Robert Frost’s “The Subverted Flower”


She drew back; he was calm:
‘It is this that had the power.’
And he lashed his open palm
With the tender-headed flower.
He smiled for her to smile,
But she was either blind
Or willfully unkind.
He eyed her for a while
For a woman and a puzzle.
He flicked and flung the flower,
And another sort of smile
Caught up like fingertips
The corners of his lips
And cracked his ragged muzzle.
She was standing to the waist
In goldenrod and brake,
Her shining hair displaced.
He stretched her either arm
As if she made it ache
To clasp her – not to harm;
As if he could not spare
To touch her neck and hair.
‘If this has come to us
And not to me alone -‘
So she thought she heard him say;
Though with every word he spoke
His lips were sucked and blown
And the effort made him choke
Like a tiger at a bone.
She had to lean away.
She dared not stir a foot,
Lest movement should provoke
The demon of pursuit
That slumbers in a brute.
It was then her mother’s call
From inside the garden wall
Made her steal a look of fear
To see if he could hear
And would pounce to end it all
Before her mother came.
She looked and saw the shame:
A hand hung like a paw,
An arm worked like a saw
As if to be persuasive,
An ingratiating laugh
That cut the snout in half,
And eye become evasive.
A girl could only see
That a flower had marred a man,
But what she could not see
Was that the flower might be
Other than base and fetid:
That the flower had done but part,
And what the flower began
Her own too meager heart
Had terribly completed.
She looked and saw the worst.
And the dog or what it was,
Obeying bestial laws,
A coward save at night,
Turned from the place and ran.
She heard him stumble first
And use his hands in flight.
She heard him bark outright.
And oh, for one so young
The bitter words she spit
Like some tenacious bit
That will not leave the tongue.
She plucked her lips for it,
And still the horror clung.
Her mother wiped the foam
From her chin, picked up her comb,
And drew her backward home.


This poem puzzles me in a number of ways, and that’s probably because, as far as the poem goes, the reader isn’t quite sure what to make of either protagonist. On the one hand, the boy, or man, frostis transformed into a beast with a “ragged muzzle”, “a hand hung like a paw”, and “a coward save at night”. On the other, Frost goes on warn us that this is how the girl, or woman, sees him (and perhaps not how we should see him): “…what the flower began/ Her own too meager heart/ Had terribly completed. / She looked and saw the worst.”

On the subject of their age, I notice while reading what others have written, that the protagonists are frequently referred to as a man and a woman. Judith Oster, in her essay Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor, chooses to read the poem as an inexperienced girl and boy (seemingly ignoring the narrator’s own description of the “boy” as a “marred man”). Frost, though, makes a point of at least the girl’s youth, referring to her as “one so young”. I read that as meaning that she’s rightly called a girl. Usually when we refer to a teen-aged girl we refer to her as just that—a teen-aged girland not a teen-aged woman. So I’m going to refer to her as a girl, probably in her mid teens. Not too young for a boy or man’s (if we consider an eighteen or nineteen year old a man let’s say) amorous and physical affections.

Frost writes that “He eyed her for a while / For a woman”, but there’s hedging in that statement. “For a woman” suggests that maybe she really wasn’t. He wants to see her that way, he “eyed” her that way, but as the poem later suggests: she’s either not old enough to be eyed that way or she herself, if old enough, is too naive or immature. Both are suggested by the line: “A girl could only see/ That a flower had marred a man…” In other words, a woman might have understood, might have seen otherwise, but a girl could only see “a marred man”. So, my reading of their ages is that she’s probably younger than him in age, or at least younger than him in maturity and experience—or both.

  • Frost’s own statement concerning the poem suggests an autobiographical element. That doesn’t mean he was portraying himself and Elinor (his wife), only that the poem might have been inspired by something, at some time, in their relationship. However, if one is going to argue that the poem is strictly autobiographical (which I wouldn’t), then Elinor and Robert would have been the same age.

Another cautionary thought would be this: be careful not to anachronistically appraise their relationship (such as it was or wasn’t). Liaisons between, say, a twenty year old “man” and a teen-aged “girl” were not considered grounds for statutory rape. On the other hand, while courting at this age was permissible, it was strictly proscribed. There might have been petting, if the couple was discreet in the extreme, but anything more could lead to considerable scandal, pregnancy and a shotgun wedding. So, my point would be: Don’t assume that the man was looking for sex. At the time Frost wrote this, and from the “girl’s” point of view, simply expecting a kiss (and a copped feel) might have been tantamount to sex (by her standards). Bottom line: don’t assume that the man was trying to “rape” the girl. That interpretation is available, but I would be wary of making it.

And that brings me to Frost’s own comment on the poem. I don’t think he would have made it if he had thought of the man as a potential rapist. In a 1960 Paris Review Interview he had this to say:


[….}Another neglected poem, and an especially good one, is “Putting In the Seed.”


That’s—sure. They leave that sort of thing out; they overlook that sort of thing with me. The only person ever noticed that was a hearty old friend of mine down at the University of Pennsylvania, Cornelius Weygandt*. He said, “I know what that’s about.”


Do you ever read that poem in public?


No, I don’t bother with those. No, there are certain ones. I wouldn’t read “The Subverted Flower” to anybody outside. It isn’t that I’m afraid of them, but I don’t want them out. I’m shy about certain things in my books, they’re more—I’d rather they’d be read. A woman asked me, “What do you mean by that ‘subverted flower’?” I said, “Frigidity in women.” She left.

So, if the point of the poem was to portray the man as a predator and the girl as a victim of sexual predation, then it strikes me as very unlikely (to put it mildly) that Frost would have characterized the poem’s subject (and by extension the girl’s behavior) as “frigidity”.  Does this mean it’s all the girl’s fault?

Many readers have been content to perceive the man just as the girl perceives him—a depraved rapist in the making (seemingly ignoring the poem’s own warning). But the poem, like many of Frost’s best, is a Rorschach test. Readers tend to read it in their own image. For example, if you do a search for “Subverted Flower” on the internet, one of the links cited will be a Masters Degree thesis written in 1958 by a John Thomas Trahey. Interestingly, Trahey’s Master’s Thesis was written while Frost still lived and before Frost’s comment in the Paris Interview:

The poem “The Subverted Flower” is an instance of what Frost thinks of men who try to lead others into sexual sins. In the poem an adolescent boy tries to lead an adolescent girl into fornication. It is interesting to note that Frost keeps referring to the boy as if in his sexual habits he were a dog. It is evident Frost despises this sort of thing as fit only for brutes… [Trahey p. 32]

The PDF’s introductory notes reveal that Trahey attended St. Ingatius High School,  then went on to the Milford Novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Milford, Ohio, and then the Jesuit Philosophate at West Baden College. Notice a trend? Trahey was primed, by a rather religious environment, to read Frost’s poem as an indictment of “sexual sin”. Trahey was entirely wrong about “what Frost thinks” and utterly missed Frost’s warning, but it’s interesting in that it reflects a not uncommon reading of the poem.

But what about the opposite reading. Is it all the girl’s fault? It might be a little unfortunate that Frost commented on the poem. Yeats always refused to do so and Frost was normally cagey or took a mischievous delight in leading readers down the primrose path. I take Frost at his word though; but I’d assert that his comment doesn’t make the man any less ambiguous.  The girl may be frigid, but I don’t think Frost means us to discount her perception of the man as a kind of inarticulate brute.

Lines 1-4

She drew | back; he | was calm:
“It is this | that had | the power.”
And he lashed| his o|pen palm
With the ten| der-hea|ded flower.

The underlying meter of the poem is iambic trimeter though the opening quatrain isn’t regular enough to establish it. There are too many variant feet. I read the first two feet of the first line as spondees. The next three lines begin with anapests. The reader’s ear has nowhere to land. At this point in his career Frost had already proven that he could write perfect iambics and had shown a willingness to run the colloquial expression against the grain of the meter. The effect of the unsettled meter could also be understood as underscoring the unsettled drama and emotions that open the poem. That is, the reader finds themselves in the middle of something that is already underway.

The girl draws back. The man lashes his open palm with the tender-headed flower. What has happened?

My own reading is that the girl has just given the flower to the man but something he’s done and/or said makes her ‘draw back’. We find ourselves in the middle of an argument. He says to her, as if in answer to a question or accusation: “It is this that had the power”. We can’t be certain that he’s referring to the flower, but it’s hard to not draw that conclusion.

What does he mean?

The use of the word power in reference to the flower (or any flower) is a strange collocation. The power of the flower is obviously symbolic.  One might imagine that the girl asked: “What changed you?” Her erstwhile harmless companion is unrecognizable. To which the man answers: “It is this that had the power”. The flower was a kind of invitation and, like the petals of the flower, suggested an opening and awakening. But it’s evident that he has entirely misread the girl’s intentions. She, like the flower, is tender-headed; and his all too masculine eagerness and impulsiveness is destructive. He lashes it in his open palm, a likely metaphor for the insensibility of his sexual impulses. In these four lines, then, the entirety of the poem is captured.

Lines 5-14

He smiled | for her | to smile,
But she | was ei|ther blind
Or will|fully |unkind.
He eyed |her for |a while
For a wo|man and |a puzzle.
He flicked |and flung |the flower,
And ano|ther sort |of smile
Caught up |like fing|ertips
The cor|ners of |his lips
And cracked |his rag|ged muzzle.

The next 10 lines reveal the man’s own confusion, then  a kind of resolve. A hostile confrontation isn’t what the man intended. He smiles for her to smile, but she is either blind or willfully unkind. The fault seems to lie with the girl. Or does it? I think the lines are best understood not as reflecting the narrator’s observations but those of the protagonist. It’s the man who is confused and concludes that she’s either ignorant (blind is an accusatory description—as though she ought to know) or malicious (willfully unkind). It doesn’t seem to occur to him that she might be too young or inexperienced, or that her interests might not be sexual. He eyes for a woman; and for that reason, perhaps, as a puzzle. In other words: What did she mean by giving him a flower if it wasn’t an overture? If a girl gives a man a flower, there’s no confusion, but if a woman does so?

He flicked and flung the flower,
And another sort of smile [caught up his lips]…

A decision is made. He might have apologized, but instead, as I read it, he concludes that she’s simply naive or innocent. He can forgive innocence. He doesn’t eye her as a woman any more, but as a girl. And he’ll explain himself. The narrator takes us in and out of both their perceptions. She sees his smile as one “caught up like fingertips”—false, deceptive and disingenuous—transformed into a ragged muzzle. He, on the other hand, sees her not as a woman, but as a girl:

She was stan|ding to| the waist
In gol|denrod |and brake,
Her shi|ning hair |displaced.

He sees in her the very picture of innocence. Only by her hair being “displaced”do we know that something is awry. This is not a perfect picture.

Lines 18-29

He stretched |her ei|ther arm
As if |she made |it ache
To clasp |her – not |to harm;
As if |he could |not spare
To touch |her neck |and hair.
“If this |has come| to us
And not |to me| alone -”
So she thought |she heard| him say;
Though with ev|ery word |he spoke
His lips |were sucked |and blown
And the ef|fort made| him choke
Like a ti|ger at |a bone.

He ‘stretches her either arm’, and by this I think the narrator means that he’s taken her hands in his (having just flicked the flower away). In a sense, he means to to trade one tender-headed flower for another, but the girl isn’t so tender-headed as to miss the meaning in the flicked and flung flower. She won’t be the next one flicked and flung aside. Her perception of the man continues to disfigure him. If the man’s intention is to awaken her (or possibly seduce) and by this means make of her a woman, the effort both succeeds and backfires. That is, the woman she’s becoming isn’t the woman he intended.

He holds her hands, stretching her arms, when what he really wants is “to touch her neck and hair”. He then makes the somewhat opaque comment: “If this has come to us/And not to me alone -” Which I read as meaning: ‘If our affection is mutual, and not mine alone -‘ But even here we can’t be sure: this is only what she thought ‘she heard him say’. The interaction falls further and further into ambiguity.  Her perception of him continues to transform him into a kind of Caliban-like beast, only half-capable of speech—an effort at dignity that makes him choke “like a tiger at a bone.”

Lines 30-34

She had| to lean| away.
She dared |not stir| a foot,
Lest move|ment should| provoke
The dem|on of |pursuit
That slum|bers in |a brute.

She freezes, and the psychological astuteness of Frost’s writing holds its own into the 21rst century. Consider the following Washington Post article:

…if the fear circuitry perceives escape as impossible and resistance as futile, then not fight or flight, but extreme survival reflexes (which scientists call “animal defense responses”) will take over. These can activate automatically when the body is in a predator’s grip – and when, as half of rape victims report, we fear death or serious injury. ¶ One such response is tonic immobility. In freezing, brain and body are primed for action. But in tonic immobility, the body is literally paralyzed by fear – unable to move, speak, or cry out.

What Frost is describing is a reaction that is pertinent to our modern day discussions of rape and sexual abuse. Again, none of this to say that Frost intended us to read the poem as attempted rape (or that the girl was truly in that kind of danger). It is to say, though, that this is how the girl felt; and that Frost beautifully captures it. She had to lean away, but she didn’t. She was too afraid.

Lines 35-40

It was then |her mo|ther’s call
From inside| the gar|den wall
Made her steal| a look| of fear
To see |if he| could hear
And would pounce| to end| it all
Before |her mo|ther came.

That her mother is so close by doesn’t mean she isn’t (or couldn’t be) in danger, but does suggest that her fears (and reaction) might be disproportionate. That her mother is calling also suggests her youth.

Lines 41-49

She looked| and saw| the shame:
A hand |hung like| a paw,
An arm |worked like |a saw
As if |to be| persuasive,
An ingra|tia|ting laugh
That cut |the snout| in half,
And eye| become |evasive.
A girl |could on|ly see
That a flower| had marred| a man,

These next lines place us fully in the girl’s realm of perception. “She looked and saw the shame”, but whether it’s really ‘shame’ or simply disappointment (or some other emotion) is left to the reader to decide. The poem is nothing if not a reenactment of wrong assessment, misreading and misunderstanding. Frost may let us into the minds of the protagonists, but only to reveal their mutual confusion. The girl, after all, has fully transmogrified the man. He’s a brute now—a beast whose hand hangs like a paw. The reference to his arm working like a saw is an unmistakable reference to masturbation. Is he really?  She may perceive it that way but I think it’s more likely gestures her to follow him. That said, her interpretation, and his ultimate intention, may not be that far from the mark. But what of it? I think it was Oscar Wilde who said: “There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who masturbate and those who lie about it.”

And what harm in sexual pleasure (which doesn’t have to imply intercourse)?  It’s at this juncture that Frost’s own comment on the poem is either considered or ignored. Contrary to John Trahey’s assertion, that the poem ” is an instance of what Frost thinks of men who try to lead others into sexual sins”, Frost’s own judgment is that she’s being “frigid”, defined as: “sexually unresponsive; “was cold to his advances”; “a frigid woman”. This would suggest that Frost (as opposed to the narrator) isn’t entirely sympathetic with the girl.

But setting Frost’s own comment aside, the line suggests that the girl herself isn’t unfamiliar with masturbation. Why else make the observation that his hand “worked like a saw”? She could have simply said that he gestured her to follow. She doesn’t. She seems to compare it to masturbation. A reader might fairly conclude she isn’t altogether as innocent as appearances suggest. If this adds another layer of confusion to the poem (and we, as readers, like to ultimately know one way or the other) so be it. Sometimes in sexual matters like these, there’s no pat answer. Is he/she right? Wrong? Who’s to blame? Maybe both. Maybe neither. Then as now, questions of rape, responsibility and consent remain difficult to sort out.

The narrator remarks: “A girl could only see/That a flower had marred a man…” suggesting that a woman might have understood the gesture, might have seen otherwise. The lines also suggest that there was another way she might have “seen him”, as other than a “marred man”. The narrator continues:

Line 50-56

But what |she could| not see
Was that |the flower |might be
Other |than base |and fetid:
That the flower| had done| but part,
And what |the flower| began
Her own |too mea|ger heart
Had ter|ribly |completed.

The narrator suggests the girl had other options and by doing so the reader is invited to conclude that the misunderstanding (the fault) is the girl’s. A feminist critique might fairly argue that there’s implicit misogyny in that assertion, though misogyny might not be the right word. Entitlement? Why should the man be entitled to the girl’s sexual favors? Why shouldn’t it be within her rights to reject him? What other options did she have? Was there some middle ground?

