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Wounded by Beauty: Robert Frost, Douglas McKelvey, and Hope in Sorrow

“We feel ourselves wounded by what is wretched, foul, and fell, but we are sometimes wounded by the beauty as well, for when it whispers, it whispers of the world that might have been our birthright, now banished…” —Douglas McKelvey, Every Moment Holy

It’s currently snowing as I write this in Michigan. In these northern parts, nature is lovely all year round (except for our mucky pre-Spring), but it’s downright resplendent when it’s snowy. But even our most spectacular winter wonderlands are mere mud pies compared with a New England winter. Just Google some pictures for proof; there’s snow everywhere—thick, sparkling, brilliant snow stilling the bustle of the villages, bowing the shoulders of the ancient evergreens, and beckoning you to the glowing hearth of a farmhouse. This is winter’s splendor at its best.

If beauty alone were enough to instill joy in the heart, then Robert Frost should have been elated. After all, he was surrounded by New England nature; even his name connotes the smell of fresh-tilled earth, the swaying of the wind in the trees, and the commemoration of nature in verse. But, as you know, beauty is not enough to spark joy—at least not for everyone all the time. As Douglas McKelvey observes above, it’s possible to be “wounded by the beauty” as well as brokenness. This may be especially true for poets.

In his masterful little gem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Robert Frost seems to celebrate the beauty of a winter night. The snow, the silence, the darkness, loneliness, and unsettling last line…wait, what? As you may know, many of his poems are like flowers: small and lovely, but concealing a dark tangle of roots below the surface. A little digging in the dirt of this poem reveals that Frost, like many of us, feels sadness in the face of beauty as well. Can you hear it in the lines below?

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

Despite the beauty of this moonlit winterscape, the poet seems solemn. Why so serious? Because the scene only serves to remind him of his solitude. In fact, within these four short stanzas, we find accusation, loneliness, and reluctant endurance.

He starts by musing about the owner of the woods, a man with a distant house and more important matters to attend to. Is it a stretch to see Frost’s view of God here? I don’t think so. Whatever his religion (which he purposely left ambiguous), he sure didn’t see God as loving and involved. Here he subtly accuses God of being remote and unaware. As untrue as that may be, I know many of us have felt the same way before, and at those times the vast beauty of the world only adds insult to injury. If God is so grand and so distant, how can he possibly see or care?

On the days you find yourself tempted to stay in the woods, remember those who need you to keep your promises and travel the miles with them. They’re keeping the hearth warm for you, even on the darkest evening of the year. Emily Zaiser Wade

Frost doesn’t find much solace on earth, either. He’s surrounded by beauty, but it feels dark, cold, and silent to him. On the “darkest evening of the year,” he stops “between the woods and frozen lake” with no friendly fireside in sight. He is alone. In fact, the only inquiry after his welfare and intentions is the shake of his horse’s harness bells. We, too, often feel isolated despite a home to return to and a contact list full of friends. Even the beauty of a song, a story, or a family gathering can strike a chord of sadness in our hearts, and we don’t know why. Frost’s struggle is not foreign to us.

But the poet doesn’t seem repelled by this bleak midwinter scene; rather, he calls the woods “lovely.” He is content to stop and stay indefinitely, watching the ground stack higher and higher with muffling blankets of snow. Maybe if he sits there long enough, it will cover him up, too. (He considers a similar escape in his masterful poem, “Birches.”) The wind whispers that no one would notice if he disappeared forever. To me, this is the most sobering part of the poem. It’s a reminder that no one is immune to despair’s lies: no one sees, no one cares, no one would miss me.

In the face of such isolation, darkness, and silence, what is Frost’s conclusion? Does he heed the siren song toward hopelessness and oblivion? No. Like the flick of his horse’s bells, he shakes off his trance-like meditations and calls to mind his duty to return home. Before he succumbs to “sleep” (a sleep that would not end at sunrise), he must travel many more miles. Although with a weary resignation, he chooses to persevere.

Now, we may be surprised by how much we relate with Frost. As believers, surely we’re exempt from such sorrow, right? If only that were true. The fall brought the curse of death, decay, and brokenness on all things, and our hearts are no exception.

So is there any hope? You’d better believe it! For those who weep over beauty, brokenness, and life in general, be encouraged. As McKelvey observes above, we’ve been banished from union with Eden’s beauty. “We cannot mingle with the splendours we see,” says C. S. Lewis. But the good news is that “all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.” While we can relate to Frost’s sentiments, we also have a tremendous hope: we believe that one day God will take “the ache of all creation and turn it inside-out.” Hallelujah! Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

So next time beauty brings a tear to your eye and a tightness to your chest, thank God. The Author of all beautiful things is drawing you to himself. No matter how lovely this world may be, it’s not our true home; it’s only the far country. Our sorrow in the face of banishment is a reminder of this.

Realistically, this truth will be hard to feel at times. On the days you find yourself tempted to stay in the woods, remember those who need you to keep your promises and travel the miles with them. They’re keeping the hearth warm for you, even on the darkest evening of the year.

And, while the village may feel distant, the One who owns the woods is much nearer than you think.


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