Robert Frost’s “Out, Out”

Buzz Saws and Saw Machines

When I first read this poem, barely a teenager, I got it into my head that Frost’s buzz saw was just another word for a chain saw. But chain saws, as we know them, didn’t make it to the general public until the mid 1920s. The types of saws Frost and New England farmer’s were familiar with are scattered throughout the post.

The saw at right is probably very close to the kind of saw Frost was imagining – called a buzz saw. Here’s how it worked: The flat surface that looks like a table slid forward and back on the two rails. The farmer would put the log on the table and push it through the circular saw.

If you look closely, underneath the front left corner, you’ll see a small iron wheel that rides on the rail. Behind the table, another close look will reveal another larger round metal wheel – the pulley. A belt went around this wheel and could be attached to any kind of motor: steam, gas, or even a horse. (By 1910, Ford was already producing and widely selling gas powered traction machines – later called tractors, that could be attached to a buzz saw.) But having both the buzz saw and the early tractor would have been an expensive proposition.

To get a better idea of how these saws worked, here’s an old gas driven rig, the kind that sawyers would have used (expensive in its own day).

Because I don’t see these rigs run anymore, even up here in Vermont, I joined an antique chainsaw forum to get my facts straight. Here’s what Tom Hawkins, a forum member to whom I’m most grateful, had to say:

[The video shows] a single cylinder (or one lunger) type gasoline engines, some of which are known as “Hit & Miss” or “Make & Break” engines. These terms refer to the engine ignition systems where the spark in constantly interrupted to maintain a set or governed engine speed. In some case it is not the spark, but rather the fuel charge that is temporarily interrupted, these are throttle governed engines. Those two engines pictured above are also hopper cooled type engines, where a large case iron tub filled with water surrounds the engines cylinder for cooling. Note it is not steam powered (…) but steam from the coolant that’s seen in the video. The stream is not uncommon for a working engine, and considered as a normal sign of proper engine operating temperatures, they run best when the stream is present.

Since the machines were too expensive for most, farmers and landowners would cut and stack logs during the winter. Later in the spring and summer, (with the wood close to the homestead) the Sawyers could bring their rigs right into the dooryard and cut the wood into “stove length pieces”. These pieces would then have to be split for cook stoves. Once again, here’s Tom:

A farm family would cut down small sized trees (about 9″ at the butt), beginning in the late fall (after the crop harvest) though early spring, dragging the logs over the winters snow was easier than the bare ground. This work had to be completed before the farmers time would be consumed with the springtime task of cultivating his fields. ¶ The firewood was needed for the next winters home heating and cooking supply, the cleared land for expanding their field crops. ¶ The logs were piled close to the wood shed or home for cutting into stove length pieces, then stacked inside for dry storage and winter access. ¶ The farmers would then arrange a time when the sawyer would be available in his area, the sawyers travelled from homestead to homestead doing several cutting jobs before moving on. Many people did however cut their own firewood by hand with an axe and buck saw.

What is clear, in both Frost’s poem and the newspaper clipping that inspired it, is that the saw was machine powered. These are the kinds of machines New Englanders used before the advent of chainsaws. They could be easily moved by a team of oxen or horses wherever the cordwood needed to be bucked. And there was very little in the way of safety.

On the Writing of the Poem

The title of Frost’s poem will immediately remind knowledgeable readers of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The title echoes what are, perhaps, some of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28

The feeling of exhaustion and surrender and life’s futility is palpable. And it warns, all too tragically, of the death (and its tenor) in Frost’s poem. Earlier in the play, and in keeping with Shakespeare’s habit of thought, the doubled combination of out appears in the character of Lady MacBeth.

Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One–two—
why then ’tis time to do’t. Hell is murky. Fie, my lord, fie!
A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it,
when none can call our power to account? Yet who would
have thought the old man to have had so much blood in
him?

Macbeth Act 5, scene 1, 26–40

Lady Macbeth’s utterance expresses abhorrence – abhorring a deed that cannot be undone, cannot be washed out or slighted. The blood of murder, the spot, has irrevocably stained her hand. Likewise, the boy’s hand, all but severed by the saw, cannot be redone or restored. There will be no backward step.

Shadow Newman on FrostIn her indispensable book on Frost’s most famous poems, Lea Newman observes that Frost based Out, Out on a real incident. She writes:

The March 31, 1910, edition of The Littleton Courier of Littleton, New Hampshire, carried the following story:

Raymond Tracy Fitzgerald, one of the twin sons of Michael G. And Margaret Fitzgerald of Bethlehem, died at his home Thursday afternoon, March 24, as a result of an accident by which one of his hands was badly hurt in a sawing machine. The young man was assisting in sawing up some wood in his own dooryard with a sawing machine and accidentally hit the loose pulley, causing the saw to descend upon his hand, cutting and lacerating it badly. Raymond was taken into the house and a physician was immediately summoned, but he died very suddenly from the effects of the shock, which produced heart failure… {March 31, 1910]

I can’t recommend Newman’s book enough. Clicking on the image will take you to Amazon.com and the book will take to her more detailed introduction. Buzzsaw & TractorBriefly, as part of her introduction, Newman mentions that Frost didn’t write Out, Out until his return from England, the summer of 1915. She writes that, “he bought a farm outside the village of Sugar Hill, near the Lynches, with a view overlooking the five peaks of the Franconia Range(…) It overlooked five mountain ranges to the west toward Vermont, the same view described in the poem.” He wrote the poem in 1916.

The newspaper clipping doesn’t call the saw a buzz saw but a saw machine. In 1910, the terms saw machine could refer to just about any saw (including circular saws).

Note: The tractor at left is a Farmall from the 1930s.The Howell Drag Saw Machine

However, I’ve noticed that a machine called a drag saw was almost always referred to as a saw machine (when circular saws sometimes weren’t).

The illustration at right comes from the Encyclopedia of American farm implements & antiques. The motor (which could have been just about anything – including an animal) driving the drag saw isn’t in the illustration. To truly appreciate how these machines worked, I’ve found a youtube video of a steam driven drag saw machine. Notice that the saw hangs from a pulley (as well as in the illustration). Now imagine if the pulley was hanging loose or unsecured (or the rope of the pulley) and that someone accidentally bumped the rope or pulley. The blade might suddenly release. If the machine was running, imagine the damage to ones hand.

The Scansion

Now to the poem. Without further ado, here is the poem and it’s scansion. All unmarked feet are Iambic. Pyrrhic feet are yellow. Trochaic feet are red. Spondaic feet are purple. Green indicates a feminine ending. Blue indicates an anapestic foot. The colorized scansion is my own invention and I try to keep the colors consistent throughout my scansions. As far as I know, this little innovation is all my own. The colors, to my eyes, help to quickly visualize the Frost’s metrical patterning, his use of variant feet. If scansion and its symbols are new to you, visit What is Iambic Pentameter (The Basics).

A scansion of Robert Frost's Out, Out

Meter and Meaning

The very first thing to note is that the poem is written in unrhymed Iambic Pentameter, otherwise known as blank verse.

