Poetry Analysis - Overview - "The Silken Tent" By Robert Frost

"The Silken Tent" By Robert Frost

The first two examples show how rarely poetic analytical terms are actually necessary to appreciate a poem; they are only needed to explain or describe the poem's effect. Sometimes, though, the reader needs a certain skill in analyzing poetry, and a certain level of technical expertise, in order to appreciate the poem. If a listener doesn't know what fish tanks and military tanks are, he or she will not "get the joke" about the two fish. Similarly, sometimes a poem cannot work, cannot produce its intended effect, and cannot do what it was designed to do, unless the reader brings a certain level of analytical skill to the experience of reading it. One such poem is Robert Frost's "The Silken Tent".

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

Often, a good way to begin analyzing a poem is to reword it, putting it in one's own words, or into ordinary speech, in order to get a good grasp of the poem's content. (This is called doing a prose paraphrase.) Like Shakespeare's "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day", this poem uses a sustained image to describe another person. Frost draws out an extended comparison between a woman and a silken tent in order to make some essential aspect of the woman's character real and available to the reader. The comparison is not to just any tent, but to a tent imagined in a very specific way. Ropes or cords draw up, become taut, when wet. In this case, the tent is imagined at midday. Any morning dew which would have soaked the tent's guy-lines has evaporated, and the ropes are now somewhat slack. The tent sways slightly in response to the wind. This imagery conveys — at a subconscious but very real and effective level — a sense that the woman being described is not tense or nervous, but is instead genial, relaxed, comfortable to be around. This does not mean, though, that she is wishy washy, someone who is blown about by every gust of fad and fashion. The tent's pole — its upright nature, its strength — conveys a sense of backbone, character, and firmness. In this woman's case, firmness of character does not lead to her becoming dogmatic or insistent. Rather, her character derives in part at least from her deep investment in friends, family, and community, from "countless silken ties of love and thought". Some people would experience numerous relationships and the obligations they entail as something entangling, binding, or limiting. This woman does not seem to. She seems to be very much at ease in this situation, so much so that she and those around her are only likely to be aware of their bounds and limits in unusual circumstances.

When one reads this poem aloud, rhythm and meter are much less evident, much less emphatically presented than in "The Destruction of Sennacherib". In fact, most people who hear the poem read aloud for the first time will say that it does not rhyme and it does not have any particular rhythm. Closer examination reveals that the poem does rhyme though. In fact, it rhymes in a specific pattern: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG (that is, the first line rhymes with the third line (the A's), the second line rhymes with the fourth line (the B's), and so forth). But, the rhymes are much less forceful, much less emphatic and noticeable, than in Byron's poem. This is in part because Byron arranged the words such that each line ending (and therefore each rhyme) corresponds a natural pause in speech. That is, the lines end at the same places where one would pause if the lines were set as prose and one were reading the words aloud. Such lines are said to be end stopped. End stopping makes rhyme more noticeable. Frost, though, arranged at least some of the lines in "The Silken Tent" such that the line endings do not coincide with natural pauses (such as the end of line two: someone reading the words "a sunny, summer breeze / has dried the dew" would not necessarily pause after "breeze"). This technique is called enjambment. Enjambment de-emphasizes rhyming lines.

And, there is a rhythm, albeit a rather subtle or muted one. Each line has ten syllables, and (with slight and pleasant variations) they follow a pattern of weak syllables followed by strong syllables:

has DRIED the DEW and ALL its ROPES reLENT

This pattern (weak STRONG) is called an iamb (See Foot (prosody)). There are five iambs to the line here: these are pentameter lines (penta- is from the Greek for "five"). The poem does have a meter: it is called iambic pentameter. Frost employs the meter with a very light touch, though, and feels free to "play around with it", briefly departing from the regular pattern as appropriate.

The whole poem is a single sentence: a single, rather long, but nonetheless conversational sounding sentence that covers fourteen lines.

So, this poem, which at first seems rather formless, in fact has a very specific structure: fourteen lines of iambic pentameter rhyming ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. There is a term for this structure: it is called the Shakespearean sonnet, and it is regarded as one of the stricter, more difficult forms. Frost is not writing a shapeless poem; he is writing within very strict rules, and in fact has raised the bar by making himself do it all in one sentence. The poem is a single, long, graceful sentence that unfolds — in a very relaxed, natural sounding way — within the strict boundaries of the Shakespearean sonnet form.

And — going back to the prose paraphrase — it describes a woman whose life unfolds in a very relaxed, natural way, within numerous strict boundaries. In the woman's character, as in the poem's form, one is not really aware that the boundaries are even there. The woman, like the poem, exists comfortably, naturally, easily within numerous limits and boundaries.

And this is the poem's great accomplishment: the form enacts the content; the language of the poem does what the language itself says. Though this analysis proceeded by temporarily separating form and content, the result of the analysis is the realization that in "The Silken Tent", form and content are truly inseparable: they are exact complements to each other. The effect of this poem, the work it is designed to do, is to create a sharp sense of pleasure and appreciation when one recognizes how skillfully and appropriately the poet has used the words.

In this case, a certain amount of critical terminology and analytic skill is necessary in order to appreciate the poem. If the reader does not know what a sonnet is, much less more subtle aspects of form such as enjambment, he or she will have no way to see what the poem does. He or she will have no way to "get the joke". In this case, poetry enjoyment is enabled by poetry analysis. It is also widely accepted that this poem refers to some sort of sexual frustration in a woman's point of view.

Read more about this topic:  Poetry Analysis, Overview

Famous quotes containing the words robert frost, frost, silken and/or tent:

    But whenever the roof came white
    The head in the dark below
    Was a shade less the color of night,
    A shade more the color of snow.
    Robert Frost (1874–1963)

    Do you know,
    Considering the market, there are more
    Poems produced than any other thing?
    No wonder
    —Robert Frost (1874–1963)

    I went to a literary gathering once.... The place was filled with people who looked as if they had been scraped up out of drains. The ladies ran to draped plush dresses—for Art; to wreaths of silken flowerets in the hair—for Femininity; and, somewhere between the two adornments, to chain-drive pince-nez—for Astigmatism. The gentlemen were small and somewhat in need of dusting.
    Dorothy Parker (1893–1967)

    There’s more than just animals:
    Bead-stalls, balloon-men, a Bank; a beer-marquee that
    Half-screens a canvas Gents; a tent selling tweed,
    And another, jackets.
    Philip Larkin (1922–1986)