The poems in the collection by Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken and Other Poems, utilize language that is simple, clear and colloquial, yet contain deeper meanings and significance. Louis Untermeyer, in his introduction to The Road Not Taken: A Selection of Robert Frost’s Poems, said, ‘His central subject is humanity. . . . Other poets have written about people. But Robert Frost’s poems are the people; they work, and walk about, and converse, and tell their stories with the freedom of common speech’ (p. 3). Like his taciturn New England neighbors, Frost ‘worked his lands’ in Franconia, NH, in Shaftsbury, VT, and finally, in Ripton, VT, on the Homer Noble Farm (Flint, www.onenewengland.com). In this paper we will examine three of his poems (including two written in the era of ‘The Great War’) and see what relationship they have to each other and the times he lived in.
A Patch of Old Snow (1916)
There’s a patch of old snow in a corner
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.
It is speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I’ve forgotten ‘
If I ever read it.
(Frost, p. 5)
Robert Frost was a man who noticed: everything from butterflies confused by a flower field turned into new-mown hay and now absent of flowers (The Tuft of Flowers), to a piece of dirty newspaper caught in a corner, out of sight.
His language is straightforward, as was the speech of the New Englanders among whom he lived. ‘That I should have guessed’ is English as anyone would speak it, plain and to the point, as is the phrase: ‘The news of a day I’ve forgotten ‘ if I ever read it.’
Frost often insisted that his poems should be merely taken at face value (Frost and Untermeyer, p. 111), yet it is hard not to sense the melancholy lying beneath the lines of this poem. What makes news today, seriously impacting the lives of many people, is forgotten tomorrow ‘ just as those people have been and will be lost to memory. Death comes to us all and our story blows away on the wind. This bit of paper is the only memorial to those people: yet its words have already been washed away by the rain.
The battle rent a cobweb diamond-strung
And cut a flower beside a ground bird’s nest
Before it stained a single human breast.
The stricken flower bent double and so hung.
And still the bird revisited her young.
A butterfly its fall had dispossessed
A moment sought in air his flower of rest,
Then lightly stooped to it and fluttering clung.
On the bare upland pasture there had spread
O’ernight ‘twixt mullein stalks a wheel of thread
And straining cables wet with silver dew.
A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.
(Frost, p. 21).
World War I was barely over when this poem was written, and perhaps this is a clue to its ominous tone. In dealing indirectly with the horror that the bullet is creating when it ‘[stains] a single human breast,’ it brings to mind another poem, ‘In Flanders Fields,’ written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae in May of 1915, probably at the Battle of Ypres (www.greatwar.co.uk). McCrae’s poem begins:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
The power of the human carnage is heightened by the seeming indifference of nature: the world goes on, no matter how many people die at the hands of their fellows. The things we so proudly make will eventually die as well, like the fragile spider’s web. In Frost’s poem, the spider feels its web vibrate when the bullet tears through it, but the insect is ‘sullenly’ disappointed to find that it is not a fly that made a hole in the ‘straining cables’ that it worked so hard to create. If a human dies instead of a fly, the spider will not know or care.
It is not clear if the bullet penetrated the breast of a man or a woman: the ‘diamond-strung’ web perhaps also symbolized a necklace worn by a woman; or perhaps, it refers to a web of dreams spun by a couple before being torn apart by death. If so, her heart might be pierced either by the bullet, or by the love of the man who is killed by it. (This is a rather far-fetched interpretation of the poem, but this author feels it is interesting to consider, anyway).
Only a butterfly has noticed that a flower has died as a result of the shot, but neither it nor the bird and its young nearby understand what has happened, and their lives will continue unchanged, even if the butterfly is momentarily confused. Like the people in the newspaper article that has been eradicated by the rain, no one will remember who has died that day.
The Tuft of Flowers (1913)
I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.
The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the leveled scene.
I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been, ‘ alone,
‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
Whether they work together or apart.’
But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a bewildered butterfly,
Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.
And once I market his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.
And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.
Here again is the butterfly, which later appeared in ‘Range-Finding,’ lost in the midst of human-made chaos and death, searching for his (or her) flower that was mindlessly cut down in its prime. This time, however, it is new-mown hay that is has been cut to the quick (taking the flower with it), not human life; and now it is the job of the poet to turn it over (so it doesn’t rot?), like a sort of grave-digger following the Grim Reaper. Bearing witness like the poet, the butterfly in its brief life remembers the flower; but both the insect and the bloom will be forgotten in a moment, like the news in the bit of paper that was forgotten in ‘A Patch of Old Snow.’
The poet does not think he is alone, but then he realizes we are always alone, even when we share life ‘together or apart.’ The mower has ‘gone his way,’ leaving him behind. Loneliness ‘ and aloneness ‘ is the human condition, and once again that note of melancholy appears. It is also the fate of humans to die alone, whether watched over by loved ones or not.
Robert Frost wrote in plain English and is today still loved for his homespun wisdom and ‘simple’ poetry. However, beneath the declarative sentences and clear-eyed observation of nature lurk greater truths about humans and their condition of loneliness and inevitable death. The three poems discussed above were written around the time of ‘The Great War;’ and the first two especially echo the pain of the post-war era mourning a generation that died for no clear reason. The butterflies in the latter two poems ‘ like the larks in McCrae’s poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’ ‘ represent the fleeting memory of a fatal event, as well as nature’s overall indifference to life and death. Like the flowers, we return to dust ‘ and that’s it ‘ sad but true. His is the unflinching gaze of an unsentimental New Englander, wresting a living from rocky soil and not expecting too much from a difficult life. Like them, Frost ‘worked his lands’ in Franconia, NH, Shaftsbury, VT and finally, Ripton, VT, where he lived on the Homer Noble Farm (Flint, www.onenewengland.com).