Robert Frost

Mending Wall

This poem exemplifies many of the characteristics, both technical and thematic, that we have come to associate with Frost.

Beginning in the concrete, natural world, Frost asserts in a conversational tone, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,”. The speculative, musing nature of this opening somewhat distracts the attention from the inverted syntax of the 1st three words. Continuing in this relaxed, conversational tone the 1st person narrator reflects his observations about the ways in which gaps can be made in walls and introduces the idea of seasonality – “spring mending-time”. So far, so good. He describes, with humorous detail, the mending process and the reluctance of some stones to stay balanced. The syntax and lexis is simple, reflecting the simplicity of the story being told. The poem is without rhyme but is in pentameter. In this way it operates both with and without rules, and, indeed, the poem itself is somewhat ambiguous about the need for rules; though he challenges his neighbour’s thinking, Frost nevertheless goes out each year at “spring mending-time”, even initiating the activity –

“I let my neighbour know beyond the hill.”

The process of wall wending causes Frost to consider the need:

“There where it is we do not need the wall”,

and it is at this point that the poem begins to move from the concrete into the abstract, as so many of his poems do; he did say himself once that a poem should “begin in delight and end in wisdom”. In this case, the walls under consideration move from being the physical sort that keep cows in their place to being barriers in relationships, between people. Now we are in the realm of philosophy. The poem seems to be suggesting that people erect and carefully maintain the same kind of needless barriers between themselves as Frost and his neighbour are doing between Frost’s apple trees and the neighbour’s pines. In relationships, as in nature,

“something there is that does not love a wall, that wants it down.”

Here it is Frost’s feeling of springtime “mischief”.

I have a problem with this whole “elves” thing. I wish I could help you more, but I can’t.

The metaphor of Frost’s neighbour as an “old-stone savage” suggests the primitiveness of his ideas, according to Frost, and the comment that “he moves in darkness” suggests a lack of enlightenment, a lack of clear sightedness. The literal vision seen by Frost – his neighbour in the shade of trees carrying mending stones- translates exactly into this allegory. The “darkness” that Frost perceives his neighbour as moving in is the darkness of unreflective tradition:

“He will not go behind his father’s saying’
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

The Black Cottage

Typically of many of Frost’s poems, this has no rhyme scheme but is basically in pentameter, possibly reflective of the ambivalent views towards rules and constraint so often implicit in his work. Typically also, the tone is conversational, the syntax and lexis simple. Atypically, the poem contains two voices – that of the poet himself and that of the minister.

It’s longer than the other poems within this anthology, more rambling and less focused. Maybe the two voices contribute to this. You get the sense that the minister is thinking out loud, as prompted by the things he sees around him. We are seeing the concrete moving into the abstract again, as so often in Frost.

Thematically, the poem begins by introducing the idea of the necessity of change; time cannot stand still – there will inevitably be change, and if it’s not progress it will be decay. The physical disintegration of the cottage, with its “weathered windowsill” and “warping boards” demonstrates this, despite the sons’ intention not to “have the place disturbed”. Though the cottage represents the past, however, and is, to the minister, “a sort of mark / To measure how far fifty years have brought us”, the past is not all behind the times, as it were; the old lady, though isolated physically from the current of politics and the world, nevertheless instinctively held very forward thinking views on equality and human rights-

“She had some art of hearing and yet not
Hearing the latter wisdom of the world.
White was the only race she ever knew.
Black she had scarcely seen, and yellow never.
But how could they be made so very much unlike
By the same hand working in the same stuff?”-

and was powerful in her naivete: “strange how such innocence gets its own way.”

This thought leads the minister on to recollect the time he was thinking of changing the Creed for the sake of fashion –“to please the younger members of the church/ Or rather say non-members of the church”. He did not do this in deference to what she might feel but it leads him to the profound question

“why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true.
Cling to it long enough and not a doubt
It will turn true again, for so it goes.
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favour.”

Here we have moved swiftly from the desire not to offend an old lady, who might not have noticed anyhow, to a consideration of the nature of truth itself. Is truth absolute or relative? Is it cyclical and determined by fashion? Concrete to abstract, indeed!

The minister’s dream of a land of preserved truths, hid from change, is so lyrical and romanticised as to be plainly impossible, and so the prosaic return to the concrete world of reality comes almost as a relief. The last line, though, “Sunset blazed on the windows”, could perhaps be seen as signalling the end of what the cottage and the old lady represent. Maybe. This is a hard poem.

After Apple Picking

This one has rhyme, though not in any regular scheme. It is loosely based around pentameter. Again, in terms of form, we are seeing a flirtation with rules but an ultimate rejection of them. As is usual with Frost, the syntax and lexis are simple, though with a poetic twist:

“Essence of winter sleep is on the night”

is not in any way difficult, but neither is it an everyday register of language. The tone is conversational, though, and it is told from the perspective of a 1st person narrator. Often with frost’s poetry we find that form reflects content. This poem feels unfinished, which could be seen as replicating the poet’s indecision, his lack of certainty, about his destiny. The poem certainly is an extended metaphor – another typically Frostian technique – and it follows the pattern of moving from the concrete to the abstract.

In terms of theme, the poem deals with ideas of life and death by means of the metaphor of the seasonal harvest activity of apple picking. Frost has stopped apple picking before he has actually finished the job, but he has had enough. Further, he is troubled by a mental image created by looking through a sheet of ice. Ice distorts, of course, as poor glass does. The way the apples looked in the ice, plus Frost’s tiredness, caused him to see them in a surreal way, perceiving them as if they were human souls. In the same way that fallen apples, bruised or not, are rejected, Frost wonders what happens to damaged people. The thing is, none of this is explicit; it’s all vague and dream-like. I get it from the mention of heaven, the idea that his sleep will be troubled and the reference to the woodchuck’s “long sleep”. This is surely hibernation, which I see as a metaphor for death, maybe purgatory. Certainly it is something other than “just some human sleep”. It is not just any sleep which is threatened with these troubling dreams. I think that Frost is afraid of being a discarded apple in God’s harvest.