Lines 57-68

She looked |and saw| the worst.
And the dog |or what| it was,
Obey|ing best|ial laws,
A cow|ard save| at night,
Turned from| the place| and ran.
She heard| him stum|ble first
And use |his hands| in flight.
She heard |him bark| outright.
And oh, |for one| so young
The bit|ter words |she spit
Like some| tena|cious bit
That will |not leave| the tongue.

All we know as that she looked and “saw the worst”. The man/dog, provoked by sexual interest is doing nothing more than “obeying bestial laws”. If there’s any autobiography in the poem, I find it here. If nothing else about the poem is autobiographical, the contemptuous accusation that a man’s interest in sex is nothing more than “obeying bestial laws” has the ring of truth, of a real accusation likely to be made when one partner’s sexual desire exceeds the others. After a time, the incessant demand for sex can feel like “pawing”.  We’ll never know, but it’s likely (in my opinion only) that Frost’s sexual appetite exceeded Elinor’s. And I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point she was fed up with him. To be fair there was the added complication of pregnancy. There weren’t birth control pills. Elinor had already had four children, wasn’t exactly living an easy life, and probably wasn’t game to risk another pregnancy for the sake of Mr. Robert Frost. More generally, the poem could also reflect a lifelong difference in their attitudes toward and desire for sex, beginning when they were first courting; and Frost may have vented some of that frustration in the poem. If so, was it fair to call her frigid? Maybe. Maybe not. If Elinor had written the poem though, the conclusion might have been a little different.

  • The likelihood that Frost’s sexual desires exceeded his wife’s finds some backing in the biography of Lawrence Thompson. In his book, Robert Frost Handbook, by Pittman B. Potter, Potter writes: “We should not be surprised to learn that the poem reflects an episode in Frost’s early courtship of Elinor White. Thompson has shown that their relationship was seriously disturbed by Elinor’s very shy reaction to Frost’s physical passion, and Frost’s resentment reflects itself in the subtle slanting here in the boy’s favor.” [p. 63]

The lines “obeying bestial laws,/ A coward save at night…” once again hints at masturbation and the girl’s own dark familiarity with it’s pleasures and its “cowardice”. And it’s at this turn that the girl’s own transformation begins, when she “for one so young” spits the words that will not “leave her tongue”. Like her suitor, she’s also transformed into a Caliban-like beast only half-able to speak. And it’s this moment that’s the most fascinating and revealing in the poem. Not only is he transformed into a beast by his misapprehension and herse, but the girl too. Her own sexual energy, like the flower, is subverted, channeled into divisiveness rather than union, contempt rather than acceptance, hatred rather than love. Subvert has the meaning: “To pervert, as the mind, and turn it from the truth; to corrupt; to confound.” The girl’s sexuality is turned upside down and made as bestial as his.

Line 69-73

She plucked| her lips |for it,
And still |the hor|ror clung.
Her mo|ther wiped| the foam
From her chin,| picked up| her comb,
And drew |her back|ward home.

Her mouth foams, and the reader might be reminded of a rabid dog. While one dog runs away, the other dog barks, foaming at the mouth. Both lovers are metamorphosed by the subversion of the flower. One might assert that because she refuses to be the flower, the man is transformed into a beast, but I think this ignores the girl’s own culpability and transformation. She may be young, but the narration more than suggests that she’s not entirely innocent.

And while all the lines offer moments of revelation, the last is the most suggestive. The girl must be drawn “backward” home. She doesn’t flee when given the chance. Her own sexuality, albeit subverted, is awakened and as engaged as the man’s, compelled by the same bestial laws and as drawn to the engagement (despite her foaming denial). Her mother’s forceful intervention draws her home but the girl won’t be disengaged. The flower’s “power”—sexual awakening—as inevitably draws and overwhelms the girl as it does the man.

“The mother’s call had issued from the safe domestic world—”From inside he garden wall”—and she is taken back out of threateningly sexualized nature and into that refuge at the poem’s end. [….] ¶ [But] to be drawn is not to be dragged, and yet “backward” shows no great willingness. The poem ends with a subtle variation on where it began: “She drew back; he was calm.” Now, she must be drawn back, and all sense of calm has gone, to be replaced by a fallen “comb” which is a symbol of the struggle.” [p. 373]

That the mother wipes the girl’s chin and picks up her comb suggests the mother’s infantilizing. The comb might be understood as the girl’s girlhood. The girl’s hair, that has been ‘displaced’ by her sexual encounter with the man, will be straightened. In other words, the infantilizing comb, which has been tellingly forgotten by the girl, will comb out and remove (presumably by the mother) any record of the encounter.

Fairly or unfairly, the narrator portrays the girl as not just condemning the man’s/boy’s sexual advances, but also condemning her own (this through her suggested knowledge of masturbation and sexual desire).  The tragedy is that rather than elevating them both, they’re both metamorphosed into something bestial—the subversion of what should be good and beautiful.

  • A note on the rhyme: I may return to this post to discuss the rhyme scheme, which isn’t regular but masterfully handled. The rhymes of puzzle and muzzle are beautifully handled in the sense that muzzle follows only after several lines. The reader subliminally waits and when muzzle does appear it’s all the more effective. Also worth noticing is the rhyme of the last three lines, a way to conclude the poem and bring it to a more final stop. (Elizabethan playwrights would sometimes use a concluding couplet to signal the end of a speech.) As in After Apple Picking, the rhyme scheme’s irregularity allows Frost to deploy them in a way that adds emphasis to the narration.  The meter, as mentioned above, is Iambic Trimeter varied, principally, by anapestic first feet and feminine endings.

And  that, for now, is that. Let me know if you enjoyed or have questions.

From Snow to Snow

Last week I picked up a small book for my little Robert Frost collection:

The first photo is a little blurry. Sorry ’bout that. Found it at an antique store and couldn’t resist. Never even knew it existed. If you, like me, uselessly collect books (like this one) for no reason whatsoever, more copies at a (for now) reasonable price, can be had at Amazon. That old folding rule belonged to my grandfather. He was a Physician rather than a builder, but had a few, little, nice tools that I still use. Makes me think maybe I oughtta’ put together a little collection of my own poems like this.

Poets don’t improve…

“As I tell in the entry for October 22, 1952, he had asked me what I had been doing and I said I had been trying to make my poems better. Disdainfully he asserted that poets don’t improve, they only change. A poem must be written in one impulse, at one sitting, like a piece of ice on a hot stove that rides on its own melting. But a moment later he admitted that it had taken Grey eighteen years to complete his Elegy. I think Frost, if put in a corner, would concede that spontaneity sometimes has to be labored for.” [p. 85]

I laughed because I didn’t originally read this in terms of a poet improving or changing a given poem, but as a sardonic comment on their overall development.  I think there’s something to be said for that misinterpretation. The great poets (along with the mediocre) seem to be born with something that doesn’t improve, but only changes—and that invites a withering debate as to what we mean by change and improve. I won’t go there. Truth gets blurred in generalities, and I think it’s okay to enjoy the truth a little blurred. Certainly, the sly critique could be applied to a whole generation of poets who haven’t so much improved poetry, as changed it. I suspect the ever canny Frost would agree.

On Robert Frost’s After Apple-Picking

      My long two pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
      Toward heaven still,
      And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
      Beside it, and there may be two or three
5     Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
      But I am done with apple-picking now.
      Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
      The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
      I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
10    I got from looking through a pane of glass
      I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
      And held against the world of hoary grass.
      It melted, and I let it fall and break.
      But I was well
15    Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
      And I could tell
      What form my dreaming was about to take.
      Magnified apples appear and disappear,
      Stem end and blossom end,
20    And every fleck of russet showing clear.
      My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
      It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round.
      I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
      And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
25    The rumbling sound
      Of load on load of apples coming in.
      For I have had too much
      Of apple-picking: I am overtired
      Of the great harvest I myself desired.
30    There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
      Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
      For all
      That struck the earth,
      No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
35    Went surely to the cider-apple heap
      As of no worth.
      One can see what will trouble
      This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
      Were he not gone,
40    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
      Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
      Or just some human sleep.
Frost reciting After Apple-Picking:


  • Interestingly, in Robert Frost’s reading (or memorization) of the poem, the line: “Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall…” is spoken as “Cherish in hand, let down, and not let fall.”

After Apple-Picking is one of Robert Frost’s great poems and among the greatest poems of the 20th century. The first thing I want to do is to revel in the structure and form of the poem. I’ve seen several references made to Rueben Brower’s analysis of the meter in this poem, and all the frostsources concur in calling Brower’s analysis a tour-de-force. I have not read Brower’s analysis and won’t until I’ve done my own. I love this sort of thing and don’t want my own observations being influenced. So, if there are any similarities, I encourage you to conclude that fools and great minds think alike. Here we go. First, T.S. Eliot:

“The most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. Is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse… We may therefore formulate as follows: the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.”

Eliot could have been describing Frosts’s After Apple-Picking (though he doesn’t say). Despite the appearance of free verse (which it is) Frost’s poetry moves toward and away from a regular meter, and into and out of rhyme, so that the arrhythmia of free verse  and the rhythm of meter co-exist and beautifully blend.

After Apple-Picking (Scansion)

  • Unmarked feet are iambic. Yellow is pyrrhic (which I will never learn to spell). Purple is spondaic. Red is trochaic. Green is an amphibrachic foot (called a feminine ending when closing the line).

Worth noting is that the poem is, allowing for the usual variant feet, as iambic (if not more so) than many of his more “regular poems”. The difference is in line length. The alternate lines are trimeter, dimeter and one monometrical line.  There are no alexandrines however. Frost seemed unwilling to extend the line beyond iambic pentameter. I listened to Frost’s own reading of the poem so that the scansion would more accurately reflect what he had in mind. Interesting to me is the fact that Frost, when he reads at least, prefers to emphasize the iambic lines. For instance, I was initially tempted to scan the following line as follows:

One can see |what will trouble

That’s two anapests, the second has a feminine ending. Frost, however, reads the first four syllables with an almost equal stress:

One can see what will trouble

This makes me more apt to scan the line as trimeter with two strong spondees:

One can |see what |will trouble

It may be reading too much into Frost’s performance (since he tends to emphasize the iambics in many of his poems) but the poems hard, driving iambics lend the poem an exhausted, relentless feel that well-suits the subject. There is no regular rhyme scheme, but there is a sort of elegant symmetry to the rhyming that’s easier to see with some color and some visual aids.

After Apple-Picking (Rhyme Scheme)

My own feeling is that one has to be careful when ascribing too much intentionality to the poet. How much of this rhyme scheme was the result of deliberate planning and how much arose naturally as the poem progressed? In other words, I grant that none of the rhymes are  accident, but I doubt that Frost sat down in advance to build his poem around a rhyme scheme. The poem has the feeling, especially given the shorter (almost opportunistic) line lengths, of a certain improvisation. When he needed to rhyme earth, he cut short a line (making it dimeter) to end up with “As of no worth”. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s coincidence that we find bough/now just after the start of the poem, and fall/all shortly before the poem finishes. In the middle, as though bracketed by these two couplets, is the triple rhyme well/fell/tell. The effect is to nicely divide the poem and give a certain symmetry.

The last element to include is the phrasing, something I haven’t done in other poems, but will try to elucidate in this one. Part of the art of poetry, too often overlooked, is the achievement of phrasing that, at its best, mimics human speech. We don’t tend to speak in one long sentence after another and we don’t favor an endless stream of short sentences (unless “dramatic” circumstances call for it). Not only was Frost keenly interested in the colloquial voice, but also understood the importance of phrasing, of the give and take of normal speech. A mistake that many beginning poets make, in their effort to so much as fit their ideas into the patterns of rhyme and meter, is to sacrifice a naturalness in their phrasing. A telltale feature of such writing is a poem dominated by end-stopped lines — syntax and phrasing that slavishly follows the line.After Apple-Picking (Phrasing)

So, what I’ve done is to color code what I perceive to be the rhetorical structure of the poem. I’m iffish on a couple details, but let’s get started. The fist five lines are a simple, declarative sentence. Frost (I’ll refer to the speaker as Frost) begins the poem with a scheme called the Italian Quatrain. This only means that the rhyme scheme follows an abba pattern one would find in Petrarchan sonnets. ( I don’t, for an instant, suggest that Frost was thinking to himself: I shall now write an “Italian Quatrain”.) I do mean to suggest that the quatrain has a certain closed feel to it. But the poem isn’t done and neither is the work of apple-picking. In the fifth line there are some apples “still upon some bough” and there is new rhyme, bough,  dangling like an unpicked apple.

Frost turns inward:

6  But I am done with apple-picking now.
   Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
   The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

The light green and “Dartmouth” green (couldn’t resist calling it that) signify the moments when Frost’s gaze turn inward. This happens four times in the poem.  Whereas the first five lines are comprised of syndetic clauses (clauses linked by the conjunctive and), the  second clause, the apple ladderturning inward from the orchard (which places the poem) to Frost’s exhaustion, is asyndetic. The first five lines, with their repeated and’s are the way we speak (and you’ll even notice it in children) when we want to express the idea of endlessness.  We might say: I have this and this and this and this to do. In a similar sense, Frost wants to communicate the endlessness of this chore. The first five lines are a rush of description.

When his gaze turns inward, to his own exhaustion, the lines become asyndetic. The fifth line, introducing a new rhyme, is complete in and of itself. The syntax, I think, mirrors Frost’s own exhaustion. The sentences are short. Clauses are no longer linked by conjunctions (they could be).

But I am done with apple-picking now.

By rights, one could pause after that line as though to catch one’s breath. The pause is reinforced when the line completes the rhyme of bough with now, as if Frost had picked the apple. In some ways, one could stop the poem here. The rhymes are complete. We have an Italian Quatrain followed by a concluding couplet. In a sense, the first six lines are the larger poem in miniature. “Essence of winter sleep,” not just the sleep of a night, already hints at a longer hibernation.  From there Frost sleepily stumbles onward and the rhymes, like unpicked apples, will draw him. The sentences become progressively shorter as though Frost’s ability to think and write were as curtailed as his wakefulness. The eighth line ends with the simple, declarative, “I am drowsing off.” There’s nothing poetic about such a line or statement; and that’s part of its beauty and memorableness.

  • An apple ladder is usually tapered, much narrower at the top than bottom. This makes pushing them up through the limbs much easier. Some are joined, like the ladder in the picture, while others are not. Frost’s ladder was “two pointed”, and so not joined at the top. The ladder going up to my daughter’s loft is an old apple ladder.

The next six lines, beginning with “Essence of winter sleep…” are another set of interlocking rhymes DEDFEF

7   Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
    The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
    I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
10  I got from looking through a pane of glass
    I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
    And held against the world of hoary grass.

The rhetorical course of the poem links lines 6-8 while the rhyme schemes of lines 1-6 and 7-12 are separate. There is an overlap between the subject matter (in green) and rhyme scheme (purple).

After Apple-Picking (Overlap)The overlap draws attention away from the rhyme scheme (at some level, I think, disorienting the reader). I know I’m flirting with Intention Fallacy, so I’ll try not to draw too many conclusions as to Frost’s intentions when writing a given rhyme scheme. However, whether he wrote these lines on purpose or instinctively, they produce a similar effect in this given poem. The poem’s rhetorical structure, which doesn’t always mirror the rhyme scheme, draws our attention away from the rhymes and may contribute to any number of the poem’s effect, including the feeling of exhaustion. At its simplest, the crosscurrents of rhetoric and rhyme, I think, help to create an organic feeling in the poem — the feeling that it’s not a series of stanzas knit together.

”Are you trying to tell me that I don’t know what I’m doing when I paint?” ”Well, not exactly . . . ,” I began. ”My God,” he roared, ”every time I put a brush to a canvas, I have an intention. And I damn well better know what it is, or else the painting ain’t gonna be any good.” He rolled his eyes. ”Intentional fallacy,” he muttered. Then with a weary sigh: ”What do these critics think art is? Monkeys dabbling? Art is nothing but decisions. Decisions, decisions, decisions.”

