George Montiero

George Montiero: On "Two Tramps in Mudtime"

"TWO TRAMPS IN MUD TIME" was first published in 1934. At the time Frost remarked that he considered the poem to be "against having hobbies." Two years later, when he collected it in A Further Range as one of ten poems to be "taken doubly," he added to its title in the list of contents the thematic phrase,"or, A Full-Time Interest." In both instances Frost provided a clue to his intended meaning. Unfortunately, critical interpretations of the poem have seldom pursued the leads suggested by the poet.

Two such commentaries, published twenty years apart, are particularly instructive regarding the manner in which each reaches out for the meaning of the poem. Each sees the poem as a vehicle for an idea, for a social ideology; but neither finds it necessary to locate the poem in the context of traditional American thought and literature.

Denis Donoghue, writing in 1965, reads "Two Tramps in Mud Time" as a clear instance of the relation between Frost's "temperament and the ideas of Social Darwinism." The poet did not find compelling the arguments for giving the tramps a job, and hence Donoghue reaches this puzzling conclusion: "So need is not reason enough. The narrator has need and love on his side, hence he survives and nature blesses him as the best man. The tramps are unfit to survive because they have only their need, and the Darwinist law is that they should not survive." Donoghue's overall reading of Frost's poem, not to mention his extraordinary application of Darwinist law, defies explanation. The idea that conjoined need and love constitute in themselves a higher claim for survival than need alone is a curious form of Darwinism. Frost's poem does show a concern with personal integrity and the survival of the human spirit, but nowhere does it come close to hinting that need without love, lamentable as it may be, actually renders the mud-time tramps unfit for survival. The narrator may have need and love "on his side" (as Donoghue puts it), but this fact hardly constitutes evidence either that the situation enables him to survive or that "nature blesses him as the best man." There is no indication, either within the confines of the poem or in the facts of the poet's life as we know them, that "Two Tramps in Mud Time" is intended to recall Charles Darwin or to echo the Social Darwinists.

Donoghue's reading bears a curious relationship to Malcolm Cowley's famous commentary on the poem, made more than forty years ago. His Darwinist interpretation is an offshoot of Cowley's "liberal" chastisement of Frost in the New Republic in 1944. Donoghue offers a specific reason for Frost's behavior toward the tramps, while Cowley describes and deplores the poet's reaction to their request. But both critics are interested in faulting the poet for his inhumanity. "In spite of his achievements as a narrative and lyric poet," argues the dissenting Cowley, there is "a case against Robert Frost as a social philosopher in verse and as a representative of the New England tradition" of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Assuming that the poem reflects an actual incident of the depression years, Cowley criticizes Frost for evading the socioeconomic fortune of the masses and retreating into "sermon." Instead of helping men who want work, preaches Cowley, "Frost turns to the reader with a sound but rather sententious sermon on the ethical value of the chopping block."

To acknowledge that Cowley's account of the poem has some, albeit limited, merit, is not, however, to endorse his vestigial reading with its earmarks of the 1930s. It may be granted that Frost was an early outspoken foe of the social excesses he found exhibited in Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the administrators of his New Deal. But to insist unequivocally that in this poem Frost lacks all social conscience is to mislead grievously: Cowley's concept of a social conscience is at best limited.

That the strangers who come at him "out of the mud" display great need, Frost acknowledges. Too readily is his head filled with the narrow logic that he has "no right to play / With what was another man's work for gain." "My right might be love but theirs was need," he admits; "and where the two exist in twain / Theirs was the better right—agreed." Frost is not insensitive to the tramps' need for "gain," for shelter and food perhaps, but, individualist that he is, he is too thoroughly self-reliant and humanistic to assign all priority to satisfying such basic needs. Rather, he hopes to remind us, in offering himself as example, that men have other kinds of need as well and that their failure to meet those needs results from their inability to recognize the high necessity that "love and need" must make one (''as my two eyes make one in sight"). This failure, common to men everywhere, is particularized for the moment in the tramps whose only thought was that, claiming economic need, "all chopping was theirs of right." Frost deplores, of course, the plight of the unfortunates who for whatever reason must totally dissociate need and love, vocation and avocation. He does not deny that poverty is problematic to society; but he does indicate that the necessity for any man to work much or all of his time for pay alone will rapidly dissolve his sense of other values of self and spirit. He concludes triumphantly:

Only where love and need are one, And the work is play for mortal stakes, Is the deed ever really done For Heaven and the future's sakes.

Frost's ideology in this poem has its roots deep in the nineteenth century; and to understand his poem's relationship to that century; we must turn, pace Donoghue and Cowley; to the traditions of Concord transcendentalism. Specifically; we must look to Henry Thoreau, whose work, encountered early, had a pervasive and formative impact on Frost's life as well as on his poetry. The spiritual morality of the individual self expressed in "Two Tramps" is endemic to both Thoreau and Frost, while Frost's economy accords perfectly with Thoreau's views on work and labor as nurture for the human spirit. In "Two Tramps" the kinship of Frost and Thoreau is evident at every turn.

Take Walden for the moment. In chapter 13 Thoreau contemplates his metaphoric "House-Warming." He begins by talking about woodpiles:

I loved to have mine before my window, and the more chips the better to remind me of my pleasing work. I had an old axe which nobody claimed, with which by spells in winter days, on the sunny side of the house, I played about the stumps which I had got out of my bean-field. As my driver prophesied when I was plowing, they warmed me twice, once while I was splitting them, and again when they were on the fire, so that no fuel could give out more heat.

These few sentences anticipate Frost's poem as a unit, but they have their closest dramatic equivalence in the second and sixth stanzas:

Good blocks of oak it was I split, As large around as the chopping block; And every piece I squarely hit Fell splinterless as a cloven rock. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . You'd think I never had felt before The weight of an ax-head poised aloft, The grip on earth of outspread feet. The life of muscles rocking soft And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

In situation, motif, and theme, the passage from Walden offers a meaningful context for "Two Tramps."

For a full understanding of the transcendental tradition behind Frost's poem, however, a more useful document is Thoreau's brilliant essay "Life without Principle." A discursive presentation of his central ideas on society, labor, and the self, this essay was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863, after having served for several years as a lyceum talk. It is an important manifestation of Thoreau's dedication to the spiritual needs of the self and to the idea that the self must be served constantly in its struggle against the destructive pressures of socialization. As such, it can now serve us as a kind of manifesto of the intellectual and literary tradition to which "Two Tramps in Mud Time" properly belongs.

Frost is wary of those who want to take his "job for pay." Thoreau's more generalized complaint makes the same point. "The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse. If the laborer gets no more than the wages which his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself." In fact, such a laborer is deceived in that he is "paid for being something less than a man" when his aim should be "not to get his living . . . but to perform well a certain work. . . . Do not hire a man who does your work for money," cautions Thoreau, "but him who does it for love of it."

Frost takes these Thoreauvian ideals and dramatizes them in his lyric poem. It is not the tramps who work for the love of the work, it turns out, but the poet himself, and consequently he cannot without compromise and self-betrayal give way to those who work merely for wages. He must, in Thoreau's words, "be fastidious to the extreme of sanity, disregarding the gibes of those who are more unfortunate than ourselves." Thoreau reminds us that, surprisingly, "a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well": "There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living. All great enterprises are self-supporting. The poet, for instance, must sustain his body by his poetry, as a steam planing-mill feeds its boilers with the shavings it makes. You must get your living by loving."

The values that Thoreau conveys discursively and didactically in "Life without Principle" Frost exalts in narrative subsumed by lyric. Given such commitments, there is no question that Frost must fail Cowley's test in socioeconomics and collectivist philosophy, but so must Thoreau. Frost might have said, with Thoreau: "To be supported by the charity of friends, or a government pension,—provided you continue to breathe,— by whatever fine synonyms you describe these relations, is to go into the almshouse." Frost did say that a man "should be a large-proportioned individual before he becomes social."

In sum, "Two Tramps in Mud Time" should not be read as the one-sided, frontal attack on socialist or collectivist thinking that Cowley would have it be, nor should it be read as Donoghue's illustrative apologia for the wondrous workings of Darwinist law. Grounded in social and transcendental ideas the poet shares with Henry Thoreau, the poem stands in opposition to that capacity for self-betrayal and degeneration which inheres in each and every man: that propensity to "quarter our gross bodies on our poor souls, till the former eat up all the latter's substance." When the thematic and ideological affinities of Frost and Thoreau are fully recognized, we shall have a surer sense of what Frost is about in his poem " against having hobbies." Thoreau's statement that "the whole duty of life is contained in the question how to respire and aspire both at once" is an adage the import of which Frost seems not to have missed. As he insisted in the early 1950s, at the age of seventy-eight, "I have never outgrown anything that I ever liked. I have never had a hobby in my life, but I have ranged through a lot of things."