The second thing to note is that the repetition of a Pyhrric foot followed by a Spondee is one of the more interesting patterns in this poem. While I don’t think repeating the figure is, in and of itself, significant, each individual occurrence nicely underpins the text of the poem. While it might be too much to say that every one of Frost’s variant feet are meaningful, he certainly was aware of when he was varying the iambic pattern and the effect it would have.

First Lines Metrical Example

These are strongly varied lines. The second of the three has only one Iambic Foot. All the rest are variant. Frost must have liked the effect of the trochaic dust in the first line. The snarling, rattling saw made dust (where the word dust disrupts the normal metrical pattern. This foot is followed by the spondaic dropped stove. Here too, the meter nicely emphasizes the dropping of the stove length sticks with two consecutively stressed syllables. Did Frost plan this all out? I don’t know, but in this line at least meaning and meter work well together.

Sears & Roebuck Circular Saw Machine Ad 1897I chose to read the first foot of the second line as spondaic. However, one could also read it as Iambic and I have a hunch that Frost read it this way. (Frost usually emphasized the iambic pattern of his poems when reading.) The second line would then read as follows:

Sweet-scen | ted stuff | when the | breeze drew | across it.

The real virtuoso display comes with the phrase “when the breeze drew across it“. To my ears, the pyrrhic foot followed by the spondaic “breeze drew” nicely mimics the rise and draw of a breeze followed by its “fall” in the feminine ending: across it. It’s a lovely touch and I suspect Frost was aware of the effect.

The third line could also be read as iambic pentameter, thus:

And from | there those | that lif | ted eyes | could count

I could imagine Frost reading it like this but I haven’t found a recording. It’s said that Frost rarely read it. I’m guessing that he felt the poem ought to be more private than public, having been based on real events. The next lines that give a nice metrical example also both demonstrate a repeated pattern of thought in this poem, the pyrrhic foot followed by a spondaic foot.

And the Saw Snarled - Metrical Example

Note: For those readers and poets who really enjoy understanding how the minds of poets (and by extension all of us) work, there’s a fascinating little book by Edward A. Armstrong called Shakespeare’s Imagination. Armstrong traces what he calls image clusters in the works of Shakespeare. Swing Saw AdvertIn other words, when a goose shows up in Shakespeare’s imagery, the bird is usually associated with disease, lechery and even the plague. Likewise, when Shakespeare is reminded of a violet, his thoughts almost invariably turn to breath, which becomes wind, sweet airs and even tempests. Not only Armstrong, but other Shakespearean authors have noticed, if in passing, these same habits of thought. Caroline Spurgeon, in Shakespeare’s Imagery, notes similar patterns, including Shakespeare’s negative association with dogs. M.M. Mahood, in Shakespeare’s Wordplay , observes patterns of wordplay. When one word shows up, another associated word will usually show up with it. The reason I mention it is because I’ve noticed similar habits in the writing of meter. In any given poem or stage in a poet’s career, certain variant feet will show up and in habitual combinations. Compare the hard Iambic regularity of Mending Wall with Birches. The varying use of meter in all these poems certainly reflects on the intent and mood of the poem, but I also wonder if it reflects on the poet’s state of mind.

Back to Out, Out. Everyone who has heard a chainsaw knows how the engine revs and rattles. The two lines above, to my ears, capture that sound. The pyrrhic foot followed by the doubly stressed spondaic foot and the amphibrach (feminine ending) all contribute to a kind of metrical onomatopoeia: and the saw snarledand rattled/ as it ran light. By no means does every variant foot feel so nicely wedded to meaning, but Frost, like all great metrical poets, knows how to take advantage of the art when the opportunity arises. Mediocre poets will frequently dilute the power of such variations by introducing them meaninglessly and even contrary to the textual meaning.

All spoiled

The disruptive spondee |Don’t let| disrupts the iambic pattern – a kind of shock and outcry both textually and metrically.

The hand was gone

With this line the blank verse pattern breaks down. There are two ways to scan this line. Above, I’ve scanned the line as an Iambic Tetrameter line with a spondaic first foot and a feminine ending. It’s a nice little trick of meter. The hand is missing and a metrical foot is missing. With an Iambic Tetrameter scansion, the meter neatly reinforces the meaning of the text. Something is missing. The experienced reader of metrical poetry may subliminally or consciously sense the missing foot in the poem. The effect can be powerful, causing both the reader and the listener to pause, to palpably sense an absence. The line is the turning point of the poem.

Another way to scan the line (and the two ways of scanning the line are not mutually exclusive, though that may sound odd) is to treat the first two syllables as monosyllabic feet.

The hand was gone (monosyllabic feet)

Many, if not most, poets and metrists claim that monosyllabic feet don’t exist. I don’t agree. Metrical Art with ShadowI go along with George T. Wright, author of Shakespeare’s Metrical Art. He writes:

Occasional lines appear to be missing an unstressed syllable in some other position than at line -beginning or after a midline break. Anomalous lines of this kind appear in some early plays, sometimes (as in the work of Shakespeare’s predecessors) without notable expressive effect. But as Shakespeare develops the technique in his middle and later plays, it becomes a deliberate device for conveying emotional excitement. All of the following lines appear to involve a foot-long monosyllable intended to be spoken with great force or weight [The following is the second of the two examples Wright offers p. 178]:

King Lear Monosyllabic Feet

In like manner, I’ve read Frost’s So and But as monosyllabic feet. (This makes the line a five foot line.) While the variant feet don’t convey emotional excitement, they do convey a profound emotional turning point in the poem. I imagine the intonation as profoundly sad – a kind of tragic acknowledgment. The words could be spoken slowly with a generous pause – a tragic acceptance (though there are other equally powerful ways to read the poem).

Whether one reads the line as Pentameter or Tetrameter, the effect of both scansions can be felt simultaneously. And this is partly what scansion can do. It demonstrates the different ways readers and poets are affected by speech stress and rhythm in language, and sometimes there is more than one way to scan a line.

The final lines worth considering is the following:

Little, less, nothing

It’s the second line that’s especially noteworthy – a trochaic foot (the heart skips a beat), a spondaic foot (the last two heartbeats) and a pyrrhic foot (then nothing, no stresses, no beats). The boy dies. …such is Frost’s mastery of meter. I give him this one. I think he knew very well how he was playing the meter with the meaning. It’s an effect free verse can approximate, but can’t equal.

The Storyteller

A comparison of the newspaper clipping with Frost’s poem shows a number of changes. He changed the young man to a boy; and Frost clearly means for us to think the boy is more child than man – calling him “a child at heart”. If only given the newspaper clipping, I think most readers would imagine someone in his early to mid teens, rather than a “boy”.

Frost doesn’t want the reader to think this was simply carelessness – a young man who should have known better.

This was a boy, a child at heart, who didn’t know better. Frost suggests where the real responsibility rested: Call it a day, I wish they might have said. They, presumably, are the boy’s elders. Some critics and readers have read, in the poem’s closing lines, a cold callousness. Homemade Swing Saw (Side View)But if the narrator is assumed to be Frost, then there is also compassion and empathy in these lines. Frost possessed strong political opinions. And though his poetry is not overtly political, his philosophical and political views inevitably informed his poetry. Artists can’t escape their personalities (or at least I’m not aware of any).

