I think most people are familiar with a few sonnets, at least, people have heard that Shakespeare wrote sonnets. But a lot of other famous writers wrote sonnets too. Robert Frost, beloved American poet, also wrote sonnets. Today I want to do a close-reading of his sonnet A Dream Pang.
A Dream Pang
By Robert Frost
I had withdrawn in forest, and my song
Was swallowed up in leaves that blew alway,
And to the forest edge you came one day
(This was my dream) and looked and pondered long,
But did not enter, though the wish was strong:
You shook your pensive head as who should say,
‘I dare not–too far in his footsteps stray–
He must seek me would he undo the wrong.’
Not far, but near, I stood and saw it all
Behind low boughs the trees let down outside;
And the sweet pang it cost me not to call
And tell you that I saw does still abide,
But ’tis not true that thus I dwelt aloof,
For the wood wakes, and you are here for proof.
First I think I should explain some sonnet conventions, and then go into depth about what conventions this sonnet fits within and what conventions it breaks.
Sonnets generally come in two varieties (before Spenserian Sonnet) – the Italian, or Petrarchan Sonnet and the Elizabethan, or Shakespearean Sonnet. Both sonnet forms share common features, such as having 14 lines, using iambic pentameter, having a turn or confirmation in sentiment (known as a volta), and generally being about romantic feelings for the subject of the poem (often unrequited). The main difference between these two forms are the rhyme scheme as well as the placement of the volta. For a Petrarchan Sonnet, the volta comes after the first eight lines known as the octave and is known as the sestet, or last six lines, and for a Shakespearean Sonnet, the volta comes in the last two lines.
A Dream Pang is a Petrarchan Sonnet with the rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA in the octave and CDCDEE in the sestet. Like both sonnet forms, this sonnet is written in iambic pentameter and has a turn in sentiment about line 8, setting up the sestet to explain the premise laid out in the octave.
The octave in this sonnet sets up the speaker as being in a dream, but that dream is one of regret for some ill. From the first two lines, “I had withdrawn in forest, and my song/Was swallowed up in leaves that blew alway,” we can see wording which sets up sorrow, such as withdrawn, and things generally associated with happiness, a song, being lost. The last two lines of the octave make the reason for the pang, or regret, clearer – there is a woman involved, and she is not going to pursue the speaker, rather wait for him to come to her with his apology of some sort to undo the wrong she perceives has happened. Being the speakers dream, we can see that this is his projection of her feelings, not her actual feelings, so it is really him that feels she needs the apology and he is the one that should deliver it.
Now, the poem plays with the sestet and the volta here, because the volta actually comes in the last two lines, as generally happens in the Shakespearean Sonnet rather than the Petrarchan Sonnet. Lines 9 through 12 seem to be the speaker living out his regret and being unable to change what has happened. He sees all, he wishes he could call out, but whatever it is that happened holds true. At the start of the volta, we see immediately that whatever the speaker just held true is actually not true. Instead of entering the waking woods in his slumber, he stays beside the woods and watches them wake with the woman instead.
Overall, I feel this sonnet is about wanting to act as a guide through life, but knowing that, despite how much the speaker desires to guide the woman within the sonnet, he cannot tell her what he knows and make it known to her. He has already forged a path and knows the woods – they are familiar to him, yet when the woman approaches she sees the path he has already blazed and won’t follow in his foot steps, literally, but stays at the edge of the woods. He watches. He wants to call out. He wants to invite her in, but he holds himself back.
The way I read this poem, the woods are filled with life or are a metaphor for life itself, and hers is just beginning, hence the woods coming awake at the end of the sonnet while she stands there and watches. I think this is a sonnet about love, but more about familial love than any sort of romantic love. The speaker of this poem cares about the woman and wants to guide her through life, but recognizes that, despite his experience, familiarity, and knowledge of life, he can only watch and hope as she makes her own choices and navigates through her own woods and blazes her own path.
This is at least what I think and what I read. If you have a differing opinion, share it in the comments below.