From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.

George Montiero: On "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

The "dark forest" in the tradition of "The Choice of the Two Paths" and the "forest dark" of Longfellow's translation of the Inferno also foreshadow the imagery of the famous Frost poem published in New Hampshire (1923), the last stanza of which begins: "The woods are lovely; dark and deep." In spurning the word "forest" for "woods," a term that is perhaps more appropriate for New England, Frost was, whether he knew it or not, following Charles Eliot Norton, whose translation of the Inferno reads "dark wood" and who glosses the opening of Dante's poem: "The dark wood is the forest of the world of sense, 'the erroneous wood of this life' . . . , that is, the wood in which man loses his way." In "the darkest evening of the year," the New England poet finds himself standing before a scene he finds attractive enough to make him linger. Frost's poem employs, significantly; the present tense. Dante's poem (through Longfellow) employs the past tense. It is as if Frost were casually remembering some familiar engraving that hung on a schoolroom wall in Lawrence as he was growing up in the 1880s, and the poet slides into the picture. He enters, so to speak, the mind of the figure who speaks the poem, a figure whose body is slowly turned into the scene, head fully away from the foreground, bulking small, holding the reins steadily and loosely. The horse and team are planted, though poised to move. And so begins the poet's dramatization of this rural and parochial tableau. "Whose woods these are I think I know. / His house is in the village though. / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow." And then, having entered the human being, he witnesses the natural drift of that human being's thoughts to the brain of his "little horse," who thinks it "queer" that the rider has decided to stop here. And then, in an equally easy transition, the teamster returns to himself, remembering that he has promises to keep and miles to go before he sleeps. Duties, responsibilities—many must have them, we think, as echolalia closes the poem, all other thoughts already turning away from the illustration on the schoolroom wall. And even as the "little horse" has been rid of the man's intrusion, so too must the rider's mind be freed of the poet's incursion. The poet's last line resonates, dismissing the reader from his, the poet's, dreamy mind and that mind's preoccupations, and returning to the poet's inside reading of the still-"fe drama that goes on forever within its frame hanging on the classroom wall.

The ways in which Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" converses with Longfellow's translation of Dante are evident from other shared echoes and images. The Inferno continues:

I cannot well repeat how there I entered,     So full was I of slumber at the moment     In which I had abandoned the true way. But after I had reached a mountain's foot,     At that point where the valley terminated,     Which had with consternation pierced my heart, Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,     Vested already with that planet's rays     Which leadeth others right by every road. Then was the fear a little quieted     That in my heart's lake had endured throughout     That night, which I had passed so piteously.

What Frost "fetched" here (as in "The Road Not Taken") were the motifs of risk and decision characterizing both "The Choice of the Two Paths" and Dante's Inferno.

"The Draft Horse," a poem published at the end of Frost's life in his final volume, In the Clearing (1962), reminds us curiously of Frost's anecdote in 1912 about recognizing "another" self and not encountering that self and also of the poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." In addition it is reminiscent of "The Road Not Taken." In each case—anecdote, autumnal poem, and winter poem—the poet must make a choice. Will he "go forward to the touch," or will he "stand still in wonderment and let him pass by" in the anecdote? He will choose the "road less traveled by" (but he will leave the other for a later passing, though he probably will not return to it). He will not succumb to the aesthetic (and perhaps psychological) attractions of the woods, which are "lovely, dark and deep," but will go forth to keep his promises—of both kinds (as Frost explained): "those that I myself make for myself and those that my ancestors made for me, known as the social contract."

With a lantern that wouldn’t burn In too frail a buggy we drove Behind too heavy a horse Through a pitch-dark limitless grove.

And a man came out of the trees And took our horse by the head And reaching back to his ribs Deliberately stabbed him dead.

The ponderous beast went down With a crack of a broken shaft. And the night drew through the trees In one long invidious draft.

The most unquestioning pair That ever accepted fate And the least disposed to ascribe Any more than we had to hate,

We assumed that the man himself Or someone he had to obey Wanted us to get down And walk the rest of the way.

The "little horse" of the earlier poem is replaced by "the too-heavy horse" of the later one. The "woods" have now been replaced by "a pitch-dark limitless grove." The hint in "grove" is one of sacrificial rites and ordered violence. The "sweep of easy wind and downy flake" of "Stopping by Woods" is echoed more ominously in "The Draft Horse" in that after "the ponderous beast went down" "the night drew through the trees / In one long invidious draft." The man was alone; here he is part of an "unquestioning pair." "Stopping by Woods" was given in the first person. "The Draft Horse," like the beginning of the Inferno, takes place in the past. There is resolution in the former—even if it evinces some fatigue; in the latter there is resignation. At the time of the poem and in an earlier day, the loss of a man's horse may be as great a loss as that of one's life—probably because its loss would often lead to the death of the horse's owner. And for the poet the assassination has no rhyme or reason that he will discern. He knows only that the man "came out of the trees" (compare the intruders in "Two Tramps in Mud Time" or the neighbor in "Mending Wall" who resembles "an old-stone savage armed"). Insofar as the poet knows, this act involves motiveless malevolence less than unmalevolent motive—if there is a motive. In the Inferno, the beast that threatens the poet's pathway gives way to the poet—"Not man; man once I was," he says—who will guide him. Frost's couple have the misfortune to encounter not a guide but an assassin. "A man feared that he might find an assassin; / Another that he might find a victim," wrote Stephen Crane. "One was more wise than the other." It is not too far-fetched, I think, to see the equanimity of the poet at the end of "The Draft Horse" as a response to the anecdote, many years earlier, when the poet avoided meeting his "other" self, thereby committing the "fatal omission" of not trying to find out what "purpose . . . if we could but have made out" there was in the near-encounter. It is chilling to read the poem against its Frostian antecedents. Yet, as Keeper prefers in A Masque of Mercy (1947)—in words out of another context which might better fit the romantic poet of "The Wood- Pile"—"I say I'd rather be lost in the woods / Than found in church."

From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.

George Montiero: On "Design"

Lecturing in 1834 on the theme of man’s relationship to the globe, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked

The snail is not more accurately adjusted to his shell than man to the globe he inhabits, that not only a perfect symmetry is discoverable in his limbs and senses between the head and the foot, between the hand and the eye, the head and the lungs,—but an equal symmetry and proportion is discoverable between him and the air, the mountains, the tides, the moon, and the sun. I am not impressed by solitary marks of designing wisdom; I am thrilled with delight by the choral harmony of the whole. Design! It is all design. It is all beauty. It is all astonishment.

With this notion Emerson started hares in New England that have run from his time well into the twentieth century. In Emerson’s day Oliver Wendell Holmes produced his variation on the theme, seeing it in terms of what might be called Platonic evolutionism in his poem "The Chambered Nautilus." Early in this century Frost took up Emerson’s notion in two versions of the poem "Design" and had serious fun with it for a decade.

Published rather inauspiciously in the same year as T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land," Frost’s sonnet "Design" has weathered the years successfully. Its reputation has grown to such an extent that the poem, like Eliot’s, is now considered one of the century’s most explosive poetic statements on the metaphysics of darkness. Indeed, historically "Design" can be located somewhere between the visionary expanse of "The Waste Land" and the mind-stretching speculations of Herman Melville’s chapter "The Whiteness of the Whale" in Moby-Dick (1851). In paradigm, "Design" expresses the perplexing fears that respond to evidence that (1) human existence continues without supportive design and ultimate purpose and (2) human existence is subject to a design of unmitigated natural evil. In its details the poem appears to sustain both of these complementary interpretations.

"Design" is Frost’s most carefully shaped investigation of the darker implications of the classical argument from design. The poem did not spring into being fully formed after a single bout with the Muse. In 1912, apparently to put the poem on record as well as to try it on a sympathetic reader, Frost forwarded an early version to an old friend, calling it a sonnet for his "’Moth and Butterfly’ book." Although he did not choose to publish this early version, the manuscript copy preserved among the papers of Susan Hayes Ward enables us to trace Frost’s philosophical-aesthetic development as he reworked the draft and rethought his ideas over a period of ten years.

Frost’s extant manuscript version of 1912 bears the title "In White," which, though it indicates the poem’s principal image and motif, does not have the thematic resonance of the simpler and more direct later title, "Design." A more explicit, if far less effective, title for the later version of the poem might combine the two "Design in White." Still, this title, arty and somewhat arch, would compromise Frost’s theme. Rather, concerned with any and all designs which would foster poetic and philosophic resonance, Frost revised his poem to make it more precise, so that each image would be appropriate and every word functional.