Note: The saw at left is called a swing saw or swing saw machine. The swing saw in the image is homemade but is representative of the kind of saw that turn-of-the-century word workers would have been familiar with. (Cross-cut saws and chop saws would eventually replace them.) Notice how the saw is hanging like a pendulum. The weight of the circular saw blade (and assembly) were usually counterbalanced by another weight – like the “window weights” in old double-hung windows. If the counterweight hung from a pulley and someone bumped the weight or pulley, the saw might descend on the users hand. However, these saws were primarily shop saws and wouldn’t have been used in a dooryard for bucking lumber. In my view, a swing saw is probably not what was being referred to as a saw machine.

Some readers and critics have taken Frost’s poem as a criticism of child labor laws. Frost had spent time as an educator and so one might expect his sympathies to be attuned to the young. When Frost wrote the poem child labor was still a pernicious practice. It wasn’t until 1938 that the Federal government regulated child labor in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Frost, by this point, was already in his early sixties.

The other change was from a sawing machine to a buzz saw. Saw machines (like the larger drag saws) were probably less apt to be operated by a single person. The newspaper clipping states that Fitzgerald was assisting someone else (or others). A buzz saw, on the other hand, could easily be used by one person handling smaller logs. The impression Frost gives is of a boy working alone (his sister has to come out to tell him supper is ready). A child working after hours and alone only adds to the feeling, not of carelessness, but of tragedy. Frost additionally resists blaming the boy. He writes that the saw leaped out at the boy’s hand, as if it knew what supper was. The modern reader might wonder how a buzz saw could leap, but here’s Tom Hawkins again:

Now I’ve run many a cordwood saws in my life, so I kinda understand that poem a bit. Those old one lunger type gasoline engines had counterweighted flywheels to keep up their momentum as they were running, this caused the saw rig to bounce somewhat. The engines also had a make and break ignition, spark on and off as engine needed to maintain it’s governed speed, so as a new charged fired the whole unit would jump. ¶ I remember that when were cutting real dried out Oak or more so Locust (very hard wood), a large cloud of sawdust would surround an encompass us. ¶ It’s very possible that the saw did leap right out and take the hand, these type of saws really do jump, especially when their slowing to a stop, which appear to be the case here. The jump or leaping is caused by those counterweighted flywheels rotating at lower than normal balance speed.

Was it the boy? Was it the saw? Did the “boy give the hand”? It was fate. These things simply happen. The effect is to express the inexplicable.

Frost and the Poem’s Reception

As I’ve mentioned already, many of Frost’s readers were perplexed by the seeming callousness and indifference of the poem. Consider, as well, the reference of the poem’s title.

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Is this how readers are to understand the boy’s death? – as signifying nothing? Other words and images occur in Frost’s poem that may or may not have their source in Shakespeare’s passage. Consider these lines:

all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

Then consider how dust appears within the first lines of Frost’s poem:

The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust…

And the saw does just that. The buzz saw turns the boy’s own life to dust. It makes dust both literally and symbolically. And the poem, like Shakespeare’s soliloquy, closes with the word nothing.

They listened at his heart.
Little — less — nothing!

Just as with the poor fool, the actor who frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more, so too is the boy’s heart “heard no more”.

Belief & UncertaintyRobert Pack, one of the only authors to offer a detailed analysis of the poem, writes in Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost:

The poem’s narrative arc is of dust returning to “dusty death” (Shakespeare’s phrase), although the narrator and reader are at first misled by the sweet-scented odor of the cut wood in the breeze. The narrator, along with those other would-be believers who have lifted eyes, appears to be enjoying a vision of great depth into nature itself — “the Five mountain ranges one behind the other / Under the sunset, far into Vermont” — as if nature were beautiful and benign, a spectacle of Wordsworthian and biblical revelation. But the narrator will subsequently realize that he has had, rather, a vision of nature’s beautiful indifference. [p. 158-159]

Pack calls the poem a confrontation with nothingness. And the feeling of nothingness and utilitarian purpose is only emphasized by the choice of words that close the poem, “no more to build on there“. This was more than the loss of a child. The work of building, of preparing for the season, the next season and the years to come never stopped. Frost’s words are hard. What had to be considered was not just the loss of a child but what the child contributed. Life in New England, at the turn of the century, was not easy. The response to the poem, among some of Frost’s closest readers and associates, seems to have put Frost on the defensive. Pack quotes a passage from a letter that may capture some of that defensiveness:

“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.” [p. 160]

Though Pack calls this passage “revealing” he doesn’t indicate why (or if) he thinks Frost was referring specifically to Out, Out. This sort of “hard pragmatism” can also be found in Home Burial. But even more revealing than this brief passage is the poem The Lesson for Today. As with the poem For Once, Then, Something, Frost seems to be responding to his critics, readers and even, perhaps, to his closest friends and family – acquaintances who may have accused Frost, himself, of that same hard callousness.

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.

Radcliffe Squires, who also noted the relationship between this poem and the poem Out, Out, comments:

What matters is that [Robert Frost] could hold together in one poem the two severe and mutually accusing ideas that one must be moved to pity and compassion and that one must coldly and sternly pursue the duty of endurance and survival.

The beauty of the poem, and it’s powerful effect on the reader, arises from the balance Frost obtains. The accident is both carelessness, “the boy gave the hand” and accident “the saw leaped”. The narrator is both compassionate, “call it a day I wish they might have said”, and coldly pragmatic, “since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs”. The narrator is almost like nature itself – the passionate and dispassionate observer – that leaves us, the readers, to wonder at its design and purpose. That’s the best kind of poetry.

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Robert Frost’s “The Pasture”

  • September 28 2011: Be sure and read the comment section, especially the comments by Richard Lawrence, who shares with us a seemingly lost verse from the original version of this poem.
  • July 18, 2009: New PostRobert Frost’s “Out, Out”
  • June 6 2009: Tweaked and expanded.

About the Pasture

I’ve been following the lead of my readers, noting on the Stats page what searches you use to find my blog. The most popular poet remains Robert Frost. And I’ve noticed several searches for Frost’s “The Pasture”.

Robert Frost's: The Pasture

Robert Frost recites The Pasture

There are few poems in the English language that can compare. Right now? I can’t think of one. In terms of brevity and memorability, it’s unsurpassed. Why? Subject matter, rhyme and meter are perfectly suited to each other.

Frost-NewmanRobert Frost himself, according to Lea Newman (book at left), stated that it was “a poem about love that’s new in treatment and effect. You won’t find anything in the range of English poetry just like that.”

I have several books on Robert Frost and all of them only mention this poem in passing – giving it short shrift. Lea Newman’s book, in terms of the poems themselves, remains the best of any of them. Her opening paragraph describes some of the inspiration for the poem:

One spring evening in 1905, Frost took a walk over those fields with his wife, Elinor, and their six-year-old daughter, Lesley. According to the notebook Lesley kept as a child, she and her mother picked apple and strawberry blossoms while her father went down to the southwest corner of the big cow pasture to check on how much water was in the spring. In 1910, when Frost wrote “The Pasture” he used a walk to a spring in a cow pasture as its centerpiece. The experience was still a favorite memory thirty years after he wrote about it. In 1940 he reminisced, “I never had a greater pleasure that coming on a neglected spring in a pasture in the woods.

