Friday, September 17, 2010

Repetition and Irony in Frost and the Mountain Goats

Here is Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy evening.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there's some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The famous final pair of lines are justly famous because although the words are exactly the same, the final line means something more than the second to last one. The second to last line means something like "And I have a lot of things to do, and traveling to get in, before I get home and go to bed, and I don't have time to be looking at nature." The last one, terminating the poem, makes you remember that sleep is a famous metaphor for death ("to sleep, perchance to dream"), that darkness and winter and silence ("the rest is silence") also mean death, and so it means something like "death is very attractive right now, but I have a lot to do before I get the sweet release of death."

I was reminded of this listening to a Mountain Goats song today.

Here are the lyrics

on the morning when I woke up without you for the first time,
I felt free.
and I felt lonely.
and I felt scared.
and I began to talk to myself almost immediately,
not being used to being the only person there.

the first time I made coffee for just myself,
I made too much of it.
but I drank it all,
just 'cause you hate it when I let things go to waste.
and I wandered through the house, like a little boy lost at the mall.
and an astronaut could've seen the hunger in my eyes from space.

and I sang oh
what do I do?
what do I do?
what do I do?
what do I do without you?

on the morning when I woke up without you for the first time,
I was cold, so I put on a sweater.
and I turned up the heat.
and the walls began to close in
and I felt so sad and frightened,
I practically ran from the living room out into the street.

and the wind began to blow and all the trees began to bend.
and the world in its cold way started coming alive.
and I stood there like a businessman waiting for a train.
and I got ready for the future to arrive.

and I sang oh
what do I do?
what do I do?
what do I do?
what do I do without you?

He is like a little boy because he feels lonely and scared without a woman to take care of him. She obviously made the coffee. And so his metaphors are appropriately boyish: the astronaut, the non-specific "businessman." He is heartbroken and more than a little pathetic. The thing about drinking too much coffee threatens to distance us from him. But ultimately, once he gets out of the house he starts to feel better: the world comes alive again, and his world won't be like this forever: the future is coming. The second "What do I do without you," though the words are the same, and it is sung in almost the exact same way, is subtly more hopeful than the first. The first "What do I do without you" suggests "nothing" as an answer, where the second is almost imperceptibly answered by a tentative "well actually I have a lot of options."

Other examples?


thedeadpenguin said...

"The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway is that it's you, and that you're standing in the doorway"

Possibly my favorite use of repetition in a Mountain Goats song, from "Going to Georgia". I just love how it calls attention to the trick so blatantly.

Christian O. said...

I quite like the use of the poem in Tarantino's Death Proof, albeit with another little ironic twist.

When Stuntman Mike recites the altered version of the poem it's meant, to the characters, to imply something sexual in nature, but because it references this specific poem, it becomes far more sinister.

The last line that is altered "Did you hear me, Butterfly? And miles to go before YOU sleep." thusly becomes a threat instead of an introspective realisation, as in the original poem.

Christian O. said...


Grant Morrison is in the new My Chemical Romance video. Grant fucking Morrison.