Three possibilities present themselves for consideration and discussion: 1. intention, 2. text, 3. interpretation. The meaning, argue some, is to be found in the intention of the author. If we could only know what the author intended then we could know what the story means, or, we could then measure the intention against the accomplishment. This approach is seen in the “let’s call the author” approach to literary criticism. “If anybody knows what’s going on it’s bound to be the author.” This approach would have us study history, psychology, biography and anthropology in order to understand texts. The New Critics reminded us that the text itself is important, although they emphasized it to the exclusion of all else. Authorial intention, they argued, is difficult if not impossible to ascertain, while the artifact itself, the text, is present to be studied. Reader response critics point out that meaning resides in the mind/brain of the reader. Everyone has sat in a literature class and wondered if there was indeed any answer to the problem of multiple interpretation other than the cynical one of giving the teacher what you think she wants.
Here is a record of such a debate centering around a modern and brief poem. “Aren’t you just reading that into the poem?” Very often the English teacher cannot prove the validity of his/her interpretation, try as s/he might to build a logical case: the design s/he has just traced out in the webwork of a poem’s connotations and reverberations (perfectly logical in her eyes) begins to waver as students fire at him with alternative connections, last year’s high school teacher’s equally logical structure, and antagonistic literary critics (“Well, if you’re so hot why haven’t you published?”). As the design melts back into a flow of possible meanings, the teacher stammers his/her appeals to justice, then to mercy, but the class has passed sentence: ring-binders snap shut like so many hungry alligators, and the students march off to physics where issues are clear. The teacher exiles herself to an hour of solitary confinement in her office.
Below is a record of a similar trial, with some concluding judgements. The bone of contention is a poem by Robert Frost:
Dust of Snow
The way the crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
The first testimony took place in the classroom of Norbert Artzt, who had written
the poem on the blackboard, and proceeded to reveal its perfectly logical pattern.
Here is part of his report (printed in College English, April 1971):
“What is on the board?” I ask again.
Someone says “words.”
We have taken the first step. “What do these words do?”
“They make a statement.” …
I digress. “Is the statement a complete one?”…
The answers come. They are seeing the words.
“In what time of year does the thing take place? Is winter a time
of life and growth? What about snow? What about dust?”…
The young man with the long hair is in a frenzy. “The bird is
scattering dust on the poet’s head. He is burying him. Good grief!
He is burying him.”
Everyone feels the chill. They are cold now. They are afraid.
Winter, dust, crow, snow, hemlock tree- the images are coalescing.
The deep structure of the poem is emerging in their heads.
Suddenly the momentum stops.
“But why?” someone asks. “Why if the man gets a premonition
of death does his mood change for the better?”
We move back to “the way”. I ask how the bird shakes the snow
down on the man, why he does it….
The bird is drying his wings or landing or taking off. The bird is
indifferent to the man walking beneath him. I ask what this bird’s
indifferent act might mean in the context of the experience. Some-
one suggests that the meaning may lie in the man’s feeling about
what has happened. The man recognizes that nature is indifferent
to the life of any particular man.
I ask again what the thing on the board has said. The long-haired
boy speaks. He is a genius. He will burn down the White House
some day. “The poet has realized through this experience that
death is inevitable and incalculable. It can come at any time, any
place, to anyone. The poet knows he’s wasting his time in regret,
wasting life.” The boy becomes prophetic; his name is Jeremy. “The
poet has had an epiphany. That is why his mood changes.”
Counter-testimony came from Laurence Perrine – after reading Artzt’s report he wrote, in The Explicator, March, 1972:
“The way” in which a crow shakes down dust of snow on Frost’s
speaker is left unspecified, thus permitting several possibilities. I
can see them chiefly as four: Beautifully, animatedly, cheerily, and
humorously. First the poem presents a scene of visual beauty, black
etched against white, the movement of the scattered snow
counterpoint against the immobility of the evergreen tree. Second,
the action of the crow presents a bit of life and animation in a
scene otherwise frozen and without life. Third, the scattering of the
snow on the speaker is almost an acknowledgment of his presence,
a greeting, a communication between the two living actors in the
scene. Fourth, the snow’s falling on the speaker suggests a touch of
humor, as if the sly crow were playing a practical joke on him. The
beauty of the action, its evidence of life, its suggestion of a greeting
and the touch of humor in it combines to lighten the mood of the
Recounting a very simple incident, Frost strove to give it an
utter simplicity of form and language. His one sentence poem has
only one word with as many as two syllables.
Two additional points. First, the fact that the crow’s action saved
only part of a day the speaker “had rued” does not imply that his
sorrow was too pervasive. He may have made a social blunder, for
instance, and his wife may have spoken sharply to him; but he is
hardly mourning his wife’s death or the loss of a child.
Nevertheless, the point of the poem lies in the discrepancy between
the smallness of the crow’s action and the extent of its effect: it is
this that tells us most about the sensitivity of the speaker, his
responsiveness to beauty and life, and his love of nature.
To judge this case, what voice could be more authoritative than Robert Frost’s? In the film Lover’s Quarrel With the World (1963) he states:
There’s a little poem of mine, an old one. It goes like this. (He
recites “Dust of Snow”.) See now. Let’s look at that fair and square.
(He recites it again, more slowly.) And someone says to
me,”Very sinister poem!” And I said, “Sinister?” “Yes, the crow, the
crow is a black bird.” And I said, “The crow figures all sorts of
ways, but all right , I don’t argue. And what more?” “The hemlock
tree.” And I said, “Yes?” And he said, “but Socrates, Socrates –
death of Socrates.” Well you get surprises in this world. I never
thought of that. I live with hemlock trees, and it’s not the weed that
Socrates drank at all. And it’s all wrong with the tree. I’m partly
just as much from the city as the country. But I’m a little more
country than city. And I know what a hemlock tree is.
Yet there is a higher appeal. Here is Auden:
One sign that a book has literary value is that it can be read in a
number of different ways. Vice versa, the proof that pornography
has no literary value is that, if one attempts to read it in any other
way than as a sexual stimulus, to read it, say, as a psychological
case-history of the author’s sexual fantasies, one is bored to tears.
Though a work of literature can be read in a number of ways, this
number is finite and can be arranged in a hierarchical order; some
readings are obviously “truer” than others, some obviously false,
and some like reading a novel backwards, absurd. That is why,
for a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than
the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable for, in relation to its
readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be
read in an infinite number of ways.
Need Frost be aware of this hierarchy? In fact, need he be aware of fairly basic implications of his poem? We often need others to help us grasp the meaning(s) of our own dreams. Often the creative work functions as an “other” to the one creating it.
But in case the issue seems to be resolving or dissolving into valid subjective realities, here’s a new confrontation, revealed by a broader context. After the appearance of Perrine’s attack on him, Artzt (author of the first article) wrote to Jeremy for moral support. Jeremy was then at a Federal Correction Institute for burning draft cards and a draft office. His reply:
What really craps me out is that guys like you and Mr. P. take these
things so seriously. Both of you ought to take a long walk in the
What matters in this world is action. When words turn into action
you have poetry. When they sit on the page or in the classroom you
I’ll tell you what you can do for me – you can stop the war. When
the murders are done with, write me again and tell me what you did
to stop the killing.
- from Reading the Bible . . . by Bob the Marine