Understanding poetry can be a difficult task. This sample literature essay explores Jean Rhys and Robert Frost, two of the most famous poets of the 20th century, each offer different understandings of the ways in which individuals can find themselves and evolve to understand the path of the individual.
Jean Rhys and Robert Frost
Literary traditions including Gilgamesh, Ovid, and Dante’s Inferno have emphasized the journey and hero, the outcast, and the mundane individual, and, beyond Jean Rhys “I Used to Live Here Once” and Robert Frost’s “The Road not taken,” there is no exception to this literary tradition.
Both of these poems possess their own literary nuances, and they confound the reader by presenting ostensible themes but simultaneously entrenching ambiguity between the lines of the text. While many interpretations revolve around the open-ended conclusions of the texts, this paper will explore and demonstrate the mean by which these poems present the archetypal journey of the individual.
Crossroads of a path
From the onset, both poems present two characters at the cross road of some unidentifiable path. The absence of concrete identities of both characters function to universalize the texts and coaxes the reader to personalize the themes. Ostensibly, these poems both present romantic, beautifully crafted musings about life’s journey and melodramatic reflections of solitude. In fact, most references to these poems, especially “The road not taken,” devolve into over-simplified interpretations. In his own analysis, John Savoie (2005) relates,
of the many collections of Frost and the innumerable anthologies, the poem, or at least its “irreducible bits,” lives on in calendars, greeting cards, advertisements, journalistic allusions, sermons, graduation speeches, casual conversations, and private conceptions of individualism. Some ninety years since the poem’s genesis and more than a generation since Frost’s death, this most American of poems has conspicuously lent titles to best-sellers in the most American of genres, self-help popular psychology and country music’ (p.5).
Rhys’ work and her victim
Rhys’ work also falls victim, though on a smaller scale, to these same ostensible traps. The overt spiritual, abstract journey of her persona lends itself to over-simplified platitudes that can be reduced to bumper sticker slogans and other idle platitudes. Confronting the ambiguity of these texts unearths the deeper themes buried within them, which sabotages the simplicity that these poems are often interpreted with.
Highlighting the ambiguity of both texts allows any analysis to account for a deeper reading that is not nearly as “clean” as the aforementioned simplistic ones. As Rhys’ persona hopelessly reaches out to the small children in the last paragraph, she comes to the “cold” realization that she isolated, ostracized, and most likely even dead (para 6). However, the passage from the previous stanza may challenge any interpretation that the persona has indeed died:
“Very fair children, as Europeans born in the West Indies so often are: as if the white blood is asserting itself against all the odds” (para. 4).
This reference to race may point to Rhys’ own observations and judgments concerning her privileged upbringing in Dominicana. Following the death of her father in 1910, Rhys began to carouse with a group referred to as the demimonde, which was defined by its hedonistic lifestyle, deeply at odds with the morality of the British Aristocracy. Refusing to return to her family in the Caribbean and in on the verge of being a pauper, Rhys posed nude for artists in Britain.
Social norms in poetry
Surely Rhys lifestyle was at odds with what was deemed acceptable in British high society, and it can be reasonably inferred that she felt isolated from her community, which may explain the isolation her persona feels in “I used to live here once.” Moreover, the specific reference to white children may further refer to her isolation from racist white society along with the sympathy she carried for the Negro population in Dominicana:
“Rhys identified with the Negro community in her childhood, and indeed throughout her life…She envied the Negro community its vitality and often contrasts the sterility of the white world with the richness and splendor of black life” (Jean Rhys, n.d., para 3).
As the final line of the last stanza of the poem ostensibly suggests that Rhys is alluding to her own death, looking back, Rhys’ biography creates another tenable analysis of the text, which may provide a more cogent analysis, especially in light of her chronological position in the modernist era.
Melancholy themes in Rhys and Frost’s poems
The melancholy mood that consumes the reader throughout the poem underscores Rhys’ struggle and perhaps the universal struggle of those who are trapped between to worlds and denied the solace that comes along with community and identity.
In enveloping her poem with a morose tone, perhaps Rhys does greater justice to the human condition. Oversimplified romanticizing about this struggle seems to betray the value of that journey. Indeed, Lucy Wilson(1989) further relates Edwards Said’s analysis of this topic:
“To think of exile as beneficial, as a spur to humanism or to creativity, is to belittle its mutilations. For exile is fundamentally a discontinuous state of being. Exiles are cut off from their roots, heir land, their past” (p.69).
However, Rhys was part of the modernist movement, which attempted to undermine the misrepresentations of reality made by linear narratives. She also joined other modernist writers in endeavoring to represent the chaos of life in modern urban spaces. Her characters manifest the difficulties of the modern city, the intense “nervous stimulation,” as Georg Simmel puts it:
“which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli” (Linett, 2005, p.440).
