need of a kick start.

Shelley’s Sonnet: Ozymandias

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  • May 30 2009: Updated & (hopefully) improved with thanks to Ralph’s comment.
  • January 10 2012 Updated with Shelley’s Bodleian manuscript and further discussion of the mysterious eighth line.
  • Be sure and read the comments! Much is discussed, many helpful and insightful comments have been made. You’ll be missing the better half of the post if you skip them. :-)

Who was Ozymandias?

Younger Memnon Statue of Ramesses

When I first read this poem as a high school student I thought that Ozymandias was Shelley’s own creation. But, as always, truth is sometimes more surprising than fiction.

Shelley wrote Ozymandias  in 1817 in friendly competition with another friend and poet – Horace Smith. Wikipedia offers up a good article on the poem, from which the photo at left is taken.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, here’s what Wikipedia has to say (links and all): “Ozymandias was another name for Ramesses the Great, Pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. Ozymandias represents a transliteration into Greek of a part of Ramesses’ throne name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re. The sonnet paraphrases the inscription on the base of the statue, given by Diodorus Siculus as “King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.”

Some scholars, the article continues, dispute whether Shelley actually saw the statue before writing the sonnet. (It arrived in England after the sonnet’s publication.) Given the fame of the statue, however, Shelley was probably already familiar with it through description and illustration.

The poem was later published by Liegh Hunt, January 1818, in the Examiner, then reprinted again with Rosalind and Helen in 1819.

  • November 2 2011 • Another blogger The Era of Casual Fridays (and a favorite of mine) just recently posted on Ozymandias. Mark’s analysis tend to focus more on the historical context of the poems (whereas I enjoy interpretation and analysis). You will find much information that I didn’t discuss or mention (what sources inspired Shelley for example). Mark’s post is rich with information.

About the Sonnet

The copy of the poem I’ve used in my scansion is based on the version published in Oxford University’s The Complete  Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. I’ve noticed that the punctuation differs from those of other versions on the net. All unmarked feet are iambic. Red denotes a trochaic foot. Yellow denotes a phyrric foot (though,  in each, I’ve marked the second syllable as an intermediate stress).

Shelley's Ozymandias Scansion

  • I hear this sonnet a little different than most – so I put this recording together. This reading comes with a little context at the beginning. See what you think.


The background is from The Free Music Archive and the music is offered under the Creative Commons License.

Most would probably consider this a Nonce Sonnet. Nonce refers to any poetic form in which the rhyme scheme is made up by the poet. Technically, Shelley’s rhyme scheme is a nonce sonnet. shelley1However, apart from the rhymes, things/Kings, the sonnet is close enough to the Petrarchan rhyme scheme to be a minor variation. Ultimately, it only matters if you’re curious about Shelley as a craftsman. My guess is that he set out to write a Petrarchan Sonnet but, in competition with a friend and writing quickly, he decided to make do with the rhyme scheme that most easily flowed from his pen. But that’s only conjecture.

The sonnet is written in Iambic Pentameter; and if you’re not sure what that means or the symbols used to scan the sonnet, check out my post on Iambic Pentameter and the Basics.

Shelley’s metrical variants are well-placed – Stand, Tell, stamped, Look, followed by Nothing and boundless. The trochaic placement of Stand, whether intentional or not, adds emphasis to the implacable fact of the statue’s “trunkless legs”.  The trochaic placement of stamp, as with stand, only adds emphasis to the hard, unforgiving, presence. In the final quatrian, Look, aurally and subliminally, is heard in association with the trochaic Nothing and boundless. The meter reinforces the bleak, hard cruelty of the subject matter. The Sonnet is a masterpiece.

Interpreting the Sonnet

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

These first 7 lines are deceptively straightforward. The sonnet tells of meeting a traveler who describes the “vast and trunkless legs” of an otherwise collapsed statue. Near the feet and legs is a shattered visage (the statue’s shattered head). The lips tell of a martial figure – cold and sneering.  From there, a third figure enters the sonnet. First is the ‘I‘ of the sonnet, second is the ‘traveler’, and third is the sculptor – the artist who must have read “those passions” well. There is an interesting juxtaposition in Shelley’s use of the word “survive” which means “to live and remain alive” in reference to “lifeless things”. What does Shelley mean? It is a curious ambiguity that is, perhaps, not meant to be resolved – purposefully ambiguous.

