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What is poetry?
What is poetry?

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5.5 Quatrains

The following poem is comprised of four quatrains.

Desert places

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.

As 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.

(Robert Frost)

The neatness and regularity of the quatrains emphasises the smooth evenness of a landscape blanketed with snow; the form thus reiterates the theme. The poem’s effect comes from a simple yet formal accumulation of landscape detail.

In this poem, each stanza moves the theme forward, by developing or extrapolating from the previous stanza. The initial stanza sets the scene, with natural description. We infer the narrator has been walking near fields silenced by snow.

The first line of the second stanza introduces a new level to the poem, since we can’t be completely sure what the narrator means by: ‘The woods around it have it – it is theirs’. The narrator might not have known either, at first, but by the end of the stanza, he is beginning to understand, just as we are.

In the third stanza we begin to realise that the blank expression of the snow and the loneliness perhaps apply to the narrator as well as to the landscape.

In the last stanza we rocket upwards into the vast loneliness of space, which is nothing to the loneliness the narrator can feel on Earth. There is no actual menace in this landscape, although we can sense a certain momentary terror that the utter loneliness described, once elucidated and emphasised by the place, cannot be ignored, even in the busiest of places. There is no awful deity or devil with an agenda. On the contrary, this is all there is, and this is simply the way things are. The narrator has read into this place the isolation of his very mind, itself snowed in.

Activity 16

In the following poem, the movement of the quatrains represents movement of time and place. Where does the poem speed up? And how is that pacing relevant to the images employed, and to the theme of the entire poem? How does the poem progress in each stanza?

Soap suds

This brand of soap has the same smell as once in the big

House he visited when he was eight: the walls of the bathroom open

To reveal a lawn where a great yellow ball rolls back through a hoop

To rest at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child.

And these were the joys of that house: a tower with a telescope;

Two great faded globes, one of the earth, one of the stars;

A stuffed black dog in the hall; a walled garden with bees;

A rabbit warren; a rockery; a vine under glass; the sea.

To which he has now returned. The day of course is fine

And a grown-up voice cries Play! The mallet slowly swings,

Then crack, a great gong booms from the dog-dark hall and the ball

Skims forward through the hoop and then through the next and then

Through hoops where no hoops were and each dissolves in turn

And the grass has grown head-high and an angry voice cries Play!

But the ball is lost and the mallet slipped long since from the hands

Under the running tap that are not the hands of a child.

(Louis MacNeice)


When a poem shifts in time like this it must do so with absolute clarity. In the first stanza, a simple activity reminds the narrator of a past time and place, to which he is neatly delivered, along with the croquet ball moving backwards, to rest ‘at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child’. The second stanza’s description spills over into the third stanza, when the powerful voice of the adult, saying ‘Play!’, and the ‘crack’ and the ‘great gong’ suddenly cast a sudden pall over this sunny childhood scene.

Now the pace becomes frenetic, helped by the lack of punctuation in the third and fourth stanzas and the string of ‘and’s. The croquet ball, speeding through the hoops, fast-forwards us in time, the grass ‘grown head-high’. The breathless quality of these lines halts temporarily with the second ‘Play!’, by which time the ball has completed its cinematic journey, returning us to the present, to the soap suds and to the narrator as an adult, whose past has been lost. Line-breaks, punctuation and stanzas power this time-travel machine.