Robert Frost 1914
“The Wood-Pile” was originally published in 1914 in North of Boston, which was Robert Frost’s second book of verse and the one that developed the author’s distinctive character—that of a New England country gentleman. The poem is probably not one of the top five most-discussed poems of Robert Frost, but it surely is in the top ten, and out of the hundreds of poems produced during a career that spanned fifty years, that is a distinction. It was written, according to Frost, in Derry, New Hampshire, where he lived as a farmer and schoolteacher before any of his poems were published. Like his other poems written during this period, “The Wood-Pile” deals with nature and loneliness, and it implies a greater overall purpose in the world that cannot be directly explained, only felt. What is distinct about Frost’s early poems is the eerie sense of life’s isolation. In “The Wood-Pile” the speaker is out in the cold wooded country, with nature, represented by the small bird, being wary of the speaker, and the speaker uneasy to suddenly realize himself to be far from home, with his feet falling through the hard snow.
Robert Frost was born in 1874 and lived in New England for practically his entire life. He was covaledictorian of his high-school class along with Elinor White, whom he married three years later (their marriage lasting until her death fifty-three years later). Frost attended Dartmouth College in 1892, but dropped out after two months; he also attended Harvard between 1897 and 1899, but he never graduated from there, either. From 1900 to 1912, he lived on a farm on Derry, New Hampshire, that his grandfather had brought for him, raising chickens and sometimes teaching at the local secondary school. In 1912, at the age of thirty-eight, he committed one of legendary acts in the annals of American poetry: he sold the farm and moved with his wife and four children to Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, near London, in order to pursue a literary career. The move turned out to be a wise one. In England he made the acquaintances of a number of writers, including Edward Thomas, Lascelles Abercrombie, and Ezra Pound. He also presented the poems he had written in New Hampshire to David Nutt and Company in London; the company agreed to print them, and in 1913 A Boy’s Will was published to favorable reviews. North of Boston, which includes “The Wood-Pile,” was published in England in 1914 and in the United States in 1915. It was this book that established Frost as a New England poet and introduced him to American audiences.
When World War I broke out in England, Frost and his family returned to the United States, where he was received by publishers and magazine editors who had previously rejected his work. He was invited to speak to literary clubs and was introduced to influential poets and critics. The publication of Mountain Interval in 1916 and New Hampshire in 1923 helped to solidify Frost’s reputation as one of the most original and important poets of his era. New Hampshire won the Pulitzer Prize, as did Collected Poems (1930) and A Witness Tree (1943). Frost received numerous other awards during his long and productive career. Among the most notable were the Congressional Gold Medal and a mountain in Ripton, Vermont, that was named “Robert Frost Mountain” by a state legislative act. He read a famous poem at the inaugural of President John F. Kennedy in 1961, and Kennedy later sent him on a goodwill mission to meet with Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, at a time when diplomatic relations between the two countries were at their worst. Frost was eighty-seven at the time of the trip. Soon after returning from Russia, Frost was operated on for prostrate problems. He died in January of 1963.
Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
I paused and said, ‘I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.’
The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went down. The view was all in lines 5
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.
A small bird flew before me. He was careful 10
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather—
The white one in his tail; like one who takes 15
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived
And then there was a pile of wood for which
I forgot him and let his little fear
Carry him off the way I might have gone, 20
Without so much as wishing him good-night.
He went behind it to make his last stand.
It was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled—and measured, four by four by eight.
And not another like it could I see. 25
No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it.
And it was older sure than this year’s cutting,
Or even last year’s or the year’s before.
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis 30
Had wound strings round and round it like a
What held it though on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks 35
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labour of his axe,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay. 40
The opening lines of “The Wood-Pile” establish the speaker as a person who is taking a walk through a frozen swamp. Although it is not explicitly said, there are a few things about this person that are evident from the situation. For instance, this seems to be a contemplative person, the sort of person who would take a walk without having a clear goal in mind. He decides to stop, but then changes his mind; clearly, where he ends up is not so important to this stroll as the act of walking itself. It is not clear whether this is a person who is so lost in thought that his surroundings do not matter, or if he is the sort of person who can appreciate the sublime beauty of a frozen swamp on a gray day, but the setting is certainly not one of traditional beauty. An interesting facet of his personality is revealed by his use of the plural pronoun in the third line. “We shall see” is a common twist of language for a simple, plainspoken person, but in this poem it implies that the speaker, though he walks alone, thinks of himself as being bound to some greater being—perhaps nature or God.
There is a sense of danger implied within these lines, starting with just a small hint that all is not well and growing into an irrational fear that is barely mentioned, yet present. This section starts with a declaration of faith, that the speaker is secure walking on top of the hard snow, but it immediately brings up exceptions to that rule. The phrase “now and then” in line 4 indicates both some degree of frequency—it has happened several times—and also that the speaker is trying to minimize the importance of falling through the snow by mentioning it in casual terms. It may not be a dangerous situation, but the idea of instability, of the ground not holding beneath one’s feet, adds a touch of insecurity to the mood of the poem. This section goes on to say that the speaker is not sure where he is because the terrain lacks character. The trees all look alike and stand similarly, tall and in rows, facing him with cold and impersonal efficiency. The only thing he says about the situation defines it negatively: this environment is not friendly enough for him to feel at home, and he is quite aware that the place where he does feel at home is far away. “Home” is a continuing theme in Frost’s poetry, especially in the poems of North of Boston. One of his most famous lines, from “The Death of The Hired Man,” is, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Nothing more is said about home in this poem, but the fact that it is on the speaker’s mind explains the cautious tone that is used throughout.
