A toqniive Arrrod h to Li termure
NORMAN N. UOLLANP
ROUTLEDGE NEW YORK & LONDON
TUX MN Or
Copyright acknowledgment: "Once by the Pacific" and "
Poey'of Roert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem.
Henry Holt and Company, Inc. and Jonathan Cape Ltd.
1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Copyright 1956,
Mending Wal" from The
Reprinted by permission of
Copyright 1928, 1930, 1939,
1958 by Robert Frost
Copyright 1967 byLesley Frost Balantine.
Published in 1988 by
29 West 35
of Roudedge, Chapman and Hall, Inc.
New York, NY 100
Great Britain by
11 New better Lane
London EC4P 4EE
198 by Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc.
Printed in the United States of America
ob part of this book may be
reprinted or reproduced or utilized in
any form or by an
, ~echanialorother means, now known or hereafter
ying and ecording or in any information storage or
isiod mi wriun from the publishers.
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1 Thoughts about Brains
2 Reading Frost
3 Frost Reading
4 The Miller's Wife and the
5 "We Are Round"
Reading and Writing, Codes and Canons
A Digression on Metaphors
Literary Process and the Personal Brain
Hearing Ourselves Think
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Obviously, I owe my first and weightiest thanks to Robert Frost him-
self. Although he had no choice in the matter, he has lent himself most
graciously to this book in spite of its having an unflattering title and not
being about him at all. He has played the perfect gentleman throughout,
obligingly demonstrating again and again the wisdom and truth of the
assertions I have made about him and his brain. I trust that wherever
he is, he grins his wonderful grin as he contemplates our interplay.
This book is not an evaluation of Frost and therefore has nothing to
do with the controversy that in recent years has clouded Frost's per-
sonality and posthumous reputation. His biographer, Lawrance Thomp-
son, portrayed Frost as often egotistical, spiteful, and petty. Some have
proclaimed that Thompson rightly revealed a monster, while others have
countered with testimonials of friendship and devotion. Any man could
be proud of having evoked such eloquent defenders as William Pritchard,
Stanley Burnshaw, or R. W. Flint. This book has nothing to do with the
controversy, however. Knowing him only through his writings, I can
contribute nothing either to praise or censure Frost the man. My way
of looking at Frost's personality, moreover, yields an X ray, not a portrait.
Nevertheless, in arriving at Frost's identity, I derived much infor-
mation from both the detractors and the defenders. I remember with a
special pleasure, though, Randall Jarrell, Lionel Trilling, Reuben Brower,
and Richard Poirier. These gifted critics revealed to me a complexity in
Frost's poetry and through that complexity a beauty far beyond anything
possible for the merely bucolic poet he was once thought to be. I am
happy to be able to thank them for the understanding of Frost they and
the many other Frost critics acknowledged in my notes have made pos-
This is not a book about Robert Frost, though. This is, I believe, the
first book to bring to bear on literary criticism and theory the revolu-
tionary discoveries of cognitive science and recent research into the brain.
Frost serves as my springboard into those grey waters. As you will see,
I am drawing a great deal from the startling new understanding of our
human-ness provided by researchers in "cognitive science," brain phys-
iology, and artificial intelligence. Without their work, this book could
I am combining the achievement of these contemporaries with Freud's.
Teaching a seminar on Freud this year, I have gained a new respect for
his intellectual boldness and courage. Truly he was a conquistador, to
be followed in the new territory by many brilliant analysts. I am grateful
to them and to my teachers at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute. I
hope this book justifies their confidence in me a quarter of a century
ago. What they taught me then has proved a firm foundation on which
I and my students have built, now, for decades.
In that sense, I also owe myself a thank-you, for I am drawing exten-
sively on my own previous book, The I (Yale UP, 1985). That book
synthesizes psychoanalysis and cognitive science as a psychology. This
offers.in a more literary form and context what The I said right out in
psychological terms. It would be exactly the right response to The Brain
of Robert Frost to follow it up with a reading of the earlier book.
If I owe much to psychologists, I owe much, too, to my colleagues in
literary criticism for their concern to establish a theoretical understanding
of the way we write and read literature. Without this new emphasis, I
could not gain a hearing. At the same time, in focusing cognitive science
on today's literary theory I intend a challenge to that theory. It seems
to me that some modern thought about literature-whatever in it rests
on the idea of "signifing"-runs contrary to both old and new psy-
chology. As you read thisbook, I hopeyou will feel an impulse to rethink
some of the conventional wisdom about literature. Follow that impulse,
and again, you will do well by The Brain of Robert Frost. I designed it as
a guideto that rethinking.
This brings me to the many people who have helped me make this
book. For their adroit drawings, I am indebted to Marjorie Summers and
Gae Martinez. I want to expressmy appreciation to the State of Florida,
the University of Florida, and the late Richard J. Milbaer for providing
me an Eminent Scholarchairand, within, unstntingsupport and warm
encouragement. Among the many students who have over the years
assist my research give special thanks to those who have focused
their effortson foost ar hisbook Paek Hbgan, Sam Kimball, Louise
Ma rvem Laura Ieyes Perry, Lnda Lane Reinfe.ld and most recently
and mrot ian sely, Craig Saper. Spart Mrchevsky of Sterling Lord
Lite ic expertly placed the book, and WilliaGerman of Routedge,
Chapman, and Hall wittily guided its author, while Cecilia A. Cancellaro,
Diane Gibbons, and Michael Esposito were skillfully producing it.
I have for a long time been using Robert Frost to think about literature.
As a result I have published some of these ideas in articles as early as
1970. Although I have rewritten them quite extensively, I want to thank
the editors both for permission to use the earlier materials and, most of
all, for the original publication which provided me a chance to test my
"The 'Unconscious' of Literature: The Psychoanalytic Approach." Contem-
porary Criticism. Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies 12. London: Edward Ar-
nold (1970): 130-153.
"A Touching of Literary and Psychiatric Education." Seminars in Psychiatry
5 (1973): 287-299.
"Unity Identity Text Self." PMLA 90 (1975): 813-822. Ii
"Driving in Gainesville, Florida: The Shared and the Individual in Literary
Response." Hartford Studies in Literature 16 (1984): 1-15.
"The Brain of Robert Frost." New Literary History 15 (1984): 365-385.
"The Miller's Wife and the Professors." New Literary History 17 (1986): 423-
Thanks then to Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer, Paul Myerson,
William D. Schaefer, Charles S. Ross and Catherine B. Stevenson, and
especially to Ralph Cohen for his many years of encouragement to me
and his spirited devotion to the discipline we both enjoy.
I have also tried these ideas out in a wide variety of forums:
Australian Association of Teachers of English
Australian Reading Association
British Psychological Society (Welsh Branch)
European-American Conference on Literature and Psychology (First Annual
Meeting in P4cs, Hungary)
Group for the Application of Psychology (Florida)
Midwest Modem Language Association
Nederlandse Verenigung voor Algemene Literatuurwetenschap
New York Hospital (Grand Rounds, Department of Psychiatry)
University Paris VII (Institut d'Anglais)
University of Chicago
University of Colorado (Reynolds Lecture)
University of Florida (Grand Rounds, Department of Psychiatry)
University of Hawaii
University of Iowa (Ida Beam Professorship)
University of Melbourne (Psychosocial Group)
University of Michigan
Among my many hosts, I want to thank particularly Charles Proudfit,
for starting it all, Douwe Fokkema, Audrey Grant, Elrud Ibsch, Graham
Little, Rien Segers, and Robert Silhol for their kindness in foreign parts.
In the course of all this lecturing and articling, I have learned much
from friends and colleagues who have given me the benefit of their
thoughts. I have thereby incurred many an intellectual debt-to Robert
de Beaugrande, Richard Brantley, Gerald Graff, Molly Harrower, Kath-
ryn Gibbs Harris, Ihab Hassan, Wolfgang Iser, Edward Jayne, Manfred
Kets de Vries, Eugene Kintgen, Joseph Masling, Bernard Paris, Hilary
Putnam, Robert Rogers, David Willbern, and others whose names I will
never know. Some just contributed a particularly astute comment after
a lecture. Some wrote articles. Some, like Joseph Masling, read whole
chapters and commented on them in detail. Howard Gardner and Murray
Schwartz read and commented on the whole manuscript. Anne G. Jones
reminded me at a crucial moment that this was a book about the brain
of Robert Frost. All these commentators have given, all have improved
the book, and none is responsible for whatever deficiencies remain.
Thank you, all. I am happy to give especial thanks to my students at
the University of Paris VII (Charles V) who were willing to try out with
their eccentric American professor a reader-response approach to "The
Mill" quite outside of current French thinking about literature.
Thinking of Paris, I want to record again my deepest gratitude. I have
already indicated it by my dedication to Jane Holland who, while I was
writing up these ideas, cheerfully marched up six flights to an apartment
on the Cours de Vincennes that took us right back to graduate student
living. I am indebted to her for more than I can say in public, and daily
my debt grows and has grown, these thirty-four years.
Thoughts about Brains
Wags will say The Brain of Robert Frost is so short a book because its
subject is so small. No. The brain of Robert Frost is my starting-line, not
my subject. I want to use Frost to find a way to think about any brain,
not just Robert Frost's, as it engages literature and language.
The title of this book, I know, sounds more than a little wacky, indeed
like the mad scientist Lew Ayres played in that grand old science fiction
film, Donovan's Brain. Donovan, a ruthless and powerful tycoon, dies in
an airplane crash near the scientist's desert lab. The over-eager scientist,
seeking like all good movie scientists the secrets of life itself, recovers
Donovan's brain. At first, it is the same as any human brain, a three-
pound chunk of some stuff that looks and feels like a soft avocado and
has a shape about like your two fists (with the thumbs tucked in) pressed
knuckle to knuckle together. The scientist keeps Donovan's brain in a
fishtank with electrodes and wires and chemicals. He feeds it mysterious
nutrients, and it grows and grows. Before long, the brain has developed
a weird glow and telepathic powers. It starts throbbing and going "Glub
glub glub" in the best sci-fi manner. He feeds it still more and the brain
gets more and more telepathic power until it begins to take over the
scientist and use him to carry out the ambitions and revenges Donovan
had been planning in real life.
I trust Robert Frost will not take me over, except as I am rapt in his
poetry. Nevertheless, I find it enticing, even compelling, to imagine the
very me-ness of me being preserved after death to carry on the loves
and ambitions of my lifetime.1 I find it attractive just to think of the me-
ness of me or the Frost-ness of Frost engraved in the texture of a brain,
finite though that brain's life is. I was surprised to learn that this in-
scribing of one's essential self in the architecture of one's brain may, in
2 Thoughts about Brains
Douglas Hofstadter makes a startling observation about earthworms
and humans in his well-known book, GOdel, Escher, Bach. Because the
earthworm has only a few thousand brain cells, every earthworm brain
is like every other earthworm brain. If you point to a particular brain
cell in one earthworm, you can point to an exactly corresponding cell
in another earthworm. Hence, Hofstadter writes, "There is only one
earthworm." That is to say, there are no "personal" differences among
the Lumbricidae, no earthworm Robert Frosts or Norman Hollands.
That is not true of humans, or even of mammals, like the Hollands'
cat Rachel. Once brains have evolved into millions of neurons, the cells
of one brain no longer correspond one to one with the cells of another
brain, even though each of these brains may have the same suborgans
(like the cerebellum or hippocampus). Birds and mammals are alike in
the suborgans of the brain, and some levels down from there, but not
down at the single neuron level or some levels above it. For example,
the number of columns in which the visual neurons are arranged differ
between different humans and between different birds and mammals
of the same species. Because of variations like these, Hofstadter con-
dudes, "There is not just one human."2
As any visitor to the Hollands' house knows, Rachel has a "person-
ality." (She is masterfully manipulative.) It seems to me to follow from
what the brain physiologists are telling us that she owes that personality
to variations in the growth and structure of her brain cells. If you can
observe a distinct personality, as you can with Rachel or Robert Frost,
you must also be observing a slightly different, slightly special brain in
action. There is not just one human-or one cat-in the sense that there
is only one earthworm.
The brain physiologists are finding that in the course of development,
any advanced mammal establishes connections among its brain cells that
some other members of the same species do not. I find that a rather
astonishing idea. Your toes and mine, your heart and mine, your pan-
creas and mine are, give or take a little, the same. But our brains, our
most essentially human organs, differ. How can we think about that
difference? Is this difference a cultural thing? Is a French brain different
from an American? (Does that explain Jacques Lacan?) Or do our brains
differ purely as individuals?
Brain researchers work within a tradition that stems from the phren-
ologists of the nineteenth century who poked at people's skulls looking
for an honesty bump or an amorousness dent.3 That is, they were trying
to localize psychological functions in particular sites on the brain, and
Thoughts about Brains 3
they thought they could find the sites by high and low spots on the
skull. Immeasurably more sophisticated today, researchers still proceed
by trying to connect particular mental actions, memory, say, to a par-
ticular wrinkle in the cortex. In this tradition, neuroscientists regard the
brain as an aggregate of separate organs.
Another tradition, however, collided with the simplicities of the early
locationists. The antilocationists, after some decades of unsuccessful
locationist searches, insisted at first that the whole was greater than the
sum of the parts and that "mind" would never be reduced to "brain."
Mental activity, they asserted, is a single, indivisible phenomenon, a
function of the whole brain working as a single entity. Then came suc-
cesses in localization that led to a retreat from this extreme view. Brain
researchers arrived at the important concept of the "vertical organization
of functions." Neuroscientists began to consider the hierarchical rela-
tionships of the different levels of the nervous system.
Central in the subsequent period of research, from 1950 to the present,
is the magisterial work of Aleksandr Luria. He carried on dialogues and
experiments with brain-damaged patients. By a battery of simple but
ingenious tests, Luria was able to localize small functions that were used
in a variety of "higher" processes. He would carefully study brain-dam-
aged patients' malfunctions, and so he would learn what subsystem was
failing. He could thereby localize the subsystem to the area of that pa-
tients injury. By a sufficiently ingenious experiment, Luria might, for
example, be able to see that patient X, suffering from a lesion on a certain
area in the visual cortex, was unable to perceive edges, and thus Luria
would isolate the perception of edges as a process and find its location
in the visual cortex.4 He succeeded in doing this with a great variety of
small subsystems, and he was even in some cases able to infer how the
subsystems come together to carry on a larger function. Thus he de-
veloped a position that synthesized (in the best Marxian tradition) lo-
calizationists and antilocalizationists: "that the material basis of the higher
nervous processes is the brain as a whole but that the brain is a highly
differentiated system whose parts are responsible for different aspects
of the unified whole." For example, visual analysis of edges will play a
part both in throwing a frisbee or reading a text. Some of these functions
have to do with literary processes or, to use Luria's more general term,
"speech," which he divides into receptive speech (including reading)
and expressive speech (including writing).
In an altogether different direction, three intrepid theorists (at least
three) have attempted to relate classic psychoanalytic concepts to particular
4 Thoughts about Brains
brain features: Jonathan Winson of Rockefeller University; Morton F.
Reiser of Yale; and Jay E. Harris of New York Medical College.
Winson reasons from what is surely one of world's odder creatures,
the echidna or spiny anteater, to link Freud's ideas about dreaming and
the unconscious to the functioning of the hippocampus and the neo-
cortex. It is in the prefrontal cortex that mammals formulate plans for
future behavior. This primitive mammal, the echidna, has a relatively
huge neocortex. If we humans had a cortex that size, we would need a
wheelbarrow to carry it around. The echidna also does not have REM
(rapid eye movement) sleep or "theta rhythm" in the hippocampus.
Theta rhythm indicates the synchronizing of complex behaviors toward
species-specific goals, like a rat's sniffing or a cat's stalking. REM sleep
is an indicator of dreaming. Winson hypothesizes that the echidna has
such a huge cortex because it does not have these brain functions. Hence
higher mammals must have evolved these brain functions so as to carry
out the functions of the big cortex in the echidna. Dreaming must com-
bine with hippocampal processing to process plans "off-line," when the
higher mammal is not physically acting in its environment. This is Freud's
unconscious: dreaming divorced from action in the real world.
Why are dreams so distorted then? Because the plans and goals we
try out in dreams were inscribed on the cortex in the "critical period,"
that is, during the growing and ungrowing of the brain--childhood. All
the simplistic or distorted perceptions of childhood continue into dream-
ing and the adults' unconscious processes. In this way Winson arrives
at functions in the brain for two of the central concepts of psychoanalysis:
unconscious thinking and the persistence of childhood in unconscious
Morton Reiser notes that neurophysiologists have shown definitively
that object constancy-our ability to imagine a person or thing even
when it is not present-occurs in the prefrontal cortex. From this known
point, Reiser suggests how a person's memories in a psychoanalytic
session might be organized physiologically. Reporting on his psychoan-
alytic patient Carol, Reiser draws for her an associative memory network.
Her free associations connected a certain subway ride with her grand-
mother and an early experience of suffocation. Then, drawing on re-
search that traces how monkeys' brains process the input from the senses,
Reiser suggests a physiological route by which those two percepts, widely
separated in space and time, might acquire a shared "meaning" for Carol.
Studies on monkeys show that the brain first registers sensory percepts
in primary cortical projection areas and then processes those percepts
along a complex series of cortical association pathways. Their transmittal
depends on the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine that is pres-
ent, which in turn depends on the amount and kind of emotion involved.
Thoughts about Brains 5
If enough dopamine is present, a sensory input will be connected to
"affect systems through bidirectional cortico-limbic pathways." If so, the
new sensory input will be retained for recall in contexts associated with
the much earlier memory, and we have a physiological basis for Carol's
associating the early fear with the later subway ride and developing a
Dr. Reiser proceeds cautiously, step by step. By contrast Dr. Jay Harris
boldly proposes to connect the whole of psychoanalytic theory with the
new neuroscience. For example, "The dopamine, norepinephrine, and
serotonin systems correspond particularly to the libidinal, aggressive,
and neutralizing drives of Freudian psychology."7 I cannot possibly in
this brief layman's account do justice to the force and complexity of Dr.
Harris's arguments (although I shall return to them as they bear on
literary processes specifically). Harris draws not only on the work of
Luria and the other neurophysiologists but also on recent drug research
tying specific drugs to specific brain functions. Let me simply give a
sample of his method as he deals with anxiety.
Today's psychoanalysts think of anxiety as a signal of danger that
rapidly, automatically, and unconsciously triggers characteristic defen-
ses. Harris makes this far more precise. Harris connects anxiety in this
sense to two inhibitory systems "among the widespread inhibitory gamma
amino butyric acd systems (GABA-gabaminergic)." "Once the switch-
board system [of the prefrontal cortex] has been turned on, two inhibitory
systems-one for each hemisphere-must form an alliance with the
dopamine and norepinephrine systems in determining whether cortical
programs will go on to completion." The gabaminergic systems can shut
chloride channels and thereby reduce the potential activation of neurons,
thereby inhibiting those neurons. Hence, "The bilateral GABA inhibitory
systems comprise the mechanism through which anxiety deactivates
programs which are going awry."
In psychological terms, the dual anxiety systems are made up of error-anxiety
in the dominant hemisphere and novelty-anxiety in the nondominant hemi-
sphere. This is dear from an inspection of the mechanism of the two major
anxiety systems. One inhibits wrong actions and is therefore related to
dominant hemisphere functioning. The other inhibits further input of per-
ception into consciousness of reality when novelty is encountered. It is
therefore a nondominant hemisphere-related anxiety system.8
He rests this hypothesis on recent research on the brain. This recent
work changes earlier thinking, that the two hemispheres amounted to
two separate personalities, to a newer view, that the two hemispheres
work together, each inhibiting and controlling the other to form a unified
system of consciousness.9 In this instance, Dr. Harris combines brain
6 Thoughts about Brains
physiology, psychoanalytic theory, biochemistry, and logic to locate the
analyst's signal anxiety on two fairly specific brain sites and, incidentally,
to sharpen the psychoanalytic concept. His book proceeds in this way
through all of psychoanalytic theory and the major diagnostic categories,
a truly remarkable achievement-if further research and thinking bear
Whether or not Harris or Reiser or Winson is correct, however, is not
the point. They may very well be overruled by research we cannot yet
imagine. The point is that we are beginning to know enough about the
brain to think we can connect behaviors that we describe at a psycho-
logical level to physical structures in the brain. We can localize low-level
brain functions to particular sites (frontal lobes, lateral nondominant
hemisphere, and so on), just as the functions of the liver or the pancreas
would occupy particular sites. We can tie brain functions to particular
biochemical transactions. Our new knowledge of the brain is beginning
to make a more powerful psychology.
In the "traditional" view, that is, the view that has emerged in the
last few decades, the brain is inherited (like any other organ), and the
sites and features of that organ come from our genes. In just the past
few years, however, that picture has received a remarkable challenge.
It is to that challenge that Hofstadter refers when he contrasts mammals
(Robert Frost or Rachel) who have all kinds of personalities to the unitary,
monotonous earthworm. It is to that challenge that Winson refers when
he speaks of a "critical period" during which our unconscious mind is
Research in the last few years has evolved the picture of a changing
brain that first grows and then ungrows.20 In one researcher's image,
nature is like a sculptor of the brain. First, to an armature provided by
genetics, nature applies plaster, more than is needed but in roughly the
shape that is desired. Then nature chips the excess away until the adult
brain appears." The bigger the animal and the longer it takes to develop
from infant to adult, the greater this growth and ungrowth relative to
the rest of the brain. All of the higher mammals that have been studied
show this brain growth and ungrowth, and it is unlikely that humans
vary the rule."
Indeed, there is mounting evidence that we do not. The child's brain
develops virtually all its potentially useful neural interconnections by
the age of two, and then goes on to develop a lot more. The brains of
Thoughts about Brains 7
children from three to eleven use twice as much energy as adults' brains.
Specifically, in the first year of life, the metabolic rate of the baby's brain
(established by PET scan) is about two-thirds that of an adult brain. By
the age of two, the rate equals the adult's. During those two years, the
neurons have been branching and interconnecting. Indeed, during the
first year of life, dendriticc and synaptic elaboration" increases by a factor
of 20. Then, by three or four, the metabolic rate becomes twice that of
an adult's. By the age of six or seven, a child's brain equals in weight
and volume an adult's, but it uses twice as much energy, and it has
twice the number of synaptic connections. The brain stays "super-
charged" until early adolescence. Then, from eleven to fourteen, the
metabolic rate begins to fall until it subsides to the adult level. Similarly,
there are twice as many synaptic connections in the cortex of a child's
brain as in an adult's. Then that number falls by half in early adolescence.
Young children experience twice as much deep sleep as adults, and then
from eleven to fourteen years of age, children move into adult sleep
Further, as is well known, a child's style of thinking differs from an
adolescent's or an adult's. Young children can often propose brilliant
concepts, but they cannot take them further. They cannot concentrate
for long. They daydream, perhaps (these researchers suggest) because
too many neural connections interfere with sustained logical thought.
