Guest Post: The Real Phenomenon behind Robert Frost’s “Iris by Night”

By Leila Belkora

There’s an odd, captivating rainbow in Frost’s poem “Iris by Night.” Frost and his hiking companion encounter it one damp summer evening on their way home from a walk. The two had climbed up the Malvern Hills near the village of Dymock in western England, where Frost lived for a while in 1914. The rainbow they see is small, like the top of an arched garden trellis. As the hikers advance along their path, the bow rises in the air and forms a complete circle around them. For a moment, the multi-colored ring seems to stop time and bestow a kind of blessing on their friendship.

The rainbow has a powerful symbolic meaning, commemorating Frost’s brotherly bond with the Anglo-Welsh writer Edward Thomas. Thomas was killed three years after the hike, at the Battle of Arras in France. But Frost’s encircling bow is an unusual image for a poet who observed nature so closely. Together with the reference to “confusing lights” at the outset of the poem, the rainbow seems not only miraculous, as Frost describes it, but also mysterious and perhaps imagined. Does it represent a departure for Frost, into a kind of magical realism?

Several iridescent phenomena resemble rainbows, including moon-bows (in which the source of light is the moon, rather than the sun), lunar coronas and haloes, pollen coronas, and even some stratospheric clouds that can look like colorful arcs. But, I argue, once you see Frost’s “iris” as a Brocken Specter, it is hard to understand any other way. And this would give Iris by Night connections to other literary uses of this ghostly figure, where it conjures themes of identity and double-ness and the subconscious.

The Brocken Specter combines the viewer’s shadow, projected on a wall of mist or cloud, with a colorful set of rings—a “glory”—encircling the shadow, centered on the head. Its spookiness probably owes much to the fact that the source of light is at a low angle to the ground, making the shadow loom large in front of (or behind) the viewer. A regular sunny-day shadow is a shaded patch of ground beneath the person casting it; the Brocken Specter shadow is more like a reflection in a mirror at eye level, and more clearly mimics the viewer’s every movement.

This phantom apparition acquired its name from a place it has often been seen, the Brocken peak in the Harz range in Germany. Tourists have long traveled to this mountain in the hopes of encountering the eerie sight; Samuel Taylor Coleridge made one such pilgrimage in 1799. In the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Dickens could count on readers of Little Dorrit knowing what Flora meant when she prattled about “the well-known spectre of some place in Germany beginning with a B.”

The Brocken Specter is best known today among hikers and mountaineers. I found Radka Chapin’s extraordinary photograph accompanying my article—a photograph which illustrates Frost’s poem remarkably well, in showing not one but two figures seemingly encircled by the small colored ring—by combing through social media. But even a familiarity with the phenomenon doesn’t diminish the other-worldly feel of the moment at the heart of Frost’s poem, when nature itself seemed to attest to a brief but exceptional friendship.

See Dr. Belkora’s essay in the newest issue of The Robert Frost Review. You can subscribe here.