The bird is introduced in these lines, and its character is defined. Line 10 says that the bird was “careful”; this is an example of anthropomorphism, of seeing human qualities in nonhuman things. After calling the bird “careful,” the speaker goes on to ascribe a complex thought process to it, making it secretive and self-conscious. After the straightforward simplicity of the rows of identical trees, the bird’s entry adds some confusion to the poem, especially in lines 11 to 13, where the abundance of prepositions twists the language into knots, forcing the reader to think carefully about who is doing what. Considering that the flow of the thought changes direction with every “to,” “when,” “who,” and “what,” and that these four words appear a total of seven times in three lines, it is almost impossible to understand the basic meaning of this part of the poem after reading it through only once. What it says is that the bird is foolish for distrusting the man (he was “so foolish as to think what he thought”), but, being that distrustful, he would not let the man hear the bird song that might identify him (he would “say no word to tell me who he was”). The bird probably thinks that the man is a hunter, if it thinks at all. More likely, it is a bird that has survived by staying away from people, and the author is just projecting this whole thought process onto it.
Having already identified the threat that the bird perceives from him, the speaker then proceeds to minimize the danger that he might pose. Rather than supposing that the bird might fear being shot, he phrases the hunter’s attack as the stealing of a tail-feather. With good humor, but somewhat patronizingly and, ironically, very blind to the way the bird would see such a fearful situation, he gently mocks it for being too self-centered, for thinking that the whole world would be interested in its feathers. The irony is that it is the man who is thinking these thoughts who deems the bird paranoid for thinking about him so much. Part of the beauty of the understated psychology in Frost’s work is that it allows his poems to be vain while thinking about vanity, but even in their vanity they still fit into the vast natural world.
This section brings an end to the brief drama with the bird: it flies off “the way I might have gone,” indicating that the speaker might have gone on thinking about the psychological struggle between them if he had not had his attention drawn instead to the wood-pile. As indicated by the change of plan in line 3, this speaker is a person who has the leisure and the curiosity to follow whatever path his imagination may lead him down. His imagination is impartial enough to be drawn to the mundane as much as to the exotic, to focus on a pile of rotting wood over a quirky white-feathered bird. He still sees the bird as being motivated by fear, and it is fear that carries it out of the poem, although it does show an inkling of courage by going behind the wood-pile “to make his last stand.” Here again the little bird plays a comic foil to the narrator; it prepares for some mortal confrontation while the man has moved on in his thoughts and forgotten about it. While the bird braces itself, the man points out, in line 21, that their rivalry was all a game in his mind—that he would have wished the bird a good night if he had not been thinking about the pile of wood.
These four lines give the reader a visual impression of the scene, showing what the poem’s speaker saw before his imagination had a chance to dig into the details and start wondering what it all meant. At first, the information in line 24 seems redundant—a mere repetition of what has already been told: a cord of wood is a pile that measures four feet by four feet by eight. Not until later in the poem, when readers find out that the wood is lying on the ground and propped against a tree, does it becomes apparent that repetition was important because it emphasized that the person who left the wood followed the standards for measuring an official cord. A cord is not a small amount of wood,
- An Introduction to Robert Frost’s Poetry, a video cassette narrated by Helen Vendler, is available from Omnigraphics.
- Susan Anspach and Carl Reiner perform on an audio cassette titled Poetry of Robert Frost, released by Dove Audio in 1996.
- As part of their Poetry America Series, AIMS Media offers a video cassette titled Robert Frost.
- Robert Frost—1958 Interview is available on video cassette from Zenger Video.
but neither is it a large amount—at least not the kind of cache that one would travel far to reach. This is why the narrator takes a moment to note that there is not another pile near it. Its relative uselessness is confirmed by the evidence that no one has come out for the wood this winter.
In his enthusiasm about figuring out how old the wood-pile is and what it is doing in the woods, the speaker slips from his bland, emotionless tone into a New England rural dialect in line 27. “It was older sure” is not proper grammar, but the speaker is too preoccupied to be concerned about that. This is someone who can tell the age of cut wood by sight, as many country people in cold climates (where firewood was crucial) probably could. The fact that the narrator and the culture in which he lives take firewood so seriously is not just an interesting fact; it underscores how strange it is— what an infraction it is—that someone would bundle perfectly good wood in a place and then never use it. “Clematis,” mentioned in line 30, is a creeping vine that grows flowers. By using the simile “wound strings round .... it like a bundle,” the poem is furthering the theme of cooperation between man and nature. Some anonymous person has cut, measured, and stacked the wood, and the vines do their part by binding it together.
In this last section, the speaker reveals what made this experience memorable enough to be recorded in verse. This section starts with the image of the old wood being propped between a clumsy stake on one side and a live tree on the other, indicating that it is a work both of man and of nature. Line 33 makes a point of mentioning that the tree is “still growing,” which, coming after the detailed description of the cut wood’s decay in lines 27 to 29, implies the wastefulness of the dead wood. Lines 33 through 37, however, turn that wastefulness into a virtue; they shift the emphasis away from the time and energy squandered on the task and turn the reader’s attention to the fact that the anonymous stranger must have had a full and busy life if he was distracted after doing all of this work. In one sense, the conclusion seems a bit optimistic: after all, why assume that he is “turning to fresh tasks” when there could be more ominous reasons for his failure to return to the site? On the other hand, this assumption fits in perfectly with the rest of the poem, ascribing to the stranger the curiosity and lack of concentration that have already been seen in both the speaker and the bird. In the end, the effort is not presented as having been wasted at all, since the decaying wood is expending its energy back into the frozen swamp—into the tree at whose base it sits. Thus, the axeman’s effort does not result in personal gain, but it benefits nature.