  • Another reader, Thaddeus Joseph Stone, just pointed out (Jan. 18, 2012) that the meaning of  these lines makes sense if Shelley  means that “those passions” survive in our own day — they “yet survive” — those same passions that are stamped “on these lifeless things”. That makes perfect sense to me, especially since Shelley had strong political leanings in his own day. Some of his most scathing poems are critical of the aristocracy and staunchly libertarian.  I think it’s a very good way to interpret these lines. In this sense, Shelley knows full well that the tyrannical and cruel passions of Ozymandias live on in others. His sonnet, in this sense, serves as a warning to those who think there’s any future or immortality in such politics.

Those passions survive on “these lifeless things”.

On the one hand the statue is a lifeless thing; but, on the other, the passions of Ozymandias survive through the skill of the sculptor – in contradiction to the sonnet’s usual interpretation. Is this what Ozymandias intended? Even the answer to that is ambiguous. And what or who has truly survived? Was it Ozymandias, or was it the art, the skill of the sculptor? Both? The trochaic stamped only emphasizes the durability of what has survived. Perhaps there’s a clue in the next line:

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

There is tremendous compression (elliptic) in this eighth line. Since it’s the shattered visage that the traveler has been and is describing, the hand must be the artist’s, rather than Ozymandias’. (I’ve noticed, on the Internet at least, that many readers misinterpret the hand and heart as a reference to Ozymandias.)

  • The frown, the wrinkled lip and sneer refer to the shattered visage of Ozymandias.
  • The hand and heart refer to the sculptor.
  • Note: This is only my interpretation. Much more discussion of this interpretation and what else the lines may mean follows in the comment section. If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty of this poem’s meaning, read the comments and decide for yourself.

This is important because it informs the ambiguity of the earlier lines. If the arrogance and cruelty of Ozymandias “survive” on those lifeless things, it is because of the heart and hand of the artist. Art has given them life, not the arrogance or pride of Ozymandias. It is the art that has survived and continues to communicate to the traveler and to the “I” of the sonnet. Or another way of thinking of it is that the artist’s hand mocked the tyrant’s pretenses which his heart (his artistic passions) fed through his stone work. The most insightful interpretation of the sonnet that I could find (online at least) was by Christopher Nield, A Reading of ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley, for the Epoch Times.

What we discern in the face is a coded message. The sculptor, seemingly an instrument of the state, has “mocked” the all-powerful chieftain, meaning both to imitate and ridicule. Lines 6 to 8 are grammatically ambiguous, and different meanings are possible, but one interpretation is that the artist’s “heart,” his sense of compassion and morality, still throbs in the otherwise lifeless head. In other words, love and truth ultimately triumph over cruel, autocratic intelligence. In a way, this story is the reverse of the Bamiyan Buddhas, whose beauty was brought down by tyranny…. Despite the desolation of Shelley’s scene, there is a hope here of emotional and artistic continuity. Basic human nature dictates that, despite differences in time and culture, our gestures can be read and recognized by future generations in our finest cultural artifacts.

What does Shelley mean by the heart that fed? Heart is a synecdochic figure. We can say that someone has heart and we universally interpret that as meaning that the person is compassionate. We use phrases like heartfelt or tender-hearted. If a meal or person is robust, we call them hearty. Amidst so much desolation, it’s hard for me to read Shelley’s line as a reference to Ozymandias’s heart. But anyway, nearly all analyses gloss over this line and I suspect it’s because most don’t what to risk interpreting it. I like Nield’s interpretation and I would take it a step further. Shelley’s line is incredibly compressed (elliptical) if only due to the demands of the form. It’s the only mention of something palpably alive and human in the entirety of the sonnet. It is the heart – the synechdocic figure of the human soul, compassion, and capacity to empathize – that is at the heart of the sonnet and that is alive within the sculptor.

  • Note: The word mock has, in its older sense, the meaning of mimic [Shakespeare Lexicon p. 732]. This meaning survives in modern times in the more neutral “mock up”. A “mock up” doesn’t carry the sense of derision or contempt associated with mock. So… Ozymandias’ passions survive in the artist’s “mock up”. (This isn’t to say that Shelley wasn’t aware of the words double meaning.) More importantly, the word fed or feed also had the meaning: “to entertain or indulge” [Shakespeare Lexicon, p. 409]. So, in this sense, the artist’s heart was “entertaining” and indulging Ozymandias’ cruel passions – entertain in the sense of tolerate. [My thanks to Ralph for encouraging me to more closely examine this line - see our comments below and Ralph's alternate interpretation of this line.]