Possibly the adolescent changes in the brain explain why well-adjusted
children can become schizophrenic in adolescence, or why children be-
tween four and ten can learn languages or musical instruments more
easily than adults, but (as Jean Piaget found) it is only in adolescence
that we can learn to solve complex, abstract problems at all. A brain-
injured child of three or four can recover speech pathways, but a similarly
brain-damaged adolescent cannot.13
In effect, nature first grows and then prunes away vast numbers of
neurons, axons, and synapses in the course of bringing a mammal from
infancy to adulthood. Moreover, this growth and ungrowth results from
activity-from early experience. It is well known that a lack of activity
in animals deprived of sensory input leads to a lack of development of
connections in the brain. Conversely, "Well-used neurons and synaptic
connections seemed to release nerve growth factors, substances that
help insure their survival." When a baby cats motor activity is blocked,
its eye cells develop differently. In the same way, activity by the heart
or by hormones can change the kind of chemical transmitter a given
neuron is programmed to emit. Muscular activity promotes the growth
of neurons in the spine." In general, neural circuits that get lots of use
generate substances that help them to survive. Neural circuits that get
little or no use are sacrificed, probably in the interests of stabilizing the
8 Thoughts about Brains
brain itself and reducing the energy consumption that the supercharged
childhood brain had required.'5 In effect, to survive, nerves compete for
a limited supply of such things as NGF (nerve growth factor), and since
those nerve cells and brain cells that survive are those we use the most,
we grow nerves and brains suited to the environment in which the whole
human being has to survive. In this mechanism lies the extraordinary
ability of the human animal to thrive in environments as different as the
ice floe and the jungle, New York and the Australian outback.16
Hence, in the nature-nurture, heredity-environment controversy, these
researches establish a physiological role for nurture alongside nature's.
In the older view, the genes set the physical layout of the brain and the
routes of synaptic contact. In fact, the human brain has one hundred
million million synapses. There are not enough genes in the human
complement to account for this much complexity. Genes determine over-
all aspects of brain architecture and wiring patterns, but factors outside
the genome must change the details in the basic organization. Evidently,
then, childhood experience is the outside factor that shapes the final architecture
of the individual brain. Experience strengthens the neural circuits that are
used in childhood and then, in adolescence, further development elim-
inates the unused ones, perhaps through the influence of those well-
known changing hormones of the "awkward age."
As this layman sees the matter, the new view does not contradict the
old, but it radically complicates it. We need to think of three elements
in any given action (such as the making and appreciating of literature):
heredity, environment, and personal activity. Brains are a genetic "given,"
but they change because of life experiences, which in turn depend upon
how the individual chooses among the various activities his or her en-
vironment offers and demands. Brain functions do occupy sites, but the
sites and the architecture of each brain may differ. To write, then, of
the brain of Robert Frost as a special, individual thing may not be so
silly a thing to do. If that is what I am going to do.
I am a psychological literary critic. That is, I use psychology to explore
basic literary questions like, How and why do we humans write poems
and stories?, and particularly, How and why do we respond to them as
we do? I have undertaken this book to respond to a radical change in
psychology as we have known it. The last two decades have seen re-
markable discoveries about the architecture and chemistry of the brain.
These decades have also brought us artificial intelligence, computer tech-
Thoughts about Brains 9
nology, psycholinguistics after Noam Chomsky, and a variety of other
disciplines that make up "cognitive science."
All this has led to what one team of psychologists describes as "a
ferment in psychology." "The whole point of view about what constitutes
the proper goal of psychology has changed." Until quite recently, psy-
chologists saw their task as establishing lawful relationships between
observable stimuli and observable responses, with the accent on "ob-
servable." "Assumptions about what goes on under the skin were to be
made cautiously, if at all. Now human experimental psychology takes
as its proper goal modeling what the mind knows and how it knows.""
In other words, psychologists today are ready to try to look inside the
skin, skull, and brain.
In the first half of the twentieth century, psychologists advanced be-
yond their nineteenth century colleagues by a change in method. "Sci-
entific" experimentation replaced the systematic observation of one's
own mind at work. Perhaps in reaction to the nineteenth century tra-
dition of introspection, the inside of the self or brain became taboo. The
"mind" was to be "black boxed" or gotten round somehow in favor of
"objective," "empirical" observations of visible external behaviors, an
experimentation strongly colored by behaviorism. This approach had
the great virtue of turning psychology toward the same rigor as the
"successful" sciences of physics and biology.
From the point of view of today's "cognitive science," however, How-
ard Gardner writes, "It is difficult to think of this phase as other than
primarily negative and regressive."18 Psychologist Richard C. Anderson
comments, "A large number of American social scientists fairly recently
have become convinced that the presuppositions of their traditional world
view were fundamentally wrong." Traditionally, twentieth century psy-
chologists have thought of the human being as "driven" by inputs through
eyes, ears, and the other senses. Traditionally, these stimuli "evoke"
responses or even "control" them. Then the overall hope of psychology
was to chain these simple stimulus-response units (or, more strictly,
correlations of independent and dependent variables) into higher-order
structures, processes, and patterns of behavior.
If there is one person who knocked this framework apart, it was Noam
Chomsky. His Syntactic Structures (1957) showed that it "is logically im-
possible to account for language proficiency in terms of stimulus-re-
sponse chains.""9 The premier behaviorist, B. F. Skinner attempted to
do just that in Verbal Behavior (also published in 1957), and Chomsky
focused his attack on behaviorism and proved its inadequacy for lan-
guage in a slashing review of Skinner's book.20
In today's psychology, language has become a benchmark. If a psy-
chology cannot account for human speech or reading, it cannot be much
10 Thoughts about Brains
of a psychology. Nevertheless, one leading authority in modem "human
information processing," David Rumelhart, notes that for all of today's
ferment, we have only the most rudimentary idea of the specifics of the
immensely complex process of understanding language. By putting spe-
cifics aside, however, Rumelhart has been able to point to "agreement
on the broad outline." To be sure, different writers use different terms,
and that creates the appearance of disagreement. Artificial intelligence
theorists who follow Marvin Minsky use the term "frame." Some cog-
nitive psychologists use the term "schema," while others use "defini-
tion." Schank and Abelson, in their well-known computer simulations
of the "restaurant-script" use as their operative term "script," and, for
higher levels, "plan." Rumelhart uses "schema" to refer to their "script."
All these different words, however, refer to just one thing: the hypothesis
a human being tests against some physical or linguistic reality "out
there." This is, of course, an idea that may ultimately go back to Im-
manuel Kant's 1787 Critique of Pure Reason.21
We can imagine the human along two axes: top-down and inside-
outside. That is, the sensory inputs so basic to both the old and the new
psychology occur at the body's outer boundaries: toes, fingertips, ear-
drum, or cornea. The stimuli move from outside in. We also usually
think of the mind or brain as having "higher" and "lower" functions.
The raw sensations of eye and ear, like an edge, a color, a pitch, or a
tone, are "low-level" processes. When we combine those low-level sen-
sations to experience a Rembrandt portrait or a Beethoven sonata, we
speak of "high-level" processes.
The consensus about language, according to Rumelhart, is that a verbal
stimulus does not simply act from outside in and bottom up to cause a
Fundamental... is the idea that language is not a simple bottom-up process
in which we somehow construct the meaning of input sentences out of the
stimuli impinging on our eyes or ears. Rather, language understanding is
an active process involving the interaction of sensory information with our
general knowledge of the world. .. The details of how these systems work
together is not known, but that they work together is dear.?
To understand language, we have to bring to bear not only knowledge
about language, but about other people, the world of objects, and our-
selves. We test hypotheses, and not just hypotheses about words. We
reach actively into a book from inside out and from top down, creating
and shaping the text even as it acts on us from outside in and from
This complex outside-in, inside-out, bottom-up, top-down processing
Thoughts about Brains 11
applies not only to language but to any perception. Consider vision.
Probably, according to the brilliant work of David Marr, our eyes see
objects by means of a series of linked modules that work together to
compute a representation of an object within the constraints of the phys-
ical world and the processes of the brain.24We can imagine, for example,
the modules for seeing a flying frisbee: a processor for converting the
sequence of electrical pulses from the retina into a two-dimensional
shape; a processor for converting a succession of these two-dimensional
shapes into a visualization of the three-dimensional frisbee; a system for
calculating its distance; a system for converting distance calculations into
speed and direction, and so on. Vision proceeds somewhat as a desk
calculator does, blinking out a representation of what is punched into
it, and that representation is determined both by that input and by the
way the calculator is wired. We see according to what the world offers
us to look at, and we see as these modules in our internal physiology
let us see. Yet the numbers the calculator blinks out do not simply equal
either the input or the wiring. Similarly, vision works by a computation
on the input signals from the eye to yield a mental representation that
does not correspond to "reality" as such but abides by constraints from
both the physical stimulus and the brain's modules. In effect, those
modules try out schemata on the world, just as the keys of the calculator,
in effect, wait to see what you will punch in.
It may be that different styles in the visual arts systematically play
with one or another of these computational processes-this is a theory
advanced some years ago by Morse Peckham.5 That is, cubism may test
our module for perspective, pointillism may test our module for con-
verting bits of color to wholes, sculpture our module for representing
three-dimensional objects, and so on. Poetry may test our systems for
parsing sentences or assigning stress to syllables. It may be, Peckham
suggested, that the function of all the arts is systematically to exercise
our various modes-or modules-of perception.
At any rate, it seems likely that other, similar modular hypotheses
operate on sounds, language, thought, and perhaps emotion and that
these modules also work, in broad outline at least, by the well-known
mechanism of feedback. That is, we have inside our brains various stan-
dards, for example, for temperature. What temperature feels "right" to
me? My skin constantly tests the temperature of my study to see if it
matches my internal standards for comfort. In the jargon, my senses try
to match representations of temperature from inside the brain or body
against representations of the physical stimulus outside. If the room feels
too warm or too cold, I act to make it right. I may act on the environment,
for example, by turning down the thermostat. Or I may act on my own
body by raising goose pimples or shivering. Then I test again. If the
12 Thoughts about Brains
temperature feels right, I subside. If it doesn't, I act again. My standard
is an individual one-I am always turning the air conditioning temper-
ature up, because my wife turns it too far down for me, and native
Southerners who visit us two displaced Yankees tell us our house is too
Feedback is essential to the new psychology. It is also an assumption
we can safely embody in literary thinking, because it is unlikely to be
upset by future researches. For example, it is a "hot topic" in artificial
intelligence in 1988 whether the modules in people's brains work in
series or in parallel. However the AI researchers decide, though, their
model is most unlikely to deviate from the overarching principle of
A person's ability to perform a given task, reasoned Hillis [W. Daniel Hillis,
an expert in artificial intelligence], is dependent upon his receiving a con-
tinual flow of sensory information relating to the task and by continually
calculating and adjusting for that information.
"If you look at how we pick up a glass of water without spilling it, you
see that it doesn't have anything to do with how precisely we position our
hand or how precisely we apply a force" both of which can be programmed
easily into a machine, explains Hillis. "It has to do with our getting very
good feedback from our fingers. We can do this even with our eyes cosed,
by just feeling how well its working out. And if its not working out, we
adjust our grip."
Hillis calls this rapid-fire feedback mechanism a "controlled hallucina-
tion." A person has a hypothesis, or hallucination, about the real world-
for example, the position of the water glass. Sensory feedback from the
fingers causes the person to adjust the hypothesis; the fingers then provide
additional feedback about the validity of the adjusted hypothesis; and so
on, until the individual succeeds in picking up the glass."
Feedback is a general principle that describes many kinds of biological
information processing. We reach actively into the world from inside
out and from top down, creating and shaping the stimulus even as it
acts on us from outside in and from bottom up. "We now find," writes
John Z. Young,2 "that every organism contains systems that literally
embody set points or reference standards. The control mechanisms op-
erate to ensure that action is directed to maintaining these standards."
These control modules operate on the external world, using low-level
internal standards. They also cooperate, answering to some overarching
high-level standard (serially perhaps, but more likely in parallel). "The
brain has many distinct parts but there is increasing evidence that they
are interrelated to make one functioning whole, which gives a unique
and characteristic direction to the pattern of life of that one individual."
Thoughts about Brains 13
In such a pattern, Young is pointing to what I would call human identity,
but more of that later.
I am, as I say, a literary critic, and for me the important reality detected
by our brains' feedbacks is poems, stories, plays, and movies. I am,
however, not about to step forward with neurophysico-psychological
explanations of how people write poems or read stories. The brain phys-
iologists, cognitive scientists, and psycholinguists themselves are far
from having such knowledge, and I am far from their expertise. I cannot
write intelligently about cholecystokinin, 6-hydroxy dopamine, or the
hippocampus. I can, however, propose a minimal assumption about the
human being engaged in literature that accords with what we know
today of the systems of the brain and is not likely to be altered by what
we learn of those systems tomorrow.
In offering this minimalist psychology, I will not pretend that I am
providing anything like a full description of the brain or mind as it
engages poems and stories. What I am trying to offer is a picture to
carry about in our minds with which to think about what is going on
in our brains as we create and respond to literature. I am proposing a
guiding metaphor or the beginnings of a model to counterbalance the
one we already have.
It is impossible to make any cogent statement about the human as a
literary, aesthetic, political, or social being without making some as-
sumptions about the human as a psychological animal. Those of us who
write critically and theoretically about literature, then, already have such
a model, but not, usually, one that reflects these new trends in psy-
chology. That is unfortunate, I think. We ought to rest our criticism on
the best psychology we have. Literary people, however, turn more read-
ily to philosophical or imaginative texts for their models than to the
leaden prose of most psychological writing. Then, too, writers, critics,
and philosophers characteristically endow language with great, even
magical power. Frost, for example, does so. Most writers hope (for
obvious reasons) the poems, scripts, or stories they create will somehow
enforce a certain literary response, presumably favorable. When litera-
ture "works," it is the language that did it.
At root, then, most thinkers about literature imagine a stimulus-re-
sponse model of the mind as it engages literature, a model from early
twentieth-century psychology. Most writers, critics, and theorists posit
what is, in the language of today's cognitive science, a model that is
only bottom-up, outside-in, not both outside-in and inside-out, top-
14 Thoughts about Brains
down and bottom-up. By contrast, psychologists of reading understand
that, in order to read, we have to bring to bear our concept of the meaning
as a whole, our ideas about texts, our knowledge of the world, in short,
a whole complex of top-down and inside-out strategies. We read by
testing these strategies against texts. Hence, in the psychology of read-
ing, models based on feedback are commonplace."
In this book, I shall urge a minimal model of the brain's engaging
literature. It is a manageable model for those of us who are not cognitive
scientists or neurophysiologists, slightly more complicated than the stim-
ulus-response picture, but not unduly so. It is consistent with what the
cognitive scientists and the neurophysiologists are telling us now, and
it is unlikely to be defeated by what they discover in the future.
Why Frost? Mostly because everybody knows something about Robert
Frost. I can count on your recollection of half a dozen poems as well as
a general sense of the kind of writer Frost was and the kind of public
personality he projected. Further, Frost himself sometimes commented
on his own processes of creation in quite telling ways.
It is odd, I know, to think of Robert Frost, the craggy-faced imper-
sonator of New Hampshire virtues as a brain, as the gray, cheesy, con-
voluted object you might see in a laboratory jar full of formaldehyde.
Yet evidently, me-ness resides in that organ, there creating and recording
its being. It is there that Frost wrote poems and read them. It is there
that we must read him, and we cannot read him except through our
own brains, with all the circularity that implies.
The gray organ in a lab jar ought to look more or less the same for all
of us, Robert Frost or you or me, and it does. It reaches out through
nerve and sinew to test the world, and nerve and sinew look much the
same in all of us. But the tests it brings to bear look very different. They
combine somehow the heredity that defines this particular biological and
physical human, the culture in which we different humans grow, and
the individuality we have become. Apparently those differences are all
engraved upon one little three-pound organ. Inside, in its architecture,
its biochemistry, its very texture, Robert Frosts brain is as different from
mine as Robert Frost, New Hampshireman, writer of georgic allegories,
is from Norman Holland, psychological critic. How can we think about
that? How can we have thoughts "about" a brain? What is the relation
between one's essential self, the me I know and love, and the organ
that we could look at in a jar of formaldehyde?
It is a brain that poses that question and a brain that must answer it,
Thoughts about Brains 15
and that is a second reason it is hard to think of Robert Frost as a brain:
because I will have to use my own brain to do it. To look at the "behaviors"
of Robert Frost, I have to commit a "behavior" myself. Writing about
his personality is a function of my personality as well as his. Looking at
a three-pound lump of what looks like soft cheese may not invoke much
of the essential Norman Holland, but formulating Frost's personality
does. Talking about the brain of Robert Frost involves therefore the brain
of Norman Holland.
Nevertheless, even within that paradox, I can offer some thinking
about (and by that preposition I intend both "in reference to" or "all
around") the brain of Robert Frost. I can offer some thinking about his
brain, about my brain, and about "the" brain. I can ask some essential
questions about the brain and literature. What is the relation between
Frost's highly individual, personal style and the things you and I share
with him: the shape of our fingers, the movements of our eyes, our
sinewy American English and the printed pages that (we sometimes say)
"contain" the spirit of Robert Frost?
We can explore the workings of Frost's brain-or mind-through one
of his better-known poems, "Once by the Pacific." I think this poem had
at the core of its creation a widespread and well-known childhood fear.
I find it of particular interest therefore, because it allows us to see how
Frost defended himself against fears we may well have experienced
Once by the Pacific
The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God's last Put out the Light was spoken.1
As I put the poem together for myself, I respond most immediately to
its violence, to words like "rage," "din," or the menacing phrase, "dark
intent." The first substantial word I hear is "shattered" and the final
rhyme is "broken," although, to be sure, it is only "water" that is shat-
tered and broken, a water that is (ironically) "Pacific"-peaceful.
Reading Frost 17
This night is unique: the waves "thought of doing something to the
shore / That water never did to land before." And immense. I imagine
huge dimensions from phrases like "great waves," "ocean-water," or
words like "land," "continent," or (in time) "an age." I find these sizes
made still bigger by a pattern of buttressing, doubling, and increasing.
The shore is backed by cliff, and the cliff is backed by continent. "There
would be more than ocean-water broken." Waves looked over other waves.
This was not just a night, but an age. And finally, the poem, having
begun with the storm, ends with God and the Last Judgment, a final
doubling, a bigness bigger than even waves and continent, an immensity
of words called forth by words. In reciting this poem, one of the critics
recalls, Frost would drop into a deep voice for God's words at the end.2
I hear about a "misty din," and waves think of "doing something."
"Someone had better be prepared." I get a feeling of indefiniteness from
these phrases. "You could not tell" exactly, but you surmise a "dark
intent." "More than ocean-water" would be broken-but what? "Some-
thing," Stanley Burnshaw points out, is "the most significant single word
in the poems." It occurs 137 times in the Frost canon, "someone" 77
times, and "somehow" 8 times. They are all part of what Frost called in
an essay of his, "Extravagance," the going beyond domestic boundaries
to find something wild and, here, ominous.3
"Someone" is going to be a victim, and in "someone," I find yet another
tendency, one that works along with the vagueness, namely, personi-
fication. Frost gives the whole scene human attributes. The sea "looked"
and "thought." The night has an "intent," and the land is "lucky" because
it is backed by other land. One critic, Judith P. Saunders, is "amused
to see waves and clouds endowed with the motives and appearance of
stock villains in a Grade B movie." Most see it as beginning ominously
and becoming still more ominous.
One would think that personification would counter the sense of in-
definiteness, but somehow, in my mind, at any rate, it makes it still
more ominous: the people are huge and vague and therefore all the more
menacing. Intimations of warring personalities reach a height for me in
lines 6 and 7, when the poem pivots from "the gleam of eyes" associated
with the skies to a direct "you." It is as if the interpersonal conflict comes
about precisely because you looked. Finally, at the end of the poem, there
is God who seems to be both the instigator of violence and the one who
puts an end to it. Possibly, C. Hines Edwards suggests, Blake's picture
of God inspired Frost's imagining here.
It also part of my critical style to seek some centering idea with which
I can unify all these pairs and subthemes that articulate my feelings about
"Once by the Pacific": peace and violence; vast size; indefiniteness; things
becoming persons; doubling contrasted to the unique. It is also part of
18 Reading Frost
my critical style to try to put such a "center" into words. (Otherwise,
how can I know and perhaps improve my experience of the poem?)
Such a phrasing might be: a vision of nature as vast, vague, half-human
forces in conflict. Sometimes these forces seem two, sometimes one.
Their conflict is controlled by a still vaster half-human force. I might call
it a poem about bigness as violence in which a still bigger bigness limits
that violence, and limits it specifically by words.
You see, it seems to me that Frost is as much concerned here with
controlling the violence as evoking it. For example, it is only water that
is shattered or broken, and I begin to think of the visual shapes of waves
rather than an actual act of shattering something solid. Frost sets the
poem in the past tense. Further, in the last line of the poem I meet an
intellectual puzzle that distracts me from feeling the darkness and vio-
lence: What is meant by the "last Put out the Light"? Indeed, that final
line ends with "spoken" as the verbal answer to the "broken" that doses
the violent first thirteen lines.
Consider what we might think of as normal poetic diction for a storm,
these lines from Julius Caesar:
I have seen tempests when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
Th'ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
To be exalted with the threatening douds
Or these from Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.
Most glorious night!
Thou wert not sent for slumber! let me be
A sharer in thy fierce and far delight-
A portion of the tempest and of thee!
How the lit lake shines, a phosphoric sea,
And the big rain comes dancing to the earth!
And now again 'tis black-and now, the glee
Of the loud hills shakes with its mountain mirth ...
Compared to that large language, Frost's poem seems colloquial and
simple. He brackets the storm in wry phrases like "it looked as if," "being
backed," "was lucky." "Someone had better be prepared." The rhetorical
term for this would be meiosis (or ironic understatement), but the cat-
egory does not get at my feelings precisely. What I sense specifically is
Reading Frost 19
a decisive contrast between a vast, cosmic, even godly, violence and
such chatty, trivializing expressions. Again, language limits.
Perhaps, then, a better statement of my center for this poem would
be: huge, malevolent, half-human forces, evoked, doubled, and mag-
nified by some phrases, but by other phrases, brought down, limited,
and made manageable. I experience this as a poem about bigness as
violence and the power of words both to call up that bigness and to
Why did bigness need to be tamed? We could infer a core of fantasy
from the poem itself, but, as it happens, Robert Frost's associations to
this poem exist in at least three versions, each of different reliability and
emphasis. In the first that I shall quote, the poet was well into his
seventies, reminiscing to his friend Louis Mertins at the very place de-
scribed in the poem:
It was a very long time ago that it happened. It was before Coney Island
[honky-tonk] had come in to spoil the beach here at the Cliff House. I was
very small and very impressionable-a child full of imagination and pho-
bias. I watched the big waves coming in, blown by the wind. I recall that
I was playing on the sand with a long black seaweed, using it for a whip.
The sky must have clouded up, and night begun to come on. The sea
seemed to rise up and threaten me. I got scared, imagining that my mother
and father, who were somewhere about, had gone away and left me by
myself in danger of my life. I was all alone with the ocean water rising
higher and higher. I was fascinated and terrorized watching the sea; for it
came to me that we were all doomed to be engulfed and swept away. Long
years after I remembered the occasion vividly, the feeling which over-
whelmed me, and wrote my poem "Once by the Pacific."4
The old poet emphasizes the theme of power, the sea's power but also
the child's imaginings and prophecies (and, finally, the poem) in re-
sponse to the feeling of being overwhelmed by the mighty ocean. Spe-
cifically, he identifies the gigantic characters represented by the storm
as his absent mother and father who seemed to the five- or six-year old
boy to have abandoned him.