Cycle of Life
The image that ends this poem, that of the wood-pile warming the swamp “with the slow smokeless burning of decay,” brings to mind the idea that life is, on a basic biological level, cyclical, with the decaying remains of those that die going back into the cycle and feeding new life with their spent nutrients. To farmers, there is nothing deep or revolutionary about this idea. Decaying animal and plant matter has been put on crops as fertilizer for as long as people have been farming, roughly 10,000 years. The idea has wider implications, however, when it is taken out of the narrow scope of organic chemistry and applied to poetic concepts. If, for instance, it were actions and thoughts, instead of molecules, that transferred to the living from the dead, then life would be meaningful even when no evidence of success or failure
Topics for Further Study
- Find something in your daily life that looks like somebody took a lot of time to make but seems to be abandoned. Describe it in detail, including what you think happened to the person who made it.
- How long would it take a cord of maple wood to decay? Find the best scientific data that you can about this kind of wood and use it to make your most accurate calculation.
- Compare this poem to another one that projects human motives onto animals. What kinds of personalities do the two poems give to animals? What does that tell you about the subject matter of each poem? See if the tone of each poem supports your interpretation.
existed. Many works of literature use this concept to make the meaningless seem meaningful by showing a life that is affected through indirect means by another that is unrelated. In this poem, the apparent futility of someone having taken the time to cut and stack wood out in the middle of a swamp is given meaning when it is explained that the swamp will benefit from it. The phrase “far from a useful fireplace” can be seen as ironic, because the wood does have a use and, since decay is called “burning,” it is in a fireplace. Before the image of the wood-pile is introduced into the poem, though, life for the narrator seems to be linear, not cyclical. Early on, he has the idea to circle around and go back where he came from, but he decides to push ahead, to go where he has not gone before. He is not even sure what he is looking for, but he is looking for something; this is implied when he says “We shall see.” It is the speaker’s realization of the cycle of life at poem’s end—of the fact that dead and discarded things are still serving a purpose—that gives him a sense of meaning that is missing from the beginning.
Return to Nature
Nature is not presented as a welcoming environment in the beginning of “The Wood-Pile.” It is impassive at first, cold and undistinguished, with rows of trees that all look like one another to the observer. With the introduction of the small bird, the narrator feels himself to be observed, judged as a threat, and feared. The poem is fairly clear about the fact that the thoughts attributed to the bird are actually thoughts that the speaker dares not see in himself, especially in lines 14 through 16, which supply the bird with the following thought: “He thought I was after him .... like one who takes everything said as personal to himself.” The bird would have no interest in the man except for wanting to know how the man will affect his life, and animals do not have the ego to take things “personal”—that is strictly a human psychological trait. If the phrase is actually meant to reflect back upon the man, this extreme self-consciousness might indicate his uneasiness in a natural environment and his awareness that he is, as line 9 points out, far from home. He learns something within the course of this poem about the coexistence of man and nature. It might be that the cooperation of the wood-chopper’s neat stacking with the Clematis vine’s wrapping has helped him bridge the gap between man and nature in his mind, or that his realization, in line 36, about the laborer’s “forgetfulness” helps him forget about his human concerns and accept his place in the natural world. Whatever the reason, by the end of the poem the frozen swamp seems like a big open fireplace to him, and the fireplace, the hearth, is a universal symbol of home.
When, at the midpoint of the “The Wood-Pile,” the bird is carried off by “his little fear,” the narrator loses his own uncertainty. From the very start he has been uneasy about his trip; no sooner does he mention (in line 4) that he was able to walk across the hard snow than he adds that it is not entirely sturdy—that a foot fell through now and then. He refers to being not just away from home, but “far from home.” The bird itself does not seem like a friendly companion, because it approaches him like an adversary. Something in the way that they relate either makes the bird prepare for his “last stand” or makes the poem’s speaker feel that he should prepare for his own. Whatever the cause of his fear—whether it is an uneasiness about nature’s callousness, loneliness, or suspicion that he is a fool for what he thinks—it seems to lessen when he decides that the person who left the wood must be “Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks.” This poem speaks with Robert Frost’s customary dry, factual, slightly bemused voice, but there is an uneasiness about it—an uncertainty that borders on fear—that needs the example of someone with a purpose to calm it.
Like much of Frost’s poetry, “The Wood-Pile” is written in blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter. Each line has five feet of one unstressed and one stressed syllable each, although the order of the stresses and the number of feet occasionally vary. (For instance, line 14 in “The Wood-Pile” has six feet.) Frost used blank verse in his poetry because he was trying to capture what he called “the sound of sense,” or the natural rhythms of actual speaking voices. The blank verse in “The Wood-Pile” reflects Frost’s character and setting: a solitary figure in a rural landscape. The narrator’s voice does not sound traditionally “poetic” but is more homely and vernacular.
Although Frost said that “The Wood-Pile,” or at least part of it, was written before he left the United States for England in 1912, the book that it was published in and that built his reputation— North of Boston—was published in America in 1914. Frost’s stay in England was fruitful in that it marked the birth of the poet’s career, but a global crisis prompted him to leave the country and return to the United States.
World War I started in 1914, ushering in a new era of modern warfare of a greater scale and with more savage weaponry than had ever been known before. Like many previous wars, the war started as a localized territorial dispute, but its scope blossomed to global proportions due to alliances between countries: as one nation was dragged into the conflict, its allies were obliged to join too, and the allies of each one of them were then required to join along. At the center of the conflict were two main alliances: the Triple Entente of Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary, and the Triple Alliance of France, Great Britain, and Russia. Trouble had been brewing for decades in the area along the Adriatic Sea, where the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia each had some influence, which they wanted to expand into control. Serbia, which was under the rule of Austria-Hungary,
Compare & Contrast
- 1914: Advertising writer W. B. Laughhead, designing pamphlets to promote the Red River Lumber Co. of Minneapolis, invents the legend of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox named Babe.
Today: Many people think that the legend of Paul Bunyan is a folk story that grew up among lumberjacks.
- 1914: The term “birth control” was introduced by feminist Margaret Higgins Sanger, who had to leave the country to avoid federal prosecution for publishing and mailing Family Limitation, a brochure dealing with contraception.