My response Ben Shahn’s outrage would be to point out that it’s all well and fine for the artist (or poet) to indignantly claim an intention behind every brush stroke, line break or stanza break. It’s another to expect the reader or critic to guess it right. This issue is what was behind the failure of Charles Hartman’s Free Verse, An Essay on Prosody. Hartman was essentially (in my opinion) trying to turn every line break into a prosody of free verse. The problem is that a prosody depends on the reader correctly guessing an author’s intention. Without that, all you’ve got is a game of Russian roulette called Intention Fallacy.

The rhyme scheme of DEDFEF forms a sexain, but Frost’s thoughts veer beyond it.

After Apple-Picking (Overlap-2)

Just as before, there is one line more than the rhyme can bear: “It melted, and I let it fall and break.” Once again, the analogy of the unpicked apple comes to mind. Is this the analogy Frost had in mind? To say so would be an Intention Fallacy, but I think the analogy works in the context of the poem. Anyway, we’re left with an unresolved rhyme.

But Frost has other matters to address. As if remembering the course of his poem after an aside (a wonderful and colloquial technique that appears in many of his poems – Birches) he seems to gather his resolve with three rhyming lines, short and quick.

   But I was well
15 Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
   And I could tell
   What form my dreaming was about to take.

Take resolves the hanging rhyme of break. For a moment, both the poem’s rhetorical course and the rhyme scheme meet. There is a moment of resolution before Frost’s dreaming overtakes the poem, and with it an interlocking set of rhymes that don’t find resolution until line 26.

 25 The rumbling sound
    Of load on load of apples coming in.

At this point, the poem will once again pivot. Here’s another image to help visualize what I’m describing.

After Apple-Picking (Rhyme & Rhetoric)

In terms of rhyme and rhetoric (in the sense of concluding thought and concluding rhyme) the poem could be divided into three parts. Until then, subject matter and rhyme overlap in a way that, to some extent, might subliminally propel the reader.

    Magnified apples appear and disappear,
    Stem end and blossom end,
 20 And every fleck of russet showing clear.
    My instep arch not only keeps the ache,

The word end like the stem end of an apple (or itself another unpicked apple) won’t find it’s blossom end until the next three lines that are (now this gets really cool) the only three lines where an identifiable rhyme scheme isn’t matched to subject matter. That’s to say, most of the other rhymes come in tercets and quatrains (look at the boxes surrounding them). It’s only in the weightless center of the poem where any sort of identifiable scheme more or less breaks down. There’s a kind weightlessness, right after the dreaming and at the center of the poem, seems almost meant to imitate the dreaming exhaustion of the poem itself. I would love to think he did this on purpose.

  • I’ve suggested that other poems by Frost can be understood, beneath their surface, as extended metaphors for the writing process. Some others are much more transparently about writing (as much as saying so), so I don’t think such speculation is without merit (though I realize I could be accused of playing the same ace of spades with each hand).  After Apple-Picking could easily be read as analogous to the writing process itself — apples being understood as poems. Frost, by this point in his career, may have been feeling like writing poetry was like picking apples. While Frost didn’t think much of Yeats’s description of writing as “all sweat and chewing pencils” he also stated that after getting paid for the first poem he found he couldn’t write one a day for an easy living: “It didn’t work out that way”. Poems were like apples, it turned out. One couldn’t just shake the tree and let them fall. Doing that would leave them “bruised or spiked with stubble”, which is another way, perhaps, of saying that the hurried poem would be the flawed poem. They had to be cherished. Writing the poem, imagining its landscape of imagery, perhaps was like looking through “a pane of glass… skimmed… from the drinking trough/And held against the world of hoary grass.” Looking at the world through a poem is, perhaps, a bit like looking at the world through ice, a distortion that is both familiar and strange.
21 My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
   It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round.
   I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

Ache remembers the rhyme of break and take, but is far removed and seems more like a reminder than part of any rhyme scheme. Round is new, and sends the ear forward with the expectation of a rhyme.  Bend turns the ear back, remembering end (is far removed as ache from take). The poem “sways”, in its center, like the ladder. The reader is never given the opportunity to truly settle in with any kind of expectation, but like the speaker of the poem, is drawn forward in search of a rhyme’s “blossom end” and, with the next line, is drawn back to a different rhyme’s “stem end”. Rhymes are magnified, appear, then disappear.

  • Notice too how Frost divides the central portion of the poem into three of our five (or seven) senses.
 What form my dreaming was about to take.
 Magnified apples appear and disappear,
 Stem end and blossom end,
 And every fleck of russet showing clear.


 My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
 It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round.
 I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.


 And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
 The rumbling sound
 Of load on load of apples coming in.

Earlier, Frost touched on the sense of smell with the “scent of apples”. The point here is that part of what makes this poem so powerful are the concrete images and the evocation of our senses. Don’t ever forget this in your own poetry. I know I’ve written it before, but it bears repeating: remember each of your senses when you are writing poetry. Don’t just focus on sight (which the vast majority of poets do) but think about sound, smell, touch, movement, texture, etc… Notice too, how Frost turns the ordinary into some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. There are no similes to interrupt the narrative. There are no overdrawn metaphors. Frost makes poetry by simply describing and evoking the every day; and doing so in ordinary speech. The rhyme scheme knits the poem together in an organic whole. Think how much less impressive the poem would be if it were simply free verse, free verse as it’s written by the vast majority of contemporary poets.

Notice Frost’s thought-process. He muses over “what form” his dreams will take, then expands on it (in yellow). He mentioens the ache of his instep arch, then expands on that (in lavender), then describes what he hears from the cellar bin (in purple). It’s a nice way of writing that reminds me of the rhetorical figure Prolepsis (or Propositio) in Shakespeare’s To be or not to be….

With coming in we arrive at the third portion of the poem.

      For I have had too much
      Of apple-picking: I am overtired
      Of the great harvest I myself desired.
30    There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
      Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
      For all
      That struck the earth,
      No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
35    Went surely to the cider-apple heap
      As of no worth.
      One can see what will trouble
      This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
      Were he not gone,
40    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
      Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
      Or just some human sleep.

Frost turns inward again.The phrase, “I am overtired…” reminds us of his previous declarative statement “I am drowsing off”, inviting a sense of symmetry and closure. This time, though, Frost won’t digress. He is overtired of the great harvest. He will plainly say what exhausts him and why. The rhyming couplet fall/all adds to the sense of symmetry, hearkening back to the couplet bough/now. In both subject matter and form, Frost is recollecting himself. Again, it’s a similar structure to Birches — an assertion, a digression, and a concluding restatement of the original assertion.


…every fleck of russet showing clear.

The closing rhyme scheme of lines 33-41 is essentially comprised of two Sicilian Quatrains, the same that characterize the Shakespearean sonnet. However, the first Quatrain is interrupted by heap. You can see it above in the overall rhyme scheme (at the beginning of the post), but also directly above. It’s as if the poem is coming out of a sort of fever, a confusion of consciousness, and back to order. The rhyme heap/sleep might have been the concluding couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet, but that kind of epigrammatic finality would have been out of place in a narrative poem like this. Instead, the word heap slips into the first quatrain, another new sound, and the ear perhaps subliminally or subconsciously looks for the rhyme, but it doesn’t come. We finish the first of the two quatrains without it.

With the second quatrain of this third section:

      This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
      Were he not gone,
40    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
      Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,

The speaker seems almost recovered from the confused reverie of the poem and once again the poem’s beautiful symmetry is upheld. The poem begins with a Sicilian quatrain and all but closes with a Sicilian quatrain. But there is still one loose-end, one apple that has not been picked. Frost metaphorically picks it in the last line.

Or just some human sleep.

It’s a beautiful moment. The line is short and simple. It’s shortness may remind the reader of the speaker’s own weariness. He doesn’t have it in him to compose a fully Iambic Pentameter line. His sleep may just be some human sleep, and nothing more.

  • Frost asks whether his sleep will be like that of the woodchuck’s. The comparison seems almost like a moment of levity after so much profundity. Some critics throw all their weight into these last 5 lines. Because sleep is repeated several time, Conder (as is the habit with some critics I have noticed), take this to mean that “sleep” must be central to the poem’s meaning and that all other considerations are mere trivialities. As example, consider John J. Conder’s analysis of After Apple-Picking. There, you can also find a collection of other essays on the poem.  Personally, Conder’s analysis makes my eyes badly cross. Almost every sentence seems like a Gordian Knot. Here’s an example:
But if the speaker’s dream and sleep exist in life, then to assert that, after his labors, the speaker “is now looking not into the world of effort but the world of dream, of the renewal,” is to oversimplify the poem. This view identifies the dream (interpreted as pleasurable) with the sleep (seen as a time for contemplation as well as renewal) and in the process limits both. Such a reading qualifies the word “trouble” into insignificance (to be troubled by a lovely dream is to be superior to the woodchuck, who cannot dream) and oversimplifies the speaker’s attitude toward his experience. Given the feats of association that he makes, given the fact that he speaks in contraries, the speaker’s attitude toward his sleep is far more complicated than at first seems clear, and his trouble far more real than might be supposed.
And here is Conder’s entire essay much simplified:
Conder AnalysisAnd now you don’t have to read the essay. (You can thank me by e-mail.) You’d think the poem should have been called: Before Going to Sleep.  My point, besides having a little fun at Conder’s expense, is to argue that it’s possible to read too much into Frost’s comparison of his sleepiness to that of the woodchuck’s. My own feeling is that he’s not suggesting a sweeping metaphor of man, sleep and nature, but that the analogy is what it is. He’s overtired. He’s almost feverish with exhaustion and speculates that the only sleep to recover from that kind of weariness (the weariness of a whole season of apple growing) might be a whole season of sleeping – the hibernating sleep of a woodchuck. It’s an earthy, slightly sardonic, reference in keeping with the colloquial tone of the poem.
I also resist the temptation to draw comparisons between apple-picking and the apple in the Garden of Eden. I won’t go so far as to say that close-readers who suggest this allusion are wrong, but where do we honestly draw the line? Is every single mention of an apple, in every work of literature, an allusion to Genesis? Really? Really? That just feels facile to me. In truth, the myth of the Garden of Eden could be suggested as “alluded to” in a disturbingly large portion of literature. But so be it. I’m not going to go there (if only to be contrary). There’s not one quote from Frost, that I’m aware of, that suggests any of these readers are correct, so just keep that in mind when making comparisons to Genesis.
Lastly, there’s no doubt that Frost delighted in the close readings his poems were subjected to (what poet wouldn’t be flattered), but we also know that he expressed more than a little frustration and exasperation. The usual defense (which I get a little tired of) is that Frost was a dark, disturbed, calculating and suicidal man. Ever since Lionel Trilling described Frost as a “terrifying poet”, critics (William Logan among others) have taken that as open season. There’s always the urge to look for the “darkness” in his poems. There is undoubtedly much darkness in Frost (as there is in all of us) but I think this too must be treated with moderation. It’s possible that a reference to a woodchuck is just  that — an old New Englander’s sardonic reference to a woodchuck — not the sleep of man-out-of-nature, nature-out-of-man, or the sleep of death.
In her (strongly to be recommended) book, Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind his New English Poetry, author Lea Newman has this to say:
“The reference to the woodchuck and his long sleep in the concluding lines of the poem has confused many readers. Frost probably found the idea of comparing humans to woodchucks in Emerson’s essay “Nature,” where readers are told, “let us be men instead of woodchucks.” A discussion of hibernation in another Emerson essay, “Fate,” may have been the source for the term “the long sleep”. In terms of the dream-ridden and exhausted speaker state of the speaker in Frost’s poem, he could be seeking the dreamless sleep of an animal or the month-long sleep of hibernation.”
My point is that you are free to interpret the poem how you will. No one but Frost knows what Frost meant.

Further Thoughts on Mending Wall

The Poet and his Poetry

Just as we change, the best poems change with us. When I return to Mending Wall, I read the poem in ways I didn’t before. I won’t claim that what follows represents Frost’s intentions,  just that it’s another possible way to understand it.

One of Frost’s most engaging traits, to me, was his way of putting the overly inquisitive off his trail. His metaphorical gifts were such that he could talk about himself and no listener would be the wiser. In many of his poems he slyly (and not so slyly) discusses himself, his poetry, his readers, his critics and the pushy. He merrily described this facility in his poem Woodchuck.

The Woodchuck

My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.
With those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.
All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.
We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.
And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),
If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,
It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.

It’s hard not to read Woodchuck as Frost’s sly confession regarding his attitude toward his poetry and the interpreting of it. All of his poems are like a two door borrow. He can pretend he and the world — his readers and critics — are friends, but get too close he’ll “dive down under the farm”. Don’t forget that Frost was at odds with a ‘world’ in which Free Verse was fast becoming the dominant verse form. Frost warily dodges the double-barreled blast of critics who suffer from “the loss of common sense”. Finally, we can read “crevice and burrow” as a sly reference to his poetry. He’s been instinctively thorough in his concealment and self-preservation.

Woodchuck isn’t the only poem to fit into this Frostian trick. If there was ever are more searing critique of modern verse than Etherealizing (and by extension Free Verse) then I don’t know it.

By Robert Frost

A theory if you hold it hard enough
And long enough gets rated as a creed:
Such as that flesh is something we can slough
So that the mind can be entirely freed.
Then when the arms and legs have atrophied,
And brain is all that’s left of mortal stuff,
We can lie on the beach with the seaweed
And take our daily tide baths smooth and rough.
There once we lay as blobs of jellyfish
At evolution’s opposite extreme.
But now as blobs of brain we’ll lie and dream,
With only one vestigial creature wish:
Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.

If you read theory as a sly reference to Pound’s preface to the anthology, “Some Imagist Poets” (as I do) then the entirety of the poem effortlessly falls in place. If modern poets hold a theory hard enough, such as the Pound’s dictums concerning poetry, then they’ll be rated a creed, in the sense of a  written body of teachings of a religious group generally accepted by that group — in a word: Dogma.

Continuing this interpretation, flesh, for Frost, is synonymous with meter and rhyme — the techniques of traditional poetry. Naturally our arms and legs will atrophy (our ability to write traditionally) and all that will be left of our poetry is “brain”. Frost’s prediction, in this respect, has proven true. Modern free verse poetry is seldom appraised for it’s skill in rhyme, meter or imagery, but largely its subject matter — in a word, brain. Two hundred years ago, a poorly written poem was readily dismissed no matter how elevated its content. Today, when the only thing that separates Free Verse from prose is ego, the poems of award winning poets are almost solely praised for their elevated and socially relevant content.

Frost compares such stuff to seaweed. With nothing left to the poetry but content (or brain) the daily tide (the vicissitudes of readers and critics) will hardly affect it whether the baths are smooth or rough. Frost is comparing free verse, and the subject matter of free free verse poets, to the amorphous jelly fish that moves whichever way the tide moves it. The jellyfish takes no stand, and can’t.

With one final kick in the rear, Frost compares the free verse poem to the blobs of brain who “lie and dream” with only “one vestigial creature wish”:

Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.

What other poems follow this pattern? Read A Considerable Speck, where the pursuit  of a mite is a droll reference to the creative process. It ends:

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

Similarly, the poem For Once Then Something is Frost’s response to criticism (still made today) that his poetry is all shine and no depth. Click on the link of you want to read my interpretation. Frost’s poem Birches can also be read as an introspective consideration of the poet’s place in the modern world.  In short, there is good precedent for reading Frost’s poems as sly and subtle revelations, commentary almost, on his sense of self as poet, artist and critic. The poem Mending Wall can be read in that tradition.

To start with, remember Frost’s statement that “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries.” Read the poem as Frost in two guises, as wall builder and wall toppler.  Read the wall, perhaps, as a poem, not Mending Wall necessarily, but any poem.

Two sides of Frost, the poet, appear. There is the playful Frost, the one that wants to tease and reveal, and there is the coy Frost, the Woodchuck, who is instinctively thorough about his crevice and burrow. This is the Frost who wants to keep something out. He doesn’t know what, but something. Some kinds of poems, like walls, keep things out and keeps things in reserve and that is all the explanation needed. Nevertheless, there are readers who won’t be satisfied. They want Frost to tell them what his poems are really about. They want to take down the wall. They make “gaps even two can pass abreast”.

The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs.

The hunter and critic, says the cagey Frost, leaves not one stone on a stone, but would have the rabbit, the poem’s meaning, out of hiding to please the yelping dogs — the too inquisitive public. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says the cagey Frost, but some things are better untold or hidden. He says, good fences make good neighbors and we could just as easily take that to mean that a good poem, if the poet doesn’t give too much away, makes good readers.