In Frost's associations to this poem, the reference to Coney Island
emphasizes the emptiness of the place then as opposed to the disre-
putable, noisy honky-tonk Frost and his friend saw at the time of Frost's
reminiscence. That honky-tonk, I recognize as a familiar "Freudian sym-
bol," especially if I also hear the whip the child was playing with as
something sadistic. Perhaps the boy felt guilty about his private fanta-
sying by the seashore and that was the reason for the frightening, pun-
ishing fantasy. Most literally, it was a fantasy of being abandoned. Possibly
it had another, doubled sense in this setting. My mother and father are
20 Reading Frost
involved with each other-Frost's father was celebrating some profes-
sional coup. They are indifferent to me, and I am "fascinated and ter-
rorized watching ." Then, in an earlier, more global form, one almost
universal among children: I have to depend on them, but they-she-
could abandon me. I-and my whole world-would be overwhelmed
with my own helpless needs. "It came to me that we were all doomed
to be engulfed and swept away." Then, Frost reassures himself against
that fear: his parents were "somewhere about."
I have another reason for believing the huge, half-human characters
in the storm represent a feeling about parents. It think it likely that
Frost's poem, in its imagery of big, noisy, violent goings-on (not prosaic
honky-tonk) in a night of dark intent, represented for him a fantasy that
many children have and that can, by association, turn other, lesser fears
(like-perhaps-the boy Robbie's fright at the lowering storm) into utter
terror. I think the poet might have created this half-human imagery for
a storm from an actual or imagined look at "great" people of an "age,"
one of them "continent," one "low and hairy," "doing something to the
shore / That water never did to land before," both finally shattered and
broken. I think the boy Frost may have been frightened by seeing or
imagining his parents in the sexual act. Reuben Brower, for example,
called this poem a "parody of Genesis."5
As we have learned in recent years, such experiences, even in 1880,
were by no means rare. In Western cultures, children typically misin-
terpret the physical act of love, so different from adults' other behavior,
different, too, from anything the child does, as violence. The child reads
passion as rage, embraces as sadistic hurting, and penetration as assault
or castration-breaking. Some children fantasy all this from no more
than seeing animals mate or hearing sounds that go bump in the night.
Even today, when children commonly view R-rated movies, the mis-
interpretation of sex as violence is usual.6
This poem, with its three repetitions of "looked," with the "gleam of
eyes" in the assaulter, sounds to me as though the man and child who
wrote it might have been dealing with a frightening actual sight. I think
the adult Frost used (and used as a child on the Cliff House beach) a
frightening image of his parents in the sexual act to make the storm
more frightening in exchange for making his parents more distant and
more like impersonal natural forces. Maybe. Maybe the natural storm
substituted for the still more frightening and unnatural memory of his
parents. In any case, the poet submerged the whole scene in "God's last
Put out the Light."
I hear this key phrase as linking the poem's awesome storm to the
processes of creation (sexual creation?) and "Genesis," which began with
an immense first, "Let there be light." It ends with a "last Put out the
Reading Frost 21
Light," exactly what a mother would say to a child before putting him
to bed, leaving him alone in the dark. (Frost uses the phrase that way
in "Too Anxious for Rivers,"7 to quiet children who ask too many ques-
tions.) Or what a pair of parents might say to a child who unexpectedly
turned on the lights while they were having sex. Indeed, in "Paul's
Wife,"8 his Paul Bunyan poem, Frost uses almost the same phrase in a
gigantic sexual encounter. A group of ruffians interrupt the huge lum-
berjack on the night of his wedding to a supernaturally glowing tree-
bride. "The shout reached the girl and put her light out" (perhaps because
Bunyan covered her by putting his body between her and the watchers).
In "The Thatch,"9 a poem only two pages away from "Once by the
Pacific" in West-Running Brook, Frost associates the putting out of a light
with a quarrel between two people whom I take to be husband and wife.
The male speaker cannot come in until the light goes out.
The most explicitly sexual meaning I (and the other critics) derive from
Shakespeare. Frost's words echo Othello's speech, "Put out the light,
and then put out the light," just before he smothers Desdemona in their
wedding sheets. The phrase could also suggest the repression that usu-
ally overtakes a "primal scene" experience, replacing the frightening
memory with one more tolerable (the storm screening the adults alone
together). Above all, however, the line says to me that special words can
limit the terror. And perhaps it said the same to the boy Robbie whose
associations speak of "a child full of imagination and phobias."
Frost's remarks when he was in his early fifties suggest more directly
the sexual fear that I believe gave rise to the poem:
They [friends] run away with someone else's wife and then avoid me as if
it was my umbrella they had stolen. Now what do you suppose is the
psychology of that? And some of them get into such tragic messes that I
feel as if it was my proverbs failing me and not just my friends. And still
I can't say that I didn't always know it was coming. My prophetic soul told
me I was in for it forty-five years ago come yesterday on the cliff house
beach [sic] at San Francisco. Is it not written in a poem of mine. The one
thing I boast I can't be, is disillusioned.
And the poem referred, he went on to say, to a mighty storm he had
witnessed at the Cliff House at the age of five or six.'1
His associations here are sexual, specifically to sexual betrayal, with
a hint that Frost felt that the friendships that nurtured him were being
disrupted by sexuality (as in the associations to Mertins he imagined his
parents going off by themselves, abandoning him). His phrasing here
is odd, but I think it fits the other associations. He writes as if "someone
else's wife" was being stolen from him. Again his associations run to
abandonment, the friends who "avoid me" and are "failing me." He tells
22 Reading Frost
us he always knew "it" was coming. What? "We were all doomed to be
engulfed"? Betrayed? "I can't say that I didn't always know .. "Frost
is quite explicit about his own saying as a response to the failure of other
protections, friends, proverbs, or that startling simile, the umbrella.
It is surprisingly reminiscent of one of the examples in Freud's treatise
on jokes: "A wife is like an umbrella. Sooner or later one takes a cab.""
In an old-fashioned psychoanalytic way, one might call an umbrella a
phallic symbol or one might take it as a symbol for a woman-either
way Frost seems to be saying he feels deprived, not the someone else.
He has had a protection stolen.
Frost took pride in writing every sentence so that you would know
how to read it aloud simply from seeing it. But this sentence? How
should we accent "umbrella"? "As if it was my umbrella they had sto-
len"-instead of someone else's umbrella (= wife). "As if it was my
umbrella they had stolen"-as though a wife were no more than an
umbrella. Or "As if it was my umbrella they had stolen"-as if to steal
someone's wife is about equal in importance with taking Frost's umbrella.
The whole idea may have been more charged for Frost than he was
He limits whatever anxiety might appear, however, by such mini-
mizing, homely touches as the umbrella or his reference to his proverbs.
At the same time, he has a "prophetic soul" so that he always knew it
was coming (whatever "it" is). Again words have magic power, both to
evoke and to allay anxiety. By means of words, he can anticipate and
manage events. He can't be "disillusioned," as if to say he had had an
illusion and already lost it (a vision of his parents, perhaps) or as though
he has no illusions (has imagined nothing), hence cannot lose them.
A third phrasing of these associations comes from Lawrance Thomp-
son, Frosts meticulous biographer. Thompson adds several details to
the others when he paraphrases Frost's remarks about "Once by the
Pacific," and I suppose he got the amplifications from Frost himself.
Whenever his father chose to celebrate a minor stroke of luck in gambling,
in politics, or in the stock market, the impetuous man splurged by taking
his family to dinner at one of his favorite restaurants. For the children, the
best of these was the Cliff House, with its lofty view out over the Pacific.
After one particularly cheerful dinner there, the entire Frost family de-
scended the long flight of board steps to the beach for a walk along the
shore in the dusk. Robbie, soon absorbed in a solitary game of lashing stone
targets with a seaweed whip, unintentionally dropped so far behind the
others that they passed out of sight beyond outcroppings of rock and ledge.
When at last the boy turned to look for them and realized that he was alone
under the cliff, he was frightened. The roar of the waves seemed hostile.
The towering wall of rock leaned out and threatened. Dark clouds reached
Reading Frost 23
down with crooked hands. Overwhelmed with terror, he ran and kept
running until he overtook his parents. Years later, in the poem "Once by
the Pacific," he tried to capture the mood of that moment: he endowed
with prophecy the menacing images of waves, clouds, and cliff."
Again, I detect the solitary sadistic fantasy in "lashing stone targets,"
possibly the basis for the punishing waves and rocks. Thompson de-
scribes a paranoid moment in which the boy is "under" the cliff, the
waves are hostile, the rocks threaten, and the clouds reach down. I am
about to be assaulted-again, an idea all too consistent with what a child
might fear at coming upon his father seemingly assaulting his mother.
(Also, fears often disguise wishes.) Frightening as Frost's picture of the
storm may be, the paranoid fear says, I am not alone. They care. It thus
defends against a still deeper fear, of being utterly abandoned. As
Thompson or Frost reads the poem, Frost "endowed with prophecy the
menacing images"-again, Frost substitutes a magical power from words
for a physical menace.
I have written at such length about this short poem, because Frost
himself tells us it was his effort to cope with a frightening experience.
We can interpret his memories both of the poem and the associated
childhood fear as showing his characteristic strategies of defense and
adaptation. We are seeing Frost use words in a magical, evocative way
precisely to manage a childhood fright, and this presumably has much
to do with Frost's thought in general, if you will, his brain.
Here, he imagined the world (at that moment) as focused on him, full
of menace and punishment. Yet even that frightening view of things
was preferable to his still deeper fear-of abandonment, specifically his
parents', abandoning him because they were absorbed in each other. To
avoid that darkest prospect, he used words two ways. He used words
to conjure up the image of a world animate and threateningly focused
on himself, and then he used words to control and manage and finally
to end that frightening prospect.
In another well-known poem, Frost reassures us, or himself, against
a familiar fantasy.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
24 Reading Frost
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But its not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'"
Reading Frost 25
This is one of Frost's most often anthologized and analyzed poems,"1
justifiably so. I sense from it deep and widely shared psychological issues
like those of "Once by the Pacific," but first, I want to concentrate on
reading toward a conscious theme.
Several phrases refer to the seasons, particularly in a repetitive, cyclic
way: "spring mending-time," "frozen ground-swell," "once again,"
"spring is the mischief in me." One of the major themes I see, then, is
the cycle of the seasons. Associated with it, critic George Monteiro points
out, is an ancient ritual antedating the Romans, the Terminalia, an annual
reaffirming of boundaries, surely not unknown to Robert Frost, student
of the classics.
Another theme I would use to bring together a number of particular
lines and images is parallelism or the lack of it. Sometimes this parallelism
takes a physical form, associated with the wall, as we imagine the two
men walking parallel paths: "We meet to walk the line." "We keep the
wall between us as we go." "One on a side." It is a mental wall, though,
as well as a physical one, and I read the gaps as making possible a
meeting of minds and attitudes as well as of lands and bodies. Closing
the gaps in the wall means losing off points where the two men might
meet physically or mentally. As the poet says, "If I could put a notion
in his head," but he can't. The two men, the two minds, will remain
parallel, on opposite sides of a wall.
I find parallelism in the language as well as in the central image of
the two men walking along a wall. I find it in phrasings like "To each
the boulders that have fallen to each." "And some are loaves and some
so nearly balls." "Walling in or walling out." I find it most centrally in
"Good fences make good neighbors," whose neat parallelism contrasts
in my mind with the redundancy, the tangled, circling syntax of "Some-
thing there is that doesn't love a wall."
The parallelisms in phrasing lead me to think of speech and language
themselves as themes. I find many phrases like, "I tell him," "He only
says," "I'd rather he said it," "his father's saying," "He says again." The
neighbor speaks "his father's saying" twice. The poet also speaks twice,
and both their repetitions represent a hardening of position, a re-building
of the wall. Speech can seem almost ominous, when I hear about those
yelping dogs or when the poet spells out the magic he uses to balance
rocks. Richard Poirier points out that the poem is not only about the
making of fences but the making of speech between men and, even more
tellingly, the way the making of fences leads to the making of speech-
poetry, really, against "the claustrophobias of mechanical forms." "Walls
have a power of confinement which creates a counter-movement of
'mischief.'" Richard Poirier points out a significant fact: the mischievous
poet "who voices his opposition to wall-building is also the man who
26 Reading Frost
each year informs his taciturn neighbor that it is time to build them."
"Voice and nature are thus potentially allied."15
The cycles of nature and the seasons; parallelism; speech and poetry;
the contrast between the physical and mental-I state such themes ex-
plicitly so that I can try to make each item of the poem relevant to every
other through one or more of the themes. For example, what significance
can I find in, "We wear our fingers rough with handling them"? The
skin, it says, is another boundary being firmed up, and I can fit this line
"under" the theme of walls and parallelism. Frost's psyche has nothing
to do with this way of reading. Thematizing, as today's critical jargon
has it, or simply "theming" is essential to my own sense of coherence
in the poem and hence to my experience of it, although the themes
themselves do not describe that experience, which remains finally emo-
tional and private.
The last step in such a theming or cohering is to phrase one central
theme or meaning for my four themes or subthemes. Then I can play
the details of the poem against that central theme. What idea would
unite seasons, parallelism, physical and mental, speech? I can borrow
from Northrop Frye's reading of this poem and speak of the center of
the poem as two human attitudes toward a wall, one wintry, one spring-
like. Frank Lentricchia describes the two men in the poem this way:
"One moves in a world of freedom because, aware of the resources of
the mind, he nurtures the latent imaginative power within himself and
makes it a factor in every-day living, while the other, unaware of the
value of imagination, must live his unliberated life without it." I need
not assume that Frost favors the walls-down, spring-like attitude over
the walls-up, colder one, only that he is playing with the contrast between
them. In fact Frost said, "Maybe I was both fellows in the poem."" "I've
got a man there; he's both of those people but he's man-both of them,
he's a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he
breaks boundaries. That's man."7 Indeed that there are two such types
and that one person can be both-those very facts make up one of the
human walls that the poem, for me, is about.
Having arrived at some such centering theme, I can make parts of the
poem relevant that otherwise would not make sense to me. "Some are
loaves and some so nearly balls ... Why does Frost trouble to say
that? I can read it as a dualism right inside the wall itself, a wall within
a wall, a division within a division. (But is that enough? See the last
pages of this book.) Why "elves"? I can fit them in as nature-spirits, as
having to do with the "something" that takes the wall down-hence
they fit under the theme of the seasons. Why cows? And what is the
sense of Frosts saying his apple trees will never eat the cones under
Reading Frost 27
his neighbor's pines? I daresay I could rationalize these images (St.
Armand, for example, notes that Frost knew pine cones could seed a
nearby orchard). My task, however, is not to cohere the poem so much
as to read the mind of Robert Frost.
When I look at "Mending Wall" psychologically, I see Frost dealing
with an issue fundamental to human relations, the establishment of a
cear sense of self. The wall stands, on the one hand, for separateness
and identity, on the other, for one's relatedness to other humans. The
poem speaks about precisely this, as I read it. This is a central issue in
Frost's mind, as it must be in any human mind, for the emergence of
the self is the key event of early infancy.
Daniel Stem's recent account of this momentous event draws on new
evidence about babies. Newborns can see and hear more and think and
know better than psychologists and psychoanalysts had previously
thought."8 Stem theorizes that the infant's self emerges in four stages.
At first, the baby demonstrates a core sense of self, in its most basic
terms, the self as that invariant that accompanies all other experiences
and actions. Then the child becomes aware of "self-with-another," the
other, usually a mother or "primary caregiver," who shares some ex-
periences with the infant. Third, corresponding to the "self-object dif-
ferentiation" in psychoanalysis' more traditional account, the baby
becomes an intersubjective baby, understanding that another person
might share a similar state of mind. Fourth, the baby becomes able to
represent all this in language. Through language, the baby can split the
lived experience of self and other from the represented experience. It is
these last two issues that "Mending Wall" treats. The neighbors share
their parallel states of mind: the distancing established by one neighbor's
language, and the undistancing attempted by the poet's.
"Mending Wall" also images, however, a more traditional psychoan-
alytic account of human development, one we would find in the writings,
say, of Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, D. W. Winnicott, or Margaret
Mahler.'1 This version rests more on an infancy inferred from the free
associations of adults but to some extent also, like Stem's account, on
laboratory observation of mothers and babies. According to this earlier
picture, the first, most basic concern of our lives was taking in through
mouth, eyes, touch, or ears, and in the course of this taking in, we
achieved certain fundamental tasks of maturation. In this first, "oral"
stage, we became individuated. We learned there is a self and a not-
self, an inside and an outside. We achieved separateness and a personal
identity, and the ability to put them aside to fuse with another person
or an idea or an experience-precisely the theme of "Mending Wall."
In the regular psychoanalytic account, a baby during the first weeks
28 Reading Frost
of life is preoccupied with his-to avoid a clumsy "his or her" I will,
reluctantly, say "his"-insides. He draws no real distinction between
inner and outer, only between well-being and dissatisfaction.
Feeding plays the crucial role in developing the infant beyond this
phase. At first, the newborn does not sense himself as separate from
the world around him, particularly his primary caregiver. As she-again
reluctantly, but for clarity, I will call the primary caregiver, "she"-as
she gratifies his hunger, he feels as though he and she were one. He
does not think of the two of them as "in a relationship." He feels merged
or fused with her.
Her gratification of his needs can never be perfect, for they are not in
fact one. Sometimes he has to wait. Sometimes he has to be frustrated.
Sometimes he gets into a rage. As he feels the discrepancy between his
inner needs and their satisfaction from his mother, from outside, he
thereby learns that they are not one.
This learning is not a gentle thing-the baby can feel rage and terror
at having to wait-but some frustration is necessary. Were there no
delay, were the baby's wishes gratified before he could ever feel them
not being gratified, he would lose an experience essential to develop-
ment: the body experience of an outside being who feeds him, on whom
he is dependent, and who is separate from himself. As he learns that
he must wait, expect, endure delay from that Other and, finally, trust
that she will come, he realizes that she is, in fact, a separate being, not
a part of his own will. Only through frustration can the baby make that
absent Other (in Erikson's phrase) "an inner certainty as well as an outer
predictability."2 Once he knows she is reliably Other, he necessarily
knows that he is himself separate, a not-Other, a self. In other words,
according to this psychoanalytic theory, his-our-whole sense of our
individual, separate identity is predicated upon our being able to imagine
that a nurturing, caring other exists and that she will come.
Both Daniel Stern's and the more traditional psychoanalytic account
agree that the basic task of our first year of life is to establish a sense of
self, whether that involves separating from a mother-and-child matrix
or simply developing a sense of "I." As I read it, "Mending Wall" is
about just this issue: setting up and breaking down boundaries, espe-
cially boundaries between people. Shall we have separate identities or
shall we get rid of the boundaries between ourselves and the world
outside? Frye and Lentricchia have stated the attitudes on either side of
the wall in adult terms. In terms of child development, our first "wall"-
our sense of a boundary between self and not-self-came about by means
of the mouth. If so, I can imagine why Frost's poem about a wall has
so many images of speaking and eating "the yelping dogs," stones which
Reading Frost 29
are "loaves," the speaking of a spell, the neighbor's twice saying "his
father's saying," phrases like "I tell him," "He only says," and so on.
I can also imagine why, although both Frost and his neighbor are
grown men, the poet should offer his pixyish explanations through
"elves." The poem itself offers something of a clue: "Spring is the mischief
in me," and elves are tiny and child-like as well as imaginative and
playful. Frost as a poet allies himself with that elfin playfulness but also
with an impulse to lose the boundary between self and other and so
return to earliest childhood, when one is an elf, living in a world where
In this way Frost projects onto nature his own playfulness: "Something
there is that doesn't love a wall, / That wants it down." The verb "love,"
by calling for an animate subject, makes the something that doesn't love
more than some thing. Besides, the "frozen-ground-swell" is really frost,
and that concealed pun again mixes up self and outer world as does
"Spring is the mischief in me." The reference to cows, which I find
somewhat puzzling, introduces other infantile themes, milk and moth-
erhood most obviously, a note of femininity, but I also think of the cow
as an eat-and-be-eaten animal. Hence I hear in Frost's "But here there
are no cows" a denial of rivalry and eat-and-be-eaten anger-we don't
need a wall.
It seems to me Frost is working with an infantile fantasy about breaking
down the wall which marks self so as to return to a state of closeness
to an Other. To lose the boundary between self and Other is to perceive
one's own impulses as part of the outer world and to feel the actions of
the outer world as one's own. Keats called this the essential ability for
a poet: negative capability, being able to put one's own identity aside
and imagine oneself into the things and persons of the world outside
the self. Such a return to a child's at-oneness, however, is not without
risk. One gives oneself over to "projection" and introjectionn" which,
Erikson remarks, "remain some of our deepest and most dangerous
defense mechanisms."2 They may be good for poets, but they are dan-
gerous for, say, politicians and generals or for a child frightened by the
waves at the Cliff House beach. I am thinking of paranoid projections.
In the section of the poem where Frost entertains the possibility of
just letting the wall fall down, I sense a faintly paranoid loss of boundary
between himself and his neighbor: "I wonder / If I could put a notion
in his head." "I'd rather/ He said it for himself." There is a link, widely
recognized in psychiatry, between a paranoid view of the world (It is
all directed at me) and the projection of homosexual impulses (I don't
love him-he loves me). In this context, the poem's fantasy of merger
may not be directed at a woman ("no cows") but another man, and (in
30 Reading Frost
psychoanalytic terms) I can hear other levels of merger, in those hard
boulders the two men carry: as weapons, as "balls," "handling them,"
and so on. In this vein, I am hearing wishes and fears about being dose
to another man, particularly a strong, primitive one, a "savage." I am
hearing wishes about excrement, testicles, assault, or penetration of one
man by another.
I hear, too, the primitive rage of the so-called "oral stage," in "the
work of hunters," a rage that can carry over into all later hungers and
they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs.
Still more ominous is the picture of the neighbor holding a stone in each
hand, "like an old-stone savage armed." The palaeolithic reference im-
ages in yet another way regression to a violent, primitive state of mind.
Knowing something about the sources of this rage helps me make
sense out of what seem to me the oddest lines of the poem:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
Using language to cope, Frost is telling the neighbor that he is being
unrealistic. In a manifest way, Frost is simply being sarcastic: you only
need a wall if you think immovable trees will cross over and eat inedible
seeds. In the poem, however, as necessarily in Frost's and my minds,
boundary and eating and identity and the ability to deal with reality all
go together. A failure to keep one's boundaries marks the most severe
mental disorders. It could indicate either a regression to the earliest stage
of infancy or a failure to develop out of that oral stage. Thus, when the
speaker imagines that wall down, he says, "He is all pine and I am apple
orchard." If the wall comes down, individual identity will be destroyed.
Unconscious anger is masked as gentle sarcasm, but the chaos comes
through unchanged. I hear the neighbor (and the poem) saying, If there
is no wall, craziness will break through.
That, it seems to me, is the core of fantasy that corresponds to the
imagining and controlling of a sexual scene in "Once by the Pacific."
When 'something' takes the walls down between self and other, a cha-
otic, violent, irrational, primitive attack appears. As in the shorter poem,
Frost uses language to imagine that aggression (the Stone Age image of
the neighbor, for example). He then uses language to limit it: "He says
again, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'" "Put out the light."
At the conscious level (if we adopt Northrop Frye's centering theme)
the poem plays off two human attitudes, one wintry, one spring-like.
The warm spring-like (but dangerous) walls-down feeling corresponds
to a poet's wish for a cozy but risky return to some original one-ness.
The neighbor's wintry, New England standoffishness, his walls-up sense
of privacy and separateness, corresponds to the cold, hard, more grown-
up reality of individuation. In a theme Richard Poirier develops, the
walls-down feeling corresponds to the poet's wayward imaginings, the
walls-up to the control of that imagination.