Today: After records show rising birthrates, especially among teenagers, birth control is taught in schools and promoted in public advertising.
- 1914: After Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo, the nations of Europe lined up in a war that eventually involved almost all civilized countries on the planet.
1996: The Dayton Peace Accord ends four years of open warfare in the former Yugoslavia. Sarajevo, which withstood a 1,395-day siege, becomes the united capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the conflict, more than 10,000 people were killed in Sarajevo.
- 1914: President Woodrow Wilson signed the declaration that established the second Sunday of each May as national Mother’s Day.
Today: For businesses such as florists and interstate telephone services, Mother’s Day is the busiest day of the year.
- 1914: Threatened by the prospect of strikes, Ford Motor Company raised the minimum wage of their workers to $5 per day—a rate more than twice the average U.S. wage.
1998: According to a UAW report, Ford Motor Company paid union members an average of $22.97 an hour in wages in 1997.
had many separatists who wanted to align with one of the other empires and still more who wanted the country to be a free, independent state. On June 28, 1914, the heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungary empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, made a ceremonial visit to the Serbian capital of Sarajevo: his car was stopped, and he and his wife were shot to death.
The Serbian government’s official explanation was that the assassination was the work of renegade terrorists, but the Austro-Hungarian Empire claimed that the Serbs had supported the killing in a bid for independence. It is not clear even today whether the Serbian government actually did support the separatist movement (called the Black Hand) that had provided the gun for the assassins. Nor is it known if the Austro-Hungarians actually believed that the Serbian government was in any way involved in the killing, or if they just used this charge as an excuse to assert their control over the country—to intimidate both separatists and the other federations that were interested in having Serbia join them. The Austro-Hungarians issued a list of demands to Serbia, saying that they were needed for security purposes. The Serbs, however, balked at the order to let Austro-Hungarian troops search their houses for suspected terrorists. The Austro-Hungarian empire declared war against Serbia on July 28th. Within a few months, most of the 32 nations that would eventually join the conflict were already involved. Russia had an agreement to help Serbia, and so they joined the fight against Austria-Hungary immediately; Germany had a deal with the Austro-Hungarians, and they wanted to weaken Russia, so they attacked Russia and her ally France; Germany’s invasion of Belgium brought Great Britain into the war. Countries off of the European continent, such as Egypt, Japan, and Canada became involved too. One country that initially stayed out of the conflict was the United States. Many Americans considered it a European problem, and few wanted their sons and brothers to die for something so abstract. President Woodrow Wilson won reelection in 1916 by promoting himself as the man who had kept America out of the war. Nonetheless, the United States was drawn into the war in April of 1917. In the end, it was the boost provided by U.S. troops and armaments that helped the Allies claim victory; World War I ended a year later, in 1918.
From the very start of his literary career, Frost enjoyed that rare combination that all writers strive for: popularity and critical success. (The fact that he was a charming and likable person did not hurt his cause either.) His first collection of poetry, A Boy’s Will, was received with delight and wonder that a poet with such talent could suddenly appear on the horizon. An unsigned review in Academy and Literature concluded with, “We have not the slightest idea who Mr. Robert Frost may be, but we welcome him unhesitatingly to the ranks of the poets born, and are convinced that if this is a true sample of his parts he should presently give us work far worthier of honour than much which passes for front-rank poetry at the present time.” Having made his entry into “the ranks of the poets born,” Frost was able to have his second book, North of Boston (in which “The Wood-Pile” appears), taken seriously on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Ezra Pound, with whom Frost had developed a friendship in England, reviewed the book in Poetry, explaining what was so good about this unfamiliar style: “Mr. Frost’s work is not ‘accomplished,’ but it is the work of a man who will make neither concessions nor pretenses. He will perform no money-tricks. His stuff sticks in your head—not his words, nor his phrases, nor his cadences, but his subject matter.” Amy Lowell, who was an acquaintance of Pound’s but who did not meet Frost until after he visited to thank her for her glowing review, wrote in The New Republic that he “tells you what he has seen exactly as he has seen it. And in the word exactly lies the half of his talent. The other half is a great and beautiful simplicity of phrase .....” Lowell added, “He goes his own way, regardless of anyone else’s rules, and the result is a book of unusual power and sincerity.”
Having quickly established his place in the realm of American poetry, Frost was, amazingly, able to hold onto it for the next fifty years. One reason was that after 1938, when he was widowed after his wife’s death, he did not produce much poetry, although he did remain active in the field, giving lectures and eventually acting as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. government. With no new works to consider, and with his obvious social prestige, critics focused their attention on the idea of Robert Frost more than his works. Many of the subsequent articles written about him were favorable, wondering why poets were not taking chances and developing original styles like he did. One notable exception came from renowned critic Malcolm Cowley, who printed a piece in The New Republic in 1944 titled “The Case Against Mr. Frost.” Despite the wording of his title, his case was a minor one—that Frost’s philosophical range was too narrow, and that homey little tales of rustic Yankees are limited in their usefulness. “In spite of his achievements as a narrative and lyric poet .... there is a case against Robert Frost as a social philosopher in verse and as a representative of the New England Tradition,” Cowley wrote. “He is too much walled in by the past.” This assessment is representative of the type of minor complaints that critics labored to dredge up during the poet’s long and distinguished career.
Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer describes “The Wood-Pile” as “a study in the relationship between art and nature.”
Like many of the poems in Robert Frost’s 1914 collection, North of Boston, “The Wood-Pile” is set in winter and deals with the narration of a mind as it goes through the process of decision and indecision. Frost sees that the processes of the mind are a binary system where even the slightest choice or determination is weighed and balanced. “I will turn back from here. / No, I will go on farther,” is suggestive not of hesitancy but of understanding. The persona is on a journey not simply through the woods but through his own epistemology. The journey itself, even the insignificant act of walking through the woods on “hard snow” that “held me,” is a metaphor for the discovery of the unexpected and the ways in which that discovery is comprehended.
