Author: Maria Dunatov
Nominator: Rebecca Lee
Course: LING 3185 Figurative Language, Fall 2021
To the Thawing Wind
Come with rain, O loud Southwester!
Bring the singer, bring the nester;
Give the buried flower a dream;
Make the settled snowbank steam;
Find the brown beneath the white;
But whate’er you do tonight,
Bathe my window, make it flow,
Melt it as the ice will go;
Melt the glass and leave the sticks
Like a hermit’s crucifix;
Burst into my narrow stall;
Swing the picture on the wall;
Run the rattling pages o’er;
Scatter poems on the floor;
Turn the poet out of door.
Robert Frost’s “To the Thawing Wind” is most fondly remembered for its inspiring tone and universally applicable motifs, but it’s also heralded from a linguistic perspective for its seamlessly employed personification, metonymy, and hyperbolic imagery related to nature’s whimsical acts of brutal force that create a blissfully succinct poetic narrative on the desperately awaited arrival of spring and the desire for sudden, impactful change.
The most pervasive and foundational figurative instantiation consistently establishes the conceptualized scale of perspective for the entirety of the poem: personification or OBJECT AS PERSON. Even the title of the poem personifies the wind by addressing it like a recipient of a dear letter, so it’s not surprising that each verse is soaked in continued personification as the speaker demands more and more from the Southwester. For example, Frost brings the Wind to life within several requests, as seen in the third and seventh lines: “Give the buried flower a dream;” and “Bathe my window, make it flow.” These requests portray the wind in situations imageable at the human scale, involving “direct action and perception inside familiar frames, typically involving few participants and direct intentionality,” (Fauconnier & Turner, 2002, p. 322). Although the physical notion of bathing isn’t exclusive to humanity, the speaker’s request that the Southwester bathe his window with its bountiful, stormy tears is a rather affectionate behavior for one entity to engage in with another, as one would with a child. Without elevating the incorporeal entity of a wind current to the level of anthropomorphization or even deification, none of the fantastical events throughout the poem could occur. So, to fully understand these poetic events’ causation and impact, the audience must generously extend the shared knowledge of personhood to the Wind by interpreting events involving it as volitional actions (Lakoff & Johnson, 1989). Through this shift in perspective, Frost communicates his reverence for nature through the eyes of one man as he conceptually bridges the gap between these two unrelated concepts and allows new opportunities for direct interaction.
Next, Frost generates referential intimacy with the unsung hero of prose: metonymy or “a kind of shorthand in which a relatively simple or concrete entity is used to provide easy access to an entity that is much more complex or abstract,” (Littlemore, 2018, p. 65). As he summons “the singer” and “the nester,” it’s easy to deduce that Frost is addressing birds, but it also begs the question: why not just call them what they are? Through these metonymic expressions, Frost isolates which aspects of birds he references by focusing on their unique, even tokenized behaviors, singing and nesting, over their more obviously recognizable attributes or titles. Littlemore (2018) suggests that metonymy highlights particular features of a phenomenon, while downplaying others, in order to foreground the information that is most important to the communicator (p. 73). The information here most important to Frost is that the birds go out and actually do things rather than just idly sit by, existing, which is a central theme to the poem as it transitions from the sleepiness of winter to the active birth of spring.
The most stark example of metonymic construal is when the speaker demands for the Southwestern Wind to “Find the brown beneath the white” because it so clearly maps the conceptual metonymy of COLOR FOR ENTITY but in a provocative manner that forces the audience to reflect on what’s happening. The entities that the colors are standing in for are of course, earth and snow, and so the complex maneuver of uncovering snow to expose the ground underneath and the figurative implication of winter transforming into spring is artfully summarized into an imageable sub-event within the whole event.
Finally, Frost utilizes descriptive hyperbole to exaggerate the rate at which spring transforms the speaker’s surroundings, creating vivid images that propel the audience to the finish-line of the poem. Hyperbole “requires for a scalar concept itself to be first taken to an extreme and then to examine the nature of the non-maximized version of the concept in terms of the maximized version,” mapping the psychological impact of this exaggeration onto the more realistic scenario (Ruiz de Mendoza Ibáñez, 2014, p. 199). For example, Frost beseeches the en route spring Wind to “Melt the glass and leave the sticks like a hermit’s crucifix.” The preceding line of this verse depicts the expected image of ice melting off a window, but for the heat to be strong enough to melt the glass and not the wood of the window pane, the laws of science and reality would have to bend to Frost’s will. This line is therefore undoubtedly hyperbolic in its description with a wink of biblical allegory to up the ante. The psychological impact of following this illogical sequence of events is thus drawn on to understand the intense contrast to Frost’s current inaction. In the poem’s final act of exaggeration, the speaker welcomes the great Wind to spastically disembowel his home and awaken its spirit: “Burst into my narrow stall; Swing the picture on the wall; Run the rattling pages o’er; Scatter poems on the floor; Turn the poet out of door.” The imagery of this entire scene could only be possible in natural disaster conditions, which is what makes it hyperbolic. Frost could easily have set up a more realistic scene in which the greenery of spring slowly came out of hiding over time and the sound of the howling wind outside distracted the Poet from his work, however, that would be a disservice to the theme of ending the monotony and starting anew with energy and motivation. Exaggerating something as commonplace as ice thawing or pages scattering makes the theatricality of the rich imagery pop and is therefore a wonderful tool for Frost to drive his point home.
Now that the figurative effects of Frost’s cohesive personification, frame-shifting metonymy, and imagistic hyperbole have been addressed linguistically, it’s not difficult to see why this demure masterpiece with all its subtle intricacies defies the stereotypes of haughty poetry as distant from the masses and their underlying, individual thoughts, since each instantiation is purposeful in reaching out to the shared consciousness of the audience.
Header image source: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-Frost → image credit: Ruohomaa/Black Star
Fauconnier, G., & Turner, M. (2002). The way we think: Conceptual blending and the mind's hidden complexities. Basic Books.
Fillmore, C. (1982). Frame Semantics. In The Linguistic Society of South Korea (Ed.), Linguistics in the Morning Calm: Selected Papers from SICOL-1981 (pp. 111–137). Hanhin Publishing Company.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1989). Metaphors We Live by. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Littlemore, J. (2018). Metonymy: Hidden Shortcuts in Language, Thought and Communication. Cambridge University Press.
Ruiz de Mendoza Ibáñez, Francisco José, & Masegosa, A. G. (2014). Cognitive modeling: A linguistic perspective. John Benjamins Publishing Company.