In this context, consider what Frost thought he
wrote his famous poem, "The Death of the Hired
was doing when he
i Man." In the poem
an old man
back dying to the farm where he had worked and
been fired. He
the farmer's resentment and the
is what Frost said in reaction to
reading of the poem:
They think I'm no New Dealer. But really and truly I'm not, you know, all
that dear on it. In The Death of the Hired Man that I wrote long, long ago,
long before the New Deal, I put it two ways about home. One would be
the manly way: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, /
They have to take you in." That's the man's feeling about it. And then the
wife savs. "I should have called it / Something you somehow hadn't to
deserve." Thats the New Deal, the
mother's love. You have to deserve
your father's. He's more particular. One's a Republican, one's a Democrat.
The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother's always
a Democrat. Very few have noticed that second thing [in the poem? in me?];
they've always noticed the sarcasm, the hardness of the male one.2
What interests me is that Frost conceives his poem, his thought, really,
He pairs man and wife, father and mother, Republican and
Democrat, hardness and nurturing, obligation and lack of obligation. To
be hard that
is to be male,
said the other
round, to lose
that hardness is to lose one's very masculinity. The punning, elfin mis-
chief that would take walls down may be playful, but it may be felt as
Those same verbal games, however, can distance us from a dangerous
experience. By deflecting us toward language, Frost lets us manage and
tone down the fear we might feel at that union with another. The psy-
chological crux of "Mending Wall"-the risking and re-establishing of
some ultimate boundary of self-becomes translated into wordplay like
the nun in "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / To whom I was
like to give offense."
The sequence of parts also tones down the possible
dangers. For example, after the noisy, violent hunger of the yelping dogs
32 Reading Frost
come stealthy and mysterious gaps, which "No one has seen made."
As with "Once by the Pacific," Frost uses a final phrase to clamp down
and seal off the dangers he has conjured up.
Here, it seems to me, we are coming very close to the nature of Frost's
creativity as a poet, perhaps the creativity of all poets. Language occupies
a special, pivotal place in Frost's psychic economy. He can use words
two ways: to call up the kind of thing he most fears (being overpowered,
unmanned, unsolved, fused into another) and to manage that same
fantasy. He can use words both to evoke a fantasy that feels particularly
dangerous to him and to limit that same fantasy. To the extent we can
re-create in our own terms our equivalent for that fearful fantasy and
manage it using his words (because we share Frost's language), we say
his poem succeeds. We award its author the accolade of "creativity."
In effect, language serves Frost as an agent both of fantasy and of
mastery. In "Once by the Pacific," he uses a poetic form that resembles
a familiar defense mechanism: projection. He starts with a storm, but it
turns out to be more than a storm. In this poem, he starts with a wall
but it turns out not to be "just a wall." In both instances, his language
enables him and us to build a process of projection: "something" doesn't
like the wall; its gaps have a mysterious quality ("No one has seen them
made or heard them made"); it seems to be engaged in a struggle between
human beings (as the high waves by the Pacific were). In effect, Frost's
language projects (in a paranoid way that probably accounts for the faint
frisson I feel at this poem) human attributes onto the inanimate world.
His words put the dangerous wishes and fears within himself out into
the world around him. Then his poem explores those mental states in
the guise of physically dealing with the actualities of a New England
farm or the San Francisco coast.
With that uncanny self-knowledge of the artist, Frost seems almost to
have recognized this tendency in himself to project, as when he wrote
in his favorite preface, "The Figure a Poem Makes" (1939), "Like giants
we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with."2
Or, in the poem "For Once, Then, Something,"
Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven, godlike, .. .24
The poem ends, explaining its title, by describing how once he did see
a vague "whiteness." "Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, some-
Reading Frost 33
Often Frosts poems leave his projections still in the air that way, and
those are the poems that leave me in strangeness, awe, and dread, at
their headiest, a kind of paranoia. Ultimately he has not provided, as
much as he might, language to limit the fantasy. Other Frost poems,
like "Mending Wall" or "Once by the Pacific," make the whiteness solid.
The words let us frame a more or less reassuring solidity instead of a
paranoid projection. "He says again, 'Good fences make good neigh-
bors.'" "God's last Put out the Light is spoken." They let us (and Frost?)
seal off the danger.
In many ways I have been saying in clinical language what has often
been said more gently. Much of what we admire in Frost is his way of
transforming the colloquial language of everyday human concerns into
poetry about the largest themes of life. Yet this is not simply Frost's
manner as a poet, but a pattern one can trace in many different aspects
of his life. It constitutes not only a literary but a personal style. Indeed,
it is the way Frost himself thought of style: "The style is the man. Rather
say the style is the way the man takes himself; and to be at all charming
or even bearable, the way is almost rigidly prescribed. If it is with outer
seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it
must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other
under it will do."s There has to be a balance.
Frost is a wonderfully wry, ironic writer, yet, as he describes his humor
it is not good-natured:
I own any form of humor shows fear and inferiority. Irony is simply a
kind of guardedness. So is a twinkle. It keeps the reader from criticism .. .
At bottom the world isn't a joke. We only joke about it to avoid an issue
with someone, to let someone know that we know he's there with his
questions: to disarm him by seeming to have heard and done justice to his
side of the standing argument. Humor is the most engaging cowardice.
With it myself I have been able to hold some of my enemy in play far out
Frost's irony, by his account, served him to achieve a fearful, guarded
stand-off against the kind of parallel but hostile person represented by
the man on the other side of the wall to be mended. Frost treated his
own feelings in the same balancing way he treated readers and other
adversaries, developing an almost uncanny ability to balance seriousness
with humor. As he wrote to his daughter after his wife's death, "No
matter how humorous I am, I am sad. I am a jester about sorrow."2
34 Reading Frost
Frost acted out such balances in his personal manners. He was known
to his cose friends for his anger and rages-he himself called them "my
Indian vindictiveness"-but he was known to the public for his folksiness
and his gentle, proverbial humor and irony. All his life he needed to
make himself into a legend this way, often falsifying the actual facts to
do so. "Don't trust me too far don't trust me on my life," was his
often repeated caution to scholars and would-be biographers. It was as
though he needed to put on myth like a mask to help him, not just with
his public image, but with his deeper need to cope with an important
polarity in himself. The small, cozy mannerisms may have served to
deal with anger. Perhaps.
On other occasions, Frost denied that adversary relation with the world
(or parts of it), but his very denial took the form of defining adversaries.
I may say I've never got on by setting poetry in opposition to science or
big business or academic scholarship, although some poets seem to live on
that contrast ... Science cannot be scientific about poetry, but poetry can
be poetical about science. It's bigger, more inclusive."
Frost said that on his eighty-fifth birthday, but he had used much the
same strategy thirty years before to cope with the threat from science
that some literary people perceived in the 1930s. He had poetry gobble
up science by treating it as metaphor. "Isn't science just an extended
metaphor: its aim to describe the unknown in terms of the known? Isn't
it a kind of poetry, to be treated as plausible material, not as cold fact?"9
He took the same tack with Albert Einstein's theory, another headliner
in the thirties: "Wonderful, yes, wonderful, but no better as a metaphor
than you or I might make for ourselves before five o'clock."3 The folk-
siness lets his hearers minimize and limit Einstein's stunning innovation
and bring it within the scope of Frost's Georgian poetry.
In the same way, he addressed a lively philosophical question of the
thirties, materialism, as a form of poetry-indeed as a poetry dose to
his own practice:
Greatest of all attempts to say one thing in terms of another is the phil-
osophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit, or spirit in terms of
matter, to make the final unity. That is the greatest attempt that ever failed.
We stop just short there. But it is the height of poetry, the height of all
thinking, the height of all poetic thinking, that attempt to say matter in
terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter. It is wrong to call anybody a
materialist simply because he tries to say spirit in terms of matter, as if that
were a sin. ... The only materialist-be he poet, teacher, scientist, poli-
tician, or statesman-is the man who gets lost in his material without a
gathering metaphor to throw it into shape and order. He is the lost soul."
Reading Frost 35
Obviously Frost himself was a poet who expressed spirit in terms of
matter and a champion at finding a "gathering metaphor." He saw
science, too, as such an attempt to achieve a gathering metaphor but,
given his attitude toward superior forces, he was not about to allow that
science was superior or opposed to poetry as a way of managing the
He adopted an idea of Emerson's that "the world is a temple whose
walls are covered with emblems, pictures and commandments of the
Deity there is no fact in nature which does not carry the whole sense
of nature ."3 "I am a mystic," he told a reporter. "I believe in symbols.
I believe in change and in changing symbols."3 In the same vein, "I
believe in what the Greeks called synecdoche," he said, "the philosophy
of the part for the whole; skirting the hem of the goddess. All that an
artist needs is samples."" Synecdoche being the figure of speech in which
a part stands for the whole (like sail for ship, hand for sailor), Frost even
claimed, "I started calling myself a Synecdochist when others called
themselves Imagists or Vorticists. Always, always a larger significance.
A little thing touches a larger thing."35 George Bagby has said how
important this trope is for Frost, how part-for-whole "is altogether char-
acteristic of the way [his] mind works." "It reflects a whole way of
perceiving reality: fundamental epistemological assumptions, perceptual
habits, linguistic assumptions, and structural preferences." "Again and
again, the poems move naturally from description of an object or scene
or event to a commentary or meditation on its significance."3
One can also see, in just my few quotations from Frost, how he sets
up the world as paired opposites: matter and spirit, humor and sorrow,
little thing and larger thing, part and whole, the goddess and the hem
of her dress. In the booming if inequitable economy of 1926, for instance,
he wrote of the strain of "trying to decide between God and the Devil,
between the rich and the poor (the greed of one and the greed of the
other), between keeping still about our troubles and enlarging on them
to the doctor and-between endless other things in pairs ordained to
everlasting opposition."n This is an unpublished couplet he said was
inspired by Emerson:
It is from having stood contrasted
That good and bad so long have lasted."
Responding to Lionel Trilling's disturbing speech at his eighty-fifth birth-
day dinner, Frost said, "No sweeter music can come to my ears than
the clash of arms over my dead body when I am down."3"
In accepting John F. Kennedy's invitation to read at his inaugural,
Frost wired: "If you can bear at your age the honor of being made
36 Reading Frost
President of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the
honor of taking some part in your inauguration."" More opposites and
balancing, as in his remarks about people's red-baiting. "They get all
worried about 'reds' in the country And all the time they forget that
there are limitations to all things; that there always is a balance to ev-
erything. "41 Early in his career he said, "All a man's art is a bursting
unity of opposites."4 Always a balance, as in this poem he never pub-
lished and never completed:
But tendencies seem to be paired
And there seems to be provision
The pairs shall be in collision
And many collisions shall lace
Entangle and mass in space
To make a bristling sun.3
And if we hear that "sun" as "son," we can hear a hint of the sexual
fantasy of "Once by the Pacific." The pairing or collision that makes a
son pervades the whole solar system. Possibly that early fear colored
his entire world-view, creating his need for balanced pairs. We shall
never know, of course.
Sometimes Frost's need to see balances led him to equate things others
might not, as in this section from a letter he wrote in 1942 about World
I should regard it as too bad if we hoped the war would leave us without
a foe in the world. Everything has its opposite to furnish it with opposition.
There are those in favor of democracy like you and me and there must
always be the contrary minded. With us the emphasis is on the answerability
of the ruler to those he rules; with our opponents the emphasis is on the
answerability of the ruler to the highest in himself and to God. The conflict
is a matter of emphasis. Each side has something of both principles in it."
For Frost as much as for Marx, opposition-answerability-is a principle
to be found everywhere, but I hear something else in that passage. It is
surely surprising, not to say shocking, to see an intelligent and moral
man in the middle of World War I describing Hitler as simply a ruler
who is answering to God or to the highest in himself.
In that euphemizing, I see another pattern besides just the posing of
opposites. In all these pairs, Frost makes one item smaller than the other
or more known or more safe or more finite than the other, like the hem
and the goddess. "A little thing touches a larger thing." Hitler answers
to something beyond himself and is thereby minimized. "I've been to
Reading Frost 37
Niagara Falls, and what did I see there? I saw a lot of water falling, just
what I've seen falling out of the faucet many, many times."5
Frost pairs things: metaphor and theory, known and unknown, limited
and limitless. His pairings not only contrast the two items but place one
(synecdochically) inside the other, so that the lesser somehow manages
or limits or endures the bigger, more threatening term. A metaphor that
anybody can make stands up to Einstein's large, obscure theory. The
limited matches the limitless. Hitler is answerable. The part stands for
the whole. The known balances the unknown. He described his own
art: "Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own
melting."" Again: "Every poem is an epitome of the great predicament;
a figure of the will braving alien entanglements."47 "When in doubt there
is always form for us to go on with. Anyone who has achieved the least
form to be sure of it, is lost to the larger excruciations.""
All are in their way "samples." Which is bigger, which includes the
other, is the test of survival. "Science cannot be scientific about poetry,
but poetry can be poetical about science. It's bigger, more inclusive."
You could call this way of using one small object to test a larger one
Frost's "style." I call it his "identity" in a special sense of the word.
Erikson taught us the term as a way of describing the way we achieve
two continuities, one an inner sense of personal continuity, the other a
sense of continuity and mutuality between one's self and one's com-
munity. I would like to enclose Erikson's usage in a larger, earlier sense
of this word, whose root is the Latin word for "the same," idem. Identity
refers to the sameness I read in a self in time and in different activities
as I see a similarity between Frost the writer of poems and Frost the
holder of opinions and, in Erikson's sense, in his sense of himself and
his sense of himself in relation to his community.
Furthermore, the brain scientists provide a biological basis for such a
sameness. Until relatively recently, it was thought the right and left
halves of the brain constituted separate activities, perhaps even separate
personalities. Now we know that the two hemispheres mutually inhibit
each other so as "to form a unified system of consciousness."49 This
unified system of consciousness formulates plans and creates complex
programs of behavior. Located in the frontal lobes, it apparently uses
interior speech to do so, for damage to the speech centers also damages
the ability to move one's arms or legs in a planned way. This verbal
consciousness monitors these programs and checks actions against the
38 Reading Frost
original plans so as to provide "a system of feedback on the basis of
which complex forms of behavior are regulated."5
Someone like Robert Frost has a continuing style, perhaps rooted in
his frontal lobes, which he brings to ever-new contents. We can perceive
such a style only by singling it out from change, just as we can see
change only against a background of sameness. To see the constancy in
one another, we need to see it against newness, and to see newness as
newness we need to be aware of constancy. We humans perceive one
another, in my view, through a dialectic of sameness and difference.
To explore that dialectic of style and content, sameness and difference,
the best way I have found is through an idea of the psychoanalyst Heinz
Lichtenstein:51 that we think of identity as a theme and variations the
way we read as theme and variations a piece of music or poetry. I can
think of sameness or style as a theme, and I can think of the constantly
changing contents in which I see that style as variations played on that
identity theme. Thus I can think of Robert Frost's identity at any given
moment as an identity theme plus the variations he is then living on it.
I can think of his total identity as the history of his identity theme plus
the history of all the variations he has lived on it. In this definition,
identity includes both a personal style and the history of that style.
Hence, in thinking about Robert Frost's identity, I-his historian for the
moment-want to phrase a theme that will join together all the elements
I see in Frost's characteristic style.
Poetry, a known quantity, minimizes a great unknown, science. Frost's
formulas make the Nazis a manageable concept. Irony means familiar
humor balancing the great unknown sorrow. Frost's fondness for sym-
bols means making a part represent the whole. "Every poem is ... a
figure of the will braving alien entanglements."
I can understand my various quotations from Frost as each a different
variation on a theme that I might phrase, to manage great unmanageable
unknowns by means of small knowns. Again, I insist on phrasing the theme,
reductive though that may seem, so as to see what I have got and to be
able to test and, if need be, change it. Ultimately, though, I think I could
cohere Robert Frost's whole, rich poetic achievement by means of that
phrasing. He used the language and materials of small New England
farms to grasp the largest issues human beings can face. That is, he used
colloquial language to talk about big themes, small knowns to manage
So far, we have talked about the way Frost wrote and thought. He
also perceived in this style, however. He saw things through the lens
of his personal mode, as indeed this definition of identity would suggest.
"The most exciting movement in nature," he said, "is not progress,
advance, but expansion and contraction, the opening and shutting of
Reading Frost 39
the eye, the hand, the heart, the mind. We throw our arms wide with
a gesture of religion to the universe; we dose them around a person.
We explore and adventure for a while and then we draw in to consolidate
our gains."52 Again, Frost has perceived in twos, expansion and con-
traction, opening and shutting, outward or inward. Beauty will be con-
tinuous with other functions of Frost's identity, like his views on life in
general or his perceptions of other people. Beauty is in the I of the
Here is the way he imagines a politician and a hypothetical religious
Take the President in the White House. A study of the success of his
intention might have to go clear back to when as a young politician, youth-
fully step-careless, he made the choice between the two parties of our
system. He may have stood for a moment wishing he knew of a third party
nearer the ideal; but only for a moment, since he was practical. And in fact
he may have been so little impressed with the importance of his choice that
he left his first commitment to be made for him by his friends and relatives.
It was only a small commitment anyway, like a kiss ... And behold him
now, a statesman so multifariously closed in on with obligations and an-
swerabilities that sometimes he loses his august temper. He might as well
have got himself into a sestina royal.
Or he may be a religious nature who lightly gets committed to a nameable
church through an older friend in plays and games at the Y.M.C.A. The
next he knows he is in a theological school and next in the pulpit of a
Sunday wrestling with the angel for a blessing on his self-defensive inter-
pretation of the Creed. What of his original intention now?O
Frost minimizes them by language, Harry Truman involved in a sestina
royal, the preacher with his "self-defensive interpretation." Frost imag-
ines the president or this religious man in the language and dimensions
of his own character, the small facing the large entanglement, a kiss that
becomes a wrestle. As the young man goes on, that first commitment
becomes, in Frost's image, "like the almost microscopic filament of cotton
that goes before the blunt thread-end and must be picked up first by
the eye of the needle."" Again, Frost phrases human experiences, com-
mitting oneself, in terms of his own identity, as something small entering
something large which he hopes will accept and not threaten it.
Both coping with the world and perceiving it are functions of Frost's
identity (at least as I interpret that identity). One phrases Frost's identity
theme by abstracting patterns of repetition and contrast from the indi-
vidual's choices, here, his choice of words. He is constantly writing
and reading new poems, thinking and doing new things, yet in all
that creativity one can trace characteristic patterns, a personal style, a
40 Reading Frost
Frost-ness in everything Frost does. By phrasing that sameness as an
identity theme and the changes and growth as variations on that identity
theme, I can develop continuities through both his life and his writing.
I can phrase, for example, a relation between Frost's adult style of life
and his efforts as a child to cope with his parents. His father was a
drunken, unpredictable newspaperman. His mother was a devout Swed-
enborgian who saw symbols in everything in the world. I can see how,
with parents like that, he might have taken as his life's work, his "project"
in Jean-Paul Sartre's word," the managing of mysterious forces through
the symbolic power of smallness. I can see a continuity between that
childhood and his efforts late in his life, on a tour of Russia, to treat
Chairman Nikita Krushchev as just another farmer like himself.
One can trace an identity theme through the long spaces and times
of a life. One can also trace it to the extremes of a life. Suffering from
unrequited love, Robert Frost tried to commit suicide at the age of twenty.
His method was to travel all the way from Boston to North Carolina and
try (rather halfheartedly, I'm glad to say) to drown himself in the Great
Dismal Swamp. Surely this is a devious way to kill oneself. It is re-
markably characteristic of Frost, though, if one thinks of him as sub-
mitting himself to a big, mysterious entity.
When I consider such extreme evidence as Frost's attempted suicide,
I can believe that there is an identity theme in a person. Identity seems
"there," a mental structure that is established in infancy and that governs
or determines conduct. I know that sometimes people find the idea of
an identity theme built into the self threatening. It seems deterministic
and controlling. Such a structure suggests a limit to one's ability to change
oneself. It defines a self by what is ultimately other, not-self, that is,
parents and society.
Yet there is paradox here. If control there be, it is a control one can
never feel as a control. The influence of heredity and earliest infancy on
us cannot feel "other," because it is no longer "other." It cannot feel like
a control from outside because it is a part of the outer world that has
become inner world. To feel this part of self as "other," one would have
to step outside of oneself and become another self. Or, to the extent
that that "other" is unconscious, truly unconscious in the psychoanalytic
sense, then one would have to translate conflict between conscious desire
and unconscious into a radical separation of the two, whereas, in fact,
conscious desire expresses unconscious desire as well.
Possibly, beneath this fear is a wish. "They" have made me something
Reading Frost 41
I do not want to be. They can't do that to me. I won't take it! Perhaps
under the fear of domination is a wish to be someone different from the
person I am, perhaps even a purely intellectual mind exempted from
unconscious wishes. If my guess is right, if this be the psychology of
the fear of an inner identity, then the answer to the fear is to become
more comfortable in one's own skin. That is not an easy task, but it is
better than chasing the illusion that one can reconstruct or deconstruct
oneself at will.
All of this, however, both the fear and the reassurance, may be spec-
ulation, since no one knows for sure if a personal identity has been
written into our brains or not. In chapter 1, we have considered Douglas
Hofstadter's speculation plus strong evidence from the brain scientists
about the growing and ungrowing brain. A brain which changes from
infancy to adolescence has room for an identity to be inscribed in it, but
the chips (no pun intended!) are by no means all in.
Certainly, we do not have to assume that an identity theme is somehow
inscribed on our brains. Although I believe I can trace a theme through
Robert Frosts writings and biography, I need not go so far as to say it
is "in" Frost. I need say no more than that I can phrase such a theme.
I can find words like "big" or "unmanageable" which will trace contin-
uities in Robert Frosts choices. I can invent a continuous dialectic of
sameness and difference for his life in time and for his mutuality with
his environment. I can connect his style of perception to his style of
I can phrase such a theme. That does not (repeat not) imply there is
such a theme inscribed somewhere in Robert Frost's brain decreeing that
what Robert Frost does will emerge with a certain Robert Frost-ness.
That second, deterministic idea simply does not follow from the first.
On the other hand, if we can phrase a certain Frost-ness, doesn't that
suggest-not prove, to be sure, but suggest in some more loose way-that
our analysis has arrived at something (some thing) that is somehow in
Frost? Something that fits the growing and ungrowing of the brain re-
ported by the neuroscientists. Their research into the "supercharged" brain
of the child suggests that identity might indeed be inscribed by heredity
and early infancy in the dendrites and axons of Frost's grey matter. Even
if Frost's identity were so inscribed, though, when I read Frost's identity,
my own brain and identity make the comparison and thereby become in-
volved in the comparison. There is no way of knowing an identity except
through another identity. But more of this in chapter 8.
Here, the only claim that I can finally make, the hypothesis that I am
testing (and testing successfully, I think) is that I can read Robert Frost
as a theme and variations. I can phrase a theme against which I can
42 Reading Frost
interpret his poems and his opinions as variations. I claim, then, no
more than this: I, you, one can usefully consider Robert Frost holistically,
as Paul Diesing defines that term.6 That is, we can usefully think of
Frost as an "individual in its individuality," a system of rules, goals,
values, techniques, defense mechanisms, methods for maintaining or
crossing boundaries, and procedures for exchanging, socializing, and
deciding: Robert Frost as organism, as village, or as theater. Robert Frost
There may be other ways to imagine a human being holistically, but
the one I have found best is to read Frost by means of a series of small
themes that pervade various behaviors and converge those themes to-
ward a single "identity theme." We can try out themes against Frost's
actions, the words he wrote, the opinions he expressed, or the suicide
he attempted. Whatever identity theme we settle for may or may not
be "in" Robert Frost, but it certainly is "in" my reading of him, and thus
we move from Frost and writing to the whole matter of reading and
The scene: London, 1913. The characters: Robert Frost and Ezra Pound.