As a poem, “The Wood-Pile” is structured like many of Frost’s narrative poems. It tells a story that appears simple on the surface yet belies some complex
“.... [T]he final lines of Frost’s poem do embrace the type of paradox of both comprehension and apprehension that is characteristic of the elegiac voice.”
observations and ideas beneath the gauze of seemingly insignificant events. Frost loves this kind of deception. For him, the poem is a mask for truths, a way in which commonplace events of life contain elements of much larger themes and issues. “The Wood-Pile” depicts someone walking through the woods on a winter evening and discovering a pile of maple cords somebody else has chopped and left in the middle of nowhere. The ambiguousness of this gesture—of leaving a record of labor abandoned both in space and time—presents an anomaly that triggers a whole range of speculations. The goal of the poem is not to tell a story for the reader’s edification, but to show the reader how the process of mental discovery works in the mind of a persona who details and chronicles every motion of thought and observation within the experience.
In some respects, “The Wood-Pile” is a “stream-of-consciousness” narrative. In such a story, the structural intent of the descriptions is to portray the way in which thoughts are connected and to show a mind at work. In the case of this poem, the narrative is not carried through physical action but through the mental dynamics of the persona/narrator who records the processes of comprehension and apprehension. Along the way, there are various markers of observation noted by the persona. The first is the arrangement of the trees. “The view,” he notes, “was all in lines / Straight up and down of tall slim trees / Too much alike to mark or name a place by / So as to say for certain I was here / Or somewhere else ....” The very placelessness of the location, the indistinctiveness of the setting, shifts the reader’s attention to the inner world of the poem—to the landscape of the persona’s mind. This sense of both an inner narration and an inner world is further enhanced by the presence of the small bird who becomes, momentarily, an external distraction. But as often happens in Frost’s poems, the external observation gives way to the speculations of inner narrative; the persona starts “to think what he [the bird] thought,” so that—quite literally—“Everything” is “said as personal to himself.” What is often a key element in a stream-of-consciousness narrative is the assimilation of the outer world to the inner, a place where events, ideas, and perceptions blend to form not just a story but the process behind the making of a story. The problem is that the actual wood pile the persona discovers is an ambiguity, an anomaly in the landscape that cannot be explained.
The “cord of maple, cut and split / And piled” has no plausible explanation. Its discovery is the result of the bird darting behind it for protection from the observer, and in a moment, after a brief period of detailed observation, it is suddenly recognized as an absurdity. The persona questions why someone would leave it there “far from a useful fireplace.” The relationship between the labor-intensive act of chopping a tree and cording it for firewood and its pointless location, seemingly forgotten, troubles the narrator. The utilitarian-minded Frost is struck by the artifice and effort that went into the act of creating the wood pile, yet is confronted by the paradox of the “slow smokeless burning of decay” and the waste of both effort and fuel.
Jeffrey Meyers, in his Robert Frost: A Biography (1996), draws a parallel between the final two lines of “The Wood-Pile” and the final line of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy” (“They kept the noiseless tenor of their way”). Although “The Wood-Pile” is far from being an elegy (there is no serious sense of loss, grief, or lamentation), the final lines of Frost’s poem do embrace the type of paradox of both comprehension and apprehension that is characteristic of the elegiac voice. The wood warms “the frozen swamp as best it could.” The contradiction at the heart of this perception is not simply wastefulness but the realization that the world can present one with moments of purposelessness where an object or a situation suggests a lack of fulfillment, a turning-away from intent. This, Frost finds troubling. So what does it mean?
The setting seems to be the key to the answer. The poem, like one Frost would write nine years later, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” locates the persona in the waste landscape of winter. For Frost, the winter landscape is nature’s own anomaly, a contradiction of the driving life force that lies behind the seasons, a time when the absence of life is both a troubling sign of seasonal death and a signal of mortality for the beholder. In “After Apple-Picking” (1914), another poem from North of Boston, Frost concludes the poem with the realization that after the labor of life there is the disconcerting prospect of “This sleep of mine, what sleep it is.” Like Hamlet in the famous “To be or not to be” speech of Act II, Scene ii, death contains the prospect of misapprehension—“To sleep—perchance to dream: ay there’s the rub.” For Frost in “The Wood-Pile,” the abandoned artifice and effort that went into the cutting of the tree, the chopping of the cords, and the building of the pile is a signal of how happenstance, death, and the unexpected can enter the world and make a folly of human endeavor. “I thought that only / Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks / Could so forget his handiwork on which / He spent himself, the labor of his ax,” is a supposition that the hand that built the pile has turned his efforts to other endeavors. But the narrator has no proof of that, and the speculation of the life behind the work being redirected to other ends is a wish for some sign of poetic justice in a world where death is the ultimate distraction from both concentration and purpose.
What underlies “The Wood-Pile” is the problem of distractions. The trees are a distraction because they signal a lack of a defined place. The bird is a distraction from the trees, and the wood pile a distraction from the bird. The final distraction is the purposelessness of the pile itself, and, “knowing how way leads on to way” (as Frost says in “The Road Not Taken”), the lack of resolution either to thought or to action is, in itself, a problematic condition imposed upon the human experience. Art, poetry, and even wood cutting suggest an inherent desire for resolution; yet that resolution is missing from “The Wood-Pile,” and if the purpose of art and poetry is to improve or reform the world as we know it, then that resolution must be present not only in narrative but in nature. The poet in Frost hopes this is so—that the power of the mind can impose purpose where there is none. But if that mind is distracted, the net result is a failure of art, and failure in art is tantamount to tragedy. Much like Hamlet’s struggle to make up his mind or resolve himself to a purpose, the inner debate of the persona in the opening lines of “The Wood-Pile” shows how fragile intent, purpose, and resolution can be. The line between poetic justice (the desired resolution of a narrative or an extended action) and tragedy (the failure to achieve a reasonable resolution to the narrative) is a fine one indeed. The winding “Clematis” that ties the pile into a neat bundle
What Do I Read Next?
