"Two Tramps in Mudtime" opens in early spring when (as in "The Ax-Helve") the speaker is interrupted while chopping wood. Two intimidating tramps want to "take"--not do--the job for pay. Frost then shifts away from the main subject, as he often does, to a brilliant description of the treacherous New England spring, which suddenly changes from May to March. He returns, three stanzas later, to describe the intense pleasure he takes in physical labor and to consider the demands of the tramps. They are professional lumberjacks, who have left the forest and chosen not to work, and therefore have no pressing claim on his charity. The argument finally comes down to the speaker's love of work against their need of work for gain. He concedes that they have the better right, but the "But" that begins the final stanza suggests that his point of view will prevail. Using a daring Metaphysical conceit (like Donne's "twin compasses" in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning"), he says his aim in life is to write poetry and chop wood, just as his two eyes focus into single sight. Though it would be socially beneficial to give employment to the tramps, Frost believes--since the physical pleasure of chopping wood while observing the hesitant coming of spring is absolutely essential to the creation of his poetry--that his personal needs are paramount. The speaker looks after Number One rather than Number Two. As he told Untermeyer, he was brought up to think of self-preservation as a virtue, not an instinct. Just as "The Lone Striker" disappoints Left-wing expectations by advocating an individual's flight from industrial disputes rather than workers' solidarity and communal effort, so "Two Tramps in Mudtime" resists the liberal impulse and sends the tramps back into the mud instead of responding to their urgent but unspoken demand for money. As the speaker cunningly says when describing the spring, the lurking frost will show its crystal teeth.
From Robert Frost: A Biography. Copyright © 1996 by Jeffrey Meyers.