They are both living in London, and it is the first time the rural Frost
has ever sat down to talk about poetry with another poet. Frost was
fresh from America, and fresh from having read Edwin Arlington Ro-
binson's 1910 volume, The Town down the River. Pound and Frost chuckle
over the (now) well-known poem, "Miniver Cheevy."
The poem muses about a man who scorned the modem and lived the
days of old Thebes and Camelot and Troy. Recalling his response three
decades later, Frost wrote:
I remember the pleasure with which Pound and I laughed over the fourth
"thought" in [this stanza:]
[Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it:]
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.
Three "thoughts" would have been "adequate" as the critical praise-word
then was. There would have been nothing to complain of, if it had been
left at three. The fourth made the intolerable touch of poetry. With the
fourth, the fun began ...
There is more to it than the number of "thoughts." There is the way the
last one turns up by surprise round the comer, the way the shape of the
stanza is played with, the easy way the obstacle of verse is turned to
advantage. The mischief is in it.'
In reading Robinson's stanza, Frost literally hears it in terms of his char-
acteristic big-little, manageable-unmanageable dualism: he hears the poet
struggling against his poetic form. As Frost said of meter generally, the
poet "must learn to get cadences by skillfully breaking the sounds of
44 Frost Reading
sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the
metre"-or, here, the fourth "thought" across the shape of the stanza.
Frost perceives Robinson's extra "thought" as an opposition, either to
the regularity of the stanza or the three "thoughts" that would have
been "adequate." Four "thoughts," by the way, make a two times two,
a double dualism. A fourth "thought" provides a detail that invokes the
larger "fun" or "mischief" that Frost calls "the intolerable touch of po-
etry." Notice too how Frost balances off the big word "intolerable" with
the little word "touch," how he converts his own complicated thought
to mere childish "mischief," as in "Mending Wall" he makes his spring-
like reaching out to his neighbor into "mischief" and elves.
Although we could never have predicted it, Frost's reading of the
fourth "thought" should come as no surprise. Frost uses small knowns
to call forth and manage big unknowns. That is his identity (or, at least,
that is my effort to phrase Frost's style). If one can trace this style in
everything he does, I would expect to see it in his reading as well as in
his writings and his opinions, and I do.
You can almost tell ahead of time what Frost would single out from
the next passage. Here Robinson describes the drunken, superannuated
Mr. Eben Flood offering himself a swig of whisky on a hilltop:
'Only a very little, Mr. Flood-
'For auld lang syne. No more, sir: that will do.'
So, for the time, apparently it did,
And Eben evidently thought so too;
For soon amid the silver loneliness
Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
Secure, with only two moons listening,
Until the whole harmonious landscape rang-
'For auld lang syne.' The weary throat gave out...
This is what Frost picked out:
The guarded pathos of "Mr. Food's Party" is what makes it merciless. We
are to bear in mind the number of moons listening. Two, as on the planet
Mars. No less. No more .. One moon .. would have laid grief too bare.
More than two would have dissipated grief entirely and would have amounted
to dissipation. The emotion had to be held at a point.
He set the jug down slowly at his feet
With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
And only when assured that on firm earth
Frost Reading 45
It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
Assuredly did not ...
There twice it gleams.2
Frost again picks out the two-ness of things, and he finds beauty in a
precise balance between that duality and something larger (like "Mars")
or stronger (like "grief"). Frost finds it beautiful when something small
succeeds in holding something larger to a point of balance. Once, he
put it especially simply. "Most things break."
Here, for example, is the way Frost perceives a single line from another
Robinson poem, this one a surrealistic study of suicide. Frost quotes
from the poem:
The miller's wife had waited long,
The tea was cold, the fire was dead;
And there might yet be nothing wrong
In how he went and what he said:
"There are no millers any more,"
Was all that she had heard him say.
"There are no millers any more." It might be an edict of some power against
industrialism. But no, it is of wider application. It is a sinister jest at the
expense of all investors of life or capital. The market shifts and leaves them
with a car-barn full of dead trolley cars. At twenty I commit myself to a life
of religion. Now, if religion should go out of fashion in twenty-five years,
there would I be, forty-five years old, unfitted for anything else and too
old to learn anything else.3
Frost translates that fifth line into the against-ness he likes to perceive.
First he finds some power big enough to take on "industrialism." Next
he reads the line as a jest against "all investors of life or capital." Another
big issue. Then in his characteristic rhythm of expansion and contraction,
his mind seems to run from "investors" to the failure of the street-railway
companies. (He was writing in 1936, when the automobile companies
were buying up and closing down street railways, and you really could
find a "car-barn full of dead trolley cars.") Next he moves on to himself,
"I," and a "life of religion," and then religion is eclipsed by "fashion,"
a much lesser thing. All this from "There are no millers any more." He
hears that small known phrase bearing on several big unknowns.
His mind moves in a constant rhythm of small to large to small to
large, the small somehow managing to stave off or cope with or survive
within the large. It is this characteristic of his own mind that he discovers
46 Frost Reading
and admires in Robinson's poetry and in other things he likes. Among
his favorite reading, he included the Odyssey but not the Iliad, the escape
from Troy and the homecoming rather than the deadlock and entangle-
ment and mortality of the grander Iliad (or so I understand his prefer-
ence). He singled out Poe and Emerson as favorites. Both deal with
efforts to master supernatural forces by natural ones. Strangest of all,
he liked such romances as The Last of the Mohicans, The Prisoner of Zenda,
or The Jungle Book. They act out Frost's own exaggerated need for courage
as a reaction against the unmanageable in himself. He would set up
heroes and worship them (as he did with John F. Kennedy), and he
tried to build himself up into the sturdy stoicism he admired. He was
especially fond of Kipling; and, he said, "Robinson Crusoe is never quite
out of my mind. I never tire of being shown how the limited can make
snug in the limitless. Walden has something of the same fascination.
Crusoe was cast away; Thoreau was self-cast away. Both found them-
selves sufficient."4 Indeed this was the way he thought about all liter-
ature. "There are no two things as important to us in life and art," he
said, "as being threatened and being saved."5
Understanding what Frost prizes is what a modem theory of personal
identity adds to the old maxim, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Beauty is in the I of the beholder. When he looked at a Robinson stanza,
Frost singled out the pairings and the balancing. He even created bal-
ancings where you or I might see none. For example, he found the fourth
"thought" something that plays with the shape of the stanza and turned
the obstacle of verse to advantage. He turned the phrase "no millers"
into a general pattern of against-ness and the failure of commitment.
He went so far as to imagine the double gleam of the double moon on
Mr. Flood's jug, although Robinson's poem does not mention it.
It was from these appreciations of beauty in others' poems that Frost
formed his own credo. Good practice is what yields poetry he finds
beautiful. Hence, Frost defines poetry and metaphor as a stand-off: "There
are many other things I have found myself saying about poetry, but the
chiefest of these is that it is metaphor, saying one thing and meaning
another, saying one thing in terms of another, the pleasure of ulter-
This sense of balancing also comes across in his many comments on
the tension between meaning and meter. "If one is to be a poet he must
learn to get cadences by skillfully breaking the sounds of sense with all
their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the metre."7 "I am
never more pleased than when I can get these [metrical scheme and
natural speech rhythm] into strained relation. I like to drag and break
the intonation across the meter as waves first comb and then break
stumbling on the shingle."8 As he explained rhythm and meter to fellow-
Frost Reading 47
poet Robert Penn Warren, "The one's holding the thing back and the
other's pushing it forward-and so on, back and forward."' "I want
something there-the other thing-something to hold and something
for me to put a strain on."10
As a psychological critic, I find it interesting that Frost had a psycho-
logical theory of reader response behind his poetics:
We begin in infancy by establishing correspondence of eyes with eyes. We
recognized that they were the same feature and we could do the same
things with them. We went on to the visible motion of the lips-smile
answered smile; then cautiously, by trial and error, to compare the invisible
muscles of the mouth and throat. They were the same and could make the
same sounds. We were still together. So far, so good. From here on the
wonder grows. It has been said that recognition in art is all. Better say
correspondence is all. Mind must convince mind that it can uncurl and
wave the same filaments of subtlety, soul convince soul that it can give off
the same shimmers of eternity."
It is the most important balancing for him. Writer and reader mirror each
They do so even when poetry fails: "No tears in the writer, no tears
in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader."2
And of course they resonate when poetry succeeds: "For me the initial
delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn't know I
knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud
or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost
and the rest follows.""1 Hence, whether Frost is functioning as author
or as reader, success takes one and the same form:
In literature it is our business to give people the thing that will make them
say, "Oh yes I know what you mean." It is never to tell them something
they don't know, but something they know and hadn't thought of saying.
It must be something they recognize.14
The unfamiliar poem was something we knew all along. The unknown
turns out to be the known.
Once mind has matched mind and soul has mirrored soul and rec-
ognition has been established, "At no point would anyone but a brute
fool want to break off this correspondence. It is all there is to satisfaction;
and it is salutary to live in the fear of its being broken off."'l The possibility
of alikeness being broken off and replaced by difference is essential to
the fullness of experience. "How does a man come on his difference,
and how does he feel about it when he first finds it out?"'1 "The object
in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible
48 Frost Reading
from each other.""7 And finally that difference, that shock of recognition,
leads into the unmanageable largeness at which Frost aims: "My poems
. are all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless."1
Frost praises for all of poetry and art the special combination of the
contained familiar and the boundless surprise that marks his own poetic
themes and style. I hear in these quotations the two attitudes of "Mend-
ing Wall." They recur in his personal poetic theory, and they constitute
the beauty he finds in the writing of others. "Every poem is an epitome
of the great predicament; a figure of the will braving alien entangle-
ments."19 Poems run from delight, an originality or surprise, to wisdom,
"a momentary stay against confusion."2 "The figure is the same as for
love. Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own
Frost sees more than poetry as balancing. He thinks, as we have seen,
of religious men and politicians as well as poets this way. He sees politics
and science as balancing and, he says, love. He fantasies in this sy-
necdochic way. In short I will be able to trace that same combination of
small known confronting and managing big unknown in other functions
of Frost's identity, like his social opinions, his views on life in general,
or his perceptions of other people. As the definition of identity would
suggest, he sees everything in the same style or, more exactly, I can see
Frost as seeing everything in the same style.
This concept of identity holds for you and me. We perceive, as Frost
does, in a certain style, as a function of identity or an identity theme.
We see things in terms of the expectations we hold, and those expec-
tations in turn combine cultural and personal patterns. Hence, when I
look at Robert Frost, I see him differently from the way you do. When
I phrase his identity theme, I will arrive at a different formulation from
yours. When I write, "I will be able to find that same combination in
other functions of Frost's identity," what I am finding is at best partly
"there." It is "in here," too.
What then is the status of identity? Is it merely some "subjective"
maundering? An elaborate way of saying what is merely my "subjective"
impression of Frost?
What is the status of perception itself? If what Frost perceives when
he looks at Robinson's text is a function of his identity, then what I
perceive when I look at the text of Frost's response to Robinson is a
function of mine- How can that be? Surely the outer world controls
my perceptions to some extent, at least. It is impossible, surely, to see
this black and white A in front of me as a Z or to claim that
"zebra" or "zombie" begin with A. The world is not just "subjective."
Not every response is possible for a given stimulus, and there must be
Frost Reading 49
such a thing as a predictable response for us to be able to communicate
with one another.
Robinson's poem is about a miller, m-i-l-l-e-r. It is not about a miler,
m-i-l-e-r, or a milker, m-i-l-k-e-r, and no amount of identity-mongering
will make it so. The print on the page rules out certain perceptions.
"Miller" means a grinder of grain. Or does it? My desk dictionary
offers milling machines and moths as meanings 2 and 3 for "miller."
Nevertheless, it is simply not possible for Frost to say that Robinson's
stanza is about miller moths or machinists (without being mistaken,
crazy, drunk, or doped). Then, of course, finding a miller, being creative
and being committed to pairs and balances, Robert Frost may arrive at
a significance for "miller" and its fixed meaning as grinder of grain which
is richer than you or I might be able to create or at least different, his
idea that the miller represents "all investors of life or capital." That is a
distinction literary theorist E. D. Hirsch, Jr. would draw," between a
fixed meaning, established by the author's intention, binding on us all,
and a personal significance, different for everyone.
Surely he is right, isn't he? There is no way for "miller" to be other
than a grinder of grain. Or is there? No, of course there is not-except
for people who are mistaken or who don't read English or are psy-
chotically fixated on milling machines or moths. Even so, if we are
formulating a psychology of literature, wouldn't we like our theory to
take these unusual people into account, too? Stanley Fish has put it the
other way round, lumping together "Normal Circumstances, Literal Lan-
guage, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious,
What Goes without Saying, and Other Special Cases."' Quite properly,
it seems to me.
Such niceties aside, we should not unnecessarily limit our inquiry.
We should not put the question as, Does the printed word "miller"
control Robert Frost's mind, or does Robert Frost control "miller"? That
would put stimulus and perceiver into an either-or. Either the stimulus
dictates the response, or else the perceiver does and then it's all "sub-
jective." That way of thinking about "subjective" and "objective" falsifies
the process by forcing us into unreal extremes. We would have ruled
out from the start the bottom-up and top-down, the outside-in and inside-
out processes we have learned about from the psychologists, who tell
us this more complex model of mind applies especially to reading.
Traditional psychology offers us the terms exogenicc" and "endo-
genic": responses that are caused from outside ourselves and responses
that come from inside. If we start from the position that "subjective"
and "objective" are inevitably mixed, that responses are necessarily both
exogenic and endogenic, some interaction of inner personality and outer
50 Frost Reading
stimulus, then we can rephrase the central question of this book. What
is the relation between Robert Frost's highly personal and individual
commitment to small knowns balancing large unknowns and our uni-
form recognition (all of us who are neither psychotic nor mistaken, that
is) that that stanza by E. A. Robinson talks about grinders of grain and
not milling machines or moths? How does Frosts individual experience
of the poem, his highly "creative" response, come from the text of a
poem which is the same for all of us (who are not psychotic or mistaken)?
To explore that question, I suggest we look at some other reactions to
Robinson's poem, reactions less poetic, perhaps, than those of Robert
Frost, but no less idiosyncratic.
The Miller's Wife and
the Six Professors
The scene: spring at a large midwestern university. 10:15 a.m. A sem-
inar room. Around the long table and in outer rows of seats are gathered
a score or so of professorial-looking types from the English department,
some senior, some junior. About a quarter are women, some of them,
it turns out, faculty wives. They have assembled for a "Working
Teachshop" by the Visiting Fireman.
It is the morning after the lecture and party the night before. People
are gearing up for the day or, having taught 9:00s, gearing down. Those
seated at the table are holding photocopies of a poem. As they banter,
they seem to be approaching the morning's exercise in a spirit of curiosity.
Let's play the Visiting Fireman's game and see what happens.
The Visiting Fireman himself, neatly dressed if slightly hung over,
sits in the middle of one long side. He speaks in a friendly but hesitant
voice, feeling his way with this group, new to him. He begins by reading
the poem aloud:
The miller's wife had waited long,
The tea was cold, the fire was dead;
And there might yet be nothing wrong
In how he went and what he said:
"There are no millers any more,"
Was all that she had heard him say;
And he had lingered at the door
So long that it seemed yesterday.
Sick with fear that had no form
She knew that she was there at last;
52 The Miller's Wife and the Six Professors
And in the mill there was a warm
And mealy fragrance of the past.
What else there was would only seem
To say again what he had meant;
And what was hanging from a beam
Would not have heeded where she went.
And if she thought it followed her,
She may have reasoned in the dark
That one way of the few there were
Would hide her and would leave no mark:
Black water, smooth above the weir
Like starry velvet in the night,
Though ruffled once, would soon appear
The same as ever to the sight.
"The Mill," he announces, is by Edwin Arlington Robinson, 1920. This
morning's consensus is, Not a great poem, but good. One senior man
in American literature gravely opines that Robinson is "much under-
The Visiting Fireman remarks that he picked this particular poem
because part of his lecture the night before dealt with Robert Frost's
comments on it. He therefore thought the assembled company might
find this poem a useful starting point. This morning, as advertised, he
would like to apply some of the psychology of reading developed in the
lecture the night before. Last night we looked at Robert Frost's reading
of this poem as a function of his identity and at his identity as a theme
and variations. Now, for something more practical, how can we apply
all that to the teaching of literature? How can we use the personal quality
of reading, as demonstrated by Frost, to deepen our students' reading?
How can we use the theme-and-variations concept of identity to un-
derstand what we are doing when we teach?
Hence this workshop. How can the things we professors of literature
teach enter into an otherwise personal response? The Visiting Fireman
suggests they begin by comparing their own readings of "The Mill" to
Robert Frost's. Would the assembled company be so kind as to fill in
answers to the five questions on the questionnaire now being handed
Actually, of course, the Visiting Fireman has a hidden agenda, ques-
tions of his own, like those with which he-I-ended the last chapter.
If reading is a function of identity, as Frosts seems to be, does that make
all readings and interpretations "subjective"?
The Miller's Wife and the Six Professors 53
How, if at all, does a text like this poem, "The Mill," control or dictate or
limit readers' readings?
Can we divide a reader's reading into a part controlled by the text and a
part which is personal to Robert Frost or indeed to these professors?
To elicit these questions, to test and discuss them, and perhaps even
to lay them to rest, the Visiting Fireman has put together some materials
for a workshop for professors of literature. If I coalesce several occasions
on which, as Visiting Fireman, I got groups of professors to work on
these materials, I come up with the scene with which this chapter began.
All told, I have collected forty-four questionnaires in America, on which
I am drawing in this chapter, and a number of others (similar but not
reported here) in Adelaide and Paris.
Meanwhile, back in that seminar room, the Visiting Fireman, ever
hopeful, distributes questionnaires. Sensing a tension in his audience,
he promises to hand out his own answers in exchange for their candor,
but that is not enough to ease the atmosphere. The professors assembled
round the seminar table are a little shy, a little reluctant, a little put on
their professional mettle.
1. To what does the clause "what was hanging from a beam" refer?
2. To what does the clause "What else there was" refer?
3. What is the most important single word in the poem? Why?
4. What does the miller's wife look like (features, build, clothing, etc.)?
5. Whom does she remind you of, and why?
The Visiting Fireman's questions artfully span a gamut from the most
"objective" to the most "subjective." You could also say they illustrate
different ideas of the way we read (or perceive). They range across three
models of the reading process. One is a "text-active" model of perception,
in which the poem is active, the respondent passive. In a "text-active"
model the poem dictates the response. In the second, a "bi-active" model,
the poem sets limits for the response, but within those limits the reader
is free to arrive at his or her own response. Both the poem and the
reader are active within their spheres, and each is passive in relation to
the other. Third is a "transactive" model in which the reader controls
the response. The reader is active, and the poem reactive.
Question 1 asks a grammatical question which I think most skilled
readers would agree has one definitely "right" and various "wrong"
answers. In that sense, it presupposes a "text-active" model of reading:
if poems dictate the responses of properly trained readers, "The Mill"
should dictate the right answer to a grammatical question asked of a
group of English teachers.
54 The Miller's Wife and the Six Professors
In form, Question 2 looks like 1, but there may well be no definitely
right answer. A number of words and phrases would be acceptable, in
that sense, "right." Still, most people would call some answers clearly
wrong. Suppose you answered "the miller"?
I also had in mind in Questions 1 and 2 the concept of an "interpretive
community." This is an idea developed by my fellow-theorist Stanley
Fish. By it he accounts for the similarities in readings in academic sit-
uations (classrooms, for example, or learned papers) or in professional
settings where interpretation matters, like courts of law or clinical con-
ferences. Although interpretations can vary greatly as academic or psy-
chiatric or jurisprudential fashions change, readings tend to be similar
among any given group of readers so long as those readers share similar
beliefs about the proper ways to read a poem, story, statute, judicial
opinion, or patient's case history. When we ask a grammatical question
of "The Mill," we apply the procedures and conventions of the com-
munity of university litterateurs, today's professors and students, to
answer it. We use "interpretive strategies" that we learned from that
"interpretive community." These, says Fish, "enable," "constitute," "make
available" such ideas as a clause's referring to something.'
If Fish is correct, the professors' answers to Question 1 should show
a clustering around the "right" answer and perhaps a scattering of wrong
answers. The answers to 2, however, should show no particular clus-
tering, since the "interpretive community," professors and students in
American universities today, does not dictate any one answer to the
question. Would the professors' answers demonstrate Fish's claim?
Question 3 asks for a more freely imaginative response. There are no
"wrong" answers to "What is the most important word?" except (I sup-
pose) words that do not occur at all in "The Mill." Could you dismiss
"the" or "had" as wrong? I wonder. Suppose my answer began, "The
most important word never appears in the poem itself. It is 'economics.'"
Would I have committed myself to a wrong reading? Would you give
me an F? (It comes dose to Frost's reading, though.)
At any rate, I took the question from a book by David Bleich on
"subjective" techniques of teaching. Bleich says an answer to this ques-
tion "begins in complete subjectivity and is then transformed into judg-
ments that appear to be objective."2 The question implies that readers
are wholly in control, but attribute their feelings to the activity of the
poem. Would the professors' answers fit such a model?
Question 4 asks for even more projection, since the poem does not
describe the wife at all. I wrote this question hoping to get answers that
reflect today's most popular model for the reading process, articulated
with particular lucidity and learning by the leading German theorist of
reading, Wolfgang Iser. Iser's model is bi-active: the poem sets limits
The Miller's Wife and the Six Professors 55
within which the reader is free to respond imaginatively as the reader
sees fit. More precisely, Iser says the poem leaves gaps (here, the wife's
appearance) which the reader feels impelled to fill, but the reader is free
to fill them as he or she wishes.3 If I am reading Iser's bi-active model
correctly, and if he is right, then the professors should feel some com-
pulsion to provide an image of the wife but they should all come up
with quite different pictures.
Question 5 admits a wholly personal response. That is, anyone would
understand a description answering 4 (thin, gaunt, even "like an Es-
kimo"). No one in the room except the answerer, however, could un-
derstand some of the answers possible for 5: my mother-in-law; a former
girlfriend; a woman I saw once. Question 5 asks, in effect, what will
responses to the poem look like if we encourage readers to be totally
free and idiosyncratic? You could say 5 calls for a "very subjective" and
1 for a "very objective" answer. The responses certainly came out that
Incidentally, in designing my questions, I was meeting some objections
to my studies of actual student readers raised by another theorist at an
English Institute panel on reading.' He objected to my studying reading
through the free associations of undergraduate readers on several grounds.
They were not "competent." The search for free associations will hide
the agreement of "ninety-three out of a hundred" readers. The questions
led away from the text. And so on. Here, the readers are professors,
committed to professional techniques in reading. The occasion was pub-
lic, not a private interview. The questions pointed to the text rather than
seeking long chains of associations away from the text. I believe the
experience with the forty-four professors (or graduate students or faculty
wives) who answered this questionnaire shows that the extraordinary
variety I found in my 5 Readers Readings holds in this situation, as well
as for undergraduate free associations.