Frost doesn’t do theology much, though, so maybe I’m seeing things that aren’t there. I do that sometimes!

The Road Not Taken

This poem has a metre which hovers around 8/9 beats to the line. The rhyme scheme is a regular abaab. The regularity, evenness and balance of the form and rhyme could be seen to replicate the evenness of the two paths and the way the poet’s options were equally balanced. Again, the tone is conversational, the lexis simple and the syntax generally so, though

“sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood”

is an inversion of normal speech patters. The story is told by a first person narrator who offers a concrete anecdote which becomes a metaphor.

The poem is about choices, and how our choices may be determined by very trivial things; both paths are “just as fair”; the one chosen only has “perhaps” the better claim; really their wear and tear was “about the same” and they were “equally” leaf covered on the morning he made the choice. There was really very little in it! Promising himself he would come back, but knowing he probably wouldn’t, the poet made a choice which set him on a path which opened up other paths, other choices. The choice he made that morning decided the paths he walked thereon in.

Now, of course, this isn’t a poem about getting it wrong on a D of E expedition! It’s a metaphor for the choices we make in life which determine the direction our lives take. Paths are listed on your themes sheet, along with trees and woods. Here the path is through a wood, presumably full of trees. “A sense of place connected to a sense of self” is also listed. This is about a place of choosing, both literally and metaphorically, and the choice made in that place determines who the self becomes.


This poem is written in pentameter but lacks a rhyme scheme – a not uncharacteristic mixture of freedom and restraint in terms of form, a kind of ambivalence or indecision which can be seen to match the content of the poem. We have, once more, simplicity of syntax and lexis, a conversational tone with lots of enjambment and a 1st person narrator. We have, once more, an anecdote which begins in the realm of the concrete but which becomes a metaphor. There is imagery within this poem too, though, which is not always the case with Frost. Here we have the metaphor of the cracking ice on the bark of the trees as “enamel”, “crystal shells” and “glass”, all terms indicative of fragility and beauty. Indeed, they might be seen as divine – “You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.” Later the bowed down trees, with their trailing leaves, are described using the simile

“Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.”

The boy’s climbing is compared to the careful filling of a cup brimful, and life is described as being “like a pathless wood”.

All of this contributes to the success of the overarching metaphor, which compares Frost’s desire sometimes to escape from the world temporarily, climbing away from earth like a boy swinging on a tree, but coming back in due time.

In narrative terms, Frost sees bent trees and likes to imagine that they have been bowed down by boys playing on them, bending them down by swinging on them and being catapaulted up by them. He remembers playing this game, and wishes that he could treat life so, launching himself out of it for a while when the going gets tough –

“when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood”.

He doesn’t want to die, though, he realises, and this is where that ambivalence comes in; life is hard, he wants to escape “awhile”, but he wants to “come back to it and begin over” because he realises that, imperfect though it may be it’s the best he’ll get –

“I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

For this reason, though he dreams of escape, he fears that fate may “wilfully misunderstand” him. He wants to go “Toward heaven”, but not actually to get there yet.

This is one of Frost’s positive poems about trees; what they offer here is escape. It’s also about life as a wood, our way through it as a path and whether or not death is an escape to be desired.

“Out, Out-“

This poem is based around pentameter, but not rigidly so. It has no rhyme scheme and so is not constrained in form. Syntactically, this is more complex than is usual for Frost, less conversational, though a story is being told to the reader by the “I” figure of line 10. The lexis is simple, however.

This poem has its roots in a real event which Frost saw reported in a local paper. Whilst the poem itself remains in the realm of the concrete, the title “Out, Out” refers us to Macbeth’s soliloquy on the nature of life and death, in which life is compared to a “brief candle” easily snuffed out, as this boy’s life has been. The metaphor, then, is implicit in the way the title connects to the narrative of the poem.

There’s lots of technical stuff to say about this poem: “snarled and rattled” are both onomatopoeic and personify the saw as aggressive, setting up a sense of threat; the senses are used to enable the reader to experience the scene; “day was all but done” comes to have a dual meaning, both literal and metaphorical as the “day” of the boy’s brief life draws to an end. This adds to the sense of foreboding; the fact that the saw “leaped” reinforces the earlier personification, giving the inanimate saw intent and malice; the boy’s hand is also given its own identity –

“neither refused the meeting”

the fact that this event, which is a major tragedy in the lives of those involved, is set against the backdrop of 5 mountain ranges puts it into a greater perspective – especially since even those present,

“since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

On your theme sheet this fits in under maintenance jobs, life and death and the use of drama; you must admit, it’s dramatic!

The Sound of Trees

Another Frost tree poem, but at first appears to be an uncharacteristically negative one. More of that anon.

The poem is based around 7 beats to the line and has an irregular rhyme scheme. There is a 1st person narrator and the poem is conversational in tone with fairly straightforward lexis (despite archaisms like “dwelling place” and oddities like “fixity”) and a relatively simple syntax though with some inversions eg.

“Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these”

Frost begins in the world of the senses, as he speculates about the effect the sound of trees has on people. Unusually for Frost, he presents this in a negative way, asking why we choose to “bear” and “suffer” their noise and suggesting that it unsettles us so that we are unable to enjoy what we have and are always