But Frost is of two minds and the poem stands between them. The best poem, like the best wall, is made by both Frosts (though the alliance isn’t easy). One Frost, in a sense, is all apple orchard (the brighter wood with its associations of food, family and public) and the other Frost is pine (a darker, pitchier wood that is reticent and unrevealing).

We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

The Frost that teases and revels in suggestion and misdirection will have his say — the Frost of the Apple Orchard.

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.

The public Frost, the mischievous trickster, suggests Elves. He wants to know what the other Frost is walling in or out. What is he afraid of? What is he hiding? What is he afraid to let out? But no answer comes. The cagey, darker Frost will keep his secrets. Revelation isn’t in his nature. As if commenting on the meaning of the poem itself, he answers simply but also evasively, “Good fences make good neighbors.

Read the poem this way and and we read a philosophy of poetry.

Read it like this and Frost is revealing something about himself. There are two sides and it’s in their uneasy truce that his poetry finds greatness. I don’t know if Frost was thinking along these lines when he wrote the poem, but he was a shrewd poet. This way of writing is something that shows up in his other poems.

❧ Patrick Gillespie up in Vermont September 26 2011

The Making of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Similar to my post on “Stopping by Woods”, I’ll take a look at how different authors have analyzed the poem (and mix in my own 2¢ along the way). We’ll also look at the history of the poem, how it arrived at its final form — a subject almost as interesting as the poem itself.

Nothing Golden Stays

The aspect of the poem that nearly all close readers and critics emphasize is Frost’s use of paradox and his reference to Adam & Eve – the Christian creation myth. The story of Adam & Eve is sprinkled throughout western art, literature and music and any artist who references the story also inherits a wealth of associations.

Aside: When I was a high school junior at Western Reserve Academy, my English teacher expressed the opinion that the story of Adam & Eve was a profoundly inspired story. I countered that the story was actually stock and trade, no more inspired than any other creation myth. If looks could kill. He chalked it up to teen-aged diffidence but my opinion hasn’t changed. He asked if I could name any other story that was so pervasive. Like in China? I countered. That ended the discussion. My 2¢? Take any fable, be it ever so humble, make it the centerpiece of your culture’s spiritual and religious identity for hundreds of years and watch it flourish. It’s the centuries of art and literature, like variations, that burnish the fable of Adam & Eve. Think of Beethoven’s Diabelli variations. There’s nothing special about Diabelli’s little theme. It’s Beethoven’s variations, based on the theme, that burnish the original.

But back to Robert Frost. Frost adds considerable depth by alluding to Adam & Eve. The subject matter of the poem is elevated from a wistful observation on the passage of time to a more universal comment encompassing time and creation itself. Such is the power of alluding to the myth. Alfred R. Ferguson, in an essay entitled “Frost and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall“, begins the essay as follows: “Perhaps no single poem more fully embodies the ambiguous balance between paradisiac good and the paradoxically more fruitful human good than “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a poem in which the metaphors of Eden and the Fall cohere with the idea of felix culpa.”

And yet, for all this, the first version of the poem doesn’t include a reference to the Bible. The very first version was, in fact, nothing more than a wistful observation on the passage of time.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaves are flowers—
But only so for hours;
Then leaves subside to leaves.
In autumn she achieves
Another golden flame
And yet it’s not the same
It[‘s] not as lovely quite
As that first golden light.

Here’s my theory on Frost’s thought process. The version above, the earliest, is also the most forgettable. The first five lines are clearly the strongest and he probably thought of them all in one sitting. After that, though he recognized their promise, he didn’t know where to go with them. The last five lines are anticlimactic. They don’t elevate the subject matter and present no new ideas.

For example: Gold appears in the first line only to be repeated twice (in lines 6 and 10) as a weaker adjective. Not only that but there’s really no difference between a “golden flame” and a “golden light“. Not knowing what he wants to say, Frost is merely killing space. Adjectives, in poetry, can easily indicate second rate thought, second rate poetry, and a second rate poet. Frost repeats ideas anti-climatically. By writing that autumn “achieves another golden flame” he’s already given away the game. By the time he calls nature’s first “gold” a “golden light” there’s no surprise or elevation in thought. There’s no epiphany or feeling of development. The phrase And yet it’s not the same adds nothing. It’s little more than rhetorical filler for the sake of rhyme.

But Frost wasn’t a second rate poet. He recognized the sententious weaknesses in this first version. He moved on. He revised.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaves are flowers—
But only so for hours;
Then leaves subside to leaves.
In autumn she achieves
A still more golden blaze
But nothing golden stays.

[From Selections from American literature, edited by Leonidas Warren Payne p. 936]

This revision, this much of it, is a clear improvement. He’s gotten rid of the phrase And yet it’s not the same. He’s tightened the poem by reducing it from ten lines to eight. The final four lines become a mirror image of the first four. In effect, he’s created a volta such as you would find in a Sonnet – a turn or change in the subject, a movement from proposition to resolution.

But problems remain. Golden, as in the first version, is repeated twice, diminishing the epithet’s effectiveness. But that’s the least of it. Changing the noun gold into the adjectives golden remains the first sin. The problem is that the emphasis is on blaze and stays rather than gold. The image left in the readers mind is diffuse. What does a blaze look like?

However, this isn’t the end of the poem. Here is the earlier version of the poem in its entirety. This marks the first time this version has appeared anywhere on the world wide web. I don’t know why scholars (and if you’re a scholar I’m talking to you) can’t be bothered to print the entirety of the poem if you’re going to discuss it. I had to reconstruct this from snippets and fragments gleaned from deviously clever Google book searches. Here it is:

Nothing Golden Stays

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaves are flowers—
But only so for hours;
Then leaves subside to leaves.
In autumn she achieves
A still more golden blaze
But nothing golden stays.

Of white, blue, gold and green,
The only colors seen
And thought of in the vast,
The gold is soonest past.
A moment it appears
At either end of years,
At either end of days.
But nothing golden stays.

In gold as it began
The world will end for man.
And some belief avow
The world is ending now.
The final age of gold
In what we now behold.
If so, we’d better gaze,
For nothing golden stays.

This isn’t bad, but it seems excessive for a wistful poem about the passage of time. The second stanza more or less elaborates on what was already implied by the first stanza. My guess is that Frost thought the poem would feel weightier having a tripartite form. The problem, as Shakespeare put it with characteristic genius, is that “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.” There are more words than matter in this poem.

But why is Frost looking for a weightier poem and what’s the third stanza about? Tyler Hoffman, in his book Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry, explains (though, like other authors, he couldn’t be bothered to provide the entire poem):

…Frost is speaking out on international political affairs in his sly way, and it is important to remember that this poem is composed in 1920, just after World War I has ended. Feeling sure that “there are two or three more wars close at hand,” Frost expresses a fierce nationalism at this time and, with it, an isolationist political position (…) ” Nothing Gold Can Stay” tropes this position, suggesting through its isolation of syntactic units a refusal to become embroiled in global politics: just as Nature tries to resists the forces of change, so America must try to resist forces that would pull her beyond her borders, even if such resistance may be in vain. That the poem originally included lines that later became part of “It is Almost the Year 2000,” (…) points to another political meaning, as Frost jabs at 1930s liberals who believe that the millenium is upon us on the evidence of the terrible times. [pp. 162-163]

• Hoffman makes observations about the poem’s form that I don’t find persuasive. He remarks that “it is seemingly ironic that the boundaries of phrasal units and lines should match up so neatly in a poem about transition, the change from one season to another.”  Hoffman’s answer to this perceived conundrum is that “through tight closure, Frost is able to depict the effort on Nature’s part to ‘hold’ — to try to resist the forces of change that inevitably will overpower her.” He then goes on to note that the earlier version of the poem does not follow this  pattern. One would think this would fatally undercut Hoffman’s assertion, but he nicely pirouettes: “In this draft version, hard enjambment also is resisted, a formal condition that reads as an emblem of Frost’s political resistence to socialist utopian thought.”

Say what? Hoffman gives us no citation for these assertions. Did Frost, at some point, characterize his use of end-stopped lines and enjambment as political “emblems”? No. So, what we’re left with is Hoffman’s opinion as to what Frost was thinking. I don’t buy it. I’m not persuaded. If anything, this kind of analysis smacks of David Orr’s Enactment Fallacy. I’ve linked to Orr’s article a dozen times in other posts, but if you haven’t read it then it’s worth reading or reading again. Orr writes of the Enactment Fallacy:

Basically, this is the assignment of meaning to technical aspects of poetry that those aspects don’t necessarily possess. For example, in an otherwise excellent discussion of Yeats’s use of ottava rima (a type of eight-line stanza), Vendler attributes great effect to “the pacing” allegedly created by “a fierce set of enjambments” followed by a “violent drop” in the fourth stanza of the poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.

Hoffman, like Vendler, is imposing meaning on poetic techniques. If one takes Hoffman at his word, are we then to conclude that every example of enjambment is politically emblematic? If not, then we’re cherry picking. Otherwise we must be willing to say that enjambment means X in this poem, but Y in that poem without any evidence whatsoever. Unless you’ve heard it from Frost, don’t be persuaded by assertions like these.

Getting back to the poem’s theme, I am persuaded by Hoffman’s thinking that the original impulse for “Nothing Gold Can Stay” developed into something political. This explains, perhaps, why Frost wanted a weightier poem in three parts. What may have began as a wistful nature poem began to be seen, by Frost, as a good metaphor for his disagreement with liberal politics (“some belief avow”), which he perceived as Utopian – hence golden.

With that in mind, we can discern the first appearance of Adam & Eve. “In gold as it began…” he writes. That is, mankind began in gold, in the Garden of Eden. If gold is then a euphemism for utopianism, then the Garden of Eden is the ultimate tale of liberal utopianism. I’ve read some other analyses of Nothing Gold Can Stay by other bloggers who see in Frost’s allusion a sympathetically Christian one; but, if anything, Frost’s initial allusion to the Garden of Eden is anything but sympathetic. His allusion almost drips with sarcasm. ‘You see how long that lasted,’ he seems to say. What makes you think this new Democratic and socialist utopianism is going to fair any better? If that’s what you think, he writes at the close of the poem, then you’d “better gaze [now], For nothing golden [Utopian] stays.”

He taunts liberals (and socialists) for their Utopian vision of society by bitingly comparing it to the Utopian vision of Christian Theology – the End Days, End Times or the Second Coming. He calls it the “final age of gold”. Is it accident that he uses the very phrase?

A moment it appears
At either end of years,
At either end of days.
But nothing golden stays.

Frost’s skepticism applies not just to the Garden of Eden, but to the reputed gold age that will come with Christ’s Second Coming. Just as in the first instance, he writes, it won’t stay.

So much for a wistful nature poem.

But there’s a reason why this earlier version is so hard to find. It’s not that good. As with all political poems, it comes stamped and dated. Political poems have short shelf lives. Without knowing the political impetus behind the original poem, the whole of it comes off sounding excessively verbose. Frost must have recognized the limitations of the poem and how his politics circumscribed the poem’s potential universality.

He went back to work. He revised.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

I  find the differing versions of this poem revealing as to Robert Frost’s personality. It’s easy to sense, in the earlier version, a side of Frost that was ill-humored, sarcastic, acerbic and dismissive. It’s a darker undercurrent that can be sensed in many of his poems and one, as revealed in many of his sketches, that he tempers. Nothing Gold Can Stay is a perfect example. The final version is deceptively straightforward, like many of Frost’s poems, but the tincture of Frost’s acerbic personality remains, adding depth and perspective to what, otherwise, might simply be mawkish.

Frost quickly dispenses with the second stanza. One might not think it at first glance, but it’s easy to read a dismissive tone into the first four lines of the second stanza:

Of white, blue, gold and green,
The only colors seen
And thought of in the vast,
The gold is soonest past.

There are other colors (politics) besides gold, but no one else “in the vast” seems to see them. Without the political impetus behind these lines, they have the potential to sound petty. The lines also state what is already understood. The subject of the poem, in a sense, pertains to what is golden. The fact that the other colors are overlooked is already implied.

The third stanza gets the ax because it threatens to come off as nothing more than derisive political posturing.

This brings Frost back to the first stanza. Eden is still buzzing in his brain. He realizes that this reference has the potential to expansively elevate the  subject matter – a facet missing in the earliest versions. Frost returns to the first four lines but this time changes flowers to the more universal flower. The singular flower carries a more symbolic feeling than flowers. Likewise, the change from hours to hour gives the word a more universal, symbolic flavor.

Frost alters his poem from naturalistic generality to symbol. A flower could be anything (whereas flowers will be more generally read as flowers). From there, and with Eden still in the back of his mind, he makes the leap to the next four lines:

Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Rather than use a euphemism, Frost simply writes Eden — Eden sank to grief. But a tone has been set. By Frost’s use of the singular flower, hour and leaf, the reference to Eden becomes a symbolic gesture which, because of its suggestive power, smoothly elevates the poem’s thought and philosophic reach. The idea of Eden burnishes the word dawn, imbuing it with a deeper symbolism. But there’s something more to this line, the idea that dawn goes down to day. More than one author and critic has sought explanation in the Latin phrase felix culpa or blessèd fall. This is the paradoxical concept that through diminution or decay comes increase and growth. The day is the apogee of sunlight and warmth, but to have that day, the beauty of dawn must go down. The dawn itself, like the first green of the early leaf is a kind of gold that must go down before the leaf can bear fruit. Nothing gold can stay. As King Midas learned, gold that stays makes for a lifeless world.

Alfred Furgeson, whose Frost and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall I quoted earlier, nicely sums up the same ideas in his own way:

It is a felix culpa and light-bringing. Our whole human experience makes us aware that dawn is tentative, lovely, but incomplete and evanescent. Our expectation is that dawn does not “go down” to day, but comes up, as in Kipling’s famous phrase, “like thunder,” into the satisfying warmth of sunlight and full life. The hesitant perfections of gold, of flower, of Eden, and finally of dawn are linked to parallel terms which are set in verbal contexts of diminished value. Yet in each case the parallel term is potentially of larger worth. If the reader accepts green leaf and the full sunlight of day as finally more attractive than the transitory golden flower and the rose flush of a brief dawn, he must also accept the Edenic sinking into grief as a rise into a larger life. In each case the temporary and partial becomes more long-lived and complete; the natural cycle that turns from flower to leaf, from dawn to day, balances each loss by a real gain. Eden’s fall is a blessing in the same fashion, an entry into fuller life and greater light.

It’s worth pointing out, at this point, that the poem’s political implications were still probably present in Frost’s mind and in his later readings, but they no longer feel like the poem’s primary impetus. He accomplished this, in part, by his more symbolic use of language. The poem, if construed as political, is no longer an ascerbic dismissal of a political belief, but an elegant alternative to those beliefs. Rather than simply mock a system of beliefs he disagrees with, he offers an alternative. The decline (or failure) of utopianism is an inevitable outcome if the cycle of life is to be respected and appreciated.

This revision makes the poem interestingly and compellingly constructive rather than destructive. The necessary tension between creation and destruction is what makes the poem great. At the same time that we feel the loss of all that is gold, we also sense the necessity and blessèdness that comes from that loss.

The Poem’s Form

The poem is written in Iambic Trimeter. The only variant feet are a trochaic foot in the first line and a headless foot in the final line. The headless foot in the final line is especially effective. To my ears, it adds a succinct pithiness to the final line, like a sonnet’s epigrammatic close.

There’s another longer and more detailed (read deep) look at how this poem works at an aural/linguistic level by John A. Rea. The analysis can be found here. It’s a fascinating attempt to do what is nearly impossible – describe what is musical about the language in the poem. It’s almost like trying to describe the color red to a blind man. You can decide for yourself whether he succeeds or is even readable, but I admire and appreciate the attempt.


  • Curiously, a number of bloggers have posted a strange hybrid. You will sometimes find the following:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaves subside to leaves.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The problem is that the word leaves doesn’t rhyme with grief. That’s not anything Frost would have written. That’s just a mistake. You will also find the title, sometimes, mistakenly given as Nothing Golden Stays. This title, in fact, belongs to the earlier version.

An addition: Iambic Pentameter & Robert Frost’s Birches

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For most readers Frost’s Birches offers no hidden subtext beyond what’s grasped intuitively.

