Negative Virtues – ‘Into My Own’ by Robert Frost

Poems are not social in any normal sense of the word. You have to spend a lot of time alone to write or read them. The reader might share them or even read them to someone else (it does happen) and you can say that this is a kind of socialness. Here we get a little closer to the truth.

But it’s still not the whole truth: the pleasure the writer and the reader receive from the excuse to be alone which a poem provides them is not identical to the thought of the pleasure they may bring other people. At least that’s not my experience. If it was, people would write fewer poems.

A lot of great poetry comes with a drop of misanthropy. Misanthropy comes in different guizes. It might appear as a preference for some abstract principle — like an idea, or history, or God over living, breathing people. With Robert Frost, it often comes as the desire to be alone.

Someone mentioned to me, after the first blog, that Frost’s ‘Into My Own’ was an odd poem to start off with. It is not an easy poem, or an especially well known one. It’s not that the poem isn’t easy to understand, line by line: it’s a wish, because it won’t happen. The trees really are only a ‘mask of gloom’, rather than the endless forest Frost wishes they were, stretching away ‘unto the edge of doom’.

So far, so simple. The couplets keep the poem rolling on like that ‘slow wheel that pours the sand’ in the second stanza, as does the mirroring of the sounds within the lines (assonance). ‘Scarcely show’ is the sound that a breeze might make (though, like the breeze in the poem, it doesn’t shout about it).

However, when we get to the third stanza, things begin to break down.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear

They would not find me changed from him they knew–
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

What is Frost is saying about the people who miss him? Does he want them to follow him or not? And where does the final couplet come from? What did he think was true? Why is he surer of it now?

There is a difference between a poem making sense, and a poem having (possessing) a meaning. Some people are suspicious of this. Quite reasonably, they see it as a license for obscurity, a kind of laziness. I do not think that poems need to have meanings, or that meaning even emerges out of the imagery and language. Poems are just not things which have fixed meanings, in the same way that concepts like ‘justice’ or ‘courage’ are not the sort of things which have colours. I’m more inclined to agree with Philip Larkin, when he argued that poems are expressions of emotions, though I don’t think, as he did, that these emotions need to be clear or simple.

One thing that is clearly expressed in this poem is the strength of Frost’s sense of independence. Equally clear is his refusal to feel sorry about it. In the third stanza, he says that doesn’t see why, if his friends miss him as much as they say, they should not follow him. In the last couplet, he is saying that he doesn’t think this journey into himself is one which will change him.

To make sense of these last lines, it helps to think about what usually happens in a story when the hero goes on an adventure: they change for the better. They become more useful to others. Not Frost!

This is all very antisocial. It is also in stark contrast to the chummy, down-to-earth ‘farmer’ persona which Frost presented to the world for much of his career, where he was the major poet in the United States after the Second World War, even being asked to read at JFK’s inauguration.[1]

Ian Hamilton, in his excellent introduction to the Penguin Selected Poems, makes the point that for all Frost’s earthiness, “the virtues that have been so widely thought to be endearing, are really much more negative than positive. They each have their harsh, misanthropic centre.”

Like his more well-known poems ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, or ‘Acquainted with the Night’, ‘Into My Own’ has a darker side still. What if the truth which Frost knows is that nothing is worth knowing, or that there is nothing to know? What is that ‘doom’ doing there? The critic Lionel Trilling pointed to the ‘utterly uncomforting and resolute sense of futility’ in Frost’s poems, and you can see that here. Whatever is being said, there is an inhuman certainty in the final statement.[2]

When I first read this poem, I didn’t read it as negative at all. The combination of the emotion and the image appealed. Not only the joy in being alone, the bracing independence of it, although there was that, but also the specific image of the line of trees, which might hide something infinite. I like the cutaway nature of the edge of a forest. The sense of potential.

Then there’s the language. The tone is conversational, so it’s hard to take the negative tone seriously. It is ‘one of his wishes’. That sounds less like a man who’s completed committed to disappearing off into the wilderness, and more like someone who just enjoys entertaining the idea. And the idea is presented with such an easy, confident sweep in that second stanza: ‘fearless of ever finding open land’.

In short, Frost achieves a tension between those two feelings, the carefree desire for independence, and the misanthropy hiding behind it. He doesn’t come down on either side. Neither, for many people, does the desire to be alone. There is pleasure in it, and there is something darker too. That is how it is. 

None of this really has anything to do with what we’re going through right now. We are all alone, together, out of a sense of duty to each other, although I would suspect that many people are looking forward to being able to experience that different kind of being alone again. We might worry that Frost is going off too blasé about whether anyone will miss him or not. Pretty big assumption to make. The poem isn’t an argument, though, so there is not much point in judging him.

Frost is saying: here is how it is for me.


[1] Robert Frost’s reputation in the UK has never even begun to compare to his status in the States, despite beginning his career as a poet in England. He was also, through a close friendship and much encouragement, one of the main causes of that most English of English poets, Edward Thomas.

[2] Referenced in Ian Hamilton’s introduction to the Selected Poems

This blog is part of a series I started in March 2020 where I pick a poem I like and talk about what I like about it. I wrote a short introduction about my motivations here.

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