Two Attitudes to the Passing of Time in Frost’s Poetry Essay
What attitudes towards the passing of time are expressed in two of Frost’s poems? The passing of time is a theme that pervades the poetry of famous American Robert Frost, who explores many aspects of the human experience in his poetry. Two poems which are vehicles for his attitude towards the passing of time are “A Leaf-Treader” and “The Road Not Taken”. Both explore the debate between transience and transcendence but display two differing outlooks on these. ‘The Road Not Taken’ seems to express regret for a path that the persona in the poem ‘could not travel’.
The poem has a kind of haunting wistfulness about the transience of time and a sober tone of fatalism is very apparent. The indecisive and contemplative language of the persona of ‘the road’, who tells his story ‘with a sigh’, is ‘sorry’ about his choice in life and expresses regret, and the tone of fatalism is powerfully conveyed through the final stanza. Here, the shocking switch to present tense and the enjambment of the two I’s arrests the rhythm and reflects upon the possibilities of self that could have been. A Leaf-Treader’ also has a tone of wistfulness but an even stronger tone of frustration. The long lines and full rhymes seem to express a sense of weariness with the whole business of collecting leaves, with the repetition of the word ‘treading’ highlighting the monotony of his task. Compounds like ‘autumn-tired’ with their attenuated rhythm, also seem to express a sense of anger at the way things are and the strong language of ‘God knows’ is significant in the persona’s call for for justification of the need for repeated effort in life.
There is a paradoxical fear from the persona about the drive to mast his job but also the limitless nature of his task. Despite this, both poems are saved from sentimentality about the passing of time. ‘A Leaf Treader’ avoids sentimentality in its understatements, its sonorous use of ordinary speech phrases, its quiet dignity and its metaphors deriving from everyday work and observation. ‘The Road’ has a clear structure also present in ‘Leaf Treader’, and has an informal tone that prevents Frost from giving in to grief; indeed, some see ‘The Road’ as an ironic comment on wishful thinking.
Nature is a theme present in both poems to convey Frost’s attitude towards the passing of time. In ‘The Road…’ the autumnal setting emphasises the sense of regret and disillusionment. The ‘yellow wood’ is an unusual colouring, one that evokes a sickly, almost cowardly feel to the environment, while the ‘undergrowth’ is dark, threatening imagery. The shadows in the poem, not only in the autumnal setting and sense of a morning now long past, but also the hint of lost innocence in the leaves that will fall and be ‘trodden black’.
Similarly, the leaves of ‘A Leaf Treader’ convey a darker premise, although are described wonderfully through the alliteration of ‘tapped’ and ‘touched’, conveying a delicate and tender sense to the falling of the leaf. They remind the poet of death and autumn even in the summer. In the third stanza their passage to earth reminds to poet of his own mortality and leads him possibly to yearn for his own death and release when ‘they spoke to the fugitive in my heart’.
They remind him that for all his superiority of intellect he is part of nature too, mortal and earthbound. Nature offers him an alluring sense of release in death or a temptation to give in and succumb t our on mortality and an overwhelming sense of tragedy – that life is finite. He leaf fall seems to express a universal sense of the sadness of things. Nature also echoes the cyclical theme and futility of the transience of life.
In ‘A Leaf Treader’, another year of ‘snow’ is presented as a paradox of what seems to be a positive ending to the poem but described in terms of something cold and bleak. To a lesser extent, this is true of the repetition of ‘woods’ and the inability of the persona of ‘The Road Not Taken’ to see clearly (he looks down ‘as far as [he] could’, which creates a sense of the woods trapping the persona in time. Both poems, while embracing the finite nature of time, also appreciate the eternal structure of man’s struggle against time.
In ‘The Road…’, the repetitions ‘two roads diverged in a wood’, in the first and last stanzas, give a circular structure that is echoed by the rhyming couplets of ‘Leaf-treader’, that imitate the cyclical nature of the experience in the sense they give us of completion and repetition. Further repetition of ‘and’ in ‘The Road’ gives a simple intensity to the experience almost echoing biblical language that turns experience into parable. The poem, the language of which feels neither dated nor modern, acts as an everlasting allegory.
While ‘A Leaf Treader’ is more emotionally embracing in dealing with time, the teasingly ambiguous ‘Road Not Taken’, is just as profoundly moving in its sense of time inevitably catching up with our experience of things. In both, Frost uses ordinary things to search out some deep problems of existence. There is a definite sense of the interplay of transience and transcendence – the tension between the limits of a life in time and the desire to make meaning triumph over those constraints, and in the case of ‘Road Not Taken’, between sentiment and irony.