But this hasn’t stopped some interpreters.  For instance, in Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self, Frank Lentricchia remarks:

Those “straighter, darker trees,” like the trees of “Into My Own” that “scarcely show the breeze,” stand ominously free from human manipulation, menacing in their irresponsiveness to acts of the will.

I’ve read Birches countless times, and the feeling of an ominous menace never once crossed my mind. To read this kind of interpretation into the imagery requires some kind of context and there simply is none – not in two lines. And referring to “Into my Own”, as though the two poems were somehow related or created the context for such an interpretation, is nonsensical. But the bottom line is that there doesn’t have to be a symbolic undercurrent (or double meaning) to every single word or image. Close readers and academics love nothing more than teasing out interpretations, but just because it can be done, doesn’t mean there’s any objective validity to the interpretation.  At some point, such exercises strike me as being more like parlor games.

Just because the other trees are darker doesn’t mean that they are ominous. Fact is, every single tree in the New England landscape is darker than the birch. And for the most part (and after a good ice storm) most other trees are, factually, straighter than birches. In The Wood Pile, Frost refers to the view as being “all in lines/Straight up and down of tall slim trees,” One need not read any more into Frost’s imagery than the simple fact of it.

But, naturally, if Lentricchia is going to invoke menace, he needs to explain why (to justify that interpretation). He writes that they are menacing in their “irresponsiveness to acts of human will”.  I just don’t buy it.

At best, one would need to make the assumption that Frost’s use of the word dark always constituted some kind of menace when used in reference to trees or the woods. But in his most famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Frost writes that “The woods are lovely, dark and deep”. Despite Frost’s use of the word lovely, this hasn’t stopped close readers from suggesting that Frost was contemplating suicide and that loveliness, far from being praise of the New England wood in winter,  was a contemplation of the lovely, dark and deep oblivion that is suicide (or so they interpret it). Richard Poirer is among those who have made this suggestion. By the absence of a comma between the word dark and the word and he concludes that the “loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous.” The italics are mine. But Poirier’s reading could hardly be called objective. There is, in fact, no way of knowing what significance such punctuation might have held for Frost. However, Frost did have a thing or two to say about ominous interpretations. William Pritchard writes, in  Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered:

Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert… [p. 164]

All of which is to say, Frost had little patience for self-pity or, by extension, suicide. One need only read Out, Out to get a sense of Frost’s personality. In short, one can contemplate the soothing darkness and loveliness of the woods without contemplating suicide. But you decide.


Beyond the interpretation of individual words and lines, there is a larger philosophical debate within the poem that will flavor what readers bring to the poem. It happens in the opening lines:


But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that.
Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away

You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
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.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows–

The italicized lines bracket a digression that Frost characterizes as Truth. What does he mean? In fact, the differentiation Frost implies between Truth and his playful, imaginary fable of the boy climbing the birches, is central to the poem’s meaning. The world of Truth could be construed as the world of science and matter-of-factness – a world which circumscribes the imagination  or, more to the point, the poetic imagination, Poetry. The world of the poet is one of metaphor, symbolism, allegory and myth making. At its simplest, Frost is describing two worlds and telling which he prefers and how he values each. “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” And by that, he could almost be saying: One could do worse than be a poet.

The underlined passage “You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen”, has been nicely interpreted as a reference to Ptolemaic astronomy (which believed that the planets and stars were surrounded by crystal spheres or domes). I like that interpretation and I can believe that Frost intended it. The inner dome and its shattered crystal shells like “heaps of broken glass” fit neatly within the allusion. But there is significance in the allusion. The Ptolemaic model of the universe was a poetic construct – a theory of the imagination rather than matter-of-factness. In this sense, Truth as Frost calls it (or modern science) has collapsed the inner dome of the poetic imagination and replaced it with something that doesn’t permit the poet’s entry. The shattered inner dome of the imagination (of the myth makers) has been replaced by fact – by science.

And in this light, the entirety of Frost’s description, climbing the birches, just so, and swinging back down, becomes a kind of description for the life which the poet seeks and values – the imaginative life of the poet:

…. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree….

The poet learns all there is to learn about “not launching out too soon”. He could be describing the art of poetry. You cannot swing from a birch without the right height. But if you also climb too high, if your ambitions exceed the matter of your poem, the birch will break . You must write your poetry, climbing carefully, with the “same care you use to fill a cup,/Up to the brim, and even above the brim.” But I don’t want to limit the poem’s meaning to just this. Frost is describing more than the poet, but a whole way of interpreting the world.

It’s the difference between the mind that seeks objective truths, irrespective of the observer, and the mind that perceives world as having symbolic, metaphorical and mythical significance. It’s the world of religion and spirituality. Its the world of signs and visions – events have meaning. In the scientific world view, nothing is of any significance to the observer: life is like a “pathless wood”, meaningless,  that randomly afflicts us with face burns, lashing us, leaving us weeping. The observer is irrelevant. In some ways, science is anathema to the poet’s way of understanding the world. It’s loveless. And that’s not the world Frost values. “Earth’s the right place for love,” he writes.  The woods that he values have a path and the birches are bent with purpose.

But having said all that, Frost also acknowledges a balance.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.

If we read him right, he seems to be saying that he prefers not to be too much in one world or the other. Let him climb toward heaven, both literally and figuratively, but let him also be returned to earth. Having written this much, Frank Lentricchia’s own interpretation of the poem’s divisions may be more easily understood:

….There is never any intention of competing with science, and therefore, there is no problem at all (as we generally sense with many modern poets and critics) of claiming a special cognitive value for poetry. In his playful and redemptive mode, Frost’s motive for poetry is not cognitive but psychological in the sense that he is willfully seeking to bathe his consciousness and, if the reader consents, his reader’s as well, in a free-floating, epistemologically unsanctioned vision of the world which, even as it is undermined by the very language in which it is anchored, brings a satisfaction of relief when contemplated…..

If I may be so bold as to interpret (and interpreting academese does take some boldness), what Lentricchia seems to be saying is that Frost’s philosophical stance does not arise from any direct experience (as stated in the poem). Direct experience would be “epistemologically sanctioned”. Epistemology, a word coddled and deployed by academics with fetishistic ardor, is the “branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” So, to interpret, Lentricchia appears to be saying that Frost’s “vision/philosophy” is not “epistemologically/experientially” “sanctioned/based“. In short, Frost’s experience (and that of the readers) is that of the poet and poetry – the purely subjective realm of imagination, story telling and myth making.

Interestingly, those who criticize the poem for being without basis in experience (Lentricchia is not one of them) seem blissfully unaware that this is precisely the kind of knowing that the poem itself is criticizing and examining. That is, the poem is its own example of myth-making — the transformative power of poetry. Yes, says Frost, there is the matter-of-fact (epistemologically sanctioned) world, but there is also the poetical world – the world of metaphor and myth that is like the slender birch (and the poem itself). It can be climbed but not too high. The matter-of-fact world is good to escape, but it is also good to come back to.

John C Kemp, in Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist, goes further in explaining what some readers consider the poem’s weaknesses.

“Mending Wall,” “After Apple-Picking,” and “The Wood-Pile” are centered on specific events that involve the speaker in dramatic conflicts and lead him to extraordinary perspectives. ¶ (….)however, “Birches” does not present a central dramatized event as a stimulus for the speaker’s utterance. Although the conclusion seems sincere, and although Frost created a persuasive metaphorical context for it, the final sentiments do not grow dramatically out of the experiences alluded to. (….) Frost’s confession that the poem was “two fragments soldered together” is revealing; the overt, affected capriciousness of the transitions between major sections of the poem (ll. 4-5, 21-22, and 41-42) indicates that instead of striving to establish the dynamics of dramatized experience, he felt he could rely on the force of his speaker’s personality and rural background. In early editions, a parenthetical question, “(Now am I free to be poetical?),” followed line 22, making the transition between the ice storm and the country youth even more arbitrary.

My own view is that rather than making the poem feel arbitrary, the question Now am I free to be poetical? makes Frost’s thematic concerns too explicit. The question too sharply defines the contrast between the matter-of-fact and the poetical. In short, Frost may have felt that the question overplayed his hand.  (Some critics read this question as an affectation. I don’t. I read it as signaling the poem’s intent, a “stage direction” that Frost later removed.)

Frost was striving for balance both in poem and subject matter — between the poetical and the matter-of-fact.


the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 71-106

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  • For readers who had been waiting for this final post, if any, sorry it took so long. The Let Poetry Die post just about buried me. For those to whom this post is new, this is the third and last entry annotating Robert Frost’s Home Burial. The first post is the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 1-18 .


“And I suppose I am a brute…”

Home Burial isn’t the only poem in which Frost explored grief and bereavement. Another famous poem is Out, out, which closes:

And they, since they
Were not the ones dead, turned to their affairs.

For many readers it’s a chilling close to a boy’s death. And I suspect that there was something like this in Frost himself – the hard pragmatism of the living. In a time when a day wasted could be a day without food, extended bereavement was an indulgence.

The quote which begins this section comes from a letter by Frost, in which he continues:

“And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies.” [Robert Pack, Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost p. 160]

The death of any child is a strain on any marriage; and the death of Frost’s first son was one that the poet took especially hard:

[Frost] blamed himself for not calling the doctor, who might have saved the boy’s life. We see this guilt refracted through the wife’s eyes in the poem, for she blames her husband for his detached self-reliance… [ Karen Kilcup, Robert Frost and Feminine Literary Tradition, p. 68]

Whether or not Elinor (Frost’s wife) blamed Frost for the death isn’t known (at least to me). It might have been enough that Frost blamed himself. The poet’s ability to convincingly portray the wife shows that he was fully aware of how he might be (or have been) perceived. This “hard pragmatism” which Frost both acknowledged and defended can also be found in the brief poem The Lesson for Today. As with the poem For Once, Then, Something, Frost seems to directly respond to his critics, readers and, perhaps, even to his closest friends and family – acquaintances who may have accused Frost, himself, of the hard callousness he portrays in Home Burial:

Major Themes of RFWe are all doomed to broken-off careers,
And so’s the nation, so’s the total race.
The earth itself is liable to that fate
Of meaninglessly being broken off.
(And hence so many literary tears
At which my inclination is to scoff.)
I may have wept that any should have died
Or missed their chance, or not have been their best,
Or been their riches, fame, or love denied;
On me as much as any is the jest.
I take my incompleteness with the rest.
God bless himself can no one else be blessed.

O hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

It’s a recurring theme and, frankly, one with which I’m sympathetic. In certain ways, one could almost insert this poem into Home Burial, rather than the husband’s less considered response. It’s doubtful the wife’s retort would have been changed by it. Frost’s emphasis on individuality, self-reliance and self-determination extended into politics, where he had little sympathy for FDR’s New Deal. In some ways, Home Burial could be read as symbolizing the perennial conflict described by cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics, George Lakoff. He divides the liberal and conservative impulse between the “nurturant parent model” and the “strict father model”. Wikipedia summarizes his relevant views as follows:

Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between liberals and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family. Conservatives would subscribe more strongly and more often to a model that he calls the “strict father model” and has a family structured around a strong, dominant “father” (government), and assumes that the “children” (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible “adults” (morality, self-financing). Once the “children” are “adults”, though, the “father” should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility. In contrast, Lakoff argues that liberals place more support in a model of the family, which he calls the “nurturant parent model“, based on “nurturant values“, where both “mothers” and “fathers” work to keep the essentially good “children” away from “corrupting influences” (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc.). Lakoff says that most people have a blend of both metaphors applied at different times, and that political speech works primarily by invoking these metaphors and urging the subscription of one over the other. [WikipeidaDecember 15, 2009]

The grief of the nurturant mother can hardly be assuaged by the authoritarian, pragmatic father. As Kilcup repeatedly points out, even though the husband seems to make concessions, such as offering to keep “hands off”, the power to make the offer and agreement is assumed to be his (and by implication the authority to revoke it remains his). The husband’s “offer”, according to Kilcup, hardly equalizes the power in their relationship.

“When he begs her not to go, he seems to Poirier “not without gentleness.” Yet the voice of power can afford to be gentle. If language and communication fail the couple in this poem, the poet’s language does not fail to communicate with the reader–not only the threat to masculinity engendered by the wife’s attitude but, as important, the damaging limitations imposed on her by patriarchal culture. [Kilcup p. 70]

Kilcup is insightfully sensitive to the politics of sexual persona in ways that other critics and readers have not been. She writes that “at first the female protagonist occupies a physically superior position, at the top of the stairs, but the husband soon remedies their inverted status, ‘advancing toward her,’ while she ‘sank upon her skirts'” [p. 68]. Reading Kilcup’s response to the poem, when compared to male critics, poets and readers, is to experience the poem’s sexual politics replayed in the writing of its male and female critics.

It is no wonder, rightly or wrongly, that some might have considered Frost “a brute”.

A Note on the Meter

Frost was always very proud of his skill as a traditional poet. While my scansions may not reflect how Frost himself would have imagined his poetry, my scansion is a poet’s scansion. (And I write my own poetry in the same spirit). For example, I disagree with poets and readers who scan “extra feet” into Frost’s lines. My feeling is that Frost took too much pride in his craftsmanship and knew too well how the Iambic Pentameter line could be varied without having to break the pattern. (Though, as a practical matter, an extra syllable is still an extra syllable no matter what it’s called.)

Besides that, the meter of traditional poetry grows out of a long convention – a convention many (if not most) modern poets are unaware of because they lack the training or even curiosity. They didn’t grow up with it the way Frost did. For instance, in the line that follows, many modern poets and readers might scan the line as follows:

I can |repeat |the ver|y words |you were |saying

Such a scansion “accurately” reflects how the line is spoken and where the ictus falls within each foot, but it ignores the tradition (or conventions) in which Frost was writing. The Iambic Pentameter line (Blank Verse) is defined as much by its five foot line as by its iambic feet. I find it much more likely that Frost imagined the line above as a five foot line, rather than as a clumsily written six foot line ending with two trochaic feet. I scanned it as follows:

I can |repeat |the ver|y words |you were saying

This makes the final foot a variant foot – an anapestic feminine ending. The feminine ending (the amphibrachic final foot) was a firmly established variant foot extending back to Shakespeare and Sidney. Until the moderns adopted a more Elizabethan sense of meter, poet’s rarely flirted with an anapestic final foot. Frost’s innovation was to not only deploy the anapest in the final foot, but to do so with a feminine ending (an extra unaccented syllable).


The husband’s angry statement:

And it’s come to this,
[70] A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.”

Is followed quickly by the wife’s first extended response. She answers scornfully:

"you had stood the spade"

[71]“You can’t because you don’t know how to speak.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand—how could you?—his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
[80]To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.”

“You don’t know how to speak…” she answers. But she’s speaking figuratively. What does she mean? Obviously, her husband knows how to “speak”. By what follows, we begin to get some sense of what she means. The speech she refers to is more than just words, but body language, demeanor – all the subtle cues that reveal us without words. The reader may be reminded of the poems beginning, of her sensitivity (perhaps over-sensitivity) to her husband’s body language. How she cowered under him as he “mounted” the stars – her expression of terror. (A feminist might counter that the wife isn’t “overly sensitive”, but that the husband lacks self-awareness. And there’s an argument to made for either.)

It isn’t until line 86 that she first mentions “talk” – speech in the sense that her husband understands. Most of the passage is a description of his actions – his body language. This is the speech that he has gotten all wrong – a language that he doesn’t know how to speak. While the husband gives primacy to words, the wife (in a way that certainly reflects broader gender differences) gives primacy to gestures. “If you had any feelings,” she asks, then stumbles, her words almost incapacitated by her grief and outrage: How could you make “the gravel leap and leap in air, leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly….” Her description is obsessive in its detail and repetitiveness. Her ability to use words, herself, is almost incapacitated by her obsessiveness with signs.

The passage is ripe for the semiotician – one who studies semiotics. The passage is nothing if not a conflict in sign processes, signification and communication.Wikipedia breaks Semiotics into three branches.

  • Semantics: Relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their denotata
  • Syntactics: Relations among signs in formal structures
  • Pragmatics: Relation between signs and their effects on those (people) who use them

I’m not a Semiotician, but I don’t think one has to be to imagine how each of these branches could be applied to the dispute between the husband and wife. The wife, after all, draws a relationship between her husband’s actions and what they denote that is very different than what the husband might imagine or might have intended. Is she right in doing so? There are surely as many different ways to experience grief as there are people.