- The collection in which “The Wood-Pile” originally appeared, North of Boston, was released in an expanded edition in 1977, with illustrations and the addition of thirteen more of his poems that had appeared in other books during Frost’s lifetime.
- The main purpose of a literary biography is to draw connections between the writer’s life and the elements that are on display in his work. Biography and criticism are brought together smoothly and comprehensively in William H. Pritchard’s 1984 study, Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered.
- Essays about Frost and interviews with him constitute a large section of John Ciardi’s collection of magazine pieces called Dialogue with an Audience. Ciardi was poetry editor of the Saturday Review for a long time, and his articles, even when they are not about Frost, are worth reading for their insight and compassion.
- The authorized biography of Robert Frost was written by his lifelong friend Lawrence Thompson and issued in three parts: Robert Frost: The Early Years, 1874-1915, Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938 and Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938-1963.
- A very interesting study of the way that the human mind processes poetry used Robert Frost’s works as an example. Norman M. Holland’s The Brain of Robert Frost, published in 1988 by Routledge Press, uses its science-fiction-like title to draw readers into a discussion of the deeper mysteries of the psychology of creativity.
is a metaphor for nature’s indifference to the human need for resolution and suggests that what we perceive as organic design is merely happenstance. Nature, Frosts suggests, is not a binary system of either/or, but an endless cycle of life and death. The conflict between man and nature that recurs so often in Frost’s poetry is really the battle between the human desire for purpose, resolution, and enduring, life-sustaining poetic justice and nature’s own agenda of cyclical life, death, and decay. “The Wood-Pile,” therefore, is a study in the relationship between art and nature.
Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
David Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature at several community colleges in Illinois. In the following essay, Kelly argues that the core of Frost’s appeal is his ability to equally respect both sides of an issue: in the case of “The Wood-Pile,” this means recognizing both the desire to have more leisure time and the fear of being too free.
I think that the appeal of “The Wood-Pile,” and of many of Robert Frost’s most popular works, is that he manages to stay poised between action and inaction, and in an uncertain world of increasingly unforeseeable consequences, that is not a bad place to be. Consider, for instance, one of his most popular and heavily anthologized works, “The Road Not Taken.” Somewhere, probably in the antiauthoritarian 1960s, the poem developed a reputation for being in favor of individualism—for telling readers to forget about popularity, to not be afraid, and to follow their instincts, wherever that may lead them. These are fine sentiments that I would like to believe, but, unfortunately, there is nothing about any sort of inner voice in the poem. In fact, the poem never tells us, even after the intense pondering that goes on at the crossroads, what the outcome of its speaker’s choice is going to be: it only says that things turn out differently if you go down one road than they will if you go down another. There is something in Frost’s elegant, quiet language that drives readers to identify with the narrator and confirm, without evidence, that the choice made is the right one, as if the phrase “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference” were proof that this is the road we all ought to follow (which, if you think about it, would make for a pretty crowded less-traveled road). I would almost want to accuse Frost of dithering, but that implies a state of hyperactive indecision—of someone who can neither sit still nor make a move in any direction—and he is too sedate for that.
In another of Frost’s famous poems, “Fire and Ice,” he says, in effect, that given a choice between passion and apathy, he would choose the world to end in passion, but that, having seen the passion of hatred, apathy would also be okay. The poem’s message isn’t such a profound declaration when I phrase it this way; the beauty, of course, is in the way that he says it. It’s quite the nonissue, since we won’t have much choice in the way the world will end and, besides, the two finales are fairly equal in appeal. Still, Frost makes us walk away from this nine-line piece feeling that we have accomplished something.
One of the most touching, truly human characters in Frost’s works must be the speaker of “The Wood-Pile,” a person who is so uncomfortable about the consolations of philosophy that he can immerse himself in a rich situation of fear, nature, suspicion, rebirth, futility, intrusion, and harmony, and walk away envious of that unknown someone else who was able to leave these rampant ideas and focus on something else. This is a pensive man who, when he sees a little bird flitting about in the forest, imagines a whole drama about the bird’s wants and fears; a man who knows the significance of mentioning the contrast between a manmade prop and a still-living tree; a man who has time to walk in the woods.
The speaker also seems to yearn for more important and compelling duties to carry out that would preclude him from musing about birds or wood-piles. The phrase “fresh tasks” has a positive connotation; it seems clear that he wishes they were his. While his mind is so open to suggestion that it skips from one item to the next, one plan to another, he also knows that there is someone out there who can spend time and grueling labor chopping and stacking wood and not even keep track of the results. We all have the same envy. Think of how, if Bill Gates let a thousand-dollar bill slip down the back of the couch, he would not even notice its absence; now, think of what that thousand dollars would mean to you. The commodity here isn’t money, and it isn’t even time, which this speaker has plenty of. What he lacks is a purpose so important that an afternoon of labor would seem meaningless in comparison.
A few years after composing “The Wood-Pile,” Frost wrote “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” In this poem, after the narrator briefly contemplates the forest and snow, he decides that it is time to move on, because “I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep.” Missing here is a sense of self-recrimination—that feeling that he does not deserve to treat himself to quiet time in the forest. If the speaker in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” feels that he deserves it, though, he also has responsibilities that set off an alarm clock within him, telling him that he must leave. This character’s relationship to the narrator of “The Wood-Pile” is clear—they are both people who can appreciate a good quiet forest—but his relationship with himself is a little calmer, less self-accusing. It is interesting to compare Frost’s positions in life when he wrote the two poems. When he wrote “The Wood-Pile,” he was a poet who ran a chicken farm. It was an occupation that he, understandably, had little interest in but accepted because his grandfather, tired of his poet-like idleness, had bought it and made him promise to run it for at least ten years. Who could blame him if he had trouble keeping on task? When he wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in 1923, he was a successful poet—not only published but also praised for the depth of his thoughts. He wrote it after staying up one sleepless but productive night, working out the problems in another poem, and he could be assured that there would be another challenge presented to his talent coming up soon. He was, in other words, in a position to appreciate the sweetness of a few minutes’ rest without fear of losing himself to indolence.