In White

A dented spider like a snow drop white On a white Heal-all, holding up a moth Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth-- Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight?-- Portent in little, assorted death and blight Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth?— The beady spider, the flower like a froth, And the moth carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white, The blue prunella every child’s delight. What brought the kindred spider to that height? (Make we no thesis of the miller’s plight.) What but design of darkness and of night? Design, design! Do I use the word aright?

This early version of the poem is to be compared with the final version published first in 1922 and later gathered by Frost into his sixth volume of poetry, A Further Range (1936):

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white, On a white heal-all, holding up a moth Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth— Assorted characters of death and blight Mixed ready to begin the morning right, Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth— A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth, And dead wmgs carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white, The wayside blue and innocent heal-all? What brought the kindred spider to that height, Then steered the white moth thither in the night? What but design of darkness to appall?-- If design govern in a thing so small.

Frost’s revisions turn the poem to narrative and away from unadorned lyric, thereby enhancing the mystery that surrounds the incident he wishes to describe. In removing his personal experience to the past, the poet is able to suggest as well that he has been brooding on the meaning of the tableau of spider, moth, and ritual death which he has observed, even though he has failed to reach a conclusive answer (at least for himself) on the question of design. The introduction of the poet’s personal voice (as subject; into the first line, moreover, turns the spider into the object of sight and contemplation. It gives the poet more prominence than he had in the manuscript version, which begins with a sentence fragment (no verb) in apposition to the noun "sight" in the fourth line.

Little survives intact from one version of the poem to the other. Notably, only the ninth line of the early version—"What had that flower to do with being white"—survives without change in "Design." Lines 2, 6, and 11 are largely repeated, with changes only in capitalization or punctuation at the end of the line. The remaining ten lines, however, offer substantive changes, which must be taken up line by line.

The simile in the first line, "like a snow drop white," which is purely and neutrally descriptive, disappears along with another descriptive word, "dented." In their place Frost offers three adjectives: "dimpled," "fat," and "white." The first two are unexpectedly appropriate for this murderous spider. Cleverly placed in the poem, these terms more often describe a baby than an insect. By replacing neutrally descriptive terms with terms that would normally appear in another context in connection with a different sentiment, Frost both announces his theme and reveals that his approach is basically ironic. In line 3 the moth, described as "a white piece of lifeless cloth" becomes "rigid satin cloth." "Lifeless" is only vaguely descriptive of the moth’s state; but it does not at all accurately reflect the tableau of the spider holding up the moth. The moth may in fact be "lifeless," but the poem is more accurately descriptive when it compares the moth with "rigid" cloth. Hovering over this image is the hint of rigor mortis and the satin fabric which customarily lines the inside of coffins.

Line 4 in the manuscript version is rather limp, lifeless. The semi-rhetorical question "Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight?" seriously deflects the central argument of the poem. In the final version Frost moves the second half of the original fifth line, "assorted death and blight," to line 4 and extends it to "assorted characters of death and blight," thereby introducing the important metaphor of kitchen domesticity that he will pursue through line 7. So, too, does he decide to drop the first phrase of line 5 ("Portent in little")—this time, I would suggest, because "portent" is too potent at this point. Line 6 stays almost intact but no longer asks a question. Indeed, the two questions which dominate the octave in the manuscript version are strategically dropped, so that the only questions come in the sestet closing the poem. Lines 4 through 7 are intended, then, to suggest kitchens, cakes, and cookies ("Assorted," "ingredients," and "Mixed ready")—all as if drummed up by advertisers "to begin the morning right." The only sour note is that the whole thing resembles "the ingredients of a witches’ broth." Still, it is "broth" and not "brew" (as we might expect in everyday witchcraft); "broth" echoes the culinary metaphor.

The single change in line 7 turns "beady spider" into "snow-drop spider," reinstating the adjective which Frost had discarded from his original first line. At this point the earlier poem was still fundamentally descriptive, but something was needed, apparently to keep the idea of coldness and death before us. "Snow-drop" accomplishes this aim. "Beady," however, serves another purpose. The word, less than precisely descriptive, is morally loaded. A seemingly less neutral word would keep the poem from becoming at all moralistic. In the last line of the octave "moth" turns into "dead wings," but the simile "like a paper kite" is happily retained. The simile returns us to the implicitly "childlike" description of the spider in the opening line. "Dead wings," on the other hand, moves toward precision, for it is not the "moth" in its entirety that looks like "a paper kite" but only its "dead wings." Furthermore, both "wings" and "kite" suggest the idea of flight, the image of white "dead wings" moves toward paradox.

The ninth line ("What had that flower to do with being white,") remains intact, this much about his basic poem Frost had been sure of all along. But if the appositive clause which constitutes the tenth line ("The blue prunella every child’s delight") adds the new information that the heal-all is also known as the prunella; it nevertheless adds nothing to the argument of the poem. Indeed, because the content of the lines is not at all functional except as a bit of incidental information, it can do no more than disrupt the poem’s discourse. On the other hand, repetition of the fact that it is a "heal-all" despite its not being blue (as are most heal-alls) pushes the argument a step further. The next line is substantially the same. But the twelfth line of the manuscript version is dropped completely, and fittingly so."Make we not thesis of the miller’s plight)" is wasteful and repetitive, seeming to exist only for the final word ("plight"), which maintains the pattern of the same end rhyme throughout the six lines of the sestet. In replacing the entire line, Frost chooses to deepen the question he asks about the tableau he has witnessed. Not only does he ask "What brought the kindred spider to that height" but also what "Then steered the white moth thither in the night?" (italics added). What power, then, actually "steered" the moth (white) in the darkness of "night" to a heal-all which is preternaturally "white"? Rather than the somewhat disingenuous admonition that avoids making a thesis out of this tableau, Frost chooses to extend the mystery of the "witches’ broth" that he has ostensibly witnessed.

In the penultimate line of the poem the first five words are retained ("What but design of darkness"), but the last three words ("and of night") are revised: "to appall." In the original, "of night" merely repeats the idea in the phrase "of darkness." There is a relatively pointless, if harmless, repetition of meaning. But the phrase "darkness to appall" suggests the appalling effect that the close conjunction of two ideas—"darkness" and "design"—might well have. Moreover, "appall" is a particularly suitable word, in that it suggests both a specific color or the lack of color (pallor) and death (pall).

Because it, too, is inconclusive and somewhat wasteful, the last line of the manuscript poem gives way to a conditional clause in the final version: "Design, design! Do I use the word aright?" is crudely rhythmic, but the simple device of ending a poem with a disingenuous question does little to resolve the poem formally. On the other hand, to end the poem with the tentative clause "if design govern in a thing so small" offers thematic resolution even as it enhances poetic resonance. "Govern" develops from "steered," of course, which in turn grows out of "brought " The effect is cumulative.

A comparison of the earlier and the definitive versions of "Design" helps to define the poet’s final intention; it remained fundamentally consistent. From version to version Frost worked to clarify his idea that the philosophical argument from design was endemically ironic. Both the first published version of the poem (1922) and the manuscript version (1912) are in sonnet form. Despite internal revisions and the reshaping of several lines, the overall poetic form remained the same over the years. That the poem was conceived in the form of a sonnet, I would

propose, is the poet’s final irony, for the strict formal design which characterizes the sonnet apes and mimes the internal argument of the poem. It is true of "Design," as it is, according to Frost, of all his poems: "every single one of the poems has its design symbol." The difficulty, though, is that "there are some people who want to know what’s eating you." Whether what is eating at the readers of "Design" was also eating the poet is not revealed. But here are the main questions. Does the same guiding power, the steering force, which works through the tableau of spider, moth, and stylized death, operate through the poetic process as well? After so much whiteness, have we experienced, after all, still another variant of that scriptural blackness of darkness which fascinated so many American writers, from Poe to Hemingway? These questions—good ones, I think—are no more rhetorical than the question which closes Frost’s chilling sonnet.

There is a footnote to the story of "In White" and "Design." It involves Frost’s dealings with the Independent, particularly with Susan Hayes Ward, the literary editor of the publication edited by her brother William Hayes Ward. She was one of the people he later singled out as having had so much to do with his career that he would name her as one of those "to whom I owe my existence." In 1894 Frost sent the poem "My Butterfly" to the Independent because two years earlier he had recognized the journal as a place where poetry might be published. The discovery was, he revealed, one of the two most crucial poetic experiences in his life as a student. (The other was his discovery of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.) Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant quotes Frost.

I happened into the old library and found on the magazine rack a copy of the Independent, with a poem on the front page. It was a sort of threnody called "Seaward," by Richard Hovey, a friend of Bliss Carman and a celebrated Dartmouth graduate. The subject was the death of Thomas William Parsons, translator of Dante’s Inferno, friend of Longfellow.