In describing how he dug the grave, she might as well have been describing the murder of her child – as if each thrust of the spade had been the cut of a knife.

I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.

She asks the question as though symbol and intent were one and the same. As if to draw home the equation of her husband’s perceived thoughtlessness with a kind of murder, she says:

You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.”

I can’t help being reminded of Robert Frost’s poem Out, out and his allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth: Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!” “You could sit there,” she the wife in Frost’s drama, “with the stains on your shoes…” As if the stains were the blood of her murdered child. How could you not want to scrub the stain away, she seems to be asking, as though the stains somehow revealed a presumed guilt. How could he talk of “everyday concerns” and worst of all, how could he stand the spade, as though it were a murder weapon he should hide away, at the entryway for all to see? – and worst of all, where she could see it.

  • And don’t miss the nice metrical touch, the headless lines that parallel the accusatory emotional content(in which the first unstressed syllable is omitted creating a monosyllabic foot):

You | could sit | there with the stains on your shoes
You | had stood | the spade up against the wall

Randall Jarrell also senses the feeling of the judge and the judged (or the criminal):

–all these things give an awful finality to the judge’s summing up… the criminal’s matter-of-fact obliviousness has the perversity of absolute insensitivity: Judas sits under the cross matching pennies with the soldiers. The poem has brought to life an unthought-of literal meaning of its title: this is home burial with a vengeance, burial in the home…

  • Note: I haven’t been reading these other commentaries until I’ve written my own interpretation, so it’s interesting to see how my readings parallel those of other commentators.

Jarrell reads in the wife’s criticism the unstated vision of the husband as Judas. He adds:

That day of the funeral the grieving woman felt only misery and anguish, passive suffering; there was nobody to blame for it all except herself. . . . the woman’s feeling of guilt about other things is displaced onto the child’s death. Now when this woman sees her husband digging the grave (doing what seems to her, consciously, an intolerably insensitive thing; unconsciously, an indecent thing) she does have someone to blame, someone upon whom to shift her own guilt… as she blames the man’s greater guilt and wrongness her own lesser guilt can seem in comparison innocence and rightness…

In his book The Poems of Robert Frost: an explication, Mordecai Marcus focuses on the wife’s own failure to read her husband’s speech (though Marcus doesn’t explicitly express his ideas in these terms). She herself doesn’t “know how to speak”. She misreads the husband’s language of deed and gesture as indifference, even callousness. She cannot comprehend her husband’s grief if only because it’s not like her own. And in this sense, the wife’s accusations could as easily apply to herself. She is as blind to his language as he to hers.

Here she projects her own insistence on his unfeelingness onto images of his burial activities, not seeing that he buried the child himself to maintain his intimacy with it, to make it a part of his past, and to work out his own griefs. The spade and the stains on his shoes, which she took for signs of indifference, show his bond to the processes of life and death, just as his everyday talk after digging the grave was a way of holding back pain. But he is either incapable of an analytic answer or too stubbornly proud to offer one, so instead of protesting that she misunderstands, he can only toss out grimly oblique anger. She revels in the fact that everyone must die alone, and sets herself up as a philosopher, condemning humanity’s supposed insensitivity to everyone else’s grief and proposing the impossible task of changing the world.

Jospeh Brodsky, Homage to Robert Frost explicitly perceives the same connotations that I did:

I am afraid she sees a murder weapon: she sees a blade. The fresh earth stains either on the shoes or on his spade make the spade’s edge shine: make it into a blade. And does earth “stain,” however fresh? Her very choice of noun, denoting liquid, suggests—accuses—blood. What should our man have done? Should he have taken his shoes off before entering the house? Perhaps. Perhaps he should have left his spade outside, too. But he is a farmer, and acts like one—presumably out of fatigue. So he brings in his instrument—in her eyes, the instrument of death. And the same goes for his shoes, and it goes for the rest of the man. A gravedigger is equated here, if you will, with the reaper. And there are only the two of them in this house. [pp. 44-45]

The husband’s reply is one of helplessness. What can he or anyone do against a curse. A curse implies magic and magic implies the irrational.

“I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
[90]I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.”

Notice too, how the meter of the line echoes the wife’s (another headless line this time emphasizing I):

I | shall laugh | the worst laugh I ever laughed

His wife persists:

"in the darkened parlor"

“I can repeat the very words you were saying:
‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor?
You couldn’t care! The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
[100]No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so
If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t!”

  • “in the darkened parlor”: Until the invention of the funeral parlor, the Victorian parlor was the room in which the finest furniture was kept, social gatherings were held, and bodies lay in state before they were buried. In the parlor rooms of wealthier Victorian families, musical instruments, like pedal organs or spinets were frequently found. After the advent of the funeral parlor, the Victorian parlor room became the modern living room.

I can repeat the very words you were saying, she says, but she fails to read the language of her husband’s grief. She ridicules his talk of a birch fence concluding that “You couldn’t care!”

Is the husband really that callous? I don’t think Frost means us to think so. If anything, the husband’s talk of the rotting birch fence could have been an oblique reference to his own son. Three foggy mornings and one rainy day. How did his son die? Was it three feverish mornings and one deadly day? A man’s best efforts, the best home that he can build, can’t save his own son’s life. Karen Kilcup, Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradition, also observes the irony in the wife’s accusation that the husband cannot speak:

…his language wounds powerfully, and, however unwittingly, he, not she, is the metaphor maker, the poet who speaks of fences when his heart aches. When the wife accuses, “‘You can’t because you don’t know how to speak,'” she is unable to hear the pain and beauty in his lament… [p. 71]

A farmer’s life is a constant communing with the earth. Perhaps the farmer wanted to bury his own son as a way to subconsciously grieve and acquiesce to the cycle of birth and death from which he makes his living. What good comes from the wife’s persistent denial of the world implicit in her phrase : “the world’s evil”. For the farmer, this is no way out of grief but he hasn’t the words to express himself.

Above all, the wife’s obsessive reading of gesture (the very opposite of a King Lear who fails to comprehend anything beyond words) is revealed in her description of “friends” who “make pretense”. She describes how they “follow to the grave”, but she doesn’t believe their sincerity. She doesn’t trust the world of symbol, sign or gesture. She both distrusts it and trusts it too much – perceiving manner and gesture as literally things. How dare anyone “make the best of their way back to life and living people”? As if her observations taught her that death was an indifference to all but her – that no one but her suffered or grieved and that the only way to grieve was to explicitly renounce the world. “I won’t have grief so,” she cries.

In the same letter alluded to at the beginning of this post, “And I suppose I am a brute,” Frost preceded this comment by describing his sister Jeanie’s reaction to the upheaval’s wrought by WWI:

She has always been antiphysical and a sensibilist. I must say she was pretty broken by the coarseness and brutality of the world before the war was thought of…. I really think she thought in her heart that nothing would do justice to the war but going insane over it. She was willing to go almost too far to show her feeling about it, the more so that she couldn’t find anyone who would go far enough. One half the world seemed unendurably bad and the other half unendurably indifferent. A mistake. I belong to the unendurably bad. ¶ And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies. As I get older, I find it easier to lie awake nights over other people’s troubles. But that’s as far as I go to date. In good time I will join them in death to show our common humanity. [Selected Letters of Robert Frost pp. 247-248]

The similarity between Frost’s portrayal of the wife, and his description of his sister, is hard to miss. Couple this with Lea Newman’s own observations from Robert Frost,The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry (unfortunately OP and ridiculously overpriced by resellers):

In a letter to another friend, J.J. Lankes, he revealed how differently Elinor reacted [to their son Elliot’s death]: “I refused to be bowed down as much as she was by other deaths.” In commenting on “Home Burial,” Frost credited the husband with being “more practical and matter-of-fact about death than the woman.” But the most convincing echo from Frost’s real-tragedy is his use of the phrase “the world’s evil.” The wife in the poem issues this blanket condemnation using exactly the same words Elinor did over and over again after Elliot’s death. [p. 80]

It’s no wonder Frost never, to my knowledge, read this poem in public or recorded it. Too much struck too close to home.

“There, you have said it all and you feel better.
You won’t go now. You’re crying. Close the door.
[110]The heart’s gone out of it: why keep it up?
Amy! There’s someone coming down the road!”

The husband’s attempt at consolation sound wishful – almost desperate. But maybe he was right. Maybe the heart had gone out of it. But then, oblivious to the source of his his wife’s grief, he blurts: “Amy! There’s someone coming down the road!” At once, he betrays himself and recalls the world of gestures that she despises. She doesn’t want to be like those “friends” who “make pretense”. She won’t conceal her grief. She cries:

“You—oh, you think the talk is all. I must go—
Somewhere out of this house. How can I make you——”

And we are back to the beginning of the poem. She won’t be the conduit of her husband’s progeny. The home burial of her son won’t also be her own home burial. Substituting home for bedroom, I could have easily written in the previous post:

The home is a place of necessity where she conceives and raises his progeny and where, in all likelihood, she and some of her progeny will die. The size of the bedroom and graveyard are comparable. The sleep of the bedroom and the graveyard darkly mirror each other. The birthing that happens in the one, is darkly reflected by death in the other. She wants no part of the coldly pragmatic, matter-of-fact world her husband seems to inhabit – a world described by simple necessity.

The end of the poem sheds light on the beginning. The world which the wife inhabits is one of “pretense” and she wants no part of it. She perceives the gesture of procreation in its most literal sense. The bedroom and the home threaten to bury her and her grief as they have buried her child. Procreation would be a pretense, a victory for the world’s evil and she won’t give it another chance. She will conquer the world’s pretenses, evil and indifference with, if nothing else, her grief.

Her husband tries to stop her:

“If—you—do!” She was opening the door wider.
“Where do you mean to go? First tell me that.
[106] I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—”

  • Notice the metrical tour-de-force in line 104 (the spondaic feet couldn’t have the same disruptive effect in a free verse poem where there is no pattern to disrupt) :
Ifyou-| do!She |was o|pening the door wider

Karen L. Kilcup’s decidedly feminist reading of these closing lines is a dark one:

….The husband’s “sentence” that concludes the poem–“I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!”–represents both desperate plea and the final, overt expression of the menace that has underscored his speech throughout the poem. Structurally as well as semantically, the poem enacts the enclosure of the feminine self and feminine speech; to read this last line as merely desperate is seriously to underread the danger that the husband poses. Echoing the voice of cultural authority, he becomes both judge and author of his wife’s fate: house arrest. [Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradition p. 72]

The problem I have with Kilcup’s reading is that while there may be truth to what she writes, her interpretation threatens to too narrowly define the poem (and Frost’s intentions), ironically, in the same way that the wife too narrowly defines her husband’s grief (or lack of grief). Yes, the husband’s gestures may appear threatening, but there is also the risk of seriously overreading “the danger that the husband poses” – of reading his gestures too literally. After all, Frost gives us no reason to think that the husband has ever, in actuality, physically abused his wife. If Kilcup wants to insinuate that the threat is serious and real, then she does so for reasons external to the poem. After all, are we to trust the wife’s interpretation of her husband’s “threatening” gestures while, at the same time, admitting (as Kilcup does) that she might not correctly interpret the language of his grief?

Kilcup’s closing interpretation also implies that the wife is the ultimate victim. I won’t dispute that this may have been true for women in Frost’s day, but this isn’t what Frost’s poem is about and undermines the balance Frost has tried to achieve. There is more than one victim in Home Burial.

By contrast, here is Robert Pack’s closing thoughts on Home Burial:

The failure to allow mourning to be transformed into catharsis leads not only to melancholy and gloom, but also, in Frost’s poem, to misanthropy. Indeed, the wife’s mourning, her faithfulness to death, exacerbates her hostility toward her husband and further perverts the sexual tension between them into a contagious hatred that seems likely to lead to overt aggression. This aggression is implicit in the husband’s final words… [Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost p. 104]

In Pack’s closing thoughts, we have two victims, not one. But even in Pack’s reading, he takes the threat of overt aggression to be a real one. But perhaps the most nuanced reading is Richard Poirier’s:

…her grievances are not and cannot be the equivalent of her grief, and so she necessarily rejects what to her cannot help but sound like condescension. Her movement out of the house, out of discord, and into a literal “extravagancy” on the road leads again to his assertion of masculine threat and will, though this is now so tempered by an evident love and toleration and concern that the threat sounds more like a plea and an admission of helplessness. [Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing p. 134]

If the poem had ended with an exclamation point , I will!, then I might be inclined to doubt Poirier’s reading, but it ends with a dash, I will!—

There is a lack of finality. If the threat of force were real, then why wait? The husband could easily bar his wife from leaving. But he doesn’t. Implicit in his “threat” to find her is the fact that he won’t prevent her from leaving. If he’s not going to use physical force then what does that leave him? Threats? Cajoling? Pleading? The implicit admission of helplessness? She has, as other readers have commented, unmanned him.

All he can do, as Randall Jarrell writes, his throw his weight around.

If anything, the poem ends in a kind of stranglehold in which both are each others’ victim.

❧ Up in Vermont • February 1 2010

the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 19-70

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One of the many books I have most frequently enjoyed is Lea Newman’s Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry. It looks like it might have gone out of print but is still available used. Higher priced “collectibles” are also being foisted on us. If the background to Frost’s poems interest, there is no better book than Newman’s. Go buy it. In her introduction to Home Burial, Newman considers the question many readers ask: How autobiographical is Frost’ poem? She writes:

It was inspired, he said, by the premature death of another child whose parents separated as a result of the grief that followed. Elinor’s older sister Leona and her husband Nathaniel Harvey lost their first-born child in 1895. Frost spent that summer in Ossipee Mountain Park in New Hampshire because of the domestic dispute that followed the child’s death. Leona left her husband and accepted a commission to paint portraits in the area, Elinor accompanied her, and Frost went along to be with Elinor. (The Harveys later reconciled and subsequently had three more children.) [p.80]

And though the inspiration may have been the Harveys, careful readers have noted autobiographical parallels and for good reason. Frost’s own 3 year old son died of cholera in 1900. And though the Frost’s marriage wasn’t threatened to the same degree, echoes of their own tragedy have been traced in the poem. Newman writes that “the most convincing echo from Frost’s real-life tragedy is his use of the phrase “the world’s evil.” The wife in the poem issues this blanket condemnation using exactly the same words Elinor did over and over again after Elliot’s death.” It’s little wonder Frost counted the poem is cutting a little too near to read it publicly.


Having set the scene in the first 18 lines, the narrative voice is set aside and read the poem as though we were reading a small play.

  • All unmarked feet are Iambic (pr at least that’s how I read them).
  • Pyrrhic feet are Yellow, Trochaic feet are Red, Anapests are Blue, and feminine endings are Green. If you are not familiar with these terms, read my posts on Iambic Pentameter and the Basics.

About the Meter

The meter in Home Burial, as mentioned in the previous post, is blank verse. I have read other interpretations of the poem that imply extra-metrical (if that’s a word) departures from Iambic Pentameter, but Frost’s practice  is actually easily within conventions that any Elizabethan poet would have recognized and, perhaps grudgingly, accepted. The only innovation, and I think this might be unique to Frost, is that of the anapestic feminine ending. A feminine ending is an amphibrach that occurs at the end of a line in an Iambic Meter.

I must be wonted to it — that’s |the reas(on)

The final syllable of reason, in brackets, is unstressed, making the line eleven syllables rather than ten. It’s a standard variant foot. Frost’s innovation was to introduce the anapest feminine ending:

Two that don’t love can’t live togeth|(er) without (them)

The anapest consists of an extra unstressed syllable at the start of the foot, the –er of together. No Elizabethan (and very few  Romantics for that matter) introduced an anapest in the final foot (or at least I can’t think of any examples). Frost took the anapestic final foot a step further, by adding an extra unstressed syllable, them, after the ictus (the stress) – which is typical of a feminine ending – hence the anapestic feminine ending. If you enjoy the ins and outs of meter as much as I do, you will also find this innovative foot in Frost’s Birches (a color-coded scansion of Birches can be found in my post on Mending Wall).

The long and the short of it, for those of you who have in interest in these finer points, as that I’ve color-coded anapestic feminine endings as both blue and green.


“You don’t,” she challenged.  “Tell me what it is.”

