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Perhaps the most haunting poem in Mountain Interval is "An Old Man’s Winter Night," a poem about an old man dying in the wintry climate of New England and alone: "All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him / Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars." The poem meditates implicitly on the human condition as a whole, though it remains neatly, even maniacally, focused on the single old man here who "stood with barrels round him -- at a loss." The old man is somehow made to bear the weight of all human loneliness, even though "a light he was to no one but himself / Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what, / A quiet light, and then not even that." The man’s inner light, as it were, goes out as he sleeps; there is nothing left but the glimmer in the woodstove and the pale moonlight. The poem ends with a handful of deeply haunting lines:

One aged man -- one man -- can't keep a house, A farm, a countryside, or if he can, It’s thus he does it of a winter's night.

The word "keep" is central here, as elsewhere in Frost, carrying a freight of ambiguous meanings. The word's original denotation, in the Anglo-Saxon, is "to hold, to seize." By implication, a person’s duty in life is to bear witness (as in the title of a late volume by Frost, A Witness Tree ), to maintain a vigil. Frost's poet is a hermit who nonetheless lets his light shine, keeps the faith, holds steady against the chaos of the universe.


From "Robert Frost" in The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Copyright © 1993 by The Columbia University Press.