This experience gave me my very first revelation that a publication existed, anywhere in my native land, that was a vehicle for the publication of poetry. There was even an editorial about this poem, which I read with rapt amaze. So when later I had a poem, "My Butterfly," I of course sent it to the Independent.

The issue of the Independent containing Hovey’s poem appeared on November 17, 1892.

Almost two decades later, on about January 15, 1912, Frost sent Susan Hayes Ward a copy of "In White." By this time she was no longer associated with the Independent and was, in fact, retired. (She died in 1916.) Therefore, why did Frost choose to send her this particular poem? My guess is that it had something to do with poems he had read in the Independent years earlier, in an issue published on December 15, 1892, four weeks after the issue publishing the Hovey poem that had so favorably impressed the young would-be poet then studying at Dartmouth. In this, largely a Christmas issue, Frost would have read a twenty-two-line poem by Julian Hawthorne

As when a traveler, toiling o’er a hight     Heaped of huge bowlders, all at random hurled,     Like fragments of a ruined world, Whose desolation doth the spirit affright— Rebels at seeming chaos come again, And longs for level reaches of the plain,     So I with hardship spent,     And foiled of mine intent, Complained that life was less than kind, That silver clouds were leaden-lined. And chance, not justice, did o’er mortal fortunes reign.

But when the traveler to the valley came,     And, turning, gazed at that dim-towering hight,     Glorified now by sunset light,— Lo! the confusion that had won his blame Assumed sublime and awful grace— The mighty semblance of a God-like face     Even, so as I look back     Upon my weary track, I see its hostile features change, By some divine enchantment strange, Till God’s design through all, in all, at last I trace.

Frost’s ‘My Butterfly," written two years later, would also touch on the "awful grace" of God’s power and design: "It seemed God let thee flutter from his gentle clasp. / Then, fearful he had let thee win / Too far beyond him to be gathered in, / Snatched thee, o’er-eager, with ungentle grasp." Along with Julian Hawthorne’s "Design," however, the Independent for December 15, 1892, published a forty-line poem by Lewis Morris entitled "From an American Sermon." I shall quote not the entire poem but only two stanzas from the middle and the two at the end

So every human soul Set here betwixt its twin eternities Stands open to heaven, ay, rolls on to doom Mid opposite mysteries.

And tho indeed it seem By narrow walls of circumstance confined, Shut from Heaven’s face, closed to all vital airs, Is open to God’s wind .................................. No soul so cold or calm But underneath it burns the infernal fire No state so mean, so vile, It may not to the Heaven of heavens aspire.

Above, beneath, around, Dread destinies encompass great and small, One Will, one Hand, one dread all-seeing Eye Surveys and governs all.

The second of these stanzas Frost would echo dramatically (with a hint from Emily Dickinson) in "My Butterfly" "Then, when I was distraught / And could not speak, / Sidelong, full on my cheek, / What should that reckless zephyr fling / But the wild touch of your dye-dusty wing!" The last stanza of Morris’s poem was later echoed in "Design." It is curious that when Frost revised "In White" he changed the poem’s last line from "Design, design! Do I use the word aright?" to "If design govern in a thing so small," thereby echoing the last lines of both Hawthorne’s and Morris’s poems. Small wonder, then, that, when Frost came upon William James’s naturalistic and anecdotal critique of the argument from design, he was well primed for it—from reading Hawthorne and Morris no less than from writing "My Butterfly."

One last point is noteworthy. When Frost sent his trenchant criticism of the argument from design ("In White) to his old benefactress, Susan Hayes Ward—especially since she was by then no longer in a position to help him with publication—was he not formally, if belatedly, answering poetic voices heard nearly two decades earlier (a settling of the score, so to speak)?

George Montiero: On "The Oven Bird"

Over time it has become increasingly evident that this sonnet struck a note which became central to the work of many of the major poets of the first quarter of the twentieth century. Anticipating the sorrowful observation of his younger contemporary LS. Eliot, that in our time the ancient song of the nightingale had degenerated into the "Jug Jug" of dirty ears, Frost focused on the transformation and diminution of Whitman's central symbol for the poet. In the midsummer, midwood song of the ovenbird, Frost hears a parable of the modem poet who, unlike those poets who can burst into song only in the spring, has learned the ovenbird's paradoxical trick. He has learned how to sing an unlyrical song in those times that are not at all conducive to joyous song.

[quotes poem]

When "The Oven Bird " was published in Mountain Interval (1916), Frost's third collection of poems, its reception among readers displeased the poet. That reception drove him to warn his friend Sidney Cox that "The Oven Bird" was not of "the large things in the book." He cautioned further, obviously worried over the unsubtle impact of the poem's last two lines, "You mustn't be misled by anything that may have been laid down to you in school into exaggerating the importance of a little sententious tag to a not over important poem." What other readers found in the poem is evident from Frost's complaint to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant that the last two lines of his poem had "been used unjustly against New England." Just how they had been misused Frost apparently chose not to explain to Mrs. Sergeant, nor did he wish to explain that his poem was purely in the New England tradition. There is no denying the validity of Mrs. Sergeant's emphasis upon "the tragic background of the poet who writes from the heart of the life that he knows and divines"; but much of the varied, rich life the poet knew, divined, and portrayed, it should be observed, shows the impact of the books he read and chose to love. Fully alert to classical Western literary traditions, Frost was acutely aware of the romantic tradition of New England, whose poets, in the flowering of New England literature, opened the way for Frost's own poetry of embattlement and resistance in addition to blazing a path followed by dozens of lesser writers.

The New England context of Frost's poem has never been fully investigated. In the paragraphs which follow, I shall try to locate some of the immediate sources for Frost's decision to turn the ovenbird into a surrogate for the poet. Clear hints for the ovenbird as symbol, I shall maintain, came from three writers (though there may have been others) whose work varies greatly in intrinsic literary merit—Henry David Thoreau, Bradford Torrey (Thoreau's editor at the turn of the century), and Mildred Rowells (the daughter of William Dean Rowells). The line can be drawn chronologically.

Reimagining his dramatic withdrawal to the Concord woods, Thoreau laments the fate that, in the few years since his removal, has befallen the woods encircling Walden Pond: "the woodchoppers have still further laid them waste, and now for many a year there will be no more rambling through the aisles of the wood, with occasional vistas through which you see the water. My Muse may be excused if she is silent henceforth." As nature's poet, then, Thoreau would fall as silent as the disappointed songbirds, for diminished nature—in this case, nature reduced through man's waste—silences both Muse and mortal song. "How can you expect the birds to sing," entones Thoreau, "when their groves are cut down?"

In Walden Thoreau fails to identify the ovenbird by name, but his journals contain several descriptions of the ovenbird and its sounds, along with several related descriptions of a "night- warbler." At various times Thoreau observes, in notes that were not lost on Frost, that (1) "the oven-bird thrums [a] sawyer-like strain," (2) "the hollow-sounding note of the ovenbird is heard from the depth of the wood," (3) the oven-bird's note is "loud and unmistakable, making the hollow woods ring," (4) its note, a true "woodland" sound, is "fresh emphatic." Thoreau suggests that he was able to distinguish the seasonal songs of the ovenbird, though he makes nothing of that fact.

Thoreau was as receptive to the ovenbird’s spring song, evidently, as he was to its midsummer song. But his puzzlement sometimes led him to ascribe the two songs to different species. Often mistaking the ovenbird for a different bird he chose to call a "night-warbler," he wrote enthusiastically about that "powerful singer": "It launches into the air above the forest, or over some hollow or open space in the woods, and challenges the attention of the woods by its rapid and impetuous warble, and then drops down swiftly into the tree-tops like a performer withdrawing behind the scenes, and he is very lucky who detects where it alights." For all his repute as a naturalist, Thoreau never managed to distinguish the ovenbird satisfactorily from the mysterious "night-warbler," confusing them time and time again. It is now generally conceded by ornithologists and Thoreau scholars alike that Thoreau's "mysterious" night-warbler and the seemingly different ovenbird, whose more characteristic song and daytime appearance were well known to Thoreau, were one and the same.

That the ovenbird sings two quite different songs was clear enough to Bradford Torrey. In 1900, while editing Thoreau's journals, Torrey wrote and published a Thoreauvian journey piece. Reconstructing the memorable incidents of a day's excursion to New Hampshire's Franconia Mountains (where Frost would later live), Torrey wrote of the ovenbird:

An oven-bird shoots into the air out of the forest below for a burst of aerial afternoon music. I heard the preluding strain, and, glancing up, caught him at once, the sunlight happening to strike him perfectly. All the morning he has been speaking prose; now he is a poet; a division of the day from which the rest of us might take a lesson. But for his afternoon role he needs a name. "Oven-bird" goes somewhat heavily in a lyric:

"Hark! hark! the oven-bird at heaven's gate sings"—you would hardly recognize that for Shakespeare.

