In his book Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye argued that poetry (and art in general) when taken as a whole express the totality of human experience, including our inner, subjective responses to our experience.
To put this in Frye’s own words, literature is “a total form and literary experience as part of the continuum of life, in which one of the poet’s functions is to visualize the goals of human work” (Anatomy of Criticism, 115).
Frye saw this “continuum of life” in terms of interlocking cycles of experience that are broadly shared by human beings. These cycles take on two different shapes: recurrent patterns in nature (turning of the seasons, phases of the moon, day to night) and the linear progression from birth to death. According to Frye, literature as a whole is an “encyclopedia” of human experience, mapped in terms of these interlocking and overlapping patterns.
These natural cycles provide a rich vocabulary of images, sounds, and other sensations that poets use as “natural symbols” to bridge the gap between their own particular insight and experience and the shared experience of human beings in general. We have come to associate sunrise with hope and expectation, for instance—much the same with images of spring, like budding leaves or new-grown grass. Here is a rough (and very incomplete) index of images and settings that are often used in poetry to evoke particular phases of these natural cycles.
Before continuing, I should note that the index above, like much of Frye’s anatomy, is somewhat culture-bound. The conception of “seasons” in his anatomy probably applies most effectively the literature of a Euro-North American culture where the change of seasons (and the relationship of those seasons to agriculture) was a crucial element of their experience–not to mention more or less the norm. With that limitation in mind, we can think of a poem as an “entry” that catalogues a particular human experience on these overlapping or intersecting time lines.
The “seasonal” profile of a poem is rarely simple, however. We find very few poems that are pure “spring” or pure “sunset” in their seasonal evocations or in the emotional values associated with them. And as the index above suggests, there are both cyclical (repeating) elements to the timeline (season, time of day) as well as linear ones–which themselves can represent the birth-to-death story of a community or a civilization as well as that of an individual person. (Think of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” as an illustration of some of these points.) Often these different cycles overlap in ways that produce complex tensions, especially in the emotional responses they evoke.
Let’s consider the “life-cycle” elements (including their emotional or experiential correlatives) of a hypothetical poem. In this poem a young woman, expecting her first child, stands at the grave of her mother. It’s winter, but the sun has been up a couple of hours and has melted away the snow to reveal the now-dried-out remains of flowers that had been placed on the grave, some months earlier—perhaps at the funeral of the woman’s mother. As the cold wind rustles the desiccated remains of the memorial flowers, it makes a sound that reminds the young woman of “the voices of adults as they try not to wake the children.”
Obviously, the “seasonal” aspects of this poem are complex, and distributed in interesting ways.
- First, the main character (the pregnant young woman) embodies in her person both summer (her youth) and spring (the new life she is carrying).
- The seasonal setting is winter, associated with death. This is reinforced by the dried-out flowers on the grave.
- However, the time of day is morning, and the warmth of the sun has melted away the snow, in a kind of anticipation of a spring that is yet to come, but some time in the future.
- Finally, we need to figure out what to do with the metaphor in which the dead flowers take on the life and voice of adults “whispering so as not to wake the children.”
As we can see from our hypothetical example, all elements of a poem don’t necessary line up perfectly according to this matrix. In most poems (most interesting ones, at least) there is a dominant season, but there are also elements that provide tension or opposition to make the emotions of the poem more complex. A “winter” poem for instance may still have suggestions of hope (associated with spring), just as a “summer” poem may have dark anticipations of autumn or even winter.
In the case of our hypothetical poem, the young woman’s sadness at her mother’s passing is countered by her anticipation and hope for the new life she is carrying. And the seasonal imagery of the poem (not just winter, but morning, melting snow) provides a concrete trigger for this mixed set of emotions.
Such complexities are not a defect in the poem; they help hold the reader’s attention and engage the reader’s experience and emotion across a wider spectrum than a less complicated set of images might.
Let’s look at one more example that may help illustrate the usefulness of paying attention to the seasonal aspects of a poem–Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Some may know the poem by heart, but here it is:
And miles to go before I sleep.
This is clearly a “winter” poem (and a “night” one), beginning with the title. Furthermore the setting–an isolated wood–clearly evokes the scene of the “winter waste,” and the speaker tells us s/he is alone except for the impatient and puzzled horse drawing the carriage. Using the index above we would, in other words, expect this to be a poem about death, or at least the contemplation of dying.
And certainly if we were reading the poem in terms of the linear time line of the individual human life cycle, we would be directed toward that idea. I am guessing that is why so many readers of the poem infer that the speaker is either an old man approaching death or someone contemplating suicide. (The “lovely, dark, and deep” line makes the idea of death–whether or not by suicide–actually seem seductive and comforting.)
But if we put these symbolic associations up against the cyclical implications of the poem’s details, a more complex and interesting picture emerges. That “darkest evening of the year,” of course, is the winter solstice, the date on the calendar with the fewest minutes of sunlight. But that is as much a moment of beginning as much as of an end; from there the days only get longer. Spring is still a long way off, but the speaker’s foreknowledge of this fact, of the ever-turning cycle of the seasons, focuses his attention on what is yet to come, to be done, to be experienced.
It’s also the case, examining the grid above, that the relative isolation of the speaker is something usually associated with early childhood and its pre-social consciousness, as well as with the stages at the end of the life cycle, as the individual faces his or her own mortality with an increasing sense of aloneness. In other words the speaker is poised in a moment that suggests either the oblivion of death or a retreat to infancy (an extreme ending or beginning, of which the winter solstice is both).
That the speaker ends the poem with a sense of social obligations (“But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep”) suggests that he or she is anticipating or identifying with the middle phases of the life cycle–most likely late summer or early fall, in which the full obligations and powers of adulthood are primary. Even in the isolation of the “winter waste” or poised at the birth of a new calendar cycle, the narrator retains a peripheral awareness of the obligations and rules of social life, including property relations (“Whose woods these are I think I know / His house is in the village though”). He resolves to move on, into the new year and toward that network of relationships associated with middle adulthood and settled civilization.
I’m not claiming that my analysis here is either complete or superior to other takes on Frost’s poem. In some ways it may not add much to your own interpretation or understanding. My point has been to show us how an awareness of Frye’s seasonal schema can help us arrive at an understanding of the poem’s inner dynamics, and to become more conscious about our own meaning-making processes as we read. It may feel obvious and intuitive (“Well, of course that ‘darkest night of the year’ can suggest death!”), but that’s part of Frye’s point–in a sense we are wired by our own experience to make these symbolic inferences. But a poem gathers its power and mystery not by being any one thing or completely of any one season, but rather by overlaying, juxtaposing, and sometimes ironically reversing the powerful “natural” symbolism of the cycle of the seasons.
Frost, Robert. “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” 1923. In The Poetry of Robert Frost. Ed. Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1969.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton UP, 1957.