Newman’s introduction to the poem continues and I wholly recommend the book as a companion to his poems. But what does the poem mean? (It never seems enough to say that the poem means what it says.) It’s a poem of invitation first and foremost – Frost chose this poem as a sort of introduction and invitation to his collected poems.  More than that, the poem typifies what many readers love the most about Frost: his connectedness with nature and the everyday; his contemplative ease; and, above all, the approachable  content of his thought and poetry. Frost was a poet with whom most everyone felt a kinship and understanding. He was comprehensible during a time when poetry was becoming increasingly incomprehensible. Saying he won’t be gone long could summarize his craft. There are depths to his poetry, but they are such that the reader returns. He won’t go too far. He won’t be gone too long. You come too, he says to the reader and to anyone who wants to go with him.

Meter and Rhyme

The internal rhyme that contributes to the poems lyricism is the most important and also the most difficult to describe, but I’ll try. And it may seem like  I’m making too much of vowel sounds, but sound is everything in poetry. Consider the following anecdote which occurred between Keats and Wordsworth (from John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends, Critics and After-Fame by Sidney Colvin pp. 401-402):

keats-wordsworth-discuss-vowels

And here is another sample about Keats’s as related by his friend, Benjamin Bailey:

…one of Keats’ favorite topics of conversation was the principle of melody of verse, which he believed to consist in the adroit management in verse, which he believed to consist in the adroit management of open and close vowels. He had a theory that vowels could be as skillfully combined and interchanged as as differing notes of music, and that all sense of monotony was to be avoided, except when expressive of a special purpose. (Richard H. Fogle – The Imagery of Keats and Shelley, p. 63)

In point of a fact, I write my own poetry with the vowel sounds in mind. I hear words as music and tones, which makes me an “ear reader” rather than an “eye reader”, as Frost put it, and a very slow reader.

Keats was conscious of his choices, and Frost was too. (However, it’s definitely possible to read too much into “word sounds”, vowel sounds, percussive consonants and the like  – I’ve seen it done by plenty of critics and analysts.)  Such analytic overreaches are called Enactment Fallacies – a term I first came across in one of David Orr’s New York Times reviews. He defines it:  in the following passage:

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.” Here’s the stanza in question:

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

“With each new verbal or participial theater of action of the stanza, there arrives a new agent,” Vendler writes, “making the clauses scramble helter-skelter, one after the other. The headlong pace is crucial.” Since the stanza involves words like “dragon,” “nightmare,” “murdered,” “blood” and “fighting,” it’s easy to see what she’s thinking here. But to make a more modest use of Vendler’s rewriting trick above, what if we kept the same enjambments, syntax, rhyme scheme and basic rhythm — yet changed some of the words? We might get this (my words, with apologies to I. A. Richards for adapting one of his tactics):

Now days are slow and easy, the summer
Sighs into fall: a purring bumble-bee
Can leave the flower, softened to a blur,
To soak in the noon sun, and fly carefree;
The night can breathe with pleasure as once more
We weave our visions into poetry
And seek to bring our thoughts under a rule,
Who are the mindful servants of the soul.

Not so “helter-skelter” now, is it? In a book review or essay, committing this particular fallacy is a minor error. Most critics do it regularly (I certainly have). In a book that sets out to explain why a poet makes particular formal choices, however, the mistake is more serious, because it replaces the complex relationships among a poem’s elements with just-so stories in which it always turns out — surprise! — that meaning has been mirrored by shape and sound. Think of it this way: we don’t enjoy a bowl of gumbo because it “feels” exactly the way it “tastes”; rather, we find the combination of “taste” and “feel” pleasing. Similarly, a particular stanza arrangement can reinforce our experience of a poem, but only because that arrangement is working in harmony with the poem’s other aspects.

I quote the better part of the passage because I think it’s something every novice in poetry and poetry criticism should be aware of. Read all criticism and analysis with skepticism. Including, obviously, mine; though I try to be reasonable in my assertions.

Anyway, back to Frost and The Pasture. Whether intentional or not, the first line’s variety of vowel sounds is lovely – no two are repeated.

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;

That in itself isn’t so remarkable, but what happens next, to me at least, beautifully sets off the first line.

I’ll only (stop) to rake the leaves (a) way
(And wait to (watch) the (wa)ter clear, I may) :

The two lines are rich with internal rhyme – the long A’s of rake, away, wait and may bracket the short, rhyming  vowel sounds of stop, away, watch and water. The Pasture - Manuscript Robert FrostThe effect of these internal rhymes (interlocking in the second line and bracketed in the third) will be different for different readers, though I think all readers, but those with tin ears, will register them. To me the internal rhyming creates a sort of sing-song effect in perfect keeping with the light-hearted, carefree, teasing tone of the poem. And, again for me, the “long A” vowel sound has a sort of easy-going and open feel to it. There’s no way to know whether Frost had this in mind, but I’m sure that the music in the lines, however he interpreted their effect, was intended.

I sha’n’t be gone long. (You) come (too).

Up to this point, the lines have been Iambic Pentameter. But the fourth line (repeated in the second stanza) is Iambic Tetrameter. The effect is lovely and though it can be imitated in free verse, it can’t be reproduced.

The first three lines could be spoken to an unnamed companion or to oneself. We read the poem in the same manner that we read first person narratives (where our presence is irrelevant to the narrator). But then Frost does something  magical. He talks explicitly to “you” and he does so in Iambic Tetrameter. “You come too”, he says, and the shortened tetrameter line has same effect as an aside in a play or drama – an effect of immediacy and personableness. Suddenly we find ourselves in the poem!

The internal rhyme of gone and long anticipate and are complimented by You and too. The musicality of the line heightens the feeling of intimacy, unselfconsciously inviting – the appeal of a close friend. And, as a final note, notice too how the Iambic pattern is broken in the last two feet (spondaic variant feet) of the Tetrameter line.

I sha’n’t |be gone |long. You |come too.

This too adds to the air of informality. The formal Iambic Pentameter is broken for the sake of a friendly aside. The ceasura (the break between the two sentences), occurs in the middle of the third foot, also disrupting the metrical pattern of the previous lines. It all contributes to the informal, intimate feel of the fourth line. Again, it’s an effect that free verse simply can’t equal.

Frost’s Colloquialisms

robert_frostOne of Robert Frost’s most powerful poetic figures (as in a rhetorical figure or figure of speech – also called figurative language) is anthimeria. It’s also one of my favorites and one of the truly beautiful ornaments in the toolbox of poetry – adding vitality and rigorousness when done well. (Shakespeare was one of the greatest users of this figure.) In short, anthimeria is the substitution of one part of speech for another – “when adjectives are used as adverbs, prepositions as adjectives, adjectives as nouns, nouns as adjectives” (Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language p. 63) . Turning nouns into adjectives is Frost’s favorite substitution and he does this because, interestingly, this form of grammatical substitution is typical of New England dialects. (For a more thorough treatment of colloquialism in poetry, see my post Vernacular Colloquial Common Dialectal.)