[20] “The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it—that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill.  We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
[30] But the child’s mound——”

“What is it—what?” she said. He answers: “Just that I see.” This is the line that preceded the lines above. The wife’s angry question clearly goes beyond the mere fact of what the husband literally sees. And that’s the first hint we have as to the nature of their conflict and of their parts in it.

  • Before going into the content of the lines notice, in the scansion above, the repeated combination of pyrrhics followed by spondees . The variant feet mark Frost’s willingness to use colloquial rhythms that would have been avoided by earlier poets writing meter. Notice also, both by accident of language and choice, how the spondees emphasize the visual cues: three stones, sidehill, child’s mound. The variant feet highlight the poem’s subject matter, a sign of a skillful metrist and poet. Not all traditional poets were or are as careful in how they vary the metrical pattern. Consider Horace Smith’s version of Ozymandias, for example.

The wife’s challenge to her husband is loaded. Tell me what you see! – she demands, and her husband does just that. He describes the family burial plot visible through the stair or hall window.  And he makes some statements and comparisons  that oughtn’t to be missed. For instance, he calls the little burial plot the place “where all my people are”.

  • The picture at right is a of a little family plot just up the hill from my house. There are all of four little tombstones. It would easily fit within a windows frame if it were seen from a house and would probably look no larger than a bedroom. Such small burial plots are scattered throughout New England.

Jarrell characterizes the passage this way:

“The little graveyard where my people are!” we feel not only the triumph of the slow person at last comprehending, but also the tender, easy accustomedness of habit, of long use, of a kind of cozy social continuance—for him the graves are not the healed scars of old agonies, but are something as comfortable and accustomed as the photographs in the family album(…) “Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?”—an observation that appeals to her for agreement—carries this comfortable acceptance to a point at which it becomes intolerable: the only link between the bedroom and the graveyard is the child conceived in their bedroom and buried in that graveyard. The sentence comfortably establishes a connection which she cannot bear to admit the existence of—she tries to keep the two things permanently separated in her mind.”

Poirier finds that the husband’s descriptions carries undercurrents of sexual dissonance:

One of the husband’s initial mentions of the graveyard does betray a certain tactless predominance and possessiveness (“‘The little graveyard where my people are!”‘), but this is immediately followed by a metaphor of diminishment that somewhat restores a balance (“‘So small the window frames the whole of it”‘). However, this in turn gives way to yet another metaphor of dangerously thoughtless implication: “‘Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?”‘ In its very casualness, really a kind of stupidity, the husband’s comparison of the graveyard to a bedroom is a sign that, having been made so nervous about the inadequacy of his language, he has to double or triple his illustration of anything he wants to communicate. He seems unaware of his tastelessness, which is of course all the more reason to think that his bedroom metaphor reveals some of his deepest feelings about what has happened to their marriage. But if the bedroom is like a graveyard, the reason has as much to do with her excessive (possibly neurotic) sensibility as with the obvious deficiencies of his. [p. 128]

And Katherine Kearns, in her book Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite, makes explicit what is only suggested by Poirier.

The house itself, reduced to a narrow passageway between the bedroom and the threshold and triangulated to the graveyard, is a correlative for the sexual tension generated by the man’s preoccupation with his marital rights and the woman’s rejection of them. He offers to “give up being a man” by binding himself “to keep hands off,” but quite clearly their marriage is already sexually damaged and empty. That he makes this concession suggests that his wife has repulsed his sexual advances in the past: in this refusal she empowers herself, symbolically and literally rejecting the role as servant-wife by refusing to acknowledge the conjugal “rights” of the husband and by refusing to provide him with an heir. Her egress from the house will be symbolic verification of her husband’s impotence, and if she leaves it and does not come back, the house will rot like the best birch fence will rot. Unfilled, without a woman with child, it will fall into itself

The repeated usage of the word “see” in the opening of the poem begins to be understood as the core of the poem’s meaning. What does each mean by see? We soon learn the word can have very different meanings. What the husband sees is both literal and symbolic – but the poem gives the impression that  he is blithely (or cruelly some readers suggest) unaware of the symbolism with which he imbues his language. She is not. She perceives, rightly or wrongly, a world and meaning he does not.

Jarrell writes that “we feel… the triumph of the slow person at last comprehending.”

But I disagree.  My own reading, in fact, is just the opposite. The husband, in fact, does not see and this is what provokes his wife’s outcry:

“Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” she cried.

Consciously, her husband sees the little graveyard, the place where his kin are buried, and describes the three stones and the size of it, but subconsciously the graveyard is the place that holds his ancestors and will, someday, hold his progeny. No larger than a bedroom, he says; but his wife doesn’t miss the underlying symbolism. The bedroom is a place of necessity where she conceives and raises his progeny and where, in all likelihood, she and some of her progeny will die. The size of the bedroom and graveyard are comparable. The sleep of the bedroom and the graveyard darkly mirror each other.  The birthing that happens in the one, is darkly reflected by death in the other. She wants no part of the coldly pragmatic, matter-of-fact  world her husband seems to inhabit – a world described by simple necessity. Don’t! she cries.


[30] “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” she cried.

She withdrew, shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
“Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?”

“Not you!—Oh, where’s my hat?  Oh, I don’t need it!
I must get out of here.  I must get air.—
I don’t know rightly whether any man can.”

“Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.
[40] Listen to me.  I won’t come down the stairs.”
He sat and fixed his chin between his fists.
“There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.”

“You don’t know how to ask it.”

“Help me, then.”

The wife’s reaction is telling. She must escape! Her husband only grasps the most obvious and does so to the exclusion of his wife. “Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?”  he asks, more concerned with himself than with his wife. In the very question itself, though, is the assumption that he understands the source of her grief – her child’s death. But it’s much more than that.

But why doesn’t she tell him? Why instead does she furiously retort that no man, least of all her husband, has the right to speak of his own child’s loss? And at this point we, as readers, are invited to make some deductions. This has been a “long-standing” grievance between the two – or at least from the time their child was buried. And it’s apparent that they have not communicated with each other and, as a result, they may be passed communicating. Their mutual grief has turned to grievances.

And why does she want to leave? Why must she get air? This isn’t the behavior of spouse invested in a relationship, let alone a marriage.  “She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see” She insures her prediction is self-fulfilled. Not only has he not truly seen, but her behavior is that of a person who prefers grief to resolution. She directs the pain of losing her child toward her husband, where it becomes anger and resentment. If she surrenders that anger and resentment, it would be like surrendering the pain of her child’s loss. She perceives pragmatic indifference in her husband, and so she clings to her grief all the more ferociously. One might speculate that she deliberately poisons their communication as a means of catharsis. She wants the relationship to end, though these were not times when couples were easily divorced.

Her husband begs him not to go. He sits with his “chin between his fists”, and there some readers who have attached no small meaning to this detail.

Of this moment Jarrell writes:

The poem’s next sentence, “He sat and fixed his chin between his fists”—period, end of line—with its four short i’s, its “fixed ” and “fists,” fixes him in baffled separateness; the sentence fits into the line as he fits into the isolated perplexity of his existence. Once more he makes a rhetorical announcement of what he is about to do, before he does it: “There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.” The sentence tiptoes in, gentle, almost abjectly mollifying, and ends with a reminding “dear”; it is an indirect rhetorical appeal that expects for an answer at least a grudging…

Karen Kilcup detects a more subconsciously threatening content behind the gesture:

…his words exhibit a wide veering fromhis behavior: “‘Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.’ / He sat and fixed his chin between his fists. / ‘There’s something I should like to ask you, dear”‘ (emphasis added). Throughout the poem a language of endearment masks and conventionalizes the subverbal menace emblematized in his physical gestures(….) If masculinity requires bodily supremacy, it also collides, however unwittingly, with psychological dominance. Yet the consequence of this dominance seems to be only greater alienation, sexual as well is emotional…. [T]he portrait of the husband on the verge of a violent brutishness both reflects and interrogates early-twentieth-century notions of muscular masculinity.

Faggan. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin, also reads Frost’s choice of description as a veiled reference to physical violence:

The narrator’s observation of the husband sitting with his “chin between his fists” calls attention ominously to physical force that might have been used in the past. Amy wants her husband to bend to her demands, but she may also want to be independent of him altogether. The husband feels the strain of meeting his wife’s demands of beauty, and, while he wants to please her, he also wants to remain true to his sense of self and purpose, which is inextricably bound up with his “being a man.”

All these readings may convey an element of truth. However, it’s worth mentioning that many men and women make fists without intending to inflict physical violence. The gesture is a very natural reaction to stress, much like frowning or hunching our shoulders. Once you’ve read the poem in its entirety, your knowledge of the poem is as complete as any critic’s; and you have as much right and authority to make inferences from words and passages. I’m not convinced that critics aren’t reading too much into the this gesture. On the other hand, marital violence has always been with us and the poem certainly serves as a springboard for that discussion. Robert Frost, the only man who could have told us the full significance of these, is gone. Don’t let the fact that someone has written a book on the subject persuade you that your own reading of a poem is necessarily wrong. Critics and close readers disagree with each other.

Here, for instance, is Tyler Hoffman’s response to Poirier’s analysis, quoted above:

To the husband’s plea, “Don’t go./ Don’t carry it to someone else this time,'” Richard Poirier responds, “if he [the husband] is insensitive, he is at least not without gentleness,” and further finds that “he is less peremptory than is she: “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,’ she cried.” As Poirier believes, the husband’s “reasonable beseeching” is pitted against the wife’s “physical and spiritual lack of outgoingness, forthcomingness.” While I would agree with the view of the husband as “beseeching” and the wife as non-forthcoming, I can imagine hearing these words by husband and wife differently. In the two sentences that Poirier defines as “less peremptory” than the wife’s speech, I can also hear peremptoriness, frustration, pique (not again!). In the wife’s concatenation of “don’t”s I can pick up a highly pathetic beseeching; in fact, I am able to hear each “don’t”n a different tone as each registers a different agony. Frost once remarked that  “the  four ‘don’t’s were the supreme thing” in the poem, and they are if by that he means the height of ambiguity of expression. [Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry p. 107]

Hoffman’s response is interesting  because it reminds us to read the text as an actor would read it. An actor might try out a variety of different inflections when reading the repeated ‘don’t’s, each inflection conveying a different emotion. When you read a poem like this, especially written in dialog, imagine  the different voices in which the lines could be expressed. And blank verse adds another dimension. Strictly speaking, an actor trained in the reading of Shakespearean verse (the same verse as Home Burial) might find ways to slightly accent each second ‘don’t’ more than the preceding ‘don’t’.


“There’s something I should like to ask you, dear,” says the husband. His wife sharply retorts, “You don’t know how to ask it.” “Help me, then,” says he.

Home Burial continues:

[44] Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.

“My words are nearly always an offense.
I don’t know how to speak of anything
So as to please you.  But I might be taught,
I should suppose.  I can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man

[50] With womenfolk.  We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.
Though I don’t like such things ‘twixt those that love.
Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.
But two that do can’t live together with them.”

The husband asks for help. His wife moves the latch for all reply, but she stays. She listens. He admits to her that his worlds “nearly always” give offense and offers to keep “hands off” anything she’s a-mind to name”. The meaning of this offer has been debated. Jarrell finds in it an awkward materiality.

He goes on: “We could have some arrangement [it has a hopeful, indefinite, slightly helter-skelter sound] / By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off “—the phrases “bind myself” and “keep hands off” have the primitive, awkward materiality of someone taking an oath in a bad saga; we expect the sentence to end in some awkwardly impressive climax, but get the almost ludicrous anticlimax of “Anything special you’re a-mind to name.”

Katherine Kearns reads something more:

He offers to “give up being a man” by binding himself “to keep hands off,” but quite clearly their marriage is already sexually damaged and empty. That he makes this concession suggests that his wife has repulsed his sexual advances in the past: in this refusal she empowers herself, symbolically and literally rejecting the role as servant-wife by refusing to acknowledge the conjugal “rights” of the husband and by refusing to provide him with an heir. Her egress from the house will be symbolic verification of her husband’s impotence, and if she leaves it and does not come back, the house will rot like the best birch fence will rot.

Kearns’ reading  falls well within the unspoken recesses of the poem and the husband is surely speaking figuratively -if, by “anything special”, he means sex. For modern readers though, it may be worth mentioning that the husband’s use of the word “special” is probably a colloquialism for especially or even a throwback to the older meaning of the word which was used in reference to something particular or peculiar. So, “anything special you’re a-mind to name,” probably should be read as:

I’ll keep hands off anything that especially bothers you


I’ll keep hands off anything that particularly bothers you

The husband isn’t referring to her special china plates. And the telling expression that he would “bind his hands” tells us what we need to know. Withholding his conjugal affections won’t be an easy thing for him or their relationship, but it seems this is what has happened or is happening already. And as soon as he’s said it, he almost regrets the offer, reasoning that “…I don’t like such things ‘twixt those that love,” but that “Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.” The reasoning seems to plod through its monosyllables, skirting redundancy. Even as he’s made the offer to abstain, he reasons that he shouldn’t have to and that two who love each other shouldn’t have to. Maybe he wanted her to reassure him that she does still love him, but she doesn’t. Her response is coldly hostile. I can’t help but feel a kind of desperation in his “thinking aloud “.

Among the interesting comments on this passage are those that observes the monosyllabic vocabulary of the husband, as though it were a sign of his “plodding banality”. But having compared his passages to the wife’s, I can’t say I see much difference in syllable length.I think that what some critics are responding to is the different ways in which the two characters inform and propel the poem. The husband’s is the voice that must explain the arguments. This is a tall order. He can’t be too persuasive. Frost wants to strike a balance in our sympathies and so he deliberately gives to the husband’s speech a searching, fumbling quality that strikes us as inept. The poet Randal Jarrell, incidentally, incorrectly identifies the line as have an extra foot. He writes:

Frost then makes him express his own feeling in a partially truthful but elephantine aphorism that lumbers through a queerly stressed line a foot too long…

Jarrell is correct in the effect he identifies, the extra-syllabic length does make it feel elephantine, but the effect is produced by a variant feet (an anapestic feminine ending) not an extra foot. As pointed out at the start of the post, it’s a variant foot Frost has used elsewhere (otherwise I might be inclined to agree with him).


My Door Latch

She moved the latch a little.  “Don’t—don’t go.
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.
Let me into your grief.  I’m not so much

[60] Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out.  Give me my chance.
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably—in the face of love.
You’d think his memory might be satisfied——”

  • In the scansion, some may notice that I read lines 58 & 59 as follows:

Tell me|
Rather than: Tell me|

Let me|
Rather than: Let me|

Even though our desire is to stress Tell and Let, the meter wants us to stress me in both lines. Metrical conventions are sometimes overruled by the demands of language (which is what gives meter some of its power) but in this case I felt the context lent support to placing the ictus on me in both lines. After all, the husband is begging his wife not to carry it “somewhere else this time”. Tell me, he pleads. Let me into your grief, not someone else.

When his wife coldly moves the latch the husband echoes his wife’s ‘don’t’s with his own. “Don’t—don’t go.” he cries.

  • The door latch at right is an old New England Latch and lock from my own house. This probably isn’t the kind of doorlatch Frost is referring to, since the wife is heading out the door. The door latch at bottom left (not from my house) is probably nearer to the kind of “dooryard” latch Frost would have been familiar with.

The husband begs his wife not to go somewhere else or to someone else. But most importantly, he appeals to her to let him ‘into her grief‘. Having said that, his exasperation gets the best of him. He denigrates her grief saying “I do think, though, you overdo it a little…” And now we come to the heart of the dispute. He is torn between his desire to understand her grief but also fears its self-destructiveness and its threat to destroy their marriage, their home and future.

Robert Pack, in his book Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost, neatly sums up the crux of this dispute. Her writes:

“[An] extreme example of the refusal to allow one’s grief to be mitigated by any of the ongoing claims of life and the living is to be found in Robert Frost’s “Home Burial.” In this poem a woman, resenting the necessity of her husband’s having to bury their child, castigates him for talking about everyday concerns, as if ongoing life should have no attraction for him. For her, it is as if the only suitable response to the death of a loved one is to die oneself, and her bitterness seems beyond relief or cure…” [ p. 103]

Jarrell detects, again, sexual undertones in the husband’s plea.

