Robert Frost

We'll be talking about Robert Frost and William Faulkner today. They are both regional writers.  Faulkner is from Mississippi. They have basically deified William Faulkner at the University of Mississippi. He is really a great writer. There is no doubt about it. He did move about some during his life, but his writing will always be linked with Mississippi. Frost, of course, we talked about last time. He's an heir to those old Puritan poets, and you tend to find the duel level in his writing that is traditional. That is, there is the very literal level of interpretation, where you can more less see the images that he gives us, and then there is always the symbolic level that you have to key in on.

Death of the Hired Man

What's this about? Any hint in the title? What is this poem about?

Who dies?
The hired man

What's the deal?
Mary and Warren are the married couple and the hired man is Silas. Silas wants to come back to work for them.

Why doesn't Warren want him?
He leaves you in the lurch.

Does he need a hired man this time of the year?

Why not?What time of year is it?
Winter. Winter is when it is cold, especially in New England, if not in Louisiana. There is not a whole lot to do around the farm. So, then Silas comes around and wants to work for him at this point.

Why not in the fall when they were taking in the hay? When he could have used Silas?

Why would Silas leave just when things got busy? Did he go off and get drunk? No, other farmers offered him more money. Here he is working for basically room and board. They can't afford to pay him much, if at all. So he's got a place to stay. They feed him, keep clothes on his back, give him a place to sleep, and so in a sense this becomes his home. On the other hand, during those busy times of the year, the farmers around are short handed. They need more people to work for them. So, they'll come around and say "Hey, Silas come work for me."

Well then, just as soon as the crops are all in and the hay stacked up in the barn, what happens with Silas?
He is let go. Sort of like Wal-Mart after Christmas. We appreciate you helping us out, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and give us a call again sometime. Rather seasonal. This is seasonal labor that Silas does and he runs off and gets the most money that he can, working for other people and then comes tail tucked between his legs back to Warren and Mary.

Why do they have to take him in?
This is the central line of the poem. He is dying and has come there to die. Line 122 pg. 1768:

    "Home is the place where, when you have to go there,                 122
    They have to take you in."                                                                 123

A really lovely way to describe home, isn't it. But there is a relationship there. Warren thinks he should go somewhere else.

Who does he think he should go to?
To his brother's, who is well off, he could easily afford to put him up.

Why doesn't he?
Something, we don't what it is , but they don't get along. So, Silas can't go to his brother's. Sometimes we are, in a funny way, closer to the people we work with and for, than we are to our blood kinfolks.

Mary finally talked Warren into letting Silas stay, but by then Silas was dead. You get to see a little bit of insight into this the relationship of this couple, also. He although, a good man, tends to be of the attitude you make your own bed, you lie in. She's the one that wants to forgive and forget and finally talks him into it.

After Apple-Picking
      My long two- pointed ladder's sticking through a tree                 1
    Toward heaven still,                                                       2

There's always that spiritual level in Frost, isn't there? You've got the picture of the ladder leaning up in the tree but where is it pointing? Pointing toward heaven. There is always some sort of spiritual layer to Frost.

    And there's a barrel that I didn't fill                                   3

The ladder is in the tree, there are a few apples in the trees, there are a few barrels that are still empty.

    And there's a barrel that I didn't fill                                           3
    Beside it, and there may be two or three
    Apples that 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 can not rub this strangeness from my sight.
    I got from looking through a pane of glass                                10
    I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
    And held against the world of hoary grass.

What is this strange glass that he picked up?
Something we don't see very much down here. It's ice on top of the water. You can pick it up and look at the world through it. Winter is on its way. To us this would be the depth of the coldest days of winter, but this is just the first ice that covers the water one chilly morning. It melted, so you know it is not deep winter. If it were deep winter, the ice would be thick because it gets thicker every day.

    It melted, I let it fall and break.                                                   13
    But I was well
    Upon my way to sleep before it fell,                                            15
    And I could tell
    What form my dreaming was about to take.

What's he going to dream about?
Apples. This is very true. Pick apples all day long, go home at night, and instead of leaving it behind, you take home with you. I worked at in the Glass Plant a couple of summers to make extra money. I would see tons of bottles coming at me all day long on these conveyor belts, and then go home at night and close my eyes. There were the same bottles moving all through my sleep. If you go fishing during the day, sometimes you bring that wobbling feeling home with you, and it feels like the world is turning under you. He brings the apples with him to his sleep.

    Magnified apples appear and then disappear,                           18
    Stem end and blossom end,
    And every fleck of russet showing clear.                                    20
    My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
    It keeps the pressure of a ladder- round.
    I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.                          22

He still feels the swaying, the way he has felt it all day. His feet felt as if they were still on the ladder. Ladders will make your legs sore. We had a Christmas tree I was trimming out this early December. The next day my legs were sore, and I could not figure out what was wrong, because I had not done anything. I figured out it was standing on the ladder and having to exercise my calf more than I'm used to. So his feet are sore, they feel like the ladder, probably one of those little round dowel latters. Certainly the dowels will wear holes in your arches after a few days of that.