Torrey notes with accuracy that the ovenbird can and does sing two distinctly different songs. The distinction between the songs is explained by one of Thoreau's modern editors. The ovenbird's "song is a series of short, ringing, emphatic notes that grow louder and louder as the tempo increases," she observes. "It is often called the teacher-bird because the song sounds like teacher repeated over and over again. The Ovenbird also has a beautiful flight song, most often heard in May and June, late in the afternoon or on moonlight nights."

For his own purposes Frost chose the ovenbird whose song is pedagogical, not lyrical. He reverses Torrey's emphasis, which was on the lyrical beauty of the afternoon song. Surely Torrey's view of the ovenbird was too conventional for Frost's more insistent taste and therefore wholly unsuited to the specific purposes of his parablelike poem. In Frost there is, of course, no indication that the ovenbird sings a beautiful flight song as well as the dry, sharp, rasping song for which it is better known. The existence of its melodious flight song is a fact not at all useful to the poet answering the sentimentalist whose song falters and fails before natural loss.

On one occasion Frost revealed that his poems were largely "a way out of something." He elaborated: "I could probably name twenty or thirty poems that were just answers to somebody that had . . . left me unsatisfied with the last thing he said in an argument." The possibility can be entertained, for its suggestive implications at least, that "The Oven Bird" constitutes just such an answer to the question framed by Mildred Howells in her Keatsian poem, "'And No Birds Sing'":

There comes a season when the bird is still         Save for a broken note, so sad and strange, Its plaintive cadence makes the woodlands thrill         With sense of coming change.

Stirred into ecstasy by spring's new birth,         In throbbing rhapsodies of hope and love, He shared his transports with the listening earth         And stormed the heavens above.

But now how should he sing—forlorn, alone—         Of hopes that withered with the waning year, An empty nest with mate and fledgelings flown,         And winter drawing near?

There can be no doubt, of course, that in quality, no matter what yardstick we use, Miss Howells's autumn poem does not measure up to Frost's. For one thing, it lacks immediate force and overall resonance. Its images too evidently belong to the pale, late Victorian poetry of nature. They remain static and generalized. Still, despite reservations, there is value and purpose in comparing the two poems. Sentimentality and loose structure notwithstanding, Miss Howells's poem does indicate a theme that Frost would find congenial: how, indeed, does one respond to the diminished thing that dry midsummer augurs and which autumn and winter all too surely realize?

The first line of Frost's sonnet seems to echo and answer the first line of "'And No Birds Sing'": "There is a singer everyone has heard" counters the line, "There comes a season when the bird is still." Moreover, if a "broken note . . . of plaintive cadence" predicts "coming change" in the Howells poem, the sterner song of Frost's ovenbird, in describing facts as they are, " makes the solid tree trunks sound again."

The middle stanza of Miss Howells's poem moves back in time to recall the retrospective irony of the bird's ecstasy when it was fostered by "spring's new birth." By contrast, in midpoem Frost's ovenbird reminds us dryly and matter-of-factly that spring's luxuriance of flowers diminishes by midsummer in the ratio of "one to ten." Then in the eleventh line Frost fashions another answer to "'And No Birds Sing.'" The question asked in the Howells poem, "how should he sing" of withered hopes in a "waning year" as winter encroaches upon life, is answered: the ovenbird "knows in singing not to sing." Frost concludes his poem, not by asking Howells's question of whether the ovenbird should sing (he takes it for granted that he must sing) but by defining the question which the bird's songless song frames.

Like his ovenbird of midsummer song, the poet that Frost continued to recognize in himself was one who faced the hardest of facts: seasonally; but above all historically; the world has diminished, and "dust is over all." Still, the difficulty of the situation cannot reduce the durable poet to compliance: he resists the fact, and his resistance becomes the impulse—bone and sinew—for his poem. When Frost decided that "a poet must lean hard on facts, so hard, sometimes, that they hurt," he discovered as well that what "the facts do to you . . . transforms them into poetry."

In seasons of human displacement, the Muse will continue to spite Thoreau (and his less durable followers) by disdaining silence. Transposed to a different key; it will speak but only to that poet whose lyric voice has been stripped of all traditional lyricism.

From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.

George Montiero: On "The Road Not Taken"

"THE ROAD NOT TAKEN" can be read against a literary and pictorial tradition that might be called "The Choice of the Two Paths, " reaching not only back to the Gospels and beyond them to the Greeks but to ancient English verse as well. In Reson and Sensuallyte, for example, John Lydgate explains how he dreamt that Dame Nature had offered him the choice between the Road of Reason and the Road of Sensuality. In art the same choice was often represented by the letter "Y" with the trunk of the letter representing the careless years of childhood and the two paths branching off at the age when the child is expected to exercise discretion. In one design the "Two Paths" are shown in great detail. "On one side a thin line of pious folk ascend a hill past several churches and chapels, and so skyward to the Heavenly City where an angel stands proffering a crown. On the other side a crowd of men and women are engaged in feasting, music, love-making, and other carnal pleasures while close behind them yawns the flaming mouth of hell in which sinners are writhing. But hope is held out for the worldly for some avoid hell and having passed through a dark forest come to the rude huts of Humility and Repentance." Embedded in this quotation is a direct reference to the opening of Dante's Inferno:

Midway upon the journey of our life         I found myself within a forest dark,         For the straightforward pathway had been lost. Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say         What was the forest savage, rough, and stern,         Which in the very thought renews the fear. So bitter is it, death is little more.

From the beginning, when it appeared as the first poem in Mountain Interval (1916), many readers have overstated the importance of "The Road Not Taken" to Frost's work. Alexander Meiklejohn, president of Amherst College, did so when, announcing the appointment of the poet to the school's faculty he recited it to a college assembly.

"The Choice of Two Paths" is suggested in Frost's decision to make his two roads not very much different from one another, for passing over one of them had the effect of wearing them "really about the same." This is a far cry from, say, the description of the "two waies " offered in the seventeenth century by Henry Crosse:

Two waies are proposed and laide open to all, the one inviting to vertue, the other alluring to vice; the first is combersome, intricate, untraded, overgrowne, and many obstacles to dismay the passenger; the other plaine, even beaten, overshadowed with boughes, tapistried with flowers, and many objects to feed the eye; now a man that lookes but only to the outward shewe, will easily tread the broadest pathe, but if hee perceive that this smooth and even way leads to a neast of Scorpions: or a litter of Beares, he will rather take the other though it be rugged and unpleasant, than hazard himselfe in so great a daunger.

Frost seems to have deliberately chosen the word "roads" rather than "waies" or "paths" or even "pathways." In fact, on one occasion when he was asked to recite his famous poem, "Two paths diverged in a yellow wood," Frost reacted with such feeling—"Two roads!"—that the transcription of his reply made it necessary both to italicize the word "roads" and to follow it with an exclamation point. Frost recited the poem all right, but, as his friend remembered, "he didn't let me get away with 'two paths!'"

Convinced that the poem was deeply personal and directly self-revelatory Frost's readers have insisted on tracing the poem to one or the other of two facts of Frost's life when he was in his late thirties. (At the beginning of the Inferno Dante is thirty-five, "midway on the road of life," notes Charles Eliot Norton.) The first of these, an event, took place in the winter of 1911-1912 in the woods of Plymouth, New Hampshire, while the second, a general observation and a concomitant attitude, grew out of his long walks in England with Edward Thomas, his newfound Welsh-English poet-friend, in 1914.

In Robert Frost: The Trial by Existence, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant locates in one of Frost's letters the source for "The Road Not Taken." To Susan Hayes Ward the poet wrote on February 10, 1912:

Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much travelled. Judge then how surprised I was the other evening as I came down one to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone's eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home. But I didn't go forward to the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by; and that, too, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out by a comparison of lives and immediate and remote interests what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in a wilderness at the same moment of nightfall. Some purpose I doubt not, if we could but have made out. I like a coincidence almost as well as an incongruity.

This portentous account of meeting "another" self (but not encountering that self directly and therefore not coming to terms with it) would eventually result in a poem quite different from "The Road Not Taken" and one that Frost would not publish for decades. Elizabeth Sergeant ties the moment with Frost's decision to go off at this time to some place where he could devote more time to poetry. He had also, she implies, filed away his dream for future poetic use.