In this sense, the heart is what fed the hand – the hand that mocked and gave life to lifelessness through compassion and morality – through art. It is because of the human heart that anything at all survived and continues to survive. And perhaps Shelley means to instruct us that art is the highest and most durable manifestation of the human heart.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The final sestet is fairly straightforward, in comparison to the octave, but the genius is in the irony. Ozymandias’ mighty words, rather than attesting to Ozymandias’ immortal splendor, affirm the very opposite of his intentions. The arrogance of man is impermanent. The accouterments of Ozymandias’ power and wealth have crumbled into a desolate ruin! Look my works and despair!

What survives? Only the hand and heart of the artist.

What’s interesting to me is that you get to see Shelley’s original punctuation without the alteration of a modern editor. What’s most interesting is that there is a comma between them and and.

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

This, perhaps, makes it more likely that “heart that fed” refers to Ozymandias rather than the artist; but is not so conclusive as to omit other interpretations. Again, read it how you will. Below is the poem the way Shelley wrote and punctuated it. The differences from the Oxford edition are in red.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who He said – “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . .  Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, & sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, & the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, this legend clear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless & bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

  • If you want to read a brief discussion of the Bodleian Ozymandias Draft, go here.

On the other hand, the copy below, which is presumably a later copy, comes from The Poetical Works of Percy Byssche Shelley: Given from his own edition and other authentic sources. The editor, Harry Buxton Forman, gives us Shelley’s poetry straight from the manuscript (or so he leads us to believe). His copy of Ozymandias is similar to the Oxford edition:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed: [8]
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Notice the missing comma in line 8. While I can’t find a manuscript image anywhere on the web, what this tells me is that another (and later) manuscript version must omit the comma in the eighth line.  I’m guessing that the omitted comma represents Shelley’s final thoughts and that modern editions (that include the comma) represent editorial interpolations. So, where does that leave us? Shelley must have had second thoughts about the line’s punctuation (as well as other lines). Whether he saw that change as altering the meaning of the line remains conjecture. If I learn more, I’ll add it to the post.

  • The poet Marie Marshall offers readers another way to interpret Shelley’s great poem. Definitely worth reading.

By Way of Comparison

By way of comparison, here is Horace Smith’s Sonnet. Rather than just post it, let’s take a look at it and see how it differs. Such examples are rare, but they can teach poets a tremendous amount about the difference between competent poetry and great poetry.

Ozymandias by Horace Smith

The rhyme scheme is different.

Simply in terms of hewing to a form, Smith does a better job than Shelley. But that’s as far as it goes. The words that Smith emphasizes through trochaic variation seem at odds with each other and even arbitrary.  Emphasizing the word wonder, for example, undercuts the underlying message of devastation and “annihilation”. Not only that, but by this time the word wonder has made its third appearance! Admittedly, wonder had a somewhat different meaning in Smith’s day, but not that different. The emphasis on wonder through amateurish and unimaginative repetition subliminally contradicts Smith’s stated goal – an expression “annihilation” and loss. Possibly without knowing why, the reader is left with a sense of wonder – but also uneasy contradiction.

The trochaic holding is a wasted variant foot. There is no compelling reason to emphasize holding.

Notice also Smith’s personification of the desert in the second line: The only shadow that the desert knows… In effect, Smith is superfluously introducing a second character – the desert. The only reason he has done so is for the sake of the rhyme throws/knows. The effect is to divert the reader’s attention from the central character, Ozymandias’ ruined city. Likewise, when Smith writes, saith the stone, he is unwittingly giving life to desolation: the desert knows, the stone saith

These unwitting mistakes are the hallmark of a lesser talent. Where Shelley carefully focuses the reader’s attention, avoiding superfluous information (which includes personification), Smith doesn’t. His mention of Babylon, already rich with associations, further dilutes the centrality of Ozymandias’ ruins. In comparing Ozymandias’ ruined city to Babylon, Smith is as much as implies that Babylon, not Ozymandias’ city, is the standard for comparison. Shelley doesn’t make this mistake. In Shelley’s sonnet, Ozymandias’ ruins stand alone and incomparable.

The final sestet changes our locale entirely.

Smith imagines a hunter in the ruins of London. Smith spells it out. The ruins of Ozymandias stand as a kind of metaphor for what could happen to London and its “unrecorded race”. Where Shelly leaves it to the reader, Smith spells it out. Where Shelley’s sonnet gives a feeling of immediacy and co-discovery, Smith’s sonnet has  the feeling of a sermon. Smith tells us what to think. Shelley lets us discover it for ourselves.

If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, please comment!

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