Death and the endless journey to nothingness
Just as “I used to live here once” can be lazily interpreted as some abstract monolog about death, Frost’s “The road not taken” easily lends itself to these oversimplified musings about the human’s journey into Neverwhere. Moreover, Frost’s poem also confronts the reader with a narrative that, when examined closely, presents dizzying contractions. However, most readers focus on the kinship they feel with Frost as he seemingly champions individualism and the courage to blaze new paths.
The contradiction built into Frost’s poem lies with his road. Although Frost’s persona suggests that the road he chose has taken has made all the difference, he simultaneously claims that other is “just as fair.” William Pritchard(1984) explains, for the large moral meaning which “The Road Not Taken” seems to endorse – go, as I did, your own way, take the road less traveled by, and it will make “all the difference”-does not maintain itself when the poem is looked at more carefully.
Then one notices how insistent is the speaker on admitting, at the time of his choice, that the two roads were in appearance “really about the same,” that they “equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black,” and that choosing one rather than the other was a matter of impulse, impossible to speak about any more clearly than to say that the road taken had “perhaps the better claim”(para 12).
Analyzing Rhys and Frost’s poetry
When this contradiction is realized, then the poem takes on an entirely new meaning and subverts decades of analysis and oversimplification. Considering Mr. Pritchard’s analysis, “The road not taken” transforms into an existential narrative concerning the journey of life. From this perspective, the struggle to find meaning and identity underlie the narratives of both Frost’s and Rhys’ work.
Robert Frost and existentialist philosophy
Understanding some basic tenants of Existentialist philosophy (which is probably a misnomer in of itself) may help to shed light on the prevalent themes of “The road not taken.” Given that Sartre was the only Philosopher to ever identify himself as an Existentialist, it would be certainly misleading to suggest that Frost was an existentialist; however, examining the work from this perspective allows for an analysis devoid of oversimplified platitudes.
Robert Frost himself even indicated that he thought “The road not taken” would confound and mislead many readers. John Savoie (2005) relates, “Frost himself was well aware of what a popular yet difficult poem he had written. At one public reading, he warned his audience “to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem-very tricky.” Later he remarked, ‘TH bet not half a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my ‘Road Not Taken'” (p15). Examining “The Road not Taken” from the work of Friedrich Nietzsche offers a new interpretation concerning the journey of Frost’s persona.
The gay science and “God is Dead”
This analysis necessitates a cursory review of Nietzsche’s 343 aphorisms from his work The Gay Science. Many are familiar with Nietzsche’s pronouncement claiming God is dead. Many mistake this as Nietzsche’s belief. While he was indeed an Athiest, his pronouncement was his own prognosis of society, for Europe’s pervasive religious apathy had killed God, not Nietzsche. He explains:
“The greatest recent event—that God is dead, that the belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable—is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe. For the few at least whose eyes—the suspicion in whose eyes is strong and subtle enough for this spectacle, some sun seems to have set and some ancient and profound trust has been turned into doubt; to them our old world must appear daily more like evening, more mistrustful, stranger, “older.” (Nietzsche, n.d.)
Elimination of God in poetry
Nietzsche relates this news with enthusiasm because, from his perspective, with the elimination of God and the ethics of Christianity comes to a freedom for the individual to find meaning and value independent of the constructs of Christianity:
“at long last, our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea” (Nietzsche, n.d.).
This idea of the open sea and the individual’s opportunity to navigate that sea offers the context to evaluate “The road not taken” from an existentialist perspective. As Frost’s persona stands before the two roads, he (or she) figuratively stands before Nietzsche’s open sea, absolutely free to choose his own path. Furthermore, this Nietzschean perspective reconciles this aforementioned paradox concerning the personas claim that no substantive difference exists between the two roads.
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Hawthorne, N. (n.d.). Preface, The House of the Seven Gables,by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1851. Eldritch Press. Retrieved March 26, 2013, from http://www.eldritchpress.org/nh/sgpf.html
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Nietzsche, F. (n.d.). Selections from Nietzsche, The Gay Science. UW Faculty Web Server. Retrieved March 26, 2013, from http://faculty.washington.edu/cbehler/teaching/coursenotes/Texts/selNietzGay.html
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Rhys, J. (n.d.). I used to live here once. wordpress.com. Retrieved March 18, 2013, from khristinagonzalez.files.wordpress.com/…/c2a0i
Savoie, J. (2004). A Poet’s Quarrel: Jamesian Pragmatism and Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. The New England Quartely, 77(1), 5-24. Retrieved March 18, 2013, from the ProQuest Library database.
Wilson, L. (1989). European or Caribbean: Jean Rhys and the Language of Exile. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 10(3), 68-72. Retrieved March 19, 2013, from the JSTOR database.