Sunday, 12 April 2015

Meaning and Idea: "Barter" vs. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

1.   "Barter"
Sara Teasdale

Life has loveliness to sell,
      All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
      Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children's faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
      Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
      Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit's still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
      Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
      Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.

2.    “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
Robert Frost

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 sounds 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.

Meaning and Ideas

Both of these poems present ideas, the first poem (“Barter”)more or less explicitly, the second (“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”) symbolically. Perhaps the best way to get at the idea of the second poem is to ask two questions. First, why does the speaker stop? Second, why does he go on? He stops to watch the woods fill up with snow – to observe a scene of natural beauty. He goes on because he has “promises to keep” – that is, he has obligations to fulfill. He is momentarily torn between his love of beauty and these other various claims that life has upon him. The small conflict in the poem is symbolic of a larger conflict in life. One part of the sensitive, thinking person would like to give up his life to the enjoyment of beauty and art. But another part is aware of larger duties and responsibilities – responsibilities owed, at least in part, to other human beings. The speaker in the poem would like to satisfy both impulses. But when the two conflict, he seems to suggest, the “promises” must take precedence.

The first poem also presents a philosophy but an opposing one. For this poet, beauty is of such supreme value that any conflicting demand should be sacrificed to it: “Spend all you have for loveliness, / buy it and never count the cost ... And for a breath of ecstasy / Give all you have been, or could be.” Thoughtful readers will have to choose between these two philosophies – to commit themselves to one or the other – but this commitment should not destroy for them enjoyment of either poem. If it does, they are reading for plums and not for pies.

From (please credit the following when quoting/citing):
Perrine, L. and Arp, T.R. (1993). Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense (6th Edition). Orlando: Harcourt Brace.

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