So…

Instead of saying “I’m going out to clean the spring in the pasture”, he says “pasture spring”. Pasture, normally a noun, becomes an adjective modifying spring. Et viola! Anthimeria! If you read enough of Frost’s poetry you will see this figurative language recur again and again. And if you hang about Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine, and hear some old-timers, you will hear this same grammatical short-cut. I don’t know why it’s more prevalent in New England (more so than in other regions of the United States) but it may be a hold over from the speech patterns of a much older generation.

Anyway, Frost always keenly observed, recorded and remembered the speech habits of New Englanders and deliberately infused his own poetry with the patterns he heard. Techniques like anthimeria, the substitution of a noun for an adjective, helps give his poetry a dailectal and colloquial feel. In a similar vein, the contraction sha’n’t, for shall not, adds to the colloquial informality and intimacy of the poem. “I sha’n’t be gone long” is a style of speech that’s almost gone. Probably more typical of what was heard among an older generation of New Englanders if only because the region is where American English is the oldest.

I’m going out to fetch the little (calf)
That’s (stand)ing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I (sha’n’t) be gone long. You come too.

Again, I’ve tried to emphasize the play of internal rhyme – to make it visible. The short i sound of little is bolded. The short a sound of calf is italicized and (bracketed). The short u sound of young is underlined. I won’t belabor the same points I’ve already made discussing the previous stanza. The effects are the same. There are no internal rhymes within the first line of the stanza, as in the first line of the first stanza. The sing-song informality and intimacy created by the internal rhymes that occur in the lines that follow, once again, find completion and resolution in the final invitation:

You come too.

If this post has been helpful to you; if you enjoyed; if you have suggestions or questions; please comment!

Robert Frost, Iambic Pentameter & Mending Wall

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  • September 25, 2011. Further thoughts on interpreting Mending Wall.
  • June 26, 2009Major revision. Expansion of post with interpretive passage.
  • April 25th, 2009 –  Added audio of Robert Frost reciting Mending Wall.

About the Poem

Having noticed several searches on Frost’s Mending Wall (probably one of the most famous poems he wrote) I thought I would take a look at the poem.the-work-of-knowing1 I’ve looked at several of my books on Frost and none of them extensively analyze the poem. The archetypal meaning of the wall is straightfoward and expounded on by the speaker of the poem. Perhaps the most insightful comment was Richard Poirier’s in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Poirier makes the observation Frost’s “genius as a narrative poet is in part his capacity to sustain debates between people about the nature of the ‘homes’ which they very often occupy together.” Mending Wall is an ideal manifestation of that genius, just as Home Burial is.

As an aside, it is also worth noting how few poets take an interest in writing narratively or even in voices other than their own. In the most recent issue of Measure, a biannual journal that publishes “formal” poetry, I could only find one poem indisputably  written in a voice other than the poet’s – “Moliere’s Housekeeper”. The overwhelming majority were first person with the remaining few being second and third person. Not a single poem was written in the manner of a debate between two separate voices. Robert Frost is truly unique in this respect.

Having just analyzed Frost’s Birches, I was struck by the difference, in metrical style, between Birches and Mending Wall. My first thought was that Birches must have been written later (if not much later) than Mending Wall. Where Mending Wall is extremely conservative in its use of variant feet, Birches shows a much greater freedom and flexibility. As is the habit with most poets , when young they will try to master the game strictly by the rules – both to learn the rules and to prove to themselves and to others that they have the right stuff. Frost himself bragged that his first book, “A Boy’s Will”, proved that he could write  by the numbers. That done, he quickly learned how to bend the rules.

I still think that Birches must have come later but William Pritchard, Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, pritchard_frostrecounts that when Frost wrote to Bartlett (a publisher) in August of 1913 “about a book to be called, tentatively, New England Eclogues, made up of ‘stories’ form between one to two hundred lines, he sent along a list of eleven poems, one of which bore the title “Swinging Birches.” Pritchard, echoing another biographer (John Kemp) speculates that Frost didn’t include Birches in the first book because the tone, more philosophical “and sage”, would have set it (too much) apart from the other poems “rooted in the realism of experience”. Page 103.

So… I’ m left clinging to my theory on the basis of meter alone. Which isn’t a wholly reliable way to date poetry. But there you have it. One last interesting note. Lea Newman, who I mentioned in a previous post, writes in her book Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry,  of a children’s story Frost wrote for Carol and Lesley. In reference to elves and a spell, she quotes the following passage from the story:

Their backs were to the wall so that when a stone fell off it they were taken by surprise. They hardly turned in time to see two little heads pop out of sight on the pasture side. Carol saw them better than Lesley. “Faries!” he cried. Lesley said, “I can’t believe it.” “Fairies sure,” said Carol.

What Newman doesn’t observe is that even here, two voices (Frost’s children) are in debate. One sees fairies, the other doesn’t. Not only were the seeds of magic and elves present in this children’s story, but also the presence of two distinct voices in debate. It’s easy to imagine how, rightly or wrongly, these first thoughts gradually evolved into the famous poem. Newman mentions, additionally, that Frost himself never firmly identified himself with one speaker or the other. There was a little of both speakers in himself – and the poem could in some ways be taken as an internal debate.

Here is what Frost himself said, 1955, at Bread Loaf:

It’s about a spring occupation in my day. When I was farming seriously we had to set the wall up every year. You don’t do that any more. You run a strand of barbed wire along it and let it go at that. We used to set the wall up. If you see a wall well set up you know it’s owned by a lawyer in New York — not a real farmer. This is just about that spring occupation, but of course all sorts of things have been done with it and I’ve done something with it myself in self defense. I’ve gone it one better — more than once in different ways for the Ned of it — just for the foolishness of it. [The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost p. 231]

To show just how divergent the metrical usages are between the two poems, I’ve color coded the scansion of Mending Wall and Birches. Trochaic feet are in red, Spondees are purple, Anapests are blue, and Feminine Endings are green, Phyrric feet are yellowish.

Frost reciting Mending Wall:

Mending Wall

Mending Wall - Color Coded Scansion

The meter does little in terms of acting as counterpoint to the line. (The scansion, by the way, is based on Frost’s own reading of the poem.) One might conjecture that the regularity of the meter, if it wasn’t simply for the sake of writing Iambic Pentameter, was meant to echo the stepwise, regular, stone by stone mending of the wall.  After all, there is no flinging of feet from the topmost spindle of a birch. There is no avalanching or crazed ice. There are no girls on hands and knees throwing their hair before them over their heads to dry them. The work of mending wall is slow, methodical, hand roughening work. This, of itself, may explain the careful regularity of the meter.

There are some nice touches worth mentioning, touches that might  escape a reader unaccustomed to reading blank verse (Iambic Pentameter). First:

but-at1

The temptation, including my own, is to read the first foot as Trochaic |But at|, but Frost clearly reads it Iambically. He reads the first foot quickly. It’s a craft that many “professional” metrists don’t take seriously enough – perhaps because they’re not poets themselves. The meter of poets who write metrically shouldn’t be taken for granted. All too often, it seems, metrists insist that the English language, as it is spoken on the street, trumps any given metrical pattern. Don’t believe them. A poet who writes metrically does so for a reason.