That poetic use would occur three years later. In 1914 Frost arrived in England for what he then thought would be an extended sabbatical leave from farming in New Hampshire. By all the signs he was ready to settle down for a long stay. Settling in Gloucestershire, he soon became a close friend of Edward Thomas. Later, when readers persisted in misreading "The Road Not Taken," Frost insisted that his poem had been intended as a sly jest at the expense of his friend and fellow poet. For Thomas had invariably fussed over irrevocable choices of the most minor sort made on daily walks with Frost in 1914, shortly before the writing of the poem. Later Frost insisted that in his case the line "And that has made all the difference"—taken straight—was all wrong. "Of course, it hasn't," he persisted, "it's just a poem, you know." In 1915, moreover, his sole intention was to twit Thomas. Living in Gloucestershire, writes Lawrance Thompson, Frost had frequently taken long countryside walks with Thomas.

Repeatedly Thomas would choose a route which might enable him to show his American friend a rare plant or a special vista; but it often happened that before the end of such a walk Thomas would regret the choice he had made and would sigh over what he might have shown Frost if they had taken a "better" direction. More than once, on such occasions, the New Englander had teased his Welsh-English friend for those wasted regrets. . . . Frost found something quaintly romantic in sighing over what might have been. Such a course of action was a road never taken by Frost, a road he had been taught to avoid.

If we are to believe Frost and his biographer, "The Road Not Taken" was intended to serve as Frost's gentle jest at Thomas's expense. But the poem might have had other targets. One such target was a text by another poet who in a different sense might also be considered a "friend": Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose poem, "My Lost Youth," had provided Frost with A Boy's Will, the title he chose for his first book.

"The Road Not Taken " can be placed against a passage in Longfellow's notebooks: "Round about what is, lies a whole mysterious world of might be,—a psychological romance of possibilities and things that do not happen. By going out a few minutes sooner or later, by stopping to speak with a friend at a corner, by meeting this man or that, or by turning down this street instead of the other, we may let slip some great occasion of good, or avoid some impending evil, by which the whole current of our lives would have been changed. There is no possible solution to the dark enigma but the one word, 'Providence.'"

Longfellow's tone in this passage is sober, even somber, and anticipates the same qualities in Edward Thomas, as Frost so clearly perceived. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant had insisted that Frost's dream encounter with his other self at a crossroads in the woods had a " subterranean connection " with the whole of "The Road Not Taken," especially with the poem's last lines:

I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

Undoubtedly. But whereas Longfellow had invoked Providence to account for acts performed and actions not taken, Frost calls attention only to the role of human choice. A second target was the notion that "whatever choice we make, we make at our peril." The words just quoted are Fitz-James Stephen's, but it is more important that Frost encountered them in William James's essay "The Will to Believe." In fact, James concludes his final paragraph on the topic: "We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? 'Be strong and of a good courage.' Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better." The danger inherent in decision, in this brave passage quoted with clear-cut approval by the teacher Frost "never had," does not playa part in "The Road Not Taken." Frost the "leaf-treader" will have none of it, though he will not refuse to make a choice. Nothing will happen to him through default. Nor, argues the poet, is it likely that anyone will melodramatically be dashed to pieces.

It is useful to see Frost's projected sigh as a nudging criticism of Thomas's characteristic regrets, to note that Frost's poem takes a sly poke at Longfellow's more generalized awe before the notion of what might have happened had it not been for the inexorable workings of Providence, and to see "The Road Not Taken" as a bravura tossing off of Fitz-James Stephen's mountainous and meteorological scenario. We can also project the poem against a poem by Emily Dickinson that Frost had encountered twenty years earlier in Poems, Second Series (1891).

Our journey had advanced; Our feet were almost come To that odd fork in Being's road, Eternity by term. Our pace took sudden awe, Our feet reluctant led. Before were cities, but between, The forest of the dead.

Retreat was out of hope,— Behind, a sealed route, Eternity's white flag before, And God at every gate.

Dickinson's poem is straightforwardly and orthodoxically religious. But it can be seen that beyond the "journey" metaphor Dickinson's poem employs diction—"road" and "forest"—that recalls "The Choice of the Two Paths" trope, the opening lines of the Inferno, and Frost's secular poem "The Road Not Taken."

From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.

George Montiero: On "Mending Wall"

"Mending Wall" is a meditative lyric that reports and assesses a dialogue between neighbors who have joined in the annual occupation of rebuilding the wall which separates their farms. Obviously antedating the farmers themselves, the old wall seems to serve no modern need. Has "walking the line" degenerated, the poet wonders, into bootless and vulgar ritual? Or are there fresh reasons, as yet unarticulated, for maintaining the wall? The poet's mischief—that impulse which urges him to needle his rather taciturn neighbor with this puckish question—acts to open things up.

Asked once about his intended meaning, Frost recast the question: "In my Mending Wall was my intention fulfilled with the characters portrayed and the atmosphere of the place?" Characteristically, he went on to answer obliquely.

I should be sorry if a single one of my poems stopped with either of those things—stopped anywhere in fact. My poems—I should suppose everybody's poems—are all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless. Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks carts chairs and such like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to fall forward over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in the dark. I may leave my toys in the wrong place and so in vain. It is my intention we are speaking of—my innate mischievousness.

No other poem in the Frost canon better illustrates his manner—as he described it—and his overall poetic intention. "Mending Wall" is constructed around the idea of mischief. The poet's mischief ultimately erects the verbal barrier that his neighbor is bullied into trying to surmount or withstand. "Why rebuild ancient walls?" is a question offered to trip the neighbor. But one of the surprises in "Mending Wall" is that the neighbor responds with a defense. He does not fall forward. He cannot be tripped into darkness—and a new outlook. Instead, threatened, he reaches into the past for support and comes up with his father's proverb: "Good fences make good neighbors." When we fail to recognize that the neighbor replies to the poet’s prodding with a proverb, we miss a good deal of Frost’s point.

Current in America as early as 1850, "Good fences make good neighbors" can be traced to the Spanish, "Una pared entre dos vezinos guarda mas (haze durar) la amistad," which goes back at least to the Middle Ages. In this form, Vicesimus Knox translated it for his compendium of Elegant Extracts in 1797, and in 1832 Emerson recorded it in his journal—"A wall between both, best preserves friendship." That Frost encountered the idea in Emerson’s published journals is probable, though it seems more likely that he found its precise expression elsewhere. For our purpose it is important that both Frost and Emerson were attracted to the same idea, suggesting an affinity of poetic temperament. "The sea, vocation, poverty, are seeming fences, but man is insular and cannot be touched." In senti ment this is vintage Frost, but Emerson made the remark.

Speech in proverbial form surfaces as the poem's final "wall." Since the proverb's message is sanctioned by tradition, the poet's neighbor can retreat to safety: Resorting to a proverb enables him, moreover, to have the last word in the exchange. The importance of what he chooses to say is exceeded by the import of how he has chosen to say it. Provoked into speech, the farmer hides behind a clinching proverb. Twice the proverb is offered to close the matter. Failing to understand the message the first time, the poet repeats his question. The neighbor employs his proverb to win his point, even as it is employed in some African tribes, for example, where participants are allowed to use proverbs in litigation.

What finally emerges from Frost's poem is the idea that the stock reply—unexamined wisdom from the past—seals off the possibility of further thought and communication. When thought has frozen into folk expression, language itself becomes another wall, one unresponsive to that which it encircles and given over to fulfilling a new and perhaps unintended function. Meeting once a year and insulated from anything beyond simple interaction by their well-defined duties and limits, these "good" neighbors turn out to be almost incommunicative.

It is difficult to ascertain Frost's full intent in linking "Mending Wall" with "The Tuft of Flowers." If the latter is about unexpected fellowship, then some interesting possibilities present themselves when it is paired with "Mending Wall." One way of stating the theme of "The Tuft of Flowers" is that even when a man works alone he works with others—but that is hardly the theme of "Mending Wall." On the contrary, in "Mending Wall" the poet discovers that, even when men work together, each of them works alone. "The Tuft of Flowers" also says that there can be communication without words, beyond physical presence and across time. But in "Mending Wall" we see that communication breaks down even as men converse: For Frost, "taking up a theme" did not at all entail dealing with it always in the same way. When we examine these linked poems in the light that each casts on the other, we find that their relationship really involves statement and counterstatement, or, put another way, theme and antitheme.

Yet if Frost could provide links between and among his poems to encourage the kind of cross-reading that he so much favored for poetry, he could also omit from his poems the kinds of links—in the form of pieces of information—that would show him plainly to be writing in many cases within a larger historical and mythic context. Such is the case with "Mending Wall," in which the poet deliberately withholds a piece of useful information.

