The Interpretive Process:

Robert Frost, “Dust of Snow”

We briefly consider the interpretive process in a reading of the following short poem.

Robert Frost

Dust of Snow

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

 

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

We can begin with a few observations about this short lyric.

We notice its two stanzas, evenly split with four lines each. We also notice a lack of internal punctuation, so that the entire poem is a single sentence spun out over those two stanzas.  Alternating rhymes are evident in both stanzas, along with short lines. Most of the words are monosyllabic and most of the lines contain four syllables, two of them accented.

Beyond these patterns in the poem, we note some variations. The fourth line of each stanza, for example, contains an extra syllable. Each of those lines also possesses a different rhythmic beat. Saying the lines aloud makes that difference aurally evident. Clapping out the rhythm of the lines makes it both audible and palpable.

The most important structural relationship we can investigate in the poem is that between its two symmetrical stanzas. We will need to consider how the second stanza follows from, connects with, and relates to the first.

The following exercise invites you to consider your observations and the connections between them. The questions lead you a bit, to be sure, towards thinking about the relationship between human beings and the natural world.

Take a few minutes to think and jot down some ideas in response to the following questions (before reading the commentary that follows them).

What inferences do you make based on these observations and connections? What understanding—or interpretation—do you have, based on your connected observations and inferences?

What relationship is posited—or suggested—between the human and natural worlds?  What is implied in this relationship, as indicated by what the poet/speaker describes as happening both externally and internally?  To what extent does the poem imply that nature has beneficial effects on human beings?

Commentary

Part of our enjoyment of this poem my derive from its brevity. It offers a quick take on an experience, and it provides that swift glimpse in short lines each a few beats long. We may be struck by the poem’s action—a crow jounces a tree limb, which unloads its burden of snow on a man beneath it. We may wonder to what extent this action may have been accidental and to what extent it could possibly have been intentional. Thinking critically about “Dust of Snow” leads us to questions like these, and to consider whether a crow can do something like this deliberately, and whether a crow can be said to “enjoy” the result. After all, the first line emphasizes the “way” a crow shook down the snow on the speaker—not so much that a branch was jostled, but how it was jostled.

We notice that Frost splits the poem into two brief equal parts of four short lines each, and that together the two little stanzas form a single sentence. We might ask ourselves why, if the poem is only one sentence long, the poet casts it in two stanzas. Reading the lines attentively, we notice that something is described happening in each stanza. In the first stanza the action is external—something happens outdoors, under a fir tree. The action of the second stanza, by contrast, is internal. Something happens within the poem’s speaker; he has what is described as “a change of mood.” We might wonder about just what this change involves. The poem’s details suggest that the change is positive—from something “rued” to something “saved.” We might think, then, about how a “day” that had been in some way lost can in part at least be redeemed.

We attend not only to details of action, but also to details of language—to details of action through details of language. We may wonder why Frost includes “hemlock” trees and how the poem would be different if a different kind of tree were substituted, a larch or a maple tree, for example.  In the same way, we might wonder about the poet’s choice of the word “rued” to end the poem. Why, we might ask ourselves, did he select that word? For the rhyme? For its old-fashioned look and sound? For its meaning? For all of these? And just what might it mean to say that part of a day had been “rued”?

We need to ask, as well, about the relationship between the poem’s two stanzas. Just how are they related? As an external action prompting an internal response? As the natural world influencing human response? As action and reaction. As cause and effect. Grammatically as predicate of a sentence (stanza 2) following its subject (stanza 1). Emotionally, as a movement from sorrow to joy.

We may relate our own sense of the change the poem records to our personal experience. Surely, we have experienced changes of mood, some of them from unpleasantness to something better. We must certainly have had “bad days” that were somehow “saved” by a surprising change of luck, perhaps by some small incident that made us smile, that turned our day around for us.

We might notice the absence of metaphor in “Dust of Snow.” And what seems like a preponderance of rhyme, alternating exactly, chiming through its eight short lines. We notice that the poem is composed almost entirely of single syllable words, the two exceptions being “hemlock” and “given”—though “given” can be parsed as a single syllable: “giv’n.” It feels that way metrically, keeping the poem’s iambic beat.

“Dust of Snow” can also be looked at in the context of its subject, nature, and more specifically the relationship between the natural world and the human world. We can put it into the context of other poems by Frost that emphasize the natural world—“Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Birches,” and “Tree at My Window,” for example. We can put it into the context of Frost’s life—as a New England farmer, a husband and parent, and a modern American poet.

We can relate it to other American poems that center on nature—poems by writers such as Dickinson, Whitman, Emerson—American Transcendentalist writers. And even more broadly, we can situate Frost’s little lyric in relation to poems by British Romantic writers, such as those by William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as those by other continental European Romantic poets, and by other modernist poets, especially American modernist writers. Romanticist writers like these tend to find in nature a consoling and renovating presence, even a moral teacher. We go to nature for solace, for spiritual and psychic rejuvenation.