Philosophers have suggested that too much freedom is frightening for humans—that the heaviest of responsibilities is being accountable for deciding what to do with ourselves. This is the burden that the narrator of this poem imagines the woodchopper to be free of, and he wishes his mind could take on such ballast. At first reading, “The Wood-Pile” seems to offer a fantasy to those of us who feel over-occupied and would like to be able to take a stroll and then even prolong it a little just to see what we can see. True to Frost’s fashion, though, at the same time the poem offers its opposite, a fantasy for the under-occupied who would rather not have so much time for strolling. The genius of it is that both groups—meaning just about everyone—come away from the poem happy.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
In the following excerpt, Doreski focuses on the allegorical landscape in “The Wood-Pile.”
In “Education by Poetry,” published in The Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly in 1931, Robert Frost invoked the intricacies, including the limits, of metaphor as knowledge. “All metaphor breaks down somewhere,” he argued. “That is the beauty of it. It is touch and go with the metaphor, and until you have lived with it long enough you don’t know when it is going.” By that time, Frost had “lived with” metaphor through many books. His early poems, which he had collected and published sixteen years before, had displayed a sophisticated sense of the limits of metaphor, a careful testing of allegorical possibilities, and an inclination to expand narrative models through rhetorical motifs other than those already enshrined in lyric conventions. The best of the poems Frost would write in the next two decades would go further by making rhetorical self-critique an intrinsic structural and thematic element of their poetics.
“The Wood-Pile” and “After Apple-Picking,” both from North of Boston (1914), illustrate the two poles of a language of meditation drawn, respectively, from Dante and the tradition of allegorical landscape, and from Wordsworth and the romantic acknowledgement of the otherness of landscape. Each poem confronts comparable problems in signification: the limits of allegory (a walk in winter woods, a journey over a rutted country road), the unruly complexity of the symbol (the wood-pile, the Grail), and the loss of religious faith and iconography and the difficulty of finding a comparably significant but secular language. These problems signal an apparent exhaustion of lyric conventions and encourage Frost to use his characteristic irony to deconstruct the meditative voice, expose it as a fiction, and renew the lyric sense of wonder and discovery by invoking a speech-oriented language (a dialogic, rather than mono-logic, voice) more informal, less conventionally poetic, more intimate than the language it displaces. That is, the renewal proceeds by visibly displacing one language-model for another. Frost, unlike Williams, for example, does not refuse established lyric models, but escapes the conventional language of meditation, monologue, and lyric ecstasy without entirely abandoning established formal paradigms.....
“The Wood-Pile” opens by invoking Dante’s motif of the lost soul, the wanderer in the dark wood. The speaker warns us that like many other allegorical landscapes this one is no place in particular and cannot be readily named, too formal with its “view .... all in lines / Straight up and down of tall slim trees / Too much alike to mark or name a place by.....” Such places, lacking adequately differentiated signifiers, typically entrap the traveller, and the reader might well expect this speaker to fall prey to self-doubts, misgivings of the sort that suggest that inner and outer landscapes are actually one. Frost’s wood is frozen, grey, and snowy, and by lacking clear definition it threatens the absorption or erasure of the self.
The speaker is neither passive nor desperate. He offers no particular moral dilemma, displays no fear, and asserts a role in his own salvation by positing the choice between turning back and going on. Also, no leopard—a figure clearly not of the waking world—leads him on, though another natural emblem, an otherwise undistinguished “small bird,” flies before him, neither leading him nor quite fleeing from him, as if it toyed with its own allegorical role which it cannot quite fulfil. The speaker implies, in his playful, uncommitted personification of the bird, that its reluctance to name itself derives from its reluctance to expose its inner life, which centres, for the moment, on fear. The speaker assumes that the bird believes he is being chased for his feather, his metonymic self, “like one who takes / Everything said as personal to himself.” One can conceive of someone foolish enough to take all landscapes, allegorical or otherwise, as personal to himself; but this Wordsworthian stance is not Frost’s, and his refusal of this relatively simple link between being and nature redirects the poem from allegory to a less conventionally predicated mode.
By invoking the convention of the allegorical landscape, Frost suggests the possibility of constructing his poem entirely within a structural certainty in which every motif, every emblem finds a place and contributes towards the reconciliation of self and other. But Frost has a delicate sense of scale. Dante’s immensely complex poem accomplishes its task only by invoking the entire structure of medieval Catholic theology and shaping it to the even more inclusive convention of landscape allegory. Frost, who always insists that the play of language is central to poetry, loves to tease the reader by setting up expectations of grandeur that if actually attempted in so brief and colloquial a poem would surely fail.
“The Wood-Pile” turns abruptly, takes “One flight out side-ways,” as it were, and forgets its allegorical beginnings as the speaker forgets the bird and lets “his little fear / Carry him off the way I might have gone.” The bird, that is, delves further into the allegorical landscape, but the speaker, alerted by his discovery, enters a new mode.
As some versions of literary history would have it, poetry altered its course in the romantic era by positing the symbol as a logocentric repository of meaning outside of language. “The Wood-Pile” somewhat wryly critiques that version of literary history, and critiques as well both the convention the poem first invokes then abandons and the newer convention it turns to and gently mocks. [In The Rhetoric of Romanticsm ] Paul de Man notes that the earlier romantics resisted the temptation to collapse being and the natural object into a single entity or sign. Wordsworth toyed with the idea that in place of a firm grounding of faith, imagination, by means of a self-reflexive poetic language, might empower the sign with the presence of nature. But he well understood the paradoxical quality of his endeavour, and the Prelude displays his awareness of the negating power as well as the nostalgia of the imagination.
