“Metaphor is the whole of poetry.” “Poetry is simply made of metaphor…Every poem is a new metaphor inside or it is nothing.” Such are burdens Robert Frost placed upon metaphor, and on himself as a poet He went even father in his claiming that metaphor is the whole of thinking, and that, therefore, to be educated by poetry.
But he also cautions that all metaphors creak down somewhere, as of course they must because a metaphor, no matter how rich or how apt, is not an identity, never an exact correspondence. On one hand, this means that one must be wary when thinking by means of metaphor, and one must be wary when reading or hearing the metaphors of others. As examples he gives scientific theories such as evolution (a plant metaphor), a mechanistic universe (a machine – all right – but where the lever, or button, or pedal is?), and concludes: “Unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease in figurative values: you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness… You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.” We must understand that a metaphor will take us only so far before it “breaks down.” My love may be a rose in her softness, her sweetness, her beauty, or even her tendency to hurt me. But she does not grow old outside in the garden on a stem. The human lover is infinitely more complicated than the rose (Faggen).
An example in which the poem itself is metaphor for its meaning appears in “The Silken Tent,” a brilliantly executed work of poetics. In one fourteen-line sentence, shaped to the form of a Shakespearean sonnet, Frost develops his metaphor of the tent. (Timmerman).
Heretofore overshadowed by the success of other classic poems, “The Silken Tent” stands as a profound metaphor about women. Frost’s tent, unlike a military tent, has fabric of silk, and the omnipresent sibilant sounds in the sonnet suggest the rustle of silk. The breezy airiness of silk belies the poem’s weighty topic: balance (Tuten and Zubizarreta).
The poem begins with a graceful metaphor, which Frost extends into a lovely paean to a woman close to the poet’s heart. Speculation about the identity of that woman continues (Tuten and Zubizarreta).
The opening “She” is purposefully ambiguous, unnamed. A loved one? A spouse? The reader enters the poem with the first word, placing a name on the “She.” But every word thereafter is specifically concrete, detailing the image of the tent linked to the “She” by virtue of the simile (Timmerman). She is as much an apparition as she is literal, and thus, as the figure who inspires his imagination, she must be regarded as the speaker’s muse as well as his lover. Frost’s poem insists on here double reality, to which is added the speaker’s subjective response to that reality (Pack). At one specific point, line 7, the poet steps outside of the concrete description and points toward its abstract meaning. Of the “central cedar pole” he writes, “That is its pinnacle to heavenward/And signifies the sureness of the soul.” The poem is so arranged that this is also a tent the reader may crawl into and live in (Timmerman).
“She is as in a field a silken tent/At midday.” The difficult but significant phrase here is “as in.” Frost does not say that she is like a silken tent, since the metaphor of the tent does not merely describe the “she” of the poem but rather the relationship between the speaker and the woman observed. The tent, as a complex metaphor that develops throughout the poem, conveys the speaker’s feelings about the lady and his sense of the significance of their bond. Fastened to the ground yet extending upward, the tent evokes an image of the two of them together, both female and male, in their shared desire for earthly physical pleasure and, at the same time the “heavenward” wish for transcendence that expresses the longing of their souls (Pack).
Here the case is not just that the tent is a metaphor relationship, but that the fluidity, melody, and delicate beauty of the poem shape a further metaphor for the tent itself. The objective correlation between tent and love is amplified – or canopied – by that between poem as artistic work and the tent (Timmerman).
The metaphorical unity of Frost’s poem may be seen and felt in several ways. Structurally, the poem is composed as a single-sentence – as if the synthesis of movement and stillness when the tent “sways at ease” can be contained with a single breath, a single moment of thought. The apparent antithesis of earth and heaven is resolved in the image of the tent as both tied to the ground and aspiring upward in its “cedar pole/That is its pinnacle to heavenward.” Likewise, the antimonies of man and woman, body and soul, emotion and thought, are seen as unified in the poem’s insistence on centrality: it is “midday,” the pole is located as “central,” and the lovers feel themselves to be at a mysterious spiritual center, measuring “everything on earth the compass round” by their own passion for unity. The recurring (four times) crucial verb of the poem, “is,” which introduces the poem’s first and last lines, insists that this is a moment of physically existential being that, nevertheless, is infused with a sense of the immanence of the immortal soul contained within a mortal body, the contributing presence of the poem’s speaker, at one with the woman he watchers, is made clear in his subjective interjection that the interpretively through signification are a single action reflected in the speaker’s mind (Pack).
Frost’s tent “is loosely bound/By countless silken ties of love and thought,” so that even the fact of bondage cannot be exactly located. Bondage so diffused is barely experienced as a constraint; the lover does not wander from the choice of his beloved. Very gently the illusion of complete (or nearly complete) freedom is revealed to be just that, an illusion. The tent, and by extension the woman (the tenor of this extended metaphor), is indeed “bound/By countless silken ties of love and thought/To everything on earth.” Both flesh and spirit are bound.
Suddenly, the apparent freedom and simplicity of the octave gives way to a complex of connections that suggest far-reaching ramifications and potential complications. In the octave, the sibilants about [dis]guise (“guys” in line four) the sensuality and sexuality in the images. They tend to underscore the increasingly obvious images of bondage. It is certainly soft-core and harmless, but for deliberate sexuality this poem has few peers in the Frost canon. Absolutely none of his poems that bristle with sexual tension come close to the perfect harmonization of all of this poem’s parts and al all levels those parts are working on.
The poem displays utter restraint, and the seething sexual undertone is strengthened because of this restraint. It holds back, and a few well-placed words are all that he will admit. The rest of the tension comes from the denial and undercutting by actual statement of what is so obviously intended in image and sound.
I think it is no accident that the language and the devices become more obvious in the sestet. If anything in the poem can be said to be tough, then the language sparingly toughens in the sestet: line nine contains body “strictly” and “bound”; line ten contains “ties”; line twelve has “taut.” Line fourteen actually contains the word “bondage.” Note here a second, almost self-mocking, pun in “slightly taut.” Note here a second, almost self-mocking, pun in “slightly taut,” suggesting a sexual naiveté. But none of this suggests that “The Silken Tent” can support a full sadomasochistic reading. It cannot. But at the same time the underlying, and steadily affirming, sexuality cannot be denied (Maxson).
Faggen, Robert. The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Maxson, H. A. On the Sonnets of Robert Frost: A Critical Examination of the 37 Poems. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, 1997.
Pack, Robert. Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost. Hanover and London: UPNE, 2004.
Timmerman, John H. Robert Frost: The Ethics of Ambiguity. Cranbury, NJ: Bucknell University Press, 2002.
Tuten, Nancy Lewis, and John Zubizarreta. The Robert Frost Encyclopedia. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001.