- “Eternity Looking through Time”:Sartor Resartus and Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
Aesthetic apprehension in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1923) hinges on stopping. The link between that gerund and human cognition resides, as Robert Penn Warren suggests, in the mind’s capacity to reflect. In Frost’s poem, human and animal pause, but only one stops to muse—an act prerequisite to elevated insight and spiritual enchantment.1 I suggest that, when “stopping,” Frost’s traveler unwittingly experiences “Eternity looking through Time,” a phrase minted from German philosophy by Thomas Carlyle in a discussion of symbols in Sartor Resartus.2
Although Frost is nowhere on record as having mentioned Sartor Resartus, he was generally familiar with Carlyle’s works and outlooks. He owned the second volume of Carlyle’s The French Revolution and mentions, in his notebooks, Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. He was also versed enough in Carlyle to have criticized his “way of taking himself.” As for Sartor Resartus, Lawrance Thompson suggests the compatibility of that volume with Frost’s treatment of convention and individualism.3 The discussion of symbols in Sartor Resartus—and the way they merge time and eternity—provides a suggestive context for reassessing the emotional resonance and aesthetic achievement of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” especially given the suggestion that time and eternity figure in the poem’s meaning.4
In Sartor Resartus, Carlyle claims to have received a copy of Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh’s Philosophy of Clothes, a volume that he can better publicize, excerpt, and explain by becoming the English editor [End Page 573] of supporting documents—reportedly Teufelsdröckh’s autobiographical musings—sent in six paper bags by Teufelsdröckh’s German friend Hofrath Heuschrecke. Those documents, along with Teufelsdröckh’s volume, suggest the ultimate union of matter and spirit, of the finite and the infinite, since “all Nature and Life are but one Garment, a ‘Living Garment,’ woven and ever aweaving in the ‘Loom of Time’” (p. 205).5 They also reveal that Teufelsdröckh, after being rejected by his true love, Blumine—and in response to utilitarianism, industrial mechanization, and atheism—travels from negation, to indifference, to affirmation, aided, beyond a sense of duty and reverence, by German transcendentalism and by commitment to natural supernaturalism, the belief that the supernatural is one with the commonplace.
In that spirit, reference to temporal manifestations of eternity occurs in a chapter of Sartor Resartus devoted to symbols. Teufelsdröckh claims that symbols sometimes illustrate how “the small Visible” can “extend down into the infinite depths of the Invisible” (p. 218). For Teufelsdröckh, symbols both conceal and reveal; in the most profound symbols, there is “‘ever, more or less distinctly and directly, some embodiment and revelation of the Infinite; the Infinite is made to blend itself with the Finite’” (p. 220). Such, Teufelsdröckh believes, is the nature of religious symbols, as it is of symbols in “true Works of Art”; and therein resides “Eternity looking through Time; the Godlike rendered visible” (p. 223). Teufelsdröckh, elaborating upon varied symbolic expressions of that phenomenon, notes the “confluence of Time and Eternity” (p. 224)—phrasing that may have shaped Frost’s notebook entry, “The Constant Symbol in poetry is of confluence without compromise.”6
“Stopping by Woods” progresses toward a related apposition of the cosmic and terrestrial, or what Frost elsewhere calls his enchantment with “how the limited can make snug in the limitless.”7 Frost’s poem opens in a limited manner—indeed, with commonplace utterance (that may or may not reflect Frost’s personal experience) advanced by basic meter and rhyme (iambic tetrameter: aaba):
Whose woods these are I think I knowHis house is in the village though;He will not see me stopping hereTo watch his woods fill up with snow.8
The traveler is here situated in the world of trivial surmise and observation, as yet unaligned with the limitless—that is, with cosmic wonder or awe. [End Page 574]
Those enlarged frames of reference begin to emerge when the traveler locates himself “Between the woods...