Years ago, a fellow writer told me that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was one of his favorite poems. As another writer who rarely reads poetry, I agreed. Beautiful and haunting. “Haunting?” he said. Sure. The narrator seems to be contemplating suicide, or perhaps fantasizing about his own end.
The writer was incredulous. He was upset. Ridiculous, he said. It’s a pastoral scene, a remark on the beauty and peace of winter and how the seasons relate to the span of our lives. I didn’t argue. Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps Frost’s sleep is a peaceful one, a completion. Perhaps the promises are immediate, a delivery to a friend or a dinner engagement with a loved one. I’m not one to trot out ultimate interpretations. But his objections seemed more like willing ignorance.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The bolded lines are, I think, what lead people like me to believe that the narrator is contemplating death, perhaps even suicide. The narrator has stopped “without a farmhouse near” on “the darkest evening of the year”; the owner of the property “will not see [him] stopping [there]”. He’s accompanied only by his horse, and is transfixed by the woods, “lovely, dark and deep”. How easily he could step off the road and disappear.
There is a reason to believe that Frost’s poem may have meaning beyond that of a rural scene, a “word painting,” a happy, harmless sentiment. How does one escape the narrator’s reluctant return to the road in the face of what he seems to desire most, the quiet oblivion of the forest?
I was reminded of this writer when I came across a listicle the other day: 5 things ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ got right 50 years ago that still ring true right now. (Only five?) The author pulls quotes from the book to confer a series of life lessons in the form of neatly rendered slogans, common stock among websites like Upworthy and Buzzfeed peddling feel-good clickbait advertisements for social media.
Four out of five of the “lessons” are innocuous, mostly apolitical. Lesson #4, however, presents a gross misrepresentation of Atticus’ closing speech; so much so, in fact, that her interpretation of the quote she pulled out of context attempts to prove a point directly opposite to that made by Atticus.
Here’s the quote she pulled from To Kill a Mockingbird:
We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe
Here’s the “lesson”:
Privilege is real. From race to baking cakes. Sometimes you’re born into it, and sometimes you’re born with it.
Here’s the quote, italicized, in context. The bolded parts are relevant to the arguments following.
Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal… There is a tendency… for certain people to use this phrase of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious—because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority. We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe—some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cake than others—some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men.
But there is one way in this country which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man equal of an Einstein, and an ignorant man equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honourable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human constitution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
As a term, “privilege” is a bit of a moving target. For some, the term seems to comprehensively describe symptom, diagnoses and prognoses; for others it has a lighter meaning, a more general awareness of class and associated behaviors. Common among those who use the term is a prescription of some sort, urging or demanding acknowledgement of one’s privilege or lack thereof, and expecting appropriate behavior according to one’s place in the progressive stack. Often these are strident calls for what used to be called common decency. Sometimes they go beyond, calling for a Marxian-styled new human, properly educated, properly placed and under the eye of one or another expert, who adopts a necessary, paternal role in the process. Put more simply, the term has a complex contemporary meaning.
I won’t guess as to how the author uses it precisely. But as you see, in the above quote, Atticus does acknowledge differences in opportunity, race, ability and other human attributes. We are not born equal. Individuals are different. But for him, this is supplementary, a statement of the obvious, a component of a larger argument, not a sufficient condition of injustice requiring a particular action. In fact, Atticus seems downright in opposition to efforts seeking to equalize in the fashion of some modern civil rights activists:
The most ridiculous example I can think of is that people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious — because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority.
Terrible feelings of inferiority. What animates our modern advocates for social justice more than the perceived/predicted feelings of groups for whom they often attempt to speak? Would the author of the article agree with Atticus’ argument, that efforts to democratize public education are ridiculous, that school administrators are fools for trying to spare the feelings of some children at the expense of others’ educational opportunities? Atticus turns that notion of equality on its head. He outright ridicules it.
For Atticus, the miscarriage of justice lies not in the discrepancies between the varying attributes of individuals; it lies in the discrepancy between how the law is applied to blacks and whites, in the very place where all people are supposed to be equal: before the law.
The point is obvious when the entire passage is considered, when the quote is placed properly in context. The distance between the author’s interpretation and one based on a thorough reading of Atticus’ speech (viz., not my shorthanded rebuttal written here) is the distance between the dilettante and the scholar, the sophist and the philosopher.
Rick Roderick, one of my favorite professors of philosophy, said the following regarding the presentation of precisely this sort of orphaned adage by campaigning moral instructors:
I remember studying Shakespeare, and they gave me this quote to remember from Polonius, you know – “To thine own self be true” – this could be the first line of every twelve step plan or therapy: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man”.
Of course, in the context of the play, you realize that Polonius is a bureaucrat, a politician, a windbag, a blowhard, shallow, stupid in his wisdom, is – as I said earlier – just exactly the banality of a common mind, but yet at grade school we teach this.
See how smart Shakespeare was? He was smart enough to show that that wasn’t wisdom – that kind of commonplace crap wasn’t wisdom – he was that smart, and more.
Even if there is no ultimate interpretation of a work, there are certainly shades of better and worse. The better are, at the very least, logical and obey some rule of non-contradiction. The best are comprehensive, taking for granted that every word, every phrase and every line in a work by Frost or Shakespeare or Lee has meaning and purpose, leading to or emanating from the central theme and thesis.