In “The Wood-Pile,” at the very moment of empowerment, Frost undercuts the utility of the wood-pile as a symbol of human presence by recalling that, like all signifiers, it has something of allegory in it—in this instance, the bird, which “went behind it [the wood-pile] to make his last stand.” He also reminds us that the symbol, unlike the allegorical emblem, embodies, rather than merely suggesting metonymically, its own history. Though isolated in its human import, the wood-pile is the monolith that represents all history, all endeavour, all made things, and is, therefore, “older sure than this year’s cutting, / Or even last year’s or the year’s before.” Yet isolate, human-made, and symbolic though it is, the wood-pile lacks stability, and is losing its own sense of origin by returning to nature and surrendering its logocentric status. Already “Clematis / Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle,” reclaiming it as the bark warps off it and it deconstructs into its natural status. This disintegrative process generates the tropes of impoverishment Richard Poirier [in his Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing ] finds in this poem. The woodpile, claimed from nature and therefore claimed by Being, is slowly reverting to a simpler form of sign, returning to the world of allegory, in de Man’s sense, in which the primal and ethical distinction between the mind and the world is relatively clearly defined, but in which metaphor, deprived of a central shaping role, seems impoverished.
Frost’s paradoxical moralism—which argues that “only / someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks / Could so forget his handiwork on which / He spent himself, the labour of his axe”—both conceals and reveals the gap between being and nature by calling into question the very process of making and naming. What is the use of doing tasks at all if one spends oneself only to abandon and forget the results of one’s labour? The answer is the poem’s critique of its own process of hacking a symbol—the wood-pile—from conventional allegorical motifs. In concealing its refusal to cross the gulf between sign and nature, this symbolic decaying wood-pile exposes its—and the poem’s— self-deconstruction. The wood-pile completes the failure of signification by refusing to warm its author and instead warming, “as best it could,” the original allegorical landscape it seemed, momentarily, to endow with a human presence.
The consequence of this shift from allegory to symbol is to suggest that neither language-mode is sufficient to engender a poetic sufficient to overcome the nostalgia for the human world, the primacy of the external object. “The Wood-Pile” is a poem about the search for origins and the limitations of the most obvious attempts to reconcile nature and the mind. It is also a poem about the power of language to invoke the very idea of presence, an idea that if not realized in fact is capable of generating imagery that is so evocative as to demonstrate that metaphor-generated illusion can as generously engage the sensuous being as the actual presence of the evoked object. The opening line— “Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day”— signals a pattern of open vowel sounds that corresponds to the open view through the leafless trees. The imagery, including the closing picture of the wood-pile decaying in the middle of the swamp, corresponds to a sense of expanding possibilities. The forgetfulness of the woodcutter corresponds, the speaker believes, to a larger sense of purpose. Renewal through language, then, is not the property of particular language-models (allegory or symbol) but a larger argument shaped by and around their limitations. By exploiting and conflating lyric conventions rather than attempting to abandon them, Frost argues from their relationship; in miniaturizing a literary-historical model (the displacement of allegory by symbolism), he replicates the expansive history of the attempt to resolve through language and imagination the isolation of the mind. In doing so, he implicitly argues that the positing of fictional modes of representation affirms the practical utility of the language of imagery to engage the senses and sustain at least a momentary illusion of natural or human presence.
Source: William Doreski, “Meta-Meditation in Robert Frost’s ‘The Wood-Pile,’ ‘After Apple-Picking,’ and ‘Directive,’” in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 23, No. 4, October 1992, pp. 35-40.
Cowley, Malcolm, “The Case Against Mr. Frost,” The New Republic, September 15, 1944, pp. 345-47.
Cramer, Jeffrey S., Robert Frost Among His Poems: A Literary Companion to the Poet’s Own Biographical Contexts and Associations, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1996.
Lowell, Amy, “North of Boston,” New Republic, Vol. 2, February 20, 1915, pp. 81-2.
Pound, Ezra, “Modern Georgics,” Poetry, Vol. 5, December 1914, pp. 27-130.
“The Procession of the Muse,” Academy and Literature, September 20, 1913, pp, 359-60.
“Summer 1998 Report: How the Union Advantage Helps Workers,” http://www.uaw.org/publications/jobs_pay/unionpay2.html, accessed May 3, 1999.
Barry, Elaine, Robert Frost, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1978.
Barry’s book is a concise rendering of the poet’s voice, themes, and narrative technique.
Frost, Robert, Robert Frost: Farm-Poultryman, edited by Edward Connery Lathem and Lawrence Thompson, Hanover, NH: Dartmouth Publications, 1963.
This is a compilation of eleven articles about farming by Frost that were published in poultry journals between 1903 and 1905, while the poet was raising chickens in New Hampshire. As a look at Frost’s development, this is as useful as most biographies.
Nitchie, George W., Human Values in the Poetry of Robert Frost, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1960.
Surprisingly, this book does not mention “The Wood-Pile,” not even in the chapter entitled “A Momentary Stay Against Confusion.” Still, it is excessively well-researched, weaving together Frost’s major themes with just about every intellectual strain imaginable.
Potter, James L., Robert Frost Handbook, University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982.
Designed for the general student, not necessarily for literary scholars, this book provides a neat and readable overview of Frost’s life and techniques.
Winter, Yvor, “Robert Frost: Or, the Spiritual Drifter as Poet,” Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by James M. Cox, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962.
This famous essay, by a respected literary critic, examines the question of whether Frost’s poetry has a solid moral or philosophical base.