The professors' answers seemed consistent, at any rate, with 5 Readers
Raeding. About two-thirds of them gave the "right" answer to the gram-
matical Question 1 (thereby, I suppose, demonstrating that at least two-
thirds of the professors were "competent" in my critic's sense):
the miller's body
The millers corpse
56 The Miller's Wife and the Six Professors
THE DEAD MILLER
refers to a new subj. serving as gr. subj. of verb "could not have heeded."
serves as antecedent of i"-applies to hanged miller.
Inevitably, some arrived at special results:
fear or the fear of what the future holds
I have no idea.
Seems something dead, fearful, underscoring her fright.
Question 2, allowing more leeway, elicited more varied answers and
more varied wording of the same answers. A majority, however, gave
the same answer as for Question 1.
THE DEAD MILLER
Again it is referentially the hanged body of No. 1.
This also refers to the hanging body of the miller.
Various possibilities: Hanged miller-smell of hanged miller (bowels loos-
ening, etc.-in contrast to pleasant "fragrance"), what was "there" beside
the fear, finally given form-the scene & situation-
Maybe those who said in answer to Question 2 the miller's body (in-
correct, in my reading) had some sort of carryover from Question 1.
They tended to use more words in 2, possibly expressing some uncer-
tainty about their answers.
Some people wrote for 2 what seems to me, at least, the "right" answer,
namely, other things that embody the miller's outmoded craft:
The other reminders in the mill of the dead occupation.
Everything in the mill that reminds the wife of the Miller's life & that Millers
are now unnecessary.
Still others suggested vague fears or futures or failures:
"what else there was" to "what he had meant" and "what was hanging
from the beam." The referents e nonspecific ad what floats around is
the phantom of fear, or doubt or distrust-something that has no form.
It refers to that "something" that pervades the room, fills it with suspense.
Not knowing what that something is is half the reason for its powerful
It refers to the mno-reassuring aspects of the mill-what speaks to her fears
The Miller's Wife and the Six
(of the future), not to her knowledge of the past. Fear directs itself toward
Questions 1 and 2 should evoke the effects of Stanley Fish's interpretive
communities, and they do. The professors dearly were drawing on shared
principles of reading and
a common store of syntactic knowledge. On
the other hand, there was no great unanimity. In particular, there was
as much agreement in answer to Question 2 (where neither the
poem nor our interpretive community assigns one "right" answer) as to
Question 1 (where either the poem or the community does
answer is right and the rest wrong). To explain these
terpretive communities may be necessary-I think they are-but they
are not sufficient.
Question 3 asked what was the most important word in the poem and
"wrong" answers within the poem. 3 elicited (as I had expected)
a wide variety of answers.
dead. is right at beginning of poem
& puts weight on everything that
It suggests what happens.
fear. Because of her first phrase "There
are no millers anymore" which
is, it appears, the point of her fear of economic downfall. Such things as
yesterday, past, linger
Fear. It colors all responses to her encounters in the mill
he's hanging (the miller) in
that no longer
everything in the poem seems to hang, be suspended, the wife
waiting, the miller, no need, the dead miller, hope etc.
Some said there was no most important word. They left the question
blank or fussed with it. (They demonstrated in this backhanded way
that texts-in this instance, the text of the questionnaire-do not force
There isn't one.
so much death, everywhere-no more millers (other
again what it had meant).
I'm uncomfortable choosing-each word
to be dependent on the
others. "There" is used many times in different ways as a place, as
a non-place-The poem draws attention to place (The Mill) as determining
Others showed remarkable ingenuity:
58 The Millers Wife and the Six Professors
The irony that there are no millers anymore-and yet no change,
no mark, everything still appears the same.
brings reader in
form," would not, "no mark."
" "no millers,
The assonant found in "meal"
together-especially in "mealy fragrance"
"miller"-it ties the entire poem
mealy? pleasant, warm ground-down grain, devastated people, "mealy-
mouthedness" of the probably-uncomplaining wife to the miller, & miller
to anyone who might have heard or understood
yet. she does not know-yet-and so the poem hangs in the moment
before knowing, when she
doesn't know, doesn't want to
was a joker, naturally. The most important word?
" 'Hangs.' It
with Bleich that these
begin in subjectivity
and end in seeming objectivity, but does that statement do more than
describe what is taking place? You could, of course, call these answers
"subjective," but they make specific "objective" appeals to the poem.
The answers draw on parts of the poem that are "objectively" present
or, in a term Iser prefers, "given." There must be more helpful metaphors
than "begins" and "ends" for developing the relation between the text,
common to us all, and the unique feeling that this or that word is the
most important. There is, for example, Iser's model in which the poem
out, but within those limits the reader can freely
imagine meanings and pictures.
This is a freedom, though, some of our professors declined. Asked in
Question 4 to project visually, some of the professors hesitated, agreed
to make an image, but insisted they did not know for sure.
I remember nothing of her appearance.
She seems an image-abstract-
She is not described at all, of course, and the poem seems to convey a sense
of formlessness. There is a sense
of dimly making out the
forms and outlines of things. Yet I see her as a heavy set woman, with
a pale face, broad features, a woman who has worked hard all her life.
No cue in poem-probably small, plain, calico & gingham-anything but
They were, I take it, tacitly following one of the rules in our interpretive
community of today's professors and students: Do not go beyond or
The Miller's Wife and the Six Professors
outside the words on the page. Others, following the same rule, tried
to reason an image into being from cues undeniably in the text:
She is probably short, as she must look up at the beam where he is hanging
face in fear,
red with hard work. Slightly
= the diet of poor people who eat a lot of starch.
simply went ahead and described her:
Older woman, motherly, has known hard times
apron, thin, long hands & fingers, gaunt cheeks
Slightly over-weight, plain, middle-aged
like a fat Russian peasant-woman in late middle-age
Others resorted to more far-fetched pictures and analogies:
Not described-we are free to
our own image-I see a Breughel.
Like a weaker version of the woman in Grant Wood's
possibilities: the mother in the Katzenjammer Kids strip (older,
obese/sturdy/hard-farm working immigrant with apron)-in this case
or Nastasia Kinsky (grey peasant dress un-
buttoned at the top showing inner breast & chest wall, hair seductively
falling over left eye, pushed back, falls again-then suicide due to jeal-
The variability in these pictures raises, for me, a number of doubts about
a bi-active model like Iser's in which the reader freely imagines within
limits fixed by the poem. For one thing, Iser writes as though the bulk
of the response were controlled by the poem and the reader simply fills
in some inessential gaps. The poems these people describe, however,
are so different (Grant Wood, Breughel, thin wife, fat wife, Katzenjammer
Kids and Nastasia Kinsky) that the balance seems rather the other way.
Also, the answers to Questions 1 and 2 suggest that, even in simple
grammatical matters, readers are not constrained or limited. Finally, it
is not clear to me that
fill in gaps. Several of these professors simply refused. Perhaps they are
showing that the wife's appearance is not a "gap" in Iser's sense.
To the last and most projective question of the five, there were the
predictable blanks and responses like-
60 The Miller's Wife and the Six
I can't think of anyone right now
Can't think of a literary character just now
As in that last response, most of
of literature assumed,
or less automatically,
was called for
was a literary
and most provided one, although my question made no
stipulation. I take it they
"rule," but a bias of our
following another-I will
not call it
is relevant to
Some of their literary associations were
Chaucer-connotations of famous Miller?
The Wife in "Death of a Salesman"
the Death of the Hired Man, Hedda
The old peasant woman whose shoes Heidegger writes about in "The Origin
of Art"-because she seems to have been totally and unreflectively ab-
sorbed in her work (or her husband's) until the event which precipitates
the poem occurs. Then,
she is incapable of going on.
d what, for
stration, I had hoped
them, unsharable by
the rest of us:
An old woman I saw once.
My grandmother-because she was old world & full of care & overworked
My Aunt Betty, who discovered her husband dead on his workshop floor
A former girlfriend, a timorous and dependent person, who gave meaning
to her own life by identification with others an identification with me
I couldn't tolerate in the end.
They recalled figures entirely personal to themselves, people no one else
in the room would know-except for-
She does not remind me of anyone I know. In her fear that something may
have happened to hurt a loved one, she reminds me of me.
Others turned to works of art or places, personal recollections that were
not entirely personal but partly cultural:
The Miller's Wife and the Six Professor
Woman figure in Dorothea Lange's depression photo.
bereft, nowhere, empty.
Sense of being lost,
Any Iowa farmer's wife, perhaps from a photo in the depression,
I saw many working women in England who had that stoical
them; they were worn by life, not very "well cared for" but still cheery
and tough. She's probably like that only without much fight left in her.
seems so quiet and undramatic-just a bowing to the in-
imagined a person to be reminded of:
She reminds me of someone who someone wants taking a less active role-
content to let things happen "They also serve who stand & wait"
unaffected by what's happening & partly paying no attention
was a joker. "Whom does she remind you of?"
So far, we have been looking at answers by many different people to
one question. Although these are skilled professional readers, although
they are part of an interpretive community-American university teach-
ers of literature-although most are drawing on an essentially similar
"New Critical" training in dose analysis of the words on the page, their
answers vary all over the place. Question 1 has "right" and "wrong"
answers, but after that, responses go every which way.
When we look at many answers to single questions, we can trace some
patterns, but the whole picture is a jumble. We
much more coherence, if, instead of comparing many persons'
to one of the five questions,
we look at one person's answers to all five
questions, paying the close attention to choice of words that
choanalyst would. For example,
1. body hanging there
2. the only thing that was left was his found body-
gives feeling of dread
4. no idea-housewife-heavy set; placid
air of waiting-doesn't pay much attention
Keeps on with her
62 The Miller's Wife and the Six Professors
5. She reminds me of someone who someone wants taking a less active
role-content to let things happen "They also serve who stand & wait"
She is unaffected by what's happening & partly paying no attention
In these five answers by someone I'll call Professor One, I can read back
from the last to the first. Answer 5 seems to have a slip of the pen: the
repeated "someone," as if the final clause could stand alone, "Someone
wants taking a less active role," as if that "someone" could apply to One
herself as well as to the miller's wife. (Evidently she felt rushed-see
4.) To 5, the most projective of the questions, the one that allows most
room for individual feelings and associations, she speaks of someone
"less active," who only stands and waits, who is partly paying no at-
I see the same theme in her 4: placid, waiting, not paying attention.
Again, as though what Professor One was saying applied equally to the
miller's wife and to herself, she does not finish her last dause in 4.
Perhaps she as well as the miller's wife is not paying attention. Perhaps
she has identified herself with the wife.
In 3, she names "fear" as the most important word because it "gives
feeling of dread." The word does something to One. It "gives feeling."
The phrasing is passive and vague, and the verbs in 2 are exaggeratedly
passive: "The only thing that was left was his found body." Finally, in
1, "body hanging there," we get a "correct" answer to this "objective"
question, but stated so as to emphasize the theme of passivity ("hang-
ing") and vagueness ("there") that I find more obvious in her longer,
more projective responses.
Sometimes it is difficult to formulate a theme for such laconic materials.
Possibly the thread I see in Professor One's reading will appear more
dearly if we contrast Professor Two's set of five responses:
1. refers to a new subj. serving as
gr. subj. of verb "could not have heeded." serves as antecedent of "it"-
applies to hanged miller.
2. 2d attribution of something in the mill--st thing being "fragrance"
4. Unspecified-yet implied she follows, by drowning, her husband's
departure by hanging.
5. Tristan, Romeo
Two is reluctant to project at all: he leaves 3 blank and insists in 4 that
the wife's looks are "Unspecified." He makes up the lack by a process
The Miller's Wife and the Six Professors 63
of inference which he attributes to the poem: the poem "implied" she
drowned. Similarly, in
5, he explained to me afterwards, Tristan and
Romeo fit in a sort of logical
a literary figure in
suicide or mutual love-death who commits suicide on seeing his beloved
dead. Two's appeal to logic and observable behavior (as in 4) outweighed
sex: few respondents to
reminded of men by the
The wife reminded him of literary figures, Tristan and Romeo, and
he showed in 1 and 2 a similar turning away from the physical world
toward language or literature. In 1, he spelled out a grammatical answer
to a grammatical question exactly, almost fussily. In 2 he provided a
grammatical answer-two grammatical answers-to a question that most
people answered by an appeal to the events. In 4 he phrased the dis-
tressing facts of the poem in tangled euphemisms, "departure" for death
"follows" for the second death. From just these brief
I can phrase
a pair of themes that will unify Two's
for me: displacement to logic, language, or surface behavior; conversely,
a reluctance to imagine what is not directly observable.
Young Professor Three
was unusual in trying to be witty:
1. The husband (miller) who has hanged himself. Poem draws attention
to, depicts the transformation of person -* object ("it" followed her);
woman submerged beneath water, which then heals itself.
possibilities: Hanged miller-smell of hanged miller (bowels
loosening, etc.-in contrast to pleasant "fragrance"), what was "there"
beside the fear, finally given form-the scene & situation-
3. I'm uncomfortable choosing-each word seems to be dependent on the
others. "There" is used many times in different ways-as a
a non-place-The poem draws attention to place (The Mill)
4. We don't know; the poem doesn't tell us. Wet.
is reluctant to project in 4 and
5. Her jokes in 4 and
as an amusing evasion of the imagining the questionnaire asked her to
do. Her jokes take us, like Professor Two's focus on language, somewhat
stubbornly back to what is demonstrable and obvious. Other themes:
smells (2), body wastes (2), being "wet" (2,4), autonomy and dependency
both for herself and for the words (3), persons as inanimate objects (1)
and vice versa (1), delivering a precise and "professional" reading of the
poem even if not called for (1). A psychoanalytic critic might well call
this custer of themes of self-rule and rule by others, obsessional, or, in
64 The Miller's Wife and the Six Professors
a bodily terminology, "anal" themes. That is, to make a unity of this
reading, I draw (from my interpretive community) psychoanalytic ac-
counts of the kind of conflict parents and children have over who is
autonomous and who is dependent. Whose rules will be followed, par-
ticularly about delivering from one's body something that may or may
not be a living part of oneself? Possibly Professor Three applied that
question to her own feelings about this questionnaire: Will I let this
Visiting Fireman get something out of me?
I will call the next reader Professor Four, although I am not sure
whether this woman was a professor or a graduate student.
1. fear or the fear of what the future holds
2. millers who are no more.
3. fear. Because of her first phrase "There are no millers anymore"
which is, it appears, the point of her fear of economic downfall. Such
things as yesterday, past, linger
4. Older woman, motherly, has known hard times
5. poverty or a woman on the brink of it.
The themes that come across to me are fear-the word occurs four
times-, loss, and deprivation or poverty, specifically in an economic
sense (2, 3, 4, 5). In her metaphors, the future is a container that holds
something to fear (1). Poverty is a pit one can fall into (5). She gives
graphic versions of psychosocial deprivation from a "primary caretaker."
I would call the container and pit symbols for what Four calls "motherly."
One ultimate fear (in psychoanalytic theory) is annihilation at the hands
of such a failing caretaker. Four repeats the threat of annihilation twice
(2, 3), and she attributes the phrase to the wife instead of the husband.
Four's defense against this fear seems to be simply to face the danger,
as the analysts might say, counterphobically: to fear the future, to know
hard times, to be on the brink. If the choice is fight or flight, Four says
fight: accept the fear and live with it.
The dominant motif I see in Professor Five's responses is also fear,
but with a somewhat different tone:
1. The miller's wife's fears of her husband's suicide: she sees him as if
2. It refers to the non-reassuring aspects of the mill-what speaks to her
fears (of the future), not to her knowledge of the past. Fear directs itself
toward the future.
The Miller's Wife and the Six Professors
The "dead" fire
the failures-and fears-which haunt the
4. I remember nothing of her appearance. She seems an image-abstract-
5. She does not remind me of anyone I know. In her fear that something
may have happened to hurt a loved one, she reminds me of me.
Five's last, startlingly candid answer may be saying how his whole set
of responses reflects some anxiety of his own, leading to his error in the
"objective" question, 1. The other answers suggest he may have a char-
acteristic way of speaking about that fear: saying it applies to the un-
known rather than the known, a kind of denial. The miller is only "as
if" hung (1). Something "may have happened" (5). Fears apply to the
necessarily unreadable future (2) and to abstractions, the "non-reassuring
aspects" of a mill (2), or the "nothing" of an abstract image of domesticity
(4). Five moves from relatively concrete images, "mill," "fire," to ab-
stractions: fear, failure, domesticity, future. The hanged man is only "as
if" hung. He thus wards off literal fear: "She does not remind me of
anyone I know."
But he does make a mistake in 1.
responses somewhat resemble Five's:
1. The miller
2. His absence
That which is disappears; connects to "nothing,
ers," "no form,"
" "no mill-
would not, "no mark.
4. apron, thin, long hands & fingers, gaunt cheeks
5. Woman figure in Dorothea Lange's depression photo.
lost, bereft, nowhere, empty.
was defending against anxiety,
was dealing with a
absence, emptiness, or depression, as she (like Five) frankly says in her
last response. She chooses "no" for the most important word, coupling
it with phrasings of absence. In
she speaks of absence directly, and
in 4 she imagines thinness and gauntness and, first of all, an apron
obscuring the woman's body. In 1, perhaps one can find a significance
in her speaking of "the miller" who
body" which is present.
is absent instead of "the miller's
In short, if I look question by question at all the forty-four
answers, I can find no coherence, even for the question with a "right"
answer. If, however, I look at the
sets of answers person by person,
66 The Miller's Wife and the Six Professors
can formulate a theme or themes that permeate each of these six sets of
One: being passive and vague
Two: displacement to language
Three: "anal" themes
Four: loss from a mother
Five: fear of loss, displacement to the unknown
Six: depression at absence; painful acceptance
Permeates? Does Two's displacement to language or Three's anality enter
into a statement of grammar as much as an imagining of the wife's
appearance? Evidently they do, to judge from the small differences in
phrasing even the "correct" answer, such details as "body" instead of
"corpse" or "miller" instead of "husband."
"Identical" answers can evidently come from very different underlying
concerns. That is to say, in the professors' readings, we are dealing with
a two-level process. The lower level consists of simple readings of letters,
words, sentences, and syntax that are, more or less, the same for all.
The higher level consists of a governance that is highly individual. Psy-
chologists studying learning and memory notice, "In strategy-free tasks,
such as simple recognition and judgments of recency or frequency, there
is little evidence of person-to-person variation." "Individual differences
are likely to appear if the tasks involved some degree of cognitive com-
plexity." "What could be the underlying reason for these individual
differences?," they ask, and answer: "the executive processes of the
modal information-processing model."'
That is, in using questionnaires to study cognitive performances, we
are dealing with a feedback system governed by what they call "executive
routines" that plan, coordinate, sequence, monitor, and check the out-
comes of various sub-performances. If you are testing only the sub-
performances, a questionnaire will show only quantitative differences,
like speed, accuracy, or percentage of correct answers. If you look at
complex performances, like our professors' interpretations, perform-
ances that require more planning, checking, and coordinating, then per-
sonal, qualitative differences appear, because you are drawing on these
more sophisticated executive processes.
It is important, obviously, for researchers to recognize that all cognitive
tasks involve both the higher-level executive and the lower-level sub-
processes. It is particularly important for basing psychological or literary
research on questionnaires.7 The same answer on a questionnaire may
not express the same high-level executive process at all. If one is simply
counting deodorant users or Democrats that may not matter. If one is
studying reading, it will matter very much.
The Miller's Wife and the Six Professors
The answers to Questions 1 and 2 look more or less alike for most of
the people who filled out the questionnaire. If we were to judge by those
answers alone, we might conclude that most of the professors were
reading the same text in more or less the same way. We might decide
that the poem was constraining or limiting their responses. We might
infer they were applying the canons of an interpretive community. We
might say they were constrained another way, by my questionnaire or
by the workshop in which we were all engaged.
Having the answers to Questions 3-5 as well, though, we can see that
the professors were reading the same text in very different ways. Some
were concerned with realism, some with logic, some with language,
some with literary form. Some were concerned with fear, others with
loss, and others with deprivation. When we interpret their responses
thematically, moreover, it looks as though they brought these concerns
into play in answering even the "objective" questions.
Question 1 asked a question with "right" and "wrong" answers. The
"right" answers say the same thing, but phrase it slightly differently (as
in these, a sample from the whole group of forty-four):
the miller's body
The miller's corpse
THE DEAD MILLER
By contrast, since Question 5 asked each person to imagine or remember
in a very personal way, people's answers to Question 5 both look dif-
ferent and say very different things: a woman paying no attention, a
woman in a Dorothea Lange photograph, poverty, Tristan or Romeo,
the miller, the professor himself.
We can, however, phrase for any one set of five answer similarities
that run through all five, just as we can trace similarities or Frost-themes
in Robert Frost's poems, his opinions, or his readings. To be sure, it
may be easier to trace Frost's consistencies in his poems than in his
opinions, but one can trace them in both. So here. We can trace the same
concerns in both the "objective" Answer 1 and the "subjective" Answers
3, 4, or 5.
We may find it easier to see identity in the answers to Question 5 (or
4 or 3). We may find it difficult to see identity if we look only at the
answers to Question 1. (Or we will see it only as capitals or lower case
or such slight differences in phrasing as "the miller," "the miller's body,"
or "his found body.") Nevertheless, if we put the slight differences in
68 The Miller's Wife and the Six Professors
the answers to 1 and 2 alongside the considerable differences in the
answers to 3, 4, and 5, we can, to my satisfaction anyway, trace a
consistency through all the answers by one person.
If so, if we can trace such a similarity, then both the "objective" answers
and the "subjective," the similar answers to 1 and the very different
answers to 5, must come from one and the same process. In that process
themes of interest or concern to the answering professors shaped the
way they worked with a text which was the same for all of them and
these concerns also shaped the way they used the "New Critical" and
other skills they all shared. Both "objective" and "subjective" responses emerge
from a single process in which "subjectivity" shapes "objectivity." In fact, the
very words, "subjective" and "objective" turn out not to be making any
Robert Frost is not the only one to read creatively, then. To judge
from our six professors (or the collection of forty-four sets of answers
which represents them), we all read as functions of our identities. The
professors read "The Mill" as a function of their identities, and I interpret
the professors' questionnaires in terms of mine. The same idiosyncrasy
must go on in teaching-this was the Visiting Fireman's conclusion that
spring morning on a midwestern campus. The professors teach "objec-
tively" but in the manner of their personal identities. Students learn
"objective" things that they can deliver on examinations and term papers,
but they learn and believe them in personal terms-but more of that in
As a general principle, our six professors' readings of the miller's wife
show that any reader is reading both individually and typically. Frost
and the professors may have very different experiences of Robinson's
"The Mill," but they all do experience a poem in which Edwin Arlington
Robinson says something about a miller and his wife. They all do talk
about the obsolescence of mills, the miller's suicide, and the wife's sub-
sequently drowning herself. Since collecting these, however, I have had
one reader, in Adelaide, and then several others, justify their readings
that the wife did not kill herself, by pointing out that the poem only
says she thought about drowning herself. Even so, no one maintained
that this was a poem about a millworker or a milling machine or a miller
moth. Indeed, each of us is necessarily arriving at a reading which all the
other readers shared in at least some ways.
With the professors, with Robert Frost, with you, and with me, two
seemingly inconsistent things are going on. We all share the same text.
Moreover, each of us uses skills for interpreting words and sentences
which are exactly the same for most people. But we each arrive at a
highly individual reading. How can we visualize the interaction of these
different, individual responses with a shared text and techniques?
