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In “Desert Places,” Robert Frost describes the snowfall upon a field as darkness falls in passing. By first impression, it seems to be a simplistic idealist image of nature. However, beneath the surface of the snow, Frost breathes darker undertones into this pastoral place. The dark undertones give away to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, suffocation, and loneliness, all common symptoms of depression. “Desert Places” uses its wintry landscape’s elements as parallels to the symptoms and effects of mental depression.
Just as depression can quickly loom upon a person, the night comes upon the speaker admiring the field. The “night fall[s] fast, oh, fast” upon the speaker. The “oh” and the repetition of “fast” create a sense of hopelessness and uncontrollability of the situation. A common symptom of depression is hopelessness, and the fact that the speaker has no control over the night’s fall or the snowfall relates to this. “The loneliness includes [the speaker] unawares,” showing how little control the speaker has over the situation. They are unable to stop the loneliness from covering them like the night and snow cover the field. The speaker states “the ground [is] almost covered smooth in snow,” and that the “animals are smothered in their lairs.” Everything is encompassed by the snow, as the speaker is passively encompassed by the loneliness. The sense of covering, smothering, and suffocating parallels the effects of depression upon a person. They feel overwhelmed by depression, just as the field’s living creatures and plants are overwhelmed by the winter. In a sense, depression sends its sufferers into an emotional winter, stopping all life. The sense of suffocation also relates to the idea of burial and conjures ideas of death. It seems as if the burying of all these plants and animals relate to the burying of a dead person. Perhaps this can be seen as even suicidal. Everything in the field is being buried and covered, and parallels the many effects of depression.
The weaving rhyme scheme of AABA CCDC EEFE GGHG also creates the sense of covering over. If one were to draw a line in each stanza from each rhyming word to the next, it would create a bow over the third line, hovering over it. The prevailing rhyme of each stanza suffocates the one word that does not rhyme; it is lost in the sound of the dominant rhyme. Yet, each stanza’s rhyme scheme is independent of one another, showing the lack of connection between the speaker and their life. Although everything seems to click, it really does not. Although the pattern remains, the rhyming noise does not, and this only seems to show further the lack of connection between the speaker and their emotional state. Depression causes one to disconnect from their life and the rhyme scheme reflects such.
The speaker also states that they are “absent-spirited.” The “spirit” of one’s self is considered the breath of life, the animating or vital principle in man; yet the speaker realizes that theirs is withdrawn, and they have become passively a victim of the darkness, the loneliness, and depression. The fact that the speaker is to “absent-spirited to count” can mean many things. If we take the speaker to be Robert Frost, it could mean the counting of beats and feet within a poem. It also can mean to include in something, as in “count me in.” In this sense, the speaker would be addressing the fact that they are too withdrawn to be included in the activities of life. Again, this all parallels the effects of depression. The speaker is too withdrawn, too suffocated in their own emotional winter to be apart of whatever events and actions of their life. They are lost in their own winter field of depression; they are the foliage and animals smothered in depression’s darkness of snow. One cannot stop the sun from setting or the snow from falling, just as the speaker feels they cannot stop their depression.
There is so much movement throughout the first two stanzas even though there is nothing living in the field. The night is falling, the snow is falling, and the speaker is passing. The sense of movement creates restlessness in the poem, and puts the reader almost on edge, just as depression does to the sufferer. Frost succeeds in bringing the reader into the depression. The reader should also note that there is all this action without anything actually living. When one is depressed, they act without feeling, without life, just as nature is acting without anything living. The plants are dead beneath the snow, “the animals are smothered” beneath the snow. Everything seems to be moving, yet nothing is alive.
As the evening turns into the night, the snow clouds clear and the movement in the poem stops. In this pausing moment, the speaker reflects upon the unchanging blanket of snow and the stars in the sky. The speaker states that the “blanker whiteness of benighted snow” has “no expression” and “nothing to express.” “Benighted” here can literally mean the how the field is overtaken by the darkness of the night, but can also figuratively mean being involved in intellectual or moral darkness. The darkness leaves the snow and the speaker expressionless and blank, and even leaves them with “nothing to express.” This relates to depression’s ability to take away the enjoyment of life and create the feeling of numbness. The stars left in the sky only seem to emphasize the empty spaces between them to the speaker. The speaker does not address their hopeful light perhaps, or their beauty, he only connects them to the empty space of the field and loneliness. There is no human race up there, there is no companionship, and again the loneliness prevails. He personifies all the natural elements stating, “They cannot scare me with their empty spaces.” The speaker is reflecting here that all the darkness and loneliness of nature is nothing compared to the darkness and loneliness of their mind. He states, “I have it in me so much nearer home/To scare myself with my own desert places.” Just as the snow leaves the field deserted and dark, depression does the same to the sufferer.
However, the last stanza can also be seen as ironically positive in comparison to the previous stanzas. If the wintery landscape is a metaphor for depression, then the fact that its empty spaces do not scare the speaker can be seen as a good thing. Perhaps the speaker is saying that beyond all this there is hope that he will prevail over this. In addition, “desert” can also mean deserving and worthy of merit. Perhaps the speaker using the word’s double meaning ironically, to state how it is the dark, uninhabited places of himself that make him worth of merit. Perhaps it is not the desolation within him that scares him, but rather the meritoriousness within him that does. The statement “And lonely as it is that loneliness/Will be more lonely ere it will be less” shows that the speaker believes that it can only get worse before it can better. The reader can see this as positive; perhaps the speaker realizes this loneliness and depression will lift.
The many contrasting images in the poem continue bouncing the reader between juxtaposing ideas. The darkness of night contrasts itself upon the whiteness of the snow, the stars show bright against a dark sky, and a wet snowy wintery field parallels to a dry desert. The brightness of the stars, however, only emphasizes the dark spaces between them for the speaker, and that sense of negativity really completes the parallel between this winter scene and depression. Although there glimmers hope for the speaker to realize that it must be dark before it can be light, for the speaker it seems that the light only emphasizes the suffocating night.
This winter landscape of “Desert Places” describes the landscape of depression—dark, cold, and frozen. Depression is helpless. It is hopeless and it is suffocating. The sufferer is withdrawn, they are restless, they are lifeless, and they are numb. Robert Frost successful draws the reader into the speaker’s loneliness and affectively recreates the emotional devastation of depression. The reader is only left to wonder if the speaker ever finds their way out of their desert places. The few contrasting moments of brightness and the idea that things must get worse before they can get better ironically show a positive light to the distress of depression. Frost uses “Desert Places” to bring his audience into depression, making it more than just a simple bad day, but something to be taken seriously.
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