The sweetest metrical touch comes in the following line:

i-could-say-elves

Most of us would read the third foot as |I could|, putting the emphasis on I, but Frost reads the foot Iambically and the pattern reinforces the reading. Putting the emphasis on could gives the line a much different feel, then if one emphasized I. To me, Frost’s reading sounds more mischeivious. Frost specialized in this sort of metrical subtletly, emphasizing words that might not normally recieve the ictus. It’s also a specially nice touch because just several lines before Frost used the word could as an unstressed syllable.

could-put-a-notion

One could conceivably stress could in the line above, but that would be subverting the Iambic pattern.

Lastly, another effect of the regular iambic pattern is to  especially contrast the first trochaic foot in the poem’s seminal line:

Some-thing | there is | that does | n’t love | a wall

It’s an effect that subliminally draws attention to the eye, catching the ear. It’s a line that disrupts the normal “foot on foot”, “stone on stone” pattern of the poem. And it is doubly effective because the line occurs twice. If the effect wasn’t noticed the first time, it will be the second time.

The author Mark Richardson, in one of my favorite books on Frost, The Ordeal of Robert Frost, finds that the two trochees in this first line and in the four lines “contribute subtly to the theme of these lines”.

Something| there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes |gaps ev|en two can pass abreast.

“How much better”, he asks, “to describe a disordered wall than in lines themselves disordered.” To me, given that only 2 out of the 20 feet are variant metrical feet (and the spondee is really only marginal) I’m not persuaded that they’re all that disordered.  I’m more apt to apply that observation to the following lines:

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones |under |his pines, |I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make |good neighbors’.
Spring is |the mischief in me, and |I wonder

In these lines, 5 out of the feet are variant. Two trochaic feet and three feminine endings.  I think these lines make a stronger case for the juncture of meter and meaning. There is a sort of excitement and mischievousness in the tone of the speaker reflected, one could argue, in the disruption of the meter. As Frost reads it, these are the most irregular lines in the poems – the moment when the two men exchange words.

Interpreting Mending Wall: (June 19 2009)

I’m adding this section because I should have written it from the beginning. But what prompted me to write it is the fascinating reading from an acquaintance of mine. He is the Director of a New England private school and in his most recent newsletter, he wrote the following about the poem:

The more I read and teach this poem. the more I find the speaker to be a condescending jerk. After inviting the neighbor to repair the wall, a tradition that clearly brings the speaker pleasure, he then makes fun of him for caring about the wall. First he assures his neighbor that his apples trees will not cross the wall to eat his pine cones. Then he imagines making an even more preposterous suggestion — that it is “elves” and not frost heaves that have toppled the wall — but decides not to mention it since his neighbor is not clever enough to come up with such an idea on his own… He ends the poem with an insult, confiding to us that the neighbor is “an old stone savage armed”.

The point being made is that the speaker’s humor comes at the expense of his neighbor. “Wall mending becomes an opportunity not to talk with his neighbor, but to sneer at him.” This is prejudice, he adds.

My own take is that there is certainly some humor at the neighbor’s expense, but the speaker of the poem gives the neighbor the final word. In other words, the poem doesn’t end with these words:

He moves in darkness as it seems to me
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

It ends with the aphorism – Good fences make good neighbors. This is what the reader of the poem walks away with. There is a weight and seriousness in this last line, like the stones being placed back onto the wall, that undercuts the speaker’s glib humor.

Politics and Poetry - Robert FrostTyler Hoffman, in his book, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry (another one of my very favorite books on Robert Frost and dirt cheap at Amazon), actually acknowledges some of my acquaintances reservations concerning Mending Wall’s speaker. Hoffman’s observes that Frost’s own conception of the poem initially confirms the impression of the speaker’s dismissiveness. Hoffman writes:

In 1915, when the tone [of the neighbor’s aphorism] is fresher in his mind, Frost advses that this instance should be heard as expressing ‘Incredulity of the other’s dictum’ (CPPP 689). But how much sarcasm is entangled in the in the speaker’s quotation of his neighbor’s statement? The tone is held in suspension, allowing us to imagine it is said with either a shrug or a sneer.

Hoffman continues:

(…) none of the imaginable tones is flattering to the neighbor: when we hear it one way, we condemn him as smug and self-congratulatory; when we hear it another way, we write him off as a blockhead (“an old-stone savage armed”).

According to Hoffman, Frost’s acquaintance, Reginald Cook reported that Frost used to stress “I’d rather he said it for himself” in the lines:

I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself
.

There were evidently tonalities and “sentence sounds” that Frost lost track of as a result of repeated readings. Hoffman relates that Frost himself said (in reference to the poem’s central aphorism): “You know, I’ve read that so often I’ve sort of lost the right way to say, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ See. There’s a special way to say [it] I used to have in my imagination, and it seems to have gone down. You say it in two different ways there.”

What’s interesting about Frost’s statement is that it confirms what many readers probably sense (or may not), that there is a shift in tone from the start of the poem to the finish. The speaker’s own attitude toward his neighbor changes. Does the poem end sarcastically or does it only begin sarcastically and end with a different sort of respect. It seems that the speaker of the Mending Wall wants his neighbor to be more playful or more open to a kind of intentionality in the world’s workings. Human beings do more than build barriers. We cannot separate ourselves from the vagaries of life that, sometimes, seem almost mischievous, tearing down our most ingeniously devised walls.  The speaker wants his neighbor to say it for himself. But if one reads the poem in this sense, then it seems as though the neighbor really does move in a kind of darkness. He comes to represent that part in us that refuses to give ourselves up to a world we cannot, ultimately, control. It’s not exactly elves, but maybe something like elves. Call it impishness, perhaps.

But there’s another aspect to this poem, and that’s in knowing which character is really Robert Frost, if either. In the Road Not Taken, Frost describes the following experience:

I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home.

This sort of experience characterizes much of Frost’s poetry – Frost in conversation with himself, divided in his own beliefs and assertions. The Ordeal of Robert FrostMany of his poems are like argumentative engagements with himself. Frost himself said as much:

“I make it a rule not to take any ‘character’s side in anything I write” [RF & The Politics of Poetry p. 108]

It’s a theme that Mark Richardson recognizes in his book The Ordeal of Robert Frost. Mending Wall, he writes: “perfectly exhibits the balance he sought between dispositions  of conformity and formity. The speaker… allies himself with the insubordinate energies of spring…” Then Richardson adds:

…the association of the speaker with insubordinate natural forces should not be permitted to obscure an important fact, which has been often enough noticed: he, not the neighbor, initiates the yearly spring repair of the wall; moreover, it is again he, not the neighbor, who goes behind hunters who destroy the wall in other seasons and makes repairs. So, if the speaker is allied with the vernal mischief of spring and its insubordinations, he is nevertheless set against them in his efforts to make the stones of the wall balance and remain in place… [p. 141]

Driving the point home, Richardson closes his argument with the following:

The speaker of “Mending Wall” is obviously of two minds: at once wall-builder and wall-destroyer, at once abettor and antagonist of seasonal entropies…. The difference is that, unlike his benighted neighbor, the speaker of the poem does indeed go behind his own favored aphorism [Something there is that doesn’t love a wall] to play both sides of the fence. In short, the two opposed men in the poem fairly shape up into one, and his name is Robert Frost.

