‘Desert Places’ by Robert Frost is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of AABA CCDC, changing end sounds the next two stanzas. The meter of the text is also very consistent, all of the lines contain ten syllables.
One of the most important techniques at play in ‘Desert Places’ is alliteration. It can be seen throughout the text and occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, in the first line four words start with “f”. There are other moments as well such as “stubble showing” and “smooth” and “snow” in lines three and four of the first stanza.
By using alliteration so heavily Frost is able to speed up and slow down the pace at which one reads the text. It works in tandem with the rhyme scheme and metrical pattern to mimic the speed of the falling night and snow. A reader is rushed forward, only to be pulled back suddenly to marvel at the emptiness of the land, and eventually the speaker’s spirit.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Desert Places
In the first stanza the speaker outline what’s going on around him. The snow and the night sky are coming down fast. He pauses to look at the ground and realizes that there’s already a lot of snow fall. It has almost covered everything. The absence of plant life, or anything else but snow, on the ground makes the speaker consider the rest of the world around him.
It is influencing the ground, the trees and the animals in their lairs. But, it is also influencing the speaker. He is reminded of his own loneliness when he looks out at the empty landscape. Frost concludes the poem with his speaker stating that any image of loneliness in the wider world does not scare him, he has enough “desert places” inside his own mind.
Analysis of Desert Places
In the first stanza of the poem the speaker describes two things that are falling. The “Snow” and the “night” are, in different ways, both falling down onto the land. He emphasizes, through repetition, the fact that the night is coming on “fast, oh fast”. These are emotional observations that come to the speaker as he is moving through the snowy landscape. He was “in a field” and going “past” when he noticed how the ground was almost “covered…/ in snow”.
There was so much on the ground that it had smoothed everything out, almost anyway. The pure whiteness had yet to obscure a “few weeds and stubble” of grasses and plowed land sticking up. These were the last of everything else that is now hidden under the layer of snow. It has come to the land fast, wiped out, visually anyway, most of the the variations in the ground.
The absence of plant life, or anything else but snow, on the ground makes the speaker consider the rest of the world around him. He notes that the “woods around it have it” and that “it is theirs”. This isn’t strange, considering the amount of snow and how it has changed the ground. The violent word “smothered” is used in line two, alluding to the fact that the snow is not helping the animals. It is flattening them out as well, forcing them down into their “lairs” where it is dark and from which, at this point, there is no escape.
The feels of absence, compaction and smothering are also influencing the speaker. He turns back inward the third line to state that he is just as “absent-spirited” as the rest of the world seems. The emotion is part of his body. It has changed him in ways that are too numerous to count. His loneliness in this moment is so strong that he doesn’t quite know how to deal with it. It caught him off guard.
There is no way for a reader to get through this poem without realizing that loneliness is the most important theme. In the third stanza Frost’s speaker uses the word three times. He goes back to what he was saying before, noting that he said he was extremely lonely. He adds onto this that he is only going to “be more lonely” before it “will be less”. His loneliness is not done with him yet and he’s prepared to get more entrenched in the whiteness and smothering thickness of the snow before relief comes.
Frost’s speaker is pushed deeper into depression as he observes the snow for longer. Using alliteration with the repetition of the letters “b” and “n” he describes how there is absolutely nothing to the landscape. Everything that was once there has been blotted out. There are no expressions (in the land or in himself) nor is there anything to “express”.
Although the speaker has been influenced by the scene around him, and reminded of his own inner turmoil, it is not the absence inherent in the snow that bothers him so much. In this stanza he acknowledges that “They” are trying to scare him “with their empty spaces”. But, he adds, it isn’t working. It might be empty “Between” and “on” the stars, but there are much emptier places within the speaker’s mind. He has his own “desert places” to contend with.