"We Are Round"
Frost's experience of "The Mill" differed from any of the forty-four
professors' experiences. To judge from the six we looked at closely, the
forty-four professors seem to have had forty-four different experiences,
to say nothing of the teacher from Adelaide. Frost and the professors
all "got" Robinson's poem, however, and in that sense they have all
read the same poem. The poem was different for all of them-but the
These various readings of "The Mill" seem to me to pose two large
questions. First, if everyone responds to the poem in a different and
individual way, how can we explain or articulate that fact? Second, given
that everyone responds individually, then how can we explain or make
sense of the equally obvious fact that we also respond somewhat the
This mix of sameness with difference also seems to me to raise the
philosophical question of other minds. That is, we each feel the poem
differently from any other reader (we think!), but we also feel it somewhat
the same. (Evidently, since we can compare our reactions.) We live in
private, internal worlds, but we do communicate. How?
The mix of sameness and difference in the literary process also seems
to me akin to the classical philosophical problem of mind-body or mind-
brain. (That is the reason this book has the odd title it does.) We have
a brain which is an organ like a lung or a pancreas, shaped about the
same for everybody. We have a mind, an experiencing self, which is
unique for each one of us, and that mind is, we all believe, in our brains
somehow. The mind of Robert Frost is uniquely his own, but the brain
of Robert Frost is, give or take a little, like your brain or mine. How can
we imagine one organ giving rise to two thousand million different
versions of the human?
70 "We Are Round"
The brain physiologists tell us of a growing and ungrowing brain. If
they are right, Robert Frost's use as a child of his heredity and his early
experiences inscribed his individual, uniquely gifted mind on the pulpy
neurons, dendrites, and axons of his physical brain. But if they are right,
we all did the same thing. How can we put that process into words that
will speak of Robert Frost in particular?
For literary critics, the problem becomes particularly pointed. For any
reader of English an A is an A, a B is a B, and so on. Similarly the
printed letters m-i-1-l-e-r are "miller" for everybody. The physical poem
we read or write is, obviously, the same for everyone, and everyone
processes it physically more or less the same way, but the meaning each
of us derives from those a's and b's or that "miller" differs for each of
us. (Frost, for example, interpreted it as "all investors of life or capital.")
The experience of the poem differs even more. How, again, can we
reconcile two such differing processes? More specifically, how can we
put together reading as an individual act (as Frost and our forty-four
professors demonstrate it) and reading as an activity shared by an "in-
I am neither philosopher, cognitive scientist, nor physiologist of the
brain. I do not expect to lay the mind-brain problem to rest. I cannot
give you a cell-by-cell account of the way our brains engage literature.
I do hope, however, I can give you a way of thinking about the literary
process that will in turn yield a way of thinking about the self. Not a
full-fledged explanation, but a guiding idea, a metaphor, a picture. Enough
so that one can articulate that curious combination of individuality and
shared humanity which is the human experience of literature, of life, of
Writing literature involves complicated questions about individual style
and inspiration. As for reading, however, we are asking two specific
questions. How can we articulate everyone's responding differently?
How can we articulate everyone's responding-partly-the same?
The first I have already tried to answer by a concept of identity. In
the opening chapters I was able to formulate a certain Frost-ness in the
way the poet wrote and read and lived. In chapter 4, I was able, on
much less evidence, to arrive at a certain One-ness for Professor One,
Two-ness for Two, and so on up to Six. An "identity theme" phrases
the sameness, consistency, or style of a person. There will be sameness
but also difference, since each new moment of reality asks of us a new
response. By thinking of identity as, first, an identity theme, and second,
"We Are Round" 71
variations, we can put into words the dialectic of sameness and difference
that is a whole human life. Identity says no more than that we can find
some such personal style for each of us or, more exactly, that we can
phrase such personal styles for one another. One can propose a certain
Frost-ness or Professor Three-ness. One can trace a personal style in the
many different things Frost or Three does.
Reading, writing, listening to the words of others-these are simply
acts among other acts we carry on. They too allow one to infer a sameness
or continuity. This concept of identity gives us a way of talking about
the uniqueness of a person's reading or writing (as I have said in earlier
books),' and to that extent answers our first question.
The second question this book asks, however-If we all respond to
language differently, then how can we communicate?-requires that we
refine that theme and variations concept of human identity. If you say,
The miller hanged himself, but I interpret language as a function of my
personal identity, what, if anything, prevents me from hearing you as
saying, The miller made a mistake (hung himself up)? Or, The miller
was a picture? How can we arrive at right and wrong interpretations?
After all, we do.
I find help in an idea from nineteenth-century science, namely, feed-
back. James Clerk Maxwell, the mathematical physicist renowned for
the electromagnetic theory of light, published in 1868 the classic paper
on feedback in the governors of steam engines.2 It was not until World
War II, however, that scientists, confronted with the problem of antic-
ipating the maneuvers of gunners, first applied the mathematics of feed-
back to living organisms. It is sometimes said that the first paper to make
this transfer of an engineering concept, the governing of energy through
feedback, to the biological idea of processing information was the classic
"Behaviour, Purpose, and Teleology" by Arturo Rosenblueth, Julian Bi-
gelow, and Norbert Wiener.3
Historically, feedback as a biological concept descends from Walter B.
Cannon's medical idea of homeostasis, the idea that the body's systems
of chemicals and hormones self-correct so as to maintain various bal-
ances. Incidentally, this was an idea basic to Freud's thinking. He be-
lieved that every organism tends to seek a constant, low or zero level
of excitation. Freud thought this the deepest level of human motivation,
governing even the pleasure principle. He called it variously the "Nirvana
principle" or the "principle of constancy" or the death instinct "beyond
the pleasure principle." Ernest Jones goes so far as to claim that in this
idea (which he got from G. T. Fechner) Freud anticipated Cannon's
72 "We Are Round"
homeostasis and the whole science of cybernetics.4 I am not so ambitious
on Freud's behalf. I want to claim only that feedback is deeply consistent
with psychoanalytic psychology.
In 1940 the application of feedback theory to biological creatures set
off one of the most astonishing confluences of scientific thought in our
own or perhaps any century. Norbert Wiener tells the story in the in-
troduction to his mathematical text, Cybernetics (1948), and Howard Gard-
ner in his history of cognitive science.5 Mathematicians like Wiener, John
von Neumann, and Alan M. Turing, electrical engineers like Vannevar
Bush and Claude Shannon, physiologists like Arturo Rosenblueth and
Warren McCulloch, anthropologists like Gregory Bateson and Margaret
Mead, and even an economist like Oskar Morgenstern all studied in-
formation processing through feedback and what the feedback implied
for biological and social processes. Feedback quickly became part of the
general theory of information and communication, central not only to
the psychological investigation of perception and movement but to what
was quaintly called "the modern ultra-rapid computing machine."'
With feedback (or, more generally, cybernetics, or, still more generally,
information processing), we come to an idea seminal for all those modem
disciplines we call "cognitive science." Howard Gardner has traced the
spectacular growth of this combined discipline in psychology. So far as
this book is concerned, the concept of feedback enables us to bring
together several cognitive disciplines as they bear on literary thought:
physiological descriptions of the architecture and chemistry of the brain;
psychological accounts of perception, memory, and cognition, particu-
larly as they apply to reading; contemporary theories of computers and
artificial intelligence, engaging problems akin to the critic's "interpre-
tation"; and finally a psychoanalytically conceived identity unifying the
behavior of Robert Frost.
For a straightforward instance of feedback, think about driving a car.
Imagine that you are driving down what is for a few yards, anyway, a
straight road. Imagine, if you will, that you are driving in the mountains
of Crete, where no road stays straight for very long, but becomes a series
of hairpin turns on the edge of the mountain. Further, there is little
shoulder and no guardrails, only a shrine for a quick prayer as you
tumble off the cliff. Mentally you might say to yourself, to feel safe, I
should stay about a meter from the right hand edge of the road.
Accordingly, as you drive along, if you see that the distance between
your right front wheel and the right edge of the road has become less
than a meter, half a meter say, you feel a bit tense, and you turn the
"We Are Round"
steering wheel left until the right front wheel is again a meter from the
edge of the road. Conversely, if you find that distance is more than a
meter, so that the left side of the car is getting too close to the rocks on
the other side of this narrow road, a different source of anxiety, you
turn the steering wheel right until you have brought the right front
wheel again to one meter from the edge.
From your output, your steering, you are feeding back information,
your perception of the right front wheel's position. You compare that
information to the position you had earlier decided on. From the dif-
ference you detect between the standard you had set and the position
you now see, you derive another piece of information: how far to move
the steering wheel so as to position the right front wheel to achieve zero
difference between its position and your standard and so to close the
Figure 1 diagrams that process:
SYSTEM OF ROAD
U AND STEERING :.. S-d
Driving along a road in Crete
74 "We Are Round"
I position the steering wheel a certain way, acting out from myself into
the environment of car and road. We could think of my action in the
most general terms as trying something out. Really, I am putting a
hypothesis out into the world. That outer reality then feeds back to me
information about what it did upon receiving my output. The steering
gears, the road, the tires position the car in a certain way as a result of
the way I turned the steering wheel. I get a response to my hypothesis.
Then I sense whether the car is closer or less dose to the right edge of
the road than I want it to be, and I turn the steering wheel to right or
left to bring that error as near to zero as possible.
In effect, on testing the environment, I am receiving information, my
perception of the right front wheel's position d. I compare that datum to
the position I had earlier decided on, my standard s. From the difference
between them, s d, I estimate how far to move the steering wheel so
as to position the right front wheel to achieve zero difference between
its position and my standard (s d = 0). I may not get it right the first
time, and in that case I get another, presumably smaller, s d error
signal. By trial and error (and feedback is precisely what trial and error
is), I eventually bring s d to 0 or near enough to 0 so that I feel all right
about it. I minimize the error signal and so close the feedback loop.
We could schematize that process as in Figure 2.
1 METER STANDARD
?0 COMPARATOR O
4 SYSTEM WITHIN
SYSTEM OF CAR AND ROAD
Figure 2. Feedback diagram of car and driver
We are talking about a feedback loop, that is, a system in which the car and
road feed back to the driver the results of his own actions, and he modifies
those actions accordingly. More exactly, the driver, by positioning the steer-
ing wheel at a certain angle, tests the car and road. As he acts, he puts what
amounts to a physical hypothesis out into car and road, and they in turn
respond. He reads that response as the distance between the right front
"We Are Round" 75
wheel and the edge of the road, and he compares that distance to his
standard, the distance he wants to see, one meter. If the difference is pos-
itive, that is, if the car is more than one meter from the edge, he may position
the wheel still further in the direction he already has. If the difference is
negative, if the car is less than one meter from the edge, he turns the wheel
back from the position he had put it in.
I realize the driving technique I am describing is rather primitive: an
experienced driver really measures the rate of change in the right front
wheel's position. The point is, however, that the driver compares what
he does see with what he wants to see and uses that difference to correct
his own output. In general terms, the driver's output is fed back to the
driver's input and used to correct the output.
So far we have talked only about correcting for one's own errors.
Suppose there is a puff of wind between those Cretan mountains and
it pushes you to the right. Then you will have to turn the steering wheel
to the left to get yourself back at the desired distance. Suppose there is
a stiff wind blowing you to the right all the time. You may have to keep
the steering wheel turned slightly to the left to maintain the one meter
distance from the right edge of the road that feels right to you. An
outside stimulus, like a puff of wind or a curve in the road, thus elicits
a response, but not in a simple stimulus-response way. Rather it becomes
part of a continuing loop of control, as in Figure 3.
1 METER STANDARD
dO 0^ COMPARATOR
3 SYSTEM WITHIN
V ^ V V V v V f\ V V V f\ v ^ v V V^ V V ^/ v V^ ^/ V v v
X SYSTEM OF CAR AND ROAD
Figure 3. Feedback diagram of car, driver, and stimulus
A puff of wind will add its effect into the feedback loop, changing the
net position of the car that I see, leading me to turn the steering wheel
The wind does not in and of itself prescribe a certain response,
76 "We Are Round"
however, nor do I respond to the puff of wind in a simple stimulus-
causes-response way. Rather, I calculate a response as part of the whole
process of control and guidance, which now includes the puff of wind.
I calculate or try out a response to the wind that will maintain my standard
of one meter from the right. If there were a puff of wind and if the road
curved at the same time so that I remained one meter from the right, I
might not turn the steering wheel at all in response to the stimulus of
the wind. In other words, any one stimulus has to be added to all the
other stimuli and to the input being fed back toward the standard. That
way, you arrive at a net change which you then compare to the standard.
Control comes from the standard at the center rather than from the
stimulus "out there," at the periphery.
In general, then, we do not passively respond to stimuli. Rather, we
have an expectation about our world or what psychologists and neuro-
scientists sometimes call a "set." The brain physiologists can literally
observe its activity (in the pyramidal tract system which originates in
the neocortex and serves as the output system of the primary motor area
of the cerebral cortex). But let me put off anatomical jargon. As we
change our "set," we bring to bear on our world different expectations.
We therefore change the hypotheses we test against our world. The
general principle is: We prepare for stimuli and actively search our en-
vironment for them.
Hence we can make driving in Crete into a generalized feedback model
of human behavior (Figure 4).
SYSTEM WITHIN INNER
PERSON Q THE PERSON REALITY
^J Vl P% ^ v ^V v V v v V v V v V ^ V V v ^ V ^ v V V V V ^
X SYSTEM IN THE ENVIRONMENT REAUTY
Figure 4. Generalized feedback picture of human activity
"We Are Round" 77
In effect, when I position the steering wheel at a certain angle, my output
tests the world. By my behavior I put a hypothesis out into my envi-
ronment to see what my environment will return. Then I compare that
return, a perception, to my standard-the perception I want to have-
and I add or subtract from my behavioral output, my "hypothesis," to
elicit a return that feels right according to my standard. In other words,
I seek a return that leaves me with no more error than I can comfortably
tolerate. One can state this single loop mathematically in differential
equations which are quite simple and familiar to engineers (but, unfor-
tunately for my purposes, completely alien to most humanists and likely
to remain so).
I would like you to notice four things about this picture. First, it
involves three key elements, not two. Second, behavior controls per-
ception not vice versa. Third, the process may look machine-like, but
emotions-feelings-govern its operation. Fourth, the driving loop is
more or less the same for everybody. I want to develop these four points
in detail, because Figure 4 is central to, in a sense, is my thesis in this
Three elements, not two
First, there are three elements essential to the network. I emphasize
that there are three, because psychology textbooks typically leave out
the crucial one of the three when they explain feedback.8
1) There is the feeding back of the output (my behavior) through its
consequences to something I perceive, a sensory input. This is what
gives feedback its name, and the textbooks never fail to mention it. This
feeding back is usually automatic. In driving, it is a mixture of physio-
logical links through my hands and arms and physical links through the
car's steering system and the road, links that any skilled driver has long
since ceased to be aware of consciously. Feedback in this specific sense
is not particularly individual. 2) There is the comparison between what I
perceive and the standard I set, between what I want to see and what
I in fact see. This comparison is, in effect, the input that leads to my
behavior (output) that then feeds round again as perception (input). The
comparison that gives rise to an output is the difference between the
distance I would like to see between right front wheel and edge and the
distance I do see after steering gears and tires and road surface have
78 "We Are Round"
responded to my output, that is, my steering. More generally, the com-
parison is the difference between what I want and what I get. My per-
ception of that difference is probably, again, quite automatic. 3) Finally,
there is that standard or reference that says, I feel safe when the car is
one meter from the right edge of the road. That is a very individual
thing. It is the crucial element that psychology textbooks typically leave
out, although it is this reference or standard or desire or wish that sets
the whole process in motion. Let me quote again brain scientist J. Z.
Young, "We now find that every organism contains systems that literally
embody set points or reference standards. The control mechanisms op-
erate to ensure that action is directed to maintaining these standards."9
A loop's standard comes from outside the control loop, not in any super-
natural sense, but simply because the standard is not affected by what
goes on in the loop it controls. The standard comes from some other
loop in the brain. Often, psychoanalysis shows, it will be an unconscious
desire that colors a conscious action.
Behavior controls perception
A second thing about Figure 4 to notice: in this picture, behavior
controls perception. On that mountain road, I used the steering wheel
to control my perception of the distance between the right wheel and the
edge of the road. I was not using my vision to control the steering wheel-
I was using my vision to detect the position of the car, which in turn
was resulting from some combination of my steering, the turns in the
road, and the wind. The perception of that relation was the end product
of the transaction. Perception was what I sought.
If there had been a fog in those mountains that made the visibility so
poor that I could see the car and the wheel but couldn't see the right
edge of the road, and so couldn't see the position of the car relative to
the right edge of the road, I would have had to pull over and stop. Just
seeing the steering wheel inside the car would have been enough to
control my behavior, that is, to turn the steering wheel. It would not
have been enough to complete the feedback. I couldn't have maintained
the distance I felt was safe. Perception was what I desired, what I wished.
We usually think that perception controls behavior, and in a limited
sense it does, but if you think in terms of a total feedback loop it is really
the other way round. Behavior controls perception, to cite the title of a
useful book in this field. Behavior serves to create the perception you
desire, namely, to see that your right front wheel is at least one meter
from the edge of the road.
Incidentally, the idea that behavior controls perception corresponds
"We Are Round" 79
quite closely to Freud's definition of a wish. Perhaps, since Freud himself
thought in terms of a pre-feedback, a proto-cyberetics, that should come
as no surprise. He defined a wish as the desire to re-create, either by
means of action on the world or by dreaming, a perception associated
with a previous satisfaction." The role of desire-a standard, an aim-
in feedback thus corresponds to that original perception of satisfaction.
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle he came even closer to a modern version
of feedback. In the course of considering, and rejecting, an internal
"instinct to perfection," he explained it instead as a repressed instinct's
persistent attempt to repeat "a primary experience of satisfaction." "It
is the difference in amount between the pleasure of satisfaction which
is demanded and that which is actually achieved that provides the driving
factor which will permit of no halting at any position attained ."
Freud's thinking here shows that we can connect this fundamental en-
gineering concept to psychoanalytic theory. What satisfied you before
(and is therefore stored as part of your character or identity) sets the
standard for what you will seek in the future and seek and seek. Often
what is stored, that "primary experience of satisfaction," will be uncon-
scious. Yet, and this is psychoanalysis' great truth, you will behave so
as to meet that standard, even if it is unconscious. From a psychoanalytic
point of view, then, as well as from the computer scientist's, action-
behavior-serves to control perception.
The third thing I want to stress about Figure 4 follows from the second,
the decisive role of conscious and unconscious wishes. Emotions guide
the whole system. How I drive through the mountain roads in Crete
depends upon how I feel as I look at those cliffs without guardrails. If I
have a low anxiety level, I will not mind getting close to the edge. If I
am a nervous driver, I will stay a good meter away or more. My com-
parison of what is fed back against my standard is both cognitive and
emotional. Cognitively, what is the difference between where I am in
fact and the one meter I want to see? That is, what is the difference
between my standard and what I perceive? Emotionally, how do I feel
about that difference? Do I feel safe or not? If I don't, I will turn the
steering wheel until I feel as safe as I want to feel or can feel under the
Because the whole process rests on what you desire, what is "correct"
depends finally on how you feel about the external events in relation to
your internal desire. The cognitive answer may be automatic and phys-
iological, but the emotional answer will be quite individual and personal.
80 "We Are Round"
In other words, because feelings play such an important role in human
feedback, what sets the standard is "subjective," or, to be more precise,
we can think of it as identity or a function of identity.
In terms of brain science, emotions stem from one of the most ancient
parts of the brain: the limbic system, and they affect all our ideas, even
the most abstract and intellectual. As recently as 1952 Ludwig von Ber-
talanffy could describe the human central nervous system as having
three more or less separate parts, arranged hierarchically. The spinal
cord acts as a reflex apparatus. The ancient brain, the "palaencephalon,"
as he called it, the limbic system we would say today, is "the organ of
depth personality with its primeval instincts, emotions, and appetites."
The cortex is the organ of the "day personality," that is, the conscious
Epilepsy demonstrates emotions arising from the limbic system itself
without any particular sensory stimulus from either the body or the
world. "The symptoms of patients with psychomotor epilepsy provide
the most convincing evidence that the limbic cortex is implicated in the
generation of emotional states, as well as symptoms of a psychotic na-
ture." Lesions in certain parts of the limbic system give rise to epileptic
discharges with the distinctive epileptic aura, "emotional feelings that
under ordinary conditions are important for survival. these feelings
include terror, fear, foreboding, familiarity, strangeness, unreality, sad-
ness, and feelings of a paranoid nature."14 Furthermore, the limbic sys-
tem contains the "reward" site and the "punishment-aversion system":
points in the limbic system and the hypothalamus that, when electrically
stimulated, provide pleasure or pain without any source outside the
A quarter of a century later, it is still dear that the limbic system gives
rise to emotions,'1 but the picture is more complex. "The brain transforms
the cold light with which we see into the warm light with which we
feel," is the way Paul D. MacLean puts it. The brain charges raw sensory
data with emotion, because there are connections from the cortex, the
sensory part of the brain, into the limbic system which is involved in
emotional functions and with sweating, heartbeat, breathing, and the
other signs of emotion."
What complicates the picture is that these connections are two-way:
Limbic functions are not only channeled into cognitive activities, but [cog-
nitive activities] also modulate our emotions. We share with higher primates
intense maternal and sibling ties .... we have strong emotional ties to
other relatives. These emotionally charged relationships have become in-
tegrated into cognitive systems, namely, kinship structures ... Human
emotional reactions are modulated by our limbic systems and regulated by
culturally structured, cognitive processes. All human emotional expressions
"We Are Round" 81
and activities, ranging from lovemaking to killing, have culturally prescribed
ways to accomplish them. When conflict arises between a person's desires
and cognitive rules, the result is frequently anxiety or guilt. These qualities
may denote the linkage of cognitive and limbic systems or as Freud stated
[in Civilization and its Discontents], the linkage of culture and aggression.
In either case, lesions in the anterior principal nucleus of the limbic
system do suppress the association of anxiety, agitation, and aggression
with certain ideas, thereby further demonstrating the deep biological
connection between cognition and emotion.'8
Jonathan Winson sums it up: "The limbic system is the central core
processor of the brain."19 The hippocampus, a long, looping structure
in the limbic system, is its gateway. It receives information from the
neocortex (the temporal lobes associated with the synthesis of sensory
data, for example) and transmits it to components in the limbic system.
The hippocampus also feeds information back to the neocortex without
passing it through the limbic system. "Somehow within this loop-
neocortex to hippocampus to neocortex-and within the circuit from
neocortex to hippocampus to limbic system (with an ultimate return to
the neocortex), sensory information, analyzed in various sensory centers
of the neocortex, is brought together to record an event and remember
it."20 The cortex forms engramss" but these need to be integrated in the
limbic system, responded to emotionally, before they become long-term
personal memories of an experience.21 Emotion is central to heeding and
remembering data, a literary text, for example. What we do not care
about, we neither pay attention to nor remember."