Here from The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, is Frost himself. Frost was responding to the president of Rollins College.

He took both my hands to tell me I had written a true international poem. And just to tease him I said: “How do you get that?” You know. I said I thought I’d been fair to both sides — both national [and international]. “Oh, no,” he said, “I could see what side you were on.” And I said: “The more I say I the more I always mean somebody else.” That’s objectivity, I told him. That’s the way we talked about it, kidding. That’s where the great fooling comes in. But my latest way out of it is to say: “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. That’s man. [pp. 231-232]

George Monteiro, the essayists from whose article these quotes are taken, adds that Frost took Mending Wall “very much… as a fable.”

The Poet and his Poetry (September 25 2011)

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.

Etherealizing
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.

A Comparison to Birches

In terms of the degree to which the meter differs between Mending Wall and Birches, I thought I’d post my scansion of Birches for comparison:

Birches

Birches - Color coded scansion

Something I mentioned in my previous post on Birches, is how the variant feet emphasize and reinforce the narrative of the poem. Having color coded the variant feet, Frost’s skillful use of meter is all the more visible.  The most concentrated metrical variation occurs where the narrative describes motion – movement and spectacle. This is no mistake. Poets learning to write metrically (and there must be a few of them in the world) would do well to study Frost carefully.

If you enjoyed this post or have further questions, please let me know.

It makes writing them worthwhile.

Robert Frost, Iambic Tetrameter & The Road Not Taken

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  • If scansion is new to you, check out my post on the basics.
  • February 22, 2009 – If you enjoy Frost, you might like reading Birches along with a color coded scansion of Birches included in my post on Frost’s Mending Wall. To find all the posts I’ve written on Robert Frost, click here.
  • After you’ve read up on Robert Frost, take a look at some of my poetry. I’m not half-bad. One of the reasons I write these posts is so that a few readers, interested in meter and rhyme, might want to try out my poetry. Check out Spider, Spider or, if you want modern Iambic Pentameter, try My Bridge is like a Rainbow or Come Out! Take a copy to class if you need an example of Modern Iambic Pentameter. Pass it around if you have friends or relatives interested in this kind of poetry.
  • April 23 2009: One Last Request! I love comments. If you’re a student, just leave a comment with the name of your high school or college. It’s interesting to me to see where readers are coming from and why they are reading these posts.
  • April 25 2009: Audio of Robert Frost added.

The Road Not Taken

One of the loveliest poems in the English language is Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Part of the magic is in how Frost loosens meter to obtain a more colloquial tone. In one of the most enjoyable books I own (among books on Frost) Lea Newman relates that according to a survey of 18,000 written, recorded Frost-Newman and videotaped responses, this poem (along with Robert Frost) is America’s most popular poem – a probably more accurate poll than the self-selected poll done by poets.org. Lea also writes that Frost’s intent, in writing the poem, was to satirize his friend, Edward Thomas, who would frequently dither over which road he and Frost should walk. (Edward Thomas was an English poet who Frost befriended while living in England). Frost completed and sent the poem to Thomas only after he had returned to New Hampshire. Thomas, however, didn’t read the poem as satire and neither have other readers coming to the poem for the first time.

I personally have a hard time taking Frost’s claims at face value.

But here he is saying so himself:

  • If you don’t see a play button below, just copy and paste the URL and you will be able to hear the recording.

More to the point, the provenance of the poem seems to be in New England – prior to Frost’s friendship with Thomas. Newman references a letter that Frost wrote to Susan Hayes Ward in Plymouth, New Hampshire, February 10, 1912:

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

[My thanks to Heather Grace Stewart, over at Where the Butterflies Go, for the entire quote.]

About the Poem

The poem is written, nominally, in Iambic Tetrameter. Nominally because Frost elegantly varies the meter to such a degree that readers may only glancingly hear the imposition of a metrical pattern – the effect is one of both metrical freedom and form. I have based my scansion, by the way, on Frost’s own reading of the poem. I suppose that might be considered cheating, but Frost’s own conception of the poem interests me.

  • March 28 2011 • Given some time and a conversation with a reader and poet Steven Withrow (see the comments) I’ve changed the scansion of the last stanza to reflect the way Frost probably would have scanned the poem (rather than how he read it). The new scansion, immediately below, retains the tetrameter meter throughout (more on how later).  You can still find my old scansion at the bottom of the post. Decide for yourself which scansion makes more sense. As for myself, I lean toward the new scansion. All unmarked feet are iambic and all feet in blue are anapests.

Frost recites The Road not Taken:

The first element to notice is the rhyme scheme and overall structure of the poem. The poem is really four stanzas, quintains, each having the same rhyme scheme – ABAAB. The nested couplets within the stanzas subliminally focus the ear, while resolution to the pattern is found in the final rhyme. The overall effect of the rhyme scheme is analogous to that of the Petrarchan Sonnet. That is, rather than springing forward, the internal couplets produce the effect of rounded thought and reflection – a rhyme scheme suited to Frost’s deliberative intellect.

The same point I made in my post on Sonnet forms, I’ll make here. In the hands of a skilled poet, rhyming isn’t about being pretty or formal. It’s a powerful technique that can, when well done, subliminally direct the listener or reader’s ear toward patterns of thought and development- reinforcing thought and thematic material. In my own poetry, my blank verse poem Come Out! for example, I’ve tried to exploit rhyme’s capacity to reinforce theme and sound. The free verse poet who abjures rhyme of any sort is missing out.

robert-frost-youngThe first three lines, metrically, are alike. They seem to establish a metrical pattern of two iambic feet, a third anapestic foot, followed by another iambic foot.

Two roads |diverged |in a yel|low wood

The use of the singular wood, instead of woods, is a more dialectal inflection, setting the tone for the poem with the first line. The third foot surrounded by strong iambs, takes on the flavor of an iambic variant foot.

After the first two lines, the third line could almost be read as strictly Iambic.

and-be-one-traveller

This would be an example of what Frost would consider a loose Iamb. If read one way, it’s an anapest, if the word is elided – trav‘ler – it creates an Iambic foot. Although I don’t think it’s deliberate (Frost didn’t go searching for a word that could create a loose Iamb) but the ambiguity subliminally encourages the ear to hear the more normative meter of Iambic Tetremater. Frost will play against and with this ambiguity throughout the poem.

Note: I just found that Frostfriends.org scanned the line as follows:

 - ! ! - - - ! - !
And be / one trav el / er long / I stood .........4 feet
(iambic) (dactyl) (iambic) (iambic)

Converting their symbols - it would look like this:

frost-friends-scansionThis is not an unreasonable way to scan the poem – but it ignores how Frost himself read it. And in that respect, and only in that respect, their scansion is wrong. Furthermore, even without Frost’s authority, their reading ignores Iambic meter. Frost puts the emphasis on trav-eler and so does the meter. Their reading also ignores or fails to observe the potential for elision in trav‘ler which, to be honest, is how most of us pronounce the word. A dactyllic reading is a stretch. I think, at best, one might make an argument for the following:

frost-friends-scansion-alternate

If one is going to put the emphasis on one, choosing to ignore the metrical pattern (which one can do), then it seems arbitrary to insist on reading traveler as a three syllable word. If one is going to put a modern interpretive spin on the poem, then I would opt for a trochaic second foot and elide traveler so that the line reads the way most of us would read it.