    And I keep hearing from the cellar bin                                       23
    The rumbling sound
    Of load on load of apples coming in.                                         26

He is hearing the apples rolling down the metal.

    For I have had too much                                                            27
    Of apple-picking: I am overtired
    Of the great harvest I myself desired.                                         29

He was looking forward to the apple harvest all year long, and now that it is here, what does he think about it?
Oh, I've had enough of apples. I've got enough I don't want anymore. Apples are good for cider.

    There were ten thousand thousand fruits to touch,                   30
    Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.

Each one you had to be careful with.

    For all                                                                                       32
    That struck the earth,
    No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
    Went surely to the cider- apple heap                                         35
    As of no worth.

If it hits the ground, what does that mean?
It may look great now but what about three or four days from now, you'll have a big bruise on it. So you can't send it off for people to stock in storage. It has to be sold for cider. "It is good not to eat apples, it is even better to make them into cider." Remember that story from Ben Franklin.

    One can see what will trouble                                                   37
    This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
    Were he not gone,
    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his                         40
    Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
    Or just some human sleep.
  Old Man's Winter Night

    All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him,
    Through the thin frost, almost in separate jars
    That gathers on the pane empty rooms.
    What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
    Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.                                            5

He was standing at a dark window with his lamp in his hand looking out.

What can he see?
Nothing. Maybe himself but nothing outside, because it is dark outside. In order to see out, you have get it dark inside. He is standing here with the lamp looking out. Trying to remember why he came in the room. He is looking out the window trying to jog his memory.

What kept him from remembering why he came into that creaking room?
Age You don't have to be old to have to have that sort of thing happen to you. I've always had that happen to me.

    He stood with barrels round him--at a loss.                                    8
    And having scared the cellar under him
    In clomping here, he scared it once again                                    10
    In clomping off--

What's the clomping?
Him walking on the bare wooden floor over a cellar. So it's like a sounding board.

    He consigned to the moon--such as she was,                                18
    So late-arising--to the broken moon,
    As better than the sun in any case                                                 20
    For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
    His icicles along the wall to keep;
    And slept.

Why is the moon a better choice than the sun to keep the snow on the roof and the icicles along the house?
It won't melt. The broken moon the way he describes it as broken, goes along with the rest of this poem. There is something of not just winter, but of decay, the fact that he is old and can't remember. The moon itself is broken, the year is broken, so winter for the old man is the same as for the year, it is about gone.

     And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt                                      23
    Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
    And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.                                25

This is probably some kind of Franklin stove. The Franklin stove, remember, invented by Ben Franklin, a great breakthrough in technology.

Why was it so much better than your old-fashioned fireplace?
It gave off much more heat. Your old-fashioned fireplace basically takes the heat from the fire and puts it out the chimney. The Franklin stove has a pipe to get rid of the smoke, but then it radiates the heat out into the room. The drawback of the Franklin stove is, of course, that it does not put out light. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about living in an old parsonage they called a manse. It had been a parsonage before he lived there. They took out the fireplace and put in a Franklin stove. He thought it much less romantic, although it put out much more heat. It didn't put out any light. Here is this stove which is warming up the houses but not giving out light. So it stays dark in there.

    And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept                                25
    One aged man--one man--can't keep a house,
    A farm, a country side, or if he can,
    It's thus he does it of a winter night.

So this is the way you tend houses. Notice what he made a poem out of. I think we can see a bit of the Whitman influence. Frost has taken basically the old guy getting up out of his chair, wandering into a room unable to remember what he was hunting for, he wandered back, sat there a while, and went to bed. Frost made that into a poem. The fact is that if you have the insight, if you have the ability to put things together, anything can become a poem. If you put it the way I just said, how could you ever make a poem out of this? Yet Frost does.

Out Out

What is this one about? He loses his hand and then what ?
He dies. Here is a household tragedy and where the last poem described a rather trivial event in this old guy's life, this one rather flattens out the tragedy of it. It is a tragedy.

What happens at the very end?
Life goes on. You can't just stop living just because your sa! Frost doesn't mean they were not sad, but he does mean they eventually went back to eating, sleeping, drinking, and even to using this very same saw.

What else could they do?

    The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
    And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
    Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it
    And from there those that lifted eyes could count
    Five mountain ranges one behind the other                                        5
    Under the sunset far into Vermont.

What is this, Massachusetts? Is that next to Vermont?
Anyway, very pastoral seen, very beautiful country. This is the Waltons. Have any of you watched the Waltons? Good Night, Jonboy! And of course in the Waltons, this rural existence is idealized, to a degree romanticized. But it is the place I want to go and live. Although they did have a much tougher time of it, than say in Mayberry, where no one ever seemed to do anything. At least on Walton Mountain, you had to work hard. Frost is showing the dark side of this life.

    And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
    As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
    And nothing happened: day was all but done
    Call it a day, I wish they might have said                                            10
    To please the boy by giving him the half hour
    That a boy counts so much when saved from work.

So give him a half hour to play before dark, but they didn't do that.

    His sister stood beside them in her apron
    To tell them "Supper." At the word, the saw,
    As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,                                      15
    Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap--
    He must have given the hand. However it was,
    Neither refused the meeting.

