10 March 2012

Poems for Lent (15): ‘Desert Places,’ by Robert Frost

White landscape after a snowstorm in desert near Tabuk, north-west Saudi Arabia (Photograph: Mohamed Alhwaity/Reuters)

Patrick Comerford

Lent is a reminder of our own Desert Places – desert places that we make for ourselves and that we have made for us.

I found myself waiting twice this week for injections and medical tests – once for four hours after a long working day. Those four hours became my own little desert for a whole evening.

I was both a patient and patient, as I sat waiting and reading. As I read through the Guardian that evening, I thought of how easy it is to say we make our own deserts and wildernesses and that they are what we make of them.

A photograph that Monday on page 18 of child refugees from Syria, who had fled to border village of Qaa in Lebanon, brought home how people are having desert places made for them in Homs and other parts of Syria. And I recalled what Tacitus once said and how it could be applied to the regime in Damascus: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

The woes of the people in Syria have been compounded in the past week by heavy falls of snow. I had forgotten too that the desert could be place of snow until I turned to page 19 of Monday’s Guardian and then saw a photograph of a Bedouin with camels in the snow in Tabuk in north-west Saudi Arabia. Sitting, waiting for injections and tests, my thoughts turned to Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Desert Places,’ with his images of snow falling, animals in their lairs, and his reminder that:

I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost (1874-1963) is one of the most popular American poets of his generation, and received four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry. The poet and critic Randall Jarrell said Frost, along with Wallace Stevens and TS Eliot, “seems to me the greatest of the American poets” of the last century.

Frost draws on settings from rural life in New England in the early 20th century to examine complex social and philosophical themes, and he combines his realistic depictions of rural life with language and phrases drawn from American colloquial speech.

This poem, which I have chosen as my Poem for Lent this morning, was first published in A Further Range (1936). Some regard this as one of Frost’s bleaker poems, but it is an appropriate poem for contemplation on a Saturday morning in Lent.

Snow blankets Firhouse and Knocklyon at the end of 2010 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Desert Places, by Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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