In the fourth line of the first quintain, Frost allows an anapest in the final foot, offsetting the pattern established in the first two lines. Curiously (and because the other feet are Iambic) the effect is to reinforce the Iambic Tetrameter patter. There is only one line that might be read as Iambic, but because the other feet, when they aren’t variant anapests, are Iambic, Frost establishes Iambic Tetrameter as the basic pattern. The final line of the quintain returns the anapestic variant foot but, by now, Frost has varied the lines enough so that we don’t hear this as a consistent pattern.

and-looked-down

It’s worth noting that, if Frost had wanted to, he could have regularized the lines.

And looked |down one |far as |I could
To where |it bent |in un|dergrowth

Compare the sound of these regularized lines to what Frost wrote and you might begin to sense how the variant feet contribute to the colloquial tone of the poem. Regularizing the lines, to my ear, takes some of the color from the poem. The anapests encourage the reader to pause and consider, reinforcing the deliberative tone of the poem – much as the rhyme scheme. It’s the play against the more regularized meter that makes this poem work. As I’ve written elsewhere, a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. The meter of The Road Not Taken tells a story of pause and consideration. Its an effect that free verse poetry can approximate but can’t reproduce, having no meter to play against.

robert-frostThe second quintain’s line continues the metrical pattern of the first lines but soon veers away. In the second and third line of the quintain, the anapest variant foot occurs in the second  foot. The fourth line is one of only three lines that is unambiguously Iambic Tetrameter. Interestingly, this strongly regular line comes immediately after a line containing two anapestic variant feet. One could speculate that after varying the meter with two anapestic feet, Frost wanted to firmly re-establish the basic Iambic Tetrameter pattern from which the overal meter springs and varies.

second-quintain

What’s worth noting, as well, is how beautifully Frost manages a colloquial expressiveness in this poem with expressions like having perhaps,  Though as for that, really about. After setting the location in the first quintain, the self-reflective expressions, new to poetry up to this point, create a feeling of shifting ideas and thought, of re-consideration within the poem itself – as if the speaker were in conversation with himself and another. Colloquial, in fact, is “considered to be characteristic of or only appropriate for casual, ordinary, familiar, or informal conversation rather than formal speech or writing.” It’s an effect that has been touched on by other poets, but never with such mastery or understanding as Frost demonstrates.  Expressions like better claim , wanted wear and the passing there add a New England dialectal feel to the lines.

Again, it’s worth noting the Frost probably could have regularized the lines, but he might have had to sacrifice some of the colloquial feel reinforced by the variant anapestic feet that give pause to the march of an iambic line.

Then took |the o|ther road |as fair,
Having |perhaps |the bet|ter claim,
Because |of grass |and wan|ting wear;
Though as |for that |the pas|sing there
Had worn |them just |about |the same.

Notice how, at least to my ear, this metrically regularized version looses much of its colloquial tone.

On the other hand, here’s a free verse, rhyming version:

Then I took the other as being just as fair,
And as maybe having a better claim,
Because it was overgrown with grass and wanted wear;
But the passing there
Had really worn them just about the same.

Curiously, even though this is closer to spoken English (or how we might expect the average person to deliberate) the poem loses some of its pungent colloquial effect. And here it is without the rhyme:

Then I decided the other road was just as nice
And was maybe even better
Because it was overgrown with grass and needed
to be walked on; but other people
Had just about worn them the same.

And this, ultimately, is modern English. This is the speech of real people. But there’s something missing – at least to my ear. Free verse poets, historically, have claimed that only free verse can capture the language of the times. I don’t buy it. To me, this last version sounds less colloquial and speech-like than Frost’s version. My own philosophy is that great art mimics nature through artifice, or as Shakespeare put it in Winter’s Tale:

Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.

In the third quatrain, the first line can be read as a loose Iamb if we elide equally to read equ‘ly – making the line Iambic Tetrameter while the second is solidly so.

third-quintain

After two more regular lines, Frost once again diverges from the pattern. The third and fifth lines are pentasyllabic though still tetrameter, each line having two anapests. Interestingly, as with the second quintain, Frost never seems to vary too far from the pattern without reaffirming the basic meter either before or after the variant lines.  The interjection Oh is entirely unnecessary strictly in terms of the poem’s subject matter. Lesser poets writing meter might have omitted this as an unnecessary variant, but the word heightens the colloquial feel of the poem and is very much in keeping with the poem’s overall tone and them – echoed in the first line of the final quintain – a sigh.

fourth-quintain

The second and fourth lines are actually Iambic Trimeter, but once again Frost reaffirms the meter from which they vary by placing a solidly Iambic Tetrameter line between them (the fourth line).

  • March 28 2011 • The reading above is my original scansion. This scansion was based on the way Frost read it. The problem with scanning it that way is twofold: First, it breaks the tetrameter pattern, which isn’t unheard of, but very unusual for Frost; Second, it means the rhyme between hence and difference is what’s called an imperfect rhyme. An imperfect rhyme is when the syllables are nominally the same but one syllable is stressed and the other is unstressed. In the scansion above, hence is stressed and the –ence ending of diff‘rence is un-stressed. Emily Dickinson lovedthis kind of rhyme but Frost, rarely if ever. The problem is that Frost wants his cake and eats it too. To my ear, when I listen to him read the poem, he reads the last rhyme as an off-rhyme. But, like the Elizabethans, he probably would have scanned it as below:

Two things to notice: In the second line I’ve read the first foot as headless. This is a standard variant foot that can be found with the Elizabethans. Some call it anacrusis. A headless foot means that the first syllable of the foot is missing. Second, the last line is changed so that difference, at least on paper, is pronounced trisyllabically as diff/er/ence, rather than diff’rence. This makes the line tetrameter and makes the final rhyme a perfect rhyme.

Frost sometimes took criticism from more strictly “Formalist” poets (including his students) who felt that his variants went too far and were too frequent. In either case, whether you can it the way Frost read it or according to the underlying meter and rhyme scheme, Frost’s metrical genius lay preciely in his willingness to play against regularity. Many of his more striking colloquial and dailectal effects rely on it.

  • Below is the original scansion: Anapests are blueish and feminine endings are green.

roadlesstravelled-scansion-color-coded

  • If you prefer this scansion (I no longer do), then not only does Frost vary the metrical foot but the entire line. Even so, the two Iambic Trimeter lines (the second and last lines of the quintain) are octasyllabic. No matter how they’re scanned, they don’t vary from the octasyllablic Iambic Tetrameter as they might. The anapests elegantly vary the final lines, reinforcing the colloquial tone – even without dialectal or colloquial phrasing.

Newman quotes Frost, saying:

“You can go along over these rhymes just as if you didn’t know that they were there.” This was a poem “that talks past the rhymes,” he said, and he took it as a compliment when his readers told him they could hear him talking in it.

What Newman and Frost neglect to mention is how the meter of the poem amplifies the sense of “talking”. Frost’s use of meter was part and parcel of his genius – and the greatness of his poetry.

If this was helpful and if you enjoyed the post, let me know. Comment!