    The boy's first outcry was a rueful laugh,
    As he swung toward them holding up the hand,                                    20
    Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
    The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all--
    Since he was old enough to know, big boy
    Doing a man's work, though a child at heart--
    He saw all spoiled.                                                                                25

Here's a guy fated to spend his life working with his hands, and suddenly his hand is gone.

What's he going to do?
He knows this terrible.

    He saw all spoiled. "Don't let him cut my hand off--                               25
    The doctor, when he comes. Don't let him, sister!"

Like the lieutenant, he doesn't want to lose his appendage. But the hand was gone already. It's too late; the hand is just hanging on, so there's no choice. That was before the miracle of microsurgery. I can remember the first time somebody had a hand reattached, and it was all over the news. Nothing like that had been done before. What was that in the 70s and 80s? Doctors do it all the time now, but in time it was seen as just a wonder of technology. There was nothing like that in Frost's day.

They did have for that day a wonder of technology, one of the other great breakthroughs.

What is that?

What does ether do that is so wonderful?
It puts you asleep so you don't fell the pain while finishing out the amputation, and then dressing wound. So he's not going to have to feel the pain, but there's a problem with ether.

What is that?
It's very dangerous. I had an aunt, and for some reason back in those days they weren't quite as strict about keeping parents out of the room during surgery. A tonsillectomy was seen as relatively minor surgery, but the doctor was putting my aunt under with ether. My grandfather said, "Doctor she's turning blue." The doctor was able to save her by acting quickly, but had a couple more minutes passed, she would have died in her childhood. That's a dangerous drug. One they don't use any more there are a lot more anesthetics now that are much safer, but at the time it was this wonderful pain-saving device.

    He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath
    And then--watcher at his pulse took fright.                                30
    No one believed. They listened to his heart.
    Little--less--nothing!--and that ended it.

An hour ago he was all right, out there in the yard sawing logs, and now he's dead.

    No more to build on there. And they, since they
    Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.                            32

Rather grim pragmatic way of looking at things. I think they went through the standard mourning process, but on the other hand, death was much more at hand in that era. If you had six children, chances were that three would survive to be adults. Half of the people born died before they reached maturity. If you could get out of the first four years your chances improved. After the next five years, they would improve more. It was really tough getting a child grown, and so they were accustomed to grief and dealt with it with a rather pioneer fashion. They would be sad but they had to keep moving and doing what they were doing to survive.

Fire and Ice

    Some say the world will in fire,
    Some say in ice.
    From what I've tasted of desire

By the way, this is a big scientific debate, how is the universe going to end? What is happening to the universe?

What is Entropy?
When the sun goes out.

What about all the other suns; will they eventually go out too?
Yeah, and we will eventually wind up, if the universe keeps expanding, with what they call heat death. Basically the universe is uniformly about three degrees above zero with no really hot spots to produce things like suns and light and things like that. Ending in ice is one option, and that is if the universe keeps expanding.

What if it collapses back in on itself? What would that end look like?
Fire. Also, religiously those who believe in the apocalyptic end for the world thought about fire. The moon will turn to blood and blood will be up to the bridles of horses and thing like that.

How is the world going to end? Is it going to continue on until it burns out and cools down, or will it be some kind of big apocalypse?

Then, he goes on, of course, to a more spiritual level.

    From what I've tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice,                                                        5
    I think I know enough of hate
    To say for destruction ice
    Is also great
    And would suffice.

It could be fire, the fire of passion, or the ice of hatred when he compares hatred to ice. This is a bit unusual; normally we tend to think hate as being more related to fire, don't we? Then again we don't get as much ice as he did either. The ice could be the chilling effect it has upon the compassion we have for others, I suppose so. He thinks of hate in those terms. Desire is, of course, burning with desire. It could go either way based on what I've seen of human nature. So in a literal way, the universe ends.  But he keeps a symbolic, emotional level as well.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

    Nature's first green is gold,
    Her hardest hue to hold
    Her early leaf's a flower;
    But only for an hour.

When you start in the spring what color comes out?
Gold--gold of the pollen and flowers there brilliant blooming out of the flowers. But does it stay? No.

    Then leaf subsides to leaf.
    So Eden sank to grief,                                                                5
    So dawn goes down to day.
    Nothing gold can stay.

All of a sudden, we are not talking about spring anymore. We are talking about the fall of man, Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. The end of the golden age remember the ancient myth: the first stage gold, the second silver, the third bronze, the fourth well we live in an age of iron, rather grim age. He is going back to that ancient understanding of history. The way that history works-- things were better in the old days and they get progressively worse. Our brightest times were at the beginning, but we can't hold on to it.

Dawn, what were its colors?
Again, one of the colors of dawn, the one he focuses on, is the golden color, so it is that nature parallels humanity. The idea of the lost innocence and lost brightness. Somehow when we were children, that was when the promise was the brightest. Your potential was at the greatest, and it is all down hill from there.

 Back to Magee's Homepage

Edited by Group 1: Winter 1999 English 303-02