Another kind of context into which we can place “Dust of Snow” is that of poems (or other literary works) that describe a “change of mood,” a movement from sadness to joy, for example, or despair to hope. This context includes poems like Shakespeare’s sonnet 116, “When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” (see page xx), for example, which describes how a speaker near despair over his imperfections experiences a dramatic change of heart and mood when he things about his beloved.

Symbolism

Like metaphor, symbolism is a way of describing one thing in terms of another. Like a metaphor, a symbol invites us to consider connections and comparisons. But where a metaphor is contained by the terms being compared, a symbol is open to a larger frame of possibility. A metaphor is more stable than a symbol, more confined by its comparative terms, its tenor (the thing identified) and its vehicle (what that thing is compared to).

A symbol is an object that stands for something beyond itself, a feeling perhaps, or an abstract idea, or an experience. A rose can represent beauty or love or mortality; ashes can represent death and birds freedom. An eagle can represent strength, freedom, power; it can also symbolize predation and destruction. Light and darkness can stand for life and death, knowledge and ignorance, joy and sorrow. Numerous possibilities exist.

We should remember, however, that a symbol first is a word that denotes an object: a rose is a rose before it assumes any symbolic resonance.  Or better, while it also assumes that symbolic resonance, it remains a rose. A symbol is “both what it is and something more,” as Matthew Zapruder has suggested (Why Poetry 164). The literal meaning of the word, its denotation, remains alive while its symbolic reverberations echo.

The meaning of a symbol is controlled by its context. Whether fire represents lust, rage, destruction, purification, or something else, is only determinable within the context of  the poem proper. Deciding on the symbolic significance of a poetic detail can be complicated. Even when we are fairly confident that something is symbolic, it is not always easy to determine just what it represents.  Nonetheless, we engage in a thoughtful consideration of its potential symbolic significance. Consider the symbolism of the following poem.

Robert Frost

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

Frost employs here a series of examples to support the notion that whatever gold stands for (the good, the true, the beautiful—anything of value), it does not last. Traditionally, gold represents wealth and value; it stands for things we hold dear. Frost does not specify precisely what gold symbolizes; he leaves that to his readers. Nonetheless, we detect, in his images, an overall concern with transience, with ephemerality—with the transience and ephemerality of the valuable and the precious. The most transient and ephemeral things are most valuable because they don’t last. We value them even more for that reason.

Frost’s examples are drawn mostly from nature: “dawn,” which begins the day in golden splendor and then is diminished as it “goes down” the ordinariness of “day.” The initial gold of a leaf’s first blossom is lost, as it inevitably “subsides” into leaf, its hint of gold fading after a brief glow. As in nature, so too, in the story of Eden—a myth of a golden age, a time of innocence, harmony, peace, and perfection—which “sank” to “grief.” The example of Eden suggests that the golden aspects of human experience are as ephemeral as those of nature. Frost leaves it to us to decide just what these highly valued aspects of life are. But it is reasonable to assume that “life” itself is one of them, the most important, the one we treasure all the more for our all too brief hold on it.

Gold

Robert DiYanni

Robert DiYanni

Author ⪢ | Professor ⪢ | Consultant ⪢

Robert DiYanni is a professor of humanities at New York University, having served as an  instructional consultant at the NYU Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Center for Faculty Advancement. For these centers he conducted workshops and seminars on all aspects of pedagogy, consulted with faculty about teaching concerns, visited and observed classes, and provided a wide range of pedagogical consultative services. Professor DiYanni serves on the faculties of the School of Professional Studies and the Stern School of Business at NYU. He earned his undergraduate degree in English from Rutgers University, attended a Master of Arts in Teaching program at Johns Hopkins University, and received a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the City University of New York Graduate Center.  

In addition to his work at NYU, Dr. DiYanni has taught at City University of New York, at Pace University, and as a Visiting Professor at Tsing Hua University in Taiwan and at Harvard University. As a high school teacher for four years and a college professor for more than four decades, Professor DiYanni has taught students from eighth grade through doctoral candidates. Most of his teaching, however, has been with college and university undergraduates. His numerous workshops, offered in more than twenty countries, have been attended by secondary school teachers and administrators, as well as by undergraduate college and university faculty and administrators.

Dr. DiYanni has written and edited numerous textbooks, among them, Literature: An Introduction; The Scribner Handbook for Writers (with Pat C. Hoy II); Arts and Culture: An Introduction to the Humanities, (with Janetta Rebold Benton), the basis for a series of lectures given at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Visions, which served as a companion text for the PBS television series Voices and Vision, which aired in the late 1980s.

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