“Let me into your grief,” combines an underlying sexual metaphor with a child’s “Let me in! let me in!” This man who is so much a member of the human community feels a helpless bewilderment at being shut out of the little group of two of which he was once an anomalous half; the woman has put in the place of this group a group of herself-and-the-dead-child, and he begs or threatens—reasons with her as best he can—in his attempt to get her to restore the first group, so that there will be a man-and-wife grieving over their dead child.

Karen Kilcup reads darker sexual undertones in the husband’s plea:

In her pain and anger she threatens him with her physical absence (her emotional absence is only too evident), yet, when she makes this threat, his real fears of sexual inadequacy surface: “‘Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.'” What stands out for me at this moment–and elsewhere–is the duplicity of the language in which the husband couches his desire, for this line represents both plea and command. Furthermore, his words exhibit a wide veering from his behavior: “‘Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.’ [ Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradtion. p. 72]

Interestingly, Poirier’s reading is more sympathetic to the husband (and one begins to wonder if gender is at play). The women among the critics certainly (and intentionally) seem more sensitive to the threat of male violence and dominance:

But if the bedroom is like a graveyard, the reason has as much to do with her excessive (possibly neurotic) sensibility as with the obvious deficiencies of his. And if he is insensitive, he is at least not without gentleness. When he asks her ” ‘Don’t – Don’t go./ Don’t carry it to someone else this time”‘ (lines 56-57), he is less peremptory than is she: “‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t’ she cried”… [pp. 128-129]

Joseph Brodsky offers us what is, perhaps, the bleakest reading of these lines and also the most sympathetic to the husband. He writes:

For the more she is explicated, the more remote she gets the higher her pedestal grows (which is perhaps of specific importance to her now that she is downstairs). It’s not grief that drives her out of the house but the dread of being explicated, as well as of the explicator himself. She wants to stay impenetrable and won’t accept anything short of his complete surrender. And he is well on the way to it:

“Don’t—don’t go
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.”

The last is the most stunning, most tragic line, in my view, in the entire poem. It amounts practically to the heroine’s ultimate victory—i.e , to the aforementioned rational surrender on the part of the explicator. For all its colloquial air, it promotes her mental operations to supernatural status, thus acknowledging infinity—ushered into her mind by the child’s death—as his rival. Against this he is powerless, since her access to that infinity, her absorption by and commerce with it… [Homage to Robert Frost by Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcot pp. 37-38]

Worth remembering is the husband’s promise to not come down (line 40) the stairs and his later menacing threat to come down: “You make me angry.  I’ll come down to you./ God, what a woman!” (lines 68 & 69). His inability to communicate verbally wants to find masculine, physical expression, but he restrains himself. As he has said a moment before:   “A man must partly give up being a man / With womenfolk.” Not only does he feel unmanned sexually, but physically as well. Frost gives us no clue as to whether he has ever physically abused his wife, but a women need not be abused to be terrified by a man’s inability to communicate verbally – rightly or wrongly.

You think is memory might be satisfied,” he beings to say, but that is precisely what, in her view, can never be satisfied. Her reaction is visceral.


“There you go sneering now!”

“I’m not, I’m not!

“You make me angry.  I’ll come down to you.
God, what a woman!  And it’s come to this,

[70] A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.”

As Pack wrote ” it is as if the only suitable response to the death of a loved one is to die oneself, and her bitterness seems beyond relief or cure…” But, hearkening back to the beginning of this post, it’s my own view that it’s not just the grief from which she suffers. Frost, in the opening 19 lines, suggests something more. Her suffering arises from a simultaneous understanding of her husband’s pragmatic – matter of fact – reaction to their child’s death and how, she believes, his reaction reveals her place and role in his life. The graveyard has become too closely associated with the bedroom.

The husband thinks it’s come to this, that “A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead”, but his angry assertion brings us to the latter third of the poem and something for the third post – the wife’s response.

❧ Up in Vermont • December 6 2009

the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 1-18

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I’ve noticed a fair amount of interest in Home Burial and so I thought I would finally give it a good read . My technique for examining poems is evolving. If you compare my earliest posts with my later ones, you will hopefully see an improvement in presentation. Because of the length of Home Burial, I’m going to try a sort if annotated discussion and I’m going to split the post into three parts. So… let’s begin with first things first – lines 1-18.

  • If you want to see the original source for any photos included in this post, click on the image.


  • Note: Frost has split the last line (of this first part) between two speakers. In terms of meter, a split line is still considered one line.
  • Pyrrhic feet are Yellow, Trochaic feet are Red, Anapests are Blue, and feminine endings are Green. If you are not familiar with these terms, read my postson Iambic Pentameter and the Basics.

On the Meter

First, all unmarked feet are iambic.

The meter of the poem is Iambic Pentameter, and the genre is Blank Verse – unrhymed Iambic Pentameter, the meter of Shakespeare plays and Milton’s Paradise Lost. But for the Restoration Poets, blank verse has been, by far, the favored meter of narrative poetry prior to the 20th Century. Only a  2oth century poets have favored blank verse and Frost was one of them. After Frost, it’s this poet’s contention that the 20th Century’s best blank verse is to be found in modern translations of Virgil, Homer and Dante – Mandelbaum’s blank verse being some of the best . It’s interesting to note that the first appearance of blank verse occurred as a translation of Virgil by Henry Howard Earl of Surrey.

  • As of this writing, Wikipedia (in its usual referenceless fashion) states that “it would be safe to say that blank verse is as prominent now as it has been any time in the past three hundred years.” Why the past three hundred years? Why not the past 400? And what planet are they on? As a percentage of all the verse forms written,  blank verse represents a tiny fraction. To say that blank verse is as prominent now, as in the 19th century, is ludicrous.

Frost’s use of Blank Verse is freer than that of the 19th Century. The colloquial voice, the sound of sense as he called it, works against the regular iambic beat.  In the very first line the ear might not even detect the iambic beat. The two phyrrhic feet, second and fourth, reflect English as we speak, more than how poets might have written in the preceding century. A poet of the 19th Century might rewritten the line in order to avoid one or the other variant foot. It’s possible that Frost would have emphasized the preposition from, in “from the bottom of the stairs“, but, to my knowledge, no recording of this poem exists. I know from his other readings, that Frost does like to read the meter (putting a little extra emphasis on words that her in the stress position) even while his poetic practice tends to weaken those same stresses.


From "Dover Friends Meeting"

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him.  She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again.

Old New England staircases are steep. There wasn’t room; houses weren’t big enough for the much wider and deper staircases of the modern house. A modern staircase takes a considerable amount of square footage. So, when I imagine Frost’s staircase, something like the staircase at right is what I imagine. It’s steep. The stairs are shallow and there’s a window either next the stairs or at the very top.

Frost places the woman at the top and the man at the bottom. From this placement alone, many closer readers have drawn similar conclusions. The woman, at first, doesn’t so much as notice her husband. Her attention is elsewhere. Why is the husband on the ground floor and why is she upstairs? Frost doesn’t give us any explicit answers. In the next lines he advances toward her. The reader is given the impression that the husband hasn’t been sitting or, probably, waiting for her to come down the stairs.

He has been standing. Maybe he’s just come in from outside. A close reading might say that the first floor of the house is where the living happens. The kitchen is on the first floor; so are the doors in and out of the house The first floor is where the fire is built and is where a family normally gathers. The upstairs is, in some ways, where one retreats from life. In the old New England Capes, as in the picture below, the bedrooms are usually upstairs.

The young wife has been upstairs. She starts to come, back to the living in a sense, then hesitates and steps back up, her gaze drawn away from her husband and life. She can’t bring herself to walk down the stairs.

  • Notice the first trochaic foot of Looking |back o|ver. We’ll never know if this metrical touch (the backward trochaic foot that seems to mimic her backward look) was deliberate or an accident of language. At the very least, Frost wrote it and didn’t revise the variant feet. It’s a lovely touch.

Richard Poirier may sense this facet of the poem’s opening lines, though he doesn’t elaborate. He writes:

The remarkable achievement here is that the husband and wife have become so nearly inarticulate in their animosities that the feelings have been transferred to a vision of household arrangements and to their own bodily movements. They and the house conspire together to create an aura of suffocation. [Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing p. 125]

Randall Jarrell, in his essay, “Robert Frost’s ‘Home Burial'” from the The Third Book of Criticism (1962), presently available in No Other Book: Selected Essays, also makes the following observation:

The poem’s first sentence, “He saw her from the bottom of the stairs / Before she saw him,” implies what the poem very soon states: that, knowing herself seen, she would have acted differently—she has two sorts of behavior, behavior for him to observe and spontaneous immediate behavior…

What Jarrell reads is another separation between the husband and wife. Not only is the woman alone in her grief (the husband is downstairs while she has been upstairs) but Jarrell finds another theme. Not only, as I have pointed out, does the woman not want to be separated from her grief (her step downstairs was doubtful and she undid it) but Jarrell asserts that she doesn’t want her husband to observe her grief.

I’m not sure that I agree with how Jarrell frames his argument. My own reading is not that the wife doesn’t want to be observed by the husband or that she doesn’t want him to comprehend her grief (that she would have acted differently), it’s that  she doesn’t believe her husband is capable of comprehending her grief.


He spoke
Advancing toward her:  “What is it you see
From up there always—for I want to know.”
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.

The husband’s manner feels willful. In response to the husband’s  advance the woman sinks “upon her skirts”. Women wearing pants was exceedingly rare. The woman in his poem might have been expected to wear something like the skirt Frost’s wife wore in the photo at right. But there was another reason for this detail. Frost could easily have written:

She turned and sat upon the steps at that

The observation that she sinks upon her skirts works at two levels. First is the word sank. The verb connotes something very different that what I wrote.  There is a kind of implicit resignation and surrender in the use of the word  sank. Frost’s detail of the skirts serves to emphasize her femininity just at the moment when the husband’s questioning ‘advances’ with the feeling of an implacable and masculine will.

Karen L. Kilcup Karen, in her book, Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradtion, also reads in the husband’s words and actions the threat “of a violent brutishness”. She writes:

Throughout the poem a language of endearment masks and conventionalizes the subverbal menace emblematized in his physical gestures. Echoing an issue that emerges differently in poems like “The Housekeeper” and “The Fear,” Frost understands–only too well, perhaps– the psychic weight carried by the threat physical violence embodied here by the husband, and his is deeply sensitive to the wife’s vulnerability. If masculinity requires bodily supremacy, it also collides, however unwittingly, with psychological dominance. Yet the consequence of this dominance seems to be only greater alienation, sexual as well is emotional. . . . [T]he portrait of the husband on the verge of a violent brutishness both reflects and interrogates early-twentieth-century notions of muscular masculinity. [p. 72]

At his approach and question, the woman’s face changes from terrified to dull. Why? Of what was she initially terrified? And did this expression come before or while she was being questioned by her husband. Frost doesn’t tell us. The line could be interpreted in two ways.

1.) When she looked back over her shoulder, she was terrified by what she saw. When her husband distracted her from whatever he saw, her face changed from terrified to dull – dull because she had no faith in her husband’s ability to recognize the source of her grief.

2.) Her husband’s forceful questions and advance (a militaristic word) toward her, terrified her. When she saw that his aggression wasn’t aimed at her, her face changed from terrified to dull and for the same reasons as above . She had no faith in her husband’s ability to comprehend her grief. She feels futility.

Both meanings, I think, are plausible and may both be implied by the text. However, the finer points of close reading get very interesting because there are two versions of this text floating around. I have used the version from The Library of America. However, the other version is one that you will frequently, if not mostly, find online. First is the Library of America edition (based on Frost’s own and later emendations):

He spoke
Advancing toward her:  “What is it you see
From up there always—for I want to know.”
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time:  “What is it you see,”
Mounting until she cowered under him.
“I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.”
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.

Next is the version you will frequently find in other publications and on-line. The differences are in red.

He spoke
Advancing toward her:  “What is it you see
From up there always?—for I want to know.”
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time:  “What is it you see?
Mounting until she cowered under him.
“I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.”
She, in her place, refused him any help,
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.

Here is what Richard Poirier has to say in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing:

Lathem chose to make two emendations wholly on his own: he added a question mark after “always” in line 7, and he put a comma after “help” in line 13. He also arbitrarily chose to follow early editions by allowing a question mark at the end of line 10, though Frost had deleted it in all the editions he supervised after 1936, including the 1949 Complete Poems. These textual matters are worth considering, because while Lathem’s choices hurt the poem, they make us aware of punctuation in ways that considerably increase our appreciation of nuances which might otherwise go unremarked. We can note, for example, the scrupulous justice with which Frost tries to locate, even through the use of a comma, the sources of conflict in this “home.” There is a marvelously managed shifting in the apportionment of blame. Thus the man’s initial speech, while impatient, is meant to be more gentle than it is in the assertively interrogative form that Lathem’s question mark gives it. Without the question mark, there is the implication that the husband has learned, after many trying experiences, not to expect an answer to his questions. And the strength of her obstinacy with regard to him is then confirmed by the fact that instead, of showing fear at his “advancing on her,” her face, on his near approach, changes from “terrified to dull.” Nonetheless, the choice of “until” and “under” in the phrase “mounting until she cowered under him” suggests that there indeed is a calculated masculine imposition of will in the way he acts, though this possibility is as quickly muffled by his then speaking more gently still (“‘I will find out now – you must tell me, dear”‘) with its allowable lack of stress on the word “now” and the especially strong beat, after a comma, on the word “dear.” Frost did not choose to put a comma after the word “help” (“She, in her place, refused him any help / With the least stiffening of her neck and silence”), and its absence is crucial to our recognition of how perverse and stubbornly uncompliant she can be. With the comma added, the line suggests that her stiffness and silence merely accompanied her refusal to tell him what she had seen out the window; without the comma, we are allowed to infer that she would choose not to stiffen her neck lest she thereby give him any clue at all about what she has been staring at: “Sure that he wouldn’t see / Blind creature . . .” [p. 126]

  • Cheaper editions of Poirier’s book are available at Amazon – other than the link I provided.

In case you skimmed over the paragraph above, the key point to take away is the following:

…the man’s initial speech, while impatient, is meant to be more gentle than it is in the assertively interrogative form that Lathem’s question mark gives it.

So, if you read criticism that emphasizes the potential violence in the husband’s questions and actions, it may be worth considering what text the critic is using. I agree with Poirier’s belief that any physical threat from the husband shouldn’t be over interpreted.


He said to gain time:  “What is it you see,”
Mounting until she cowered under him.
“I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.”
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.

The husband continues his questioning, wanting to know what she sees. Frost tells us that she’s afraid of his manner. She cowers under him. The impression one gets is of a large man and a physically frightened woman. And yet at the very moment the reader begins to wonder, Frost has the husband speak in terms of endearment, dear he says, reassuring the reader that even if there are intimations of physicality, the husband’s intentions spring from affection and a desire to communicate. Jarrell, a little differently, characterizes the husband’s advance and questioning as compulsive. Her writes:

…this heavy-willed compulsion changes into sheer appeal, into reasonable beseeching, in his next phrase: “you must tell me, dear.” The “dear” is affectionate intimacy, the “must” is the “must “of rational necessity; yet the underlying form of the sentence is that of compulsion.

I’m not sure that characterizing the husband’s actions as compulsive tells us much. The question, which the the rest of the poem will answer, is why? Why is the husband’s reaction, at first blush, so insistent? As becomes apparent, this isn’t the first time he has seen his wife’s behavior and there’s something more – she’s not communicating.


She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and awhile he didn’t see.
But at last he murmured, “Oh,” and again, “Oh.”

“What is it—what?” she said.

“Just that I see.”

More questions arise: Why does she refuse him any help? Why does she stiffen when he’s no longer “threatening her”? Why is she so sure that he won’t see? Frost again underscores the sense that this is an ongoing dispute. When, finally, he murmers. “Oh,” and agian, Oh…” her retort sounds more scornful than helpful or hopeful. Notice how the husband’s term of endearment is met with her own contempt. Frost peers into her thoughts where she calls him a “blind creature”. Is this how she describes her husband when she has gone out (as we learn later in the poem) to “someone else”?

She offers him no help and one wonders if it’s not for spite. As Jarrell writes,  “she doesn’t say Yes, doesn’t say No, doesn’t say; her refusal of any answer is worse than almost any answer.” And we are left to wonder at the source of her angry silence – and at her scorn when the husband proclaims “that I see“. What does he see and is it what his wife sees? Frost deftly sets the scene in the first 18 lines.

❧ from up in Vermont December 3 · 2009