"Who are bad neighbors?" asked Thoreau, for the sole purpose of answering his own question. "They who suffer their neighbors' cattle to go at large because they don't want their ill will,—are afraid to anger them. They are abettors of the ill- doers." Thoreau could as readily have asked, "Who are good neighbors?" Whereupon, following his reasoning, he could have answered, "Those who build and maintain walls which keep out their neighbors' cattle."

How, and indeed whether, the goodwill of one's neighbor is fostered by boundaries, however, was a general question that engaged Frost. Were walls and fences instrumental in the retention and renewal of human relationships? The answers presented in "Mending Wall" are somewhat less than clear-cut. The reason is at least partly that Frost has purposely and purposefully left out of his poem some important information. One key to the poet's omission lies in the final lines of the poem.

      I see him there, Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed. He moves in darkness as it seems to me, Not of woods only and the shade of trees. He will not go behind his father's saying, And he likes having thought of it so well He says again, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'

In these lines the poet moves back through time, no longer questioning the possible reasons for continuing annually to repair the now apparently useless boundaries, and returns to an earlier, darker age. Indeed, his neighbor seems to be moving in a "darkness" that is, suggestively, "not of woods only and the shade of trees." To the poet he is now "like an old-stone savage armed." Even on New England farms in this century the ways of the savage continue, it would seem, no matter how transformed they may be or how radically attenuated.

Indeed, Frost shrewdly and characteristically stopped his poem just short of a mythological link. That Frost and his neighbor engage in what is tantamount to a vestigial ritual and that, furthermore, prodded by the poet, the neighbor would defend his father's idea (proverbially expressed) that "Good fences make good neighbors" relates this poem to traditions and rituals antedating the Romans. The god of boundaries they named Terminus was not invented by the Romans, but he became one of their important household gods. Terminus was annually honored in a ritual that not only reaffirmed boundaries but also provided the occasion for predetermined traditional festivities among neighbors.

The festival of the Terminalia was celebrated in Rome and in the country on the 23rd of February. The neighbours on either side of any boundary gathered round the landmark [the stones which marked boundaries], with their wives, children, and servants; and crowned it, each on his own side, with garlands, and offered cakes and bloodless sacrifices. In later times, however, a lamb, or sucking pig, was sometimes slain, and the stone sprinkled with the blood. Lastly, the whole neighbourhood joined in a general feast.

If the poet's neighbor does not know that this annual ritual of walking the boundaries to repair their common wall has its obscure source in the all but totally lost mysteries of ancient man, that information could not possibly have been unknown to the serious student of the classics who wrote the poem and who had read in Walden of Thoreau's search for firewood: "An old forest fence which had seen its best days was a great haul for me. I sacrificed it to Vulcan, for it was past serving the god Terminus." What impresses itself on Frost, however, is something quite different. Whatever the reason, men continue to need marked boundaries, even when they find it difficult to justify their existence.

From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.

George Montiero: On "After Apple-Picking"

Several of Frost's finest poems through the years reflected his fascination with the myth of Adam and Eve and his preoccupation with the human consequences of their fall: what he called, in "Kitty Hawk," "Our instinctive venture / Into what they call / The material / When we took that fall / From the apple tree."

[. . . .]

In "After Apple- Picking" the matter is handled a bit differently. There the poet-farmer describes his concern regarding the "coming on" of sleep which will end his long day's labor. For he knows that troubled sleep and repetitive dreams, resulting directly from the daytime activity which has brought him to the harvest and the "wealth" he covets, are his meed. The remembered sensations of apple picking—the "bodily memories of the experience (what we farmers used to call kinesthetic images)"—will prevail in his sleep and will disturb his rest. In memory, but seemingly even stronger than memory, there will nag the "scent" of apples, the "sight" through the skimmed morning ice, the "ache" and "pressure" on the instep arch, the "hearing" of the "rumbling" from the cellar bin. "If you gather apples in the sunshine . . . and shut your eyes," wrote Emerson, "you shall still see apples hanging in the bright light." In sum, Frost knows not whether that sleep will be like the animal hibernation (the "long sleep") of the woodchuck or, as the poet puts it ironically, "just some human sleep."

The country details of "After Apple-Picking" only partly mask the poet's concern with the mythic consequences of the Fall. If Eve's curse, after she tasted of the fruit from the forbidden tree, was that she would "bring forth children," Adam's curse, after joining Eve in the risk, was that he would live henceforth by the "sweat" of his "face"—that is, he would sustain his life by his own labor. The irony beyond this curse is Frost's subject. Adam's curse was to labor, but another way of putting it is that Adam and his descendants were doomed to live within, and at the mercy of, the senses. Significantly, Frost defines the curse still further: man will not cease to labor even in rest.

In the very desire to profit from his long hours of work, the poet has made himself vulnerable, in a wry sense, to the dictum that "the sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much; but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep" (Ecclesiastes 5:12). The rub is that the poet is both laborer and "rich" man. He has the "great harvest" he desired; but he has labored long and faithfully in bringing about that harvest—certainly too long and possibly too faithfully to enable him to reap the reward of peaceful, untroubled rest that is promised to the diligent laborer.

The poem can be seen as an elaboration of Genesis: Adam's curse was not merely that he was doomed to live by the " sweat" of his "face" but also that the curse to labor would follow him into his rest and his dreams. Such, inevitably, is the way after apple picking—and such is the paradox of Adam's curse, even as it extends to the poet-farmer of New England.

But Thoreau had viewed man's curse in another way. "It is not necessary," he wrote in Walden, "that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do." Indeed, as he had written earlier in Walden, the problem was that "men labor under a mistake. . . . [for] the better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate" commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal." Behind Frost's poem, however, is the recognition of all that Thoreau says about man's misguided labors and bootless cupidity and, of course, in the person of the apple picker a tacit disregard of these injunctions from an "old book" and the new book that is Walden. Indeed, Frost's apple picker, "overtired / Of the great harvest" he has himself desired, has made the Thoreauvian mistake of being "so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. . . . the laboring man . . . has no time to be anything but a machine. . . . The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling." Something like Thoreau's admonitions, then, lies behind the uneasiness of Frost's apple picker's sleep ("One can see what will trouble / This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is").


From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.

George Monteiro: On "Birches"

SEVERAL TIMES in Robert Frost: A Living Voice, his account of the poet's talks at the Bread Loaf School of English, Reginald L. Cook quotes Frost's remarks on "Birches." Frost's words on one such occasion are given a context by Cook, who writes:

In spite of his deprecatory view of explication, Frost revealed a good deal about his art. When he disclosed his feeling about certain words in "Birches," he gave a searching insight into what makes a poet's use of descriptive words stand up. And how cavalierly he did it! He offered "this little note on 'Birches' before I begin to read it. See. The kind of explication I forbid," he said self-consciously. Then with disarming slyness, he said: "I never go down the shoreline [from Boston] to New York without watching the birches to see if they live up to what I say about them in the poem." Invariably the listener laughed, but on the double take he realized that Frost, the careful craftsman, was confirming his assertion that birches bend to left and right by verification. Getting details right was a telling responsibility. His birches, he insisted, were not the white mountain or paper birch of northern New England (Betula papyrifera); they were the gray birch (Betula populifolia).

[. . . .]

The way in which Robert Frost came to write "Birches" is described by Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant: "As for the poet, 'who never saw New England as clearly as when he was in Old England,' he could not tie down his creative moments. It was about this time, early in 1914, while tramping the muddy yard at the Bungalow [West Midlands], that he suddenly; he says, wrote a new poem, not to be included in North of Boston. This was the now so famous and beloved 'Birches,' with its cold and crystal memories of another kind of wintry world." As this account suggests, Frost's poem might have reflected pure, almost spontaneous invention, but if so, it was stimulated by memories of boyhood experiences of winter and summer in northern New England and sharpened by the perspective of the poet's self-imposed exile. What I would suggest, however, is that in "Birches," even though Frost saw New England most clearly when he was in Old England, he re-viewed his wintry New England scene through Thoreauvian eyes.