Similarly, the limbic system is involved in all our judgments of sat-
isfaction. In general, write the neuroscientists, our minds propose a given
satisfaction and posit a set of conditions that must be fulfilled to produce
that satisfaction. "The coordinated prefrontal system must render a judg-
ment that the object of satisfaction is 'good,'" that is, that it satisfies
subjective requirements, "and that it is also 'true' (that it has all the
familiar features that make it verifiable)." For this to happen, the limbic
organized memory function has to be able to signal error and novelty,
that this does not (or does) fulfill the conditions and that this does not
(or does) compare to the satisfaction desired. "No matter how compli-
cated a problem of adult life may be, it must always be solved through
a series of propositions and proofs, each facilitating the next, and each
organized as a miniature version of the whole. The experience of identity
integrity depends on the successful accomplishment of such coordinated
That is to say, the limbic system is a central processor. It receives pre-
organized combinations of data from the various senses, makes them
82 "We Are Round"
into a coherent image, connects (as it were) an appropriate emotion to
that image, stores the combination for future reference in memory, and
proceeds to trigger motor action on the event by higher- and lower-level
systems, if that seems necessary.24
Considered by itself the limbic system is a "mammalian brain." We
can think of our modern brains as beginning, evolutionarily, with the
so-called "reptilian brain." Although an improvement on the decen-
tralized brains of the invertebrates, it was largely a set of preprogrammed
instincts to stabilize heartbeat, body temperature, breathing rate, mating
rituals, and the like. To be sure, these preprogrammed instincts can
become very complex, as when sea turtles return across thousands of
miles of trackless ocean to the same beach where they were born. But
they are unchanging programs, neither to be learnt nor unlearnt.
Mammals are more adaptive. When the first mammals evolved from
reptiles some 200 million years ago, they found their ecological niche:
nighttime hunting. At night, they neither competed with reptiles nor
fell prey to them. Since the reptiles could not maintain their own body
temperature after the sun went down, they became torpid and slept.
The mammals had the night-world to themselves. To live in it, mammals
evolved more complex vision (rods in the retina for low levels of light,
for example), more subtle hearing, and a powerful sense of smell. Hunt-
ing in darkness, they had to be able to synthesize a world from these
diverse sensory inputs. What evolved, cupped round the old reptilian
brain, was the limbic system. This was the first form of our intelligence,
the limbic brain as distinct from a stimulus-response brain. Its basic
function was to construct a world out of the data available.
As mammals began, some 50 million years ago, to evolve monkeys,
apes, and hominids, yet another brain began to develop on top of the
limbic system. Living in trees, like a monkey, puts more demands upon
both the senses and the brain. Sight became, finally, more important
than smell. Arboreal existence required even more synthesizing power
in the brain than the limbic system afforded, and the thinking, planning
cortex of which we humans are so proud evolved. It evolved, however,
linked to and around those earlier mammalian and reptilian brains, which
preserve in us our animal inheritance. The brain stem contains the in-
stinctual programs for maintaining heartbeat, breathing, body temper-
ature, hormone balance, and the like. The mammalian brain keeps alive
in us the needs, the synthesizing, world-building skills and, above all,
the feelings of those earlier nighthunting mammals.
Paul D. MacLean, on whose account I am drawing, has isolated some
mammalian functions in the limbic system. Some have called them the
four F's of the mammalian brain: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and sexual
behavior. MacLean finds the lower part of the limbic ring largely con-
"We Are Round" 83
cerned with emotional feelings and behavior that assure self-preserva-
lion, "whereas, in contrast, the subdivision related to the septum is
implicated in feeling states that are conducive to sociability, procreation,
and the preservation of the species." The distinction seems to me, at
least, to correspond loosely with the psychoanalytic drives of aggression
(or mastery) and libido."
Taste and smell connect directly to the limbic system, the reason we
find foods or odors so immediately pleasurable or disgusting, I suppose,
or, as with Proust, so powerfully evocative of memories." Sight and
hearing became more complex in primates, more directly associated with
the neocortex, but in the limbic system smell predominates, even in
relationships. Dogs, cats, and monkeys greet and identify one another
by smell. Identifying one another by sight is an achievement of primates
and especially humans who have a special site in the brain devoted to
recognizing faces. Oral functions, smelling, tasting, eating, are in the
limbic system closely linked to genital behavior and sexuality in general.27
Interestingly, feelings of fear or anger can lead in mammals to sexual
arousal. As for humans, Freud noted children's sexual excitement in
fighting or wrestling and adults' fondness for fearful experiences" (like
roller coasters or horror movies).
In addition to sex and survival (which reptiles share), these limbic
emotions and arousals have to do with two of the specifically female
developments in the transition from reptile to mammal: bearing live
young (instead of eggs) and maternal nursing. MacLean was able to
isolate some parts of the limbic system, those linking smell stimuli with
sexuality, as specifically devoted to rearing the young. When those tis-
sues were removed, hamsters and rats did not play, "and in addition
females showed deficits in maternal behavior... It was as though these
animals had regressed toward a reptilian condition." The evolu-
tionar[il]y newer parts of the limbic system appear necessary for the full
expression of maternal behavior and the capacity for play." In effect,
our ability to play, so central to literary experience, comes from the
distaff side of evolution."
Fearing, loving, desiring, playing, caring-in all these ways, our an-
imal, maternal, mammalian, emotional brains enter into symbolic, cog-
The limbic system, those neural circuits that support and modulate our
emotional behavior, structure limits for our social and motivational states.
The importance of limbic input into higher cognitive functions is not re-
stricted to language, but can be found in all symbolic expressions, be they
making tools or arranging social relations. A tool's appearance and the ways
to make it and use it are culturally learned and require cognitive abilities;
84 "We Are Round"
the ability to focus attention over sufficient time for its creation and main-
tenance requires tapping limbic sources."
If this be true of a stone ax, how much more true it must be of a poem
or a novel or an essay in literary criticism.
Once we recognize this mammalian foundation to our ostensibly in-
tellectual activities, it becomes easier, Jonathan Winson points out, to
understand dreaming. Incidentally, dreaming has seemed to many of
us, starting with Freud, a model for the writing of literature and reading
it-"Literature is a dream dreamed for us," I once wrote. Dreams, notes
Winson, have no abstractions, only actions and pictures. Dreamers have
no sense of free will-things just happen. "Language and abstract con-
cepts derived therefrom," notes Winson, "played no part in the lower
mammalian brain. The limbic-frontal cortical system governing inter-
pretation of experience and planning operated solely on the basis of
action, and this remains the case in man."3 When we dream we tap
into that mammalian brain, without plans, self-consciousness, free will,
or abstractions. Possibly, when we dream, we come as close as we ever
do in our lives to feeling what it is like to be a dog or a cat.
Be that as it may, this mammalian inheritance plays a key role in the
processes of literature. We can visualize the limbic system as capping
and linked to the ancient, reptilian brain, but connected also to the
thinking, planning cortical lobes we evolved as primates and hominids.
It was to these latter pathways that Morton Reiser pointed in chapter 1:
sensory inputs connected to "affect systems through bidirectional cortico-
limbic pathways."" As a psychoanalyst, he recognized in those pathways
the physiological base for the associations and conflicts we carry con-
sciously and unconsciously from infancy to the analyst's couch. Those
are some of the pathways that developed during the growing and un-
growing of our brains in infancy, latency, and adolescence. In my terms,
it is in those "cortico-limbic pathways" that identity resides, governing
the perceptual and symbolic systems by which we write and read lit-
Hence, we can use this knowledge of the limbic system's role in the
brain as a whole to understand the outer world of driving or reading or
writing. Because the whole process of, say, driving rests on what you
desire, what is "correct" depends finally on how you fel about the
external events in relation to your internal desire. Even if the cognitive
response to a hazard seems programmed and automatic, the emotional
answer will be individual and personal. Feelings, mammalian in origin
but individual in practice, govern and direct human feedback. What sets
the standard, our desire, is "subjective," or, to be more precise, we can
think of it as identity or a function of identity, a pathway between cortex
"We Are Round" 85
and limbic system. Moreover-and this is the importance of the research
into the limbic system-cognition is evolutionarily, biologically, and physi-
cally connected to emotion. Just as we grow and ungrow identity as we
become adults, so we grow and ungrow those connections between the
intellectual brain and the emotional brain.
In the first half of this century the psychoanalysts showed that cog-
nition was only the tip of an iceberg, that conscious processes always
had a darker unconscious underside. Now the brain scientists are show-
ing that our hominid planning and abstracting rests on a limbic, mam-
malian world of raw emotion. In thinking about literature, we can no
more separate emotion from the abstract skills we use in reading and
writing than conscious from unconscious processes. We can use Figure
4 to image those relationships.
Low-level loops similar
That is the fourth thing I would like you to notice in the feedback
picture, and for understanding reading and writing (the next chapter)
it is the most important. Identity is different for each of us, but the loop
governed by identity is more or less the same. We all carry out about
the same physical process to steer a car so it keeps a certain distance
from the right hand edge of a road. The standard, however, the distance
we choose to maintain, the looseness with which we maintain it, the
nervousness we may feel when we sense errors, the urgency with which
we correct an error-those are individual, emotional things. They de-
pend upon, or express or are functions of, identity.
So far as reading is concerned, as opposed to driving the mountain
roads of Crete, David Rumelhart, the well-known cognitive scientist,
describes it this way:
A reader of a text is presumably constantly evaluating hypotheses about
the most plausible interpretation of the text. Readers are said to have under-
stood the text when they are able to find a configuration of hypotheses
schemataa) that offers a coherent account for the various aspects of the text.
To the degree to which a particular reader fails to find such a configuration,
the text will appear disjointed and incomprehensible."
The important thing to recognize in Rumelhart's account is that we
actively test hypotheses in order to understand writing.
From the neuroscientific point of view, too, understanding writing
involves the active testing of hypotheses-feedback. On the basis of
his studies of brain-damaged patients, the great Soviet brain scientist
86 "We Are Round"
Aleksandr Luria described reading as the bringing to bear of "a sort of
hypothesis," a system of associations, that "makes the subsequent read-
ing an active process in which the
the discernment of agreements o
for the desired meaning and
with the expected
meaning begin to assume an almost exclusive role.""
Understanding speech also proceeds by the rapid testing of hypo-
theses, according to Luria. That is, one singles out the distinctive, pho-
nemic signs and separates them "from the unimportant, fortuitous signs
that are of no phonemic significance." The process is like picking out
an announcer's voice from the static on a radio.
It is dear, therefore, that the perception of speech by hearing requires not
merely delicate, but also systematized, hearing .. This is why the bound-
ary between hearing speech and understanding it loses its sharp distinction.
A person ignorant of a foreign language not only does not understand it,
but does not even hear it, i.e., he does not distinguish from the flow of
sounds the articulated elements of the language and
the sounds of speech according to
does not systematize
This work must be carried out with the very dose participation of articulatory
acts, which, like the singing activity of the
music, constitute the efferent link for the perception of the sounds of speech.
It consists of differentiating the significant, phonemic signs of the spoken
sounds, inhibiting the unessential, nonphonemic signs, and comparing the
on this phonemic basis. It
arriving sounds through a system of dynamic stereotypes formed while the
language was being learned and thus carries out its task on the basis of
objective, historically established systems of connections. This deciphering
of sound signals in accordance with historically established codes of spoken
speech and the organization of auditory experience into new systems con-
stitute the basic activity of the speech areas of the auditory cortex."
That is, we understand speech by generating speech inside ourselves.
We know that one month old infants can distinguish phonetic differ-
ences (between p and b, say) from simple acoustic variations.' Evidently,
then, we are born with some of the hypotheses we need for the internal
speech we use in understanding language wired in. At a more sophis-
ticated stage, we speak internally according to the grammar and syntax
we have learned in childhood and school. In still a different mode of
we frame what we hear into a coherent scenario or model
by drawing on our knowledge of the world. We frame hypotheses from
all kinds of extra-linguistic knowledge, like spatial relations,
social practice, probabilities, logic, motives, or causality." We use these
kinds of information to frame hypotheses that what we are hearing or
reading confirm or disconfirm. We use all these kinds of hypotheses to
"We Are Round" 87
make an internal speech against which to single out the meaningful
elements in what we hear.
To be sure, we can describe a language formally, as linguists do, by
a system like Saussure's system of opposites or Chomsky's generative
transformations. We formulate such a linguistic description by studying
the language as people generally use it or did use it historically. Psy-
chologically, though, we individuals actually process language by com-
paring hypotheses we generate inside ourselves on the basis of that
linguistic language, so to speak, with the actual flow of speech or writing
that we sense "out there."
This hypothesizing goes on when we read:
In reading there are two different levels: a level of analysis of sounds and
letters, leading to ability to read words, and a level of direct grasping of
the appropriate meaning of words, which is evidently connected with the
integral perception of words and which can be dissociated from the act of
reading words letter by letter.
It is very interesting that whereas the first of these processes is connected
with the dominant (left) hemisphere, the second can be a property of the
nondominant (right) hemisphere, so that in this case also a complex act
such as reading is performed with the participation of both hemispheres,
each of which makes its own specific contribution to this complex process.
Thus Luria describes a patient who knew that a certain word she read
was "something near to me, something related," but could not read
letter-by-letter the name of her daughter."
The point, again, is that we actively guess our way through the inter-
pretation of language by proposing hypotheses. Nowhere, perhaps, is
the functioning of those hypotheses clearer than in the study of brain-
damaged Japanese readers. Neuroscientists widely agree that "The left
hemisphere has a dominant role in the perception of speech codes,
whereas the nondominant (right) hemisphere plays the major part in
the perception of nonverbal, visual patterns."Japanese is unique in using
both syllabic writing (Katakana) and pictographic writing (Kanji). A dis-
turbance in a Japanese reader's left temporal zone (where audioverbal
stimuli are analyzed) disrupts the reading of syllabic writing, but a dis-
turbance in the parieto-occipital zones (where visuospatial analysis takes
place) disrupts hieroglyphic, Kanji writing. It must be, Luria concludes,
that we process different languages differently in our very brains. Highly
phonetic languages (like Italian, German, or Russian) and languages
with many conventional pronunciations (like French or English) and
hieroglyphic or pictographic languages (like Chinese) must all organize
our various brain functions differently. Similarly, we may process vowels
in different parts of the brain from consonants."
88 "We Are Round"
In broad outline, then, we can apply the feedback model of Figure 4
to driving a car but also to reading a poem or watching a movie" and,
ultimately, any human activity. As Luria says, "The principle of feedback
is universal in the operation of the central nervous system."41 In terms
of the brain,
The formation of the "provisional basis of action," and the creation of
complex programs of behavior; the constant monitoring of these programs
and the checking of behavior with comparison of actions performed and
the original plans; the provision of a system of feedback on the basis of
which complex forms of behavior are regulated-all these phenomena in
man take place with the intimate participation of the frontal lobes, and they
account for the exceptionally important place of the frontal lobes in the
general organization of behavior.
The frontal lobes, however, are not innocent of connection with the
limbic system, so that the large plan is one that is emotionally as well
as cognitively satisfying. Then the larger plan uses various subplans that
can be more precisely localized (as with Luria's questions to brain-dam-
aged patients).' According to Luria, speech-internal speech-plays a
key role in this formulating and monitoring. It is through speech that
we formulate a plan for a motor act and then check the actual movements
with the original intention.'
In work more recent than Luria's, it has become possible to measure
the very frequency at which we cycle or feed back some fairly specific
hypotheses. For example, verbal functions take place in waves of 13 cycle
per second frequency, but mental arithmetic at 15 and 17 cycles per
second. In general, mentation takes place in the central areas of the brain
at 13 cycles per second. It has also become possible to show how two
seemingly independent functions are "electrophysiologically related" so
as to contribute to one larger plan." I have already mentioned the ob-
servation in the brain of a "set" that switches the expectations we bring
to bear on the world. That "set" is, it seems to me, another word for
the standard by which an identity governs a feedback.
The brain scientists are confirming and refining what some psychol-
ogists have derived long before from studying behaviors. In psycholog-
ical circles (no pun intended), one of the best-known versions of feedback
is the TOTE unit of activity proposed in 1960 by psychologist George
Miller, neuroscientist Karl Pribram, and psychometricist Eugene Gal-
anter. Test, operate, test, exit.4s In the language I have been using: act,
compare, act, cease. This picture matches that of neuroscience, although
the brain scientists can draw on physical, chemical, biological, and phys-
George Kellys "personal construct" psychology applied feedback to
"We Are Round" 89
pure psychology even earlier than TOTE did. Kelly held that individuals
developed working hypotheses to be validated or invalidated by the test
of experience." In effect, for Kelly, every one of us is a scientist. Kelly's
"personal construct" is very like what I have been calling a "standard."
For Kelly as for me, it determines what and how a person will perceive,
remember, learn, think, and do with respect to the things encompassed
by the construct. At the same time, Kelly imagined personal constructs
in clinical terms, so that personality becomes the sum of one's constructs.
Although Kelly did not propose a theme-and-variations identity, he did
envision a "personality" that consists of many constructs or feedbacks,
much as I envision "identity." It seems to me that Kelly's psychology
has now reappeared in artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and ul-
timately, the physiological mode of neuroscience.
In short, the idea that we respond to the world by means of feedbacks
is by no means new to psychology. As we have seen, you can even find
a fairly precise description of psychological feedback in Freud. "It is the
difference in amount between the pleasure of satisfaction which is de-
manded and that which is actually achieved that provides the driving factor
which will permit of no halting at any position attained."4 But now the
brain scientists confirm that principle definitively.
Long after Freud, today's brain scientists can draw on many more
discoveries, but they still come out with the general idea of a central
organizing principle (an identity, I have been calling it) that governs
feedbacks toward the ends that satisfy (limbically and neocortically) that
identity. Nobelist Roger Sperry writes, for example, of "inner experience"
having "an integral causal control role in brain function and behavior."
"The events of inner experience, as emergent properties of brain pro-
cesses, become themselves explanatory causal constructs in their own
right, interacting at their own level with their own laws and dynamics."
"The whole world of inner experience becomes recognized and
included within the domain of science."" The brain scientists are offering
literary critics a utopian picture, the sciences and the humanities united
round a concept of the human brain. As for psychoanalysis, let us not
forget that Freud began his researches as a neuroscientist. Today's neu-
roscientists are confirming his dream of a psychology that would be
based not only on the interpretation of actions but in the physiology of
the brain itself.
Reading and Writing,
Codes and Canons
We have begun to model what Robert Frost did when he read or
wrote. In the most abstract terms, he-his identity-has a certain aim
or desire which becomes a personal standard. To achieve that aim, the
identity puts out behavior, which amounts to a test of the environment.
The environment gives a return, thereby closing the loop. The identity
compares that return with what was tried out and the standard. If they
match, then the identity feels satisfied, the loop doses, and the system
called Robert Frost settles down. If they do not match, if the desire
continues and the identity feels dissatisfied, the Robert Frost system
continues to try behavior on the environment until it achieves a match.
The right side of the picture represents what you want, the left side,
what you get, and as the old saying goes, What you want and what you
get are seldom quite the same.
So far as reading and writing literature are concerned, the feedback
picture gives us a way of describing, articulating, even perhaps explain-
ing, how an experience, like literature, can be both shared and individual.
Part will be just about the same for many human beings. Part will be
unique because it answers to our highly personal standards, feelings,
or "set." The feedback picture gives us a way of putting together some-
thing as individual as Robert Frost's writing a poem or Professor Six's
reading of the "The Mill" with something they have completely in com-
mon like understanding the meaning of the word "miller."
Feedback through schemas lets us reject what Mark Johnson calls the
"false dichotomy" between "absolute, fixed standards of rationality
and knowledge" or "an 'anything goes' relativism, in which there are
no standards whatever, and there is no possibility for criticism."' Feed-
Reading and Writing, Codes and Canons 91
back through schemas lets us understand how reading can be individual
without being "purely subjective"-a risk that seems to appall many
literary critics.2 In fact, people who work on the psychology of reading,
so as to teach children, illiterates, or dyslexics (hardly a "purely subjec-
tive" enterprise), have for a long time used just this kind of feedback
We can use the loop in a feedback picture such as Figure 4 to represent
the processes in reading we share. We can represent what is individual,
the desire, the standard, as a function of identity, and identity governs
the shared loop. The psychology of writing, of course, involves an extra
step and for the writing of a poem, a miraculous one that it would take
another book to describe. Much, however, of Robinson's creation of
"The Mill" must have been reading. That is, he writes a line. That is a
kind of hypothesis he has set out. Then he reads the line he has written.
That tests the hypothesis and he feels good or bad about what he has
In other words, we can imagine writing as reading plus. It is reading
plus the hypotheses Robinson writes down in the form of particular
words, lines, rhythms, stanzas-ultimately the whole poem. These hy-
potheses are much more Robinson's own than our ordinary hypotheses
for reading. These stem from Robinson's poetic values, his vocabulary,
his ideas of what will "work" with a reader, above all the sudden leaps
of his imagination. Where do they come from? What is the seat of "in-
To ask is to open the whole question of "creativity," a theme that
would require several books in itself. The thinking about "creativity"
that I find most telling suggests that being "creative" combines three
things: talent, field, and domain.' First, creativity involves an individual's
talents and unconscious inspiration. This is the traditional concern of
the psychoanalytic writer on creativity, and it is the part we most readily
call "creativity." Second, creative individuals can use the techniques of
their intellectual domain, as here Frost uses the techniques of poetry
like rhyme, rhythm, meter, assonance, or alliteration. Less obviously,
creative persons use their "field," the institutions of their discipline, to
be seen and heard by others. A poet, for example, learns to use readers,
audiences, publishers, editors, reviewers, awards, or foundations. Frost
was adept at these matters, as anyone we call a genius must be. What
we do not see and hear-and value-we cannot call "creative." Finally,
then, creativity includes the recognition by that field (other people in-
volved in the discipline) that this person's work counts and has to
be accepted as part of the discipline (as Frost and Robinson were
92 Reading and Writing, Codes and Canons
recognized). Part of our saying that Frost is "creative" is saying that a
young poet starting out today would have to "know Frost," just as a
young scientist would have to "know Einstein."
All I wish to say here of creativity, however, is that we can imagine
writing as the reading-hypotheses preceded by a set of special and highly
personal writing-hypotheses that we regularly identify as "creativity."
For that reason, I will say more about reading than writing, but I believe
the feedback picture of the brain in action applies to both, because it
allows us to imagine how the individual talent or style combines with
skills we all (or some of us) have in common.
In describing reading and writing, though, we can do more with our
feedback model than simply assign what is common to the loop and
what is individual to the desiring identity who sets the standard for the
loop. We can describe reading in more detail by stacking these feedbacks
one on top of another. In this respect, however, reading is only one
instance of a principle general to the human brain. The neuroscientists
tell us we humans operate in every way by means of feedback, but there
are many different feedbacks and they take place in a hierarchy.5
They are confirming a tradition that goes back to Aristotle, the idea
of the human as organism, represented by Kurt Goldstein in psychology,
Aleksandr Luria in neuropsychology, Sigmund Freud in psychoanalysis,
or Jean Piaget in cognitive development, an idea now updated as "Gen-
eral Systems Theory." The brain scientists find that, within the many
coordinated feedback systems, "the different elements of the error-de-
tection apparatus are not equally significant and that they are arranged
in a hierarchy."6
An organism, as it develops, both differentiates and integrates. That
is, it evolves new and more specialized subsystems, and it also evolves
interdependencies among those subsystems so as to create overarching,
interactive suprasystems. This integration necessarily gives rise to a hi-
erarchical organization, with the levels higher in developmental achieve-
ment directing lower levels.'
As long ago as 1937, Sir Charles Sherrington was pointing out that
the principle of "long-circuiting" through the "roof-brain" was central
to the evolution of the human being and the human brain. That is, in
the lowest animals, an action like a lobster's moving its antenna is con-
trolled at the site by reflex processes. As we evolved into vertebrates,
then reptiles, then mammals, "cephalization" took place. A superstruc-