|Below is my example for the preliminary essay assignment. I went
a little long. The essay comes out to two and a half pages.
I've tried to fulfill the assignment by saying what I like about the poem
and by supporting this opinion with as precise a reading as possible.
So I've quoted important words and phrases and tried to attend both to
where the poem surprises us and to what the poems says--in as specific
and nuanced terms as I can--about its subject. rm
Strange Range: Perspectival Shift in Frost's "Range Finding"
Robert Frost's "Range Finding" was published in 1916, during World War I. The poem is compelling for its strange, muted response to the war. It puts human violence in the background and foregrounds instead the natural landscape in which that violence occurs. Although this reversal perhaps fails to do justice to the horrible carnage of the war, the surprise and ambiguity the poem's reversal creates its own value. The reversal ultimately suggests that human violence is neither meaningful nor glorious.
The 1916 publication date of "Range-Finding" and the reference to a "battle" (line 1) clearly indicate the poem is about World War I. Yet a distinctive quality, and value of the poem, lies in its use of surprise. This is no conventional poem about the war, either patriotically praising it (for example in stories of heroism) or critically describing the horrors of war that render such patriotic praise superficial.
Rather, "Range-Finding" largely turns away from human consequences. Though human death is mentioned in the phrase "stained a single human breast," most of the first half of the poem lingers on the consequences of the battle to nature: a cobweb "rent" (1), a flower "cut" (2), a bird's nest disturbed (2), a butterfly "dispossessed" of it home in the flower (6). And the second half of the poem continues this focus by describing how nature reacts to this destruction: the bird still visits her young (5), the butterfly clings to the flower anyway (8), the spider respins its web (9-11).
This surprising reversal of focus is valuable for its originality. More importantly, it is also valuable in the thought that it provokes. Does Frost mean to suggest that if we turn our eyes to nature and its powers to restore itself we will be cheered about human violence? In this case, the surprising focus of the poem might be encouraging us to take a new, broader focus on the war, and find some assurance in a world that contains the natural as well as the human. Perhaps the poem even suggests that people, like the creatures in the poem, will eventually reconstruct their world (for example, go home from the war like the birds "revisiting" their nests).
But the poem is valuable because it contains a second surprise as well. The last example of restorative nature--the recreated spider's web--is itself an instrument of violence. Accordingly, our last view of nature in the poem is a dark one, unlike what has come before. A spider "sullenly" finds that it has not captured a fly in its web (13-14). Once again the poem changes our perspective, asking us whether there is really anything hopeful in nature either. From this perspective human violence appears as just one part of a natural world--not even the central one, at that--that can be violent as well.
We are left at the muted, ambiguous end of the poem looking for some
meaning--either redemptive or perhaps even critical--and find rather, like
the poem's spider, "nothing" (14). Perhaps readers preferring either
strong praise or stronger condemnation of the war would find this "nothing"
a cop-out. I might have preferred a poem that more directly condemned
war's violence. But the poem seems to me to succeed to the extent
that it captures a feeling of helplessness and confusion about war, when
"range finding"--understanding how far down violence goes, and how best
to write about it--is exactly what one cannot do.