On December 31, 1852, a day of rain and ice in Concord, Thoreau wrote in his Journals with keen anticipation: "It is a sort of frozen rain this afternoon, which does not wet one, but makes the still bare ground slippery with a coating of ice, and stiffens your umbrella so that it cannot be shut. Will not the trees look finely in the morning?" For the next few days Thoreau described the storm's "fine" effects upon the landscape. On the first day of the new year he observed: "This morning we have something between ice and frost on the trees. . . . What a crash of jewels as you walk! . . . The drooping birches along the edges of woods are the most feathery; fairy-like ostrich plumes of the trees, and the color of their trunks increases the delusion" (436-38). The next day Thoreau continued his report:

In this clear air and bright sunlight, the ice-covered trees have a new beauty, especially the birches . . . , bent quite to the ground in every kind of curve. At a distance, as you are approaching them endwise, they look like white tents of Indians under the edge ofthe wood. The birch is thus remarkable, perhaps, because from the feathery form of the tree, whose numerous small branches sustain so great a weight, bending it to the ground, and moreover because, from the color of the bark, the core is less observable. The oaks not only are less pliant in the trunk, but have fewer and stiffer twigs and branches. The birches droop over in all directions, like ostrich-feathers. [440]

Thoreau's description anticipates Frost's handling of imagery. But Thoreau's entry the next day offers an interesting variation on Frost's poem. He begins by recording that day's response to the observable beauty which can be attributed to nature's transforming and creative powers and then speculates on the comparative merits of man and nature. The first paragraph is largely descriptive of this "finest show of ice" (444): "Nothing dark met the eye, but a silvery sheen, precisely as if the whole tree—trunk, boughs, and twigs—were converted into burnished silver. You exclaimed at every hedgerow. Sometimes a clump of birches £ell over every way in graceful ostrich-plumes, all raying from one centre. . . . Suddenly all is converted to crystal. The world is a crystal palace" (445).

The next paragraph, however, moves into a new key. Stimulated by his last attempt at describing ice-laden birches, Thoreau ruminates:

I love Nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control or pervade her. There a different kind of right prevails. In her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness. If this world were all man, I could not stretch myself, I should lose all hope. He is constraint, she is freedom to me. He makes me wish for another world. She makes me content with this. . . .

Man, man is the devil,

The source of evil . . . .

I have a room all to myself; it is nature. It is a place beyond the jurisdiction of human governments. . . . There are two worlds, the post-office and nature. I know them both. I continually forget mankind and their institutions, as I do a bank. [445-46]

The conjunction of Thoreau's celebration of winter birches and his buoyant homily on man's inferiority to nature may be compared with Frost's similar conjunction of themes in "Birches." If man makes Thoreau "wish for another world " but nature makes him "content with this," to Frost it is when life most resembles nature—when "life is too much like a pathless wood"—that the poet would "like to get away from earth awhile." Frost would "climb black branches up a snow-white trunk / Toward heaven," but he would come back, he quickly decides, for "Earth's the right place for love." Thoreau would undoubtedly endorse Frost's aphorism. But their initial agreement would evaporate, I suspect, if each were to explain precisely what he took the statement to mean. While Thoreau would most characteristically focus on love of nature, Frost would just as readily assert the claim of man's fundamental love for man. The distinction is notable.

In the Journal passages that I have quoted above, Thoreau (for the moment read "man") appears almost exclusively as an observer, never as a participant beyond the act of perception. It is as if in nature's pure realm man's existence were suspended. Whenever Thoreau does tell in these entries what men are doing, or what they have done, he invariably does so to admonish them. Consequently, when he "climb[s] the bank at Stow's wood-lot and come[s] upon the piles of freshly split white pine wood," he does not compliment the worker for his labor, as one might expect, but decides, rather, that the owner of the woodlot is "ruthlessly laying it waste" (441). And in the same entry, a page or so later, he comments on the ringing of bells: "The bells are particularly sweet this morning. I hear more, methinks, than ever before. How much more religion in their sound, than they ever call men together to! Men obey their call and go to the stove-warmed church, though God exhibits himself to the walker in a frosted bush today as much as in a burning one to Moses of old" (443). Even when man does something well (after all, bells are a human invention), he is singularly capable of misinterpreting his own message and betraying his most noble purposes. For Thoreau the beauty and divinity which exist at this moment are in the glazed birch and the frosted bush. They are most certainly not in men. Nature and nature's workings are at the center of creation. In these pages Thoreau reserves his approval for the landscape transformed by ice and snow and the few men who make an appearance intrude momentarily along nature's periphery.

In Frost's poem, however, values are weighted somewhat differently. Its first twenty lines are largely devoted to a description of the effect ice-storms have on birches:

[quotes ll. 1-20]

The details in these lines are precise and deceptively neutral. The entire passage contains nothing to suggest that nature is superior (or inferior) to man, nor are we to infer that the two are equal. As description these lines exemplify what Frost calls the "matter-of-fact" of "Truth." But Frost does not stop with the conclusion that ice storms, and not swinging boys, are the cause of birches bent "down to stay." He approaches, finally the idea that man's acts upon nature have their own meaning and beauty: approvingly Frost decides that, given a choice, he "should prefer to have some boy bend" birches. In the midst of swinging, boys are not observers of nature; they actually collaborate with nature by taking the "stiffness" out of birches. Frost would have a bent tree signify that some boy swinging from earth, has gone beyond that "pathless wood / Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs / Broken across it." "Birches" suggests that nature's beauty is somehow enhanced when man has worked an effect upon nature. In this sense Frost's poem may stand as a qualified reply to Thoreau's recurrent strain of illimitable nature worship.

Of course there is another side to Thoreau with which "Birches" does not conflict. A Thoreau more congenial to Frost appears in a Journal entry six months before the notable ice storm of December 31, 1852. He writes: "Nature must be viewed humanly to be viewed at all; that is, her scenes must be associated with humane affections, such as are associated with one's native place, for instance. She is most significant to a lover. A lover of Nature is preeminently a lover of man. If I have no friend, what is Nature to me? She ceases to be morally significant" (163). For Thoreau this kind of bravely humanistic sentiment welled forth most clearly on an early summer's day. The dead of winter, we have seen, could evoke other feelings. But Frost's humanism became a harder, more durable thing in its midwinter setting of ice and snow.

As late as August 1919, in a list of poems that his friend John T Bartlett might like to read, Frost recommended "Swinging Birches." In some ways it is unfortunate that Frost stopped calling the poem by this title. I say unfortunate because the activity at the heart of the poem—the activity that generates whatever cohesion the poem has—is the boy's swinging of birches and the poet's ruminations on the possibility that the birches he sees have been bent by boys at play. He would like to think that such is the case. But since liking to think does not make it so, the poet turns to the more likely reason, the permanent bending of birches by ice storms.

You may see their trunks arching in the woods

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

Then, interrupting this train of thought—this "matter-of-fact" "Truth"—he returns to a consideration of the notion that by "swinging" them boys also bend trees (though not permanently, as ice storms do).

I should prefer to have some boy bend them

As he went out and in to fetch the cows—

Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,

Whose only play was what he found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.

Here the poem shifts into a generalized description, a semi-dramatic account of the way such a boy proceeds:

[quotes ll. 28-40]

At this point the poet acknowledges that he, too, was once "a swinger of birches," and he admits that even now he dreams of being one again. When does he have such dreams?

It's when I'm weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face bums and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig's having lashed across it open.

To what sort of boyhood pleasure would the adult poet like to return? Quite simply; it is the pleasure of onanism. We do not need either Erica Jong or John Updike to remind us that "flying" is often a dream or linguistic substitute for sexual activity. But we do need to be reminded that "early orgasms at puberty induced by friction against a tree trunk" are "not an uncommon experience," to quote from a writer commenting on the following passage from the early diaries of James Boswell: "Already (age 12-13) in climbing trees, pleasure. Could not conceive what it was. Thought of heaven. Returned often, climbed, felt, allowed myself to fall from high branches in ecstasy—all natural. Spoke of it to the gardener. He, rigid, did not explain."

If physiologically there is some sort of pubescent sexuality taking place in the "swinging" of "birches," it is not surprising, then, that the boy has "subdued his father's trees" by "riding them down over and over again" until "not one was left for him to conquer" and that the orgasmic activity should be likened to "riding," which despite the "conquering" can be done time and again. One need only note that the notion of "riding," already figurative in "Birches," reappears metaphorically in Frost's conception of "Education by Poetry," wherein he writes: "Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don't know . . . how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you." And what is true for metaphor and poetry is true for love. Frost insisted that a poem "run . . . from delight to wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting." Then it is totally appropriate within the metaphor of "swinging birches" that even the storm-bent trees should look to the adult male like "girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads to dry in the sun." No wonder, then, and fully appropriate it is, that when the poet thinks that his wish to get away from earth might by some fate be misunderstood such that he be snatched away never to return, his thought is that "Earth's the right place vor love." At some level of his consciousness the pleasurable activity of "swinging birches" has transformed itself into the more encompassing term "love." One might say, within the logic of this reading of the poem, that "Earth's the right place for [sexual] love," including onanistic love. The same sexual metaphor runs through the final lines of the poem as the mature poet thinks of how he would like to go but only to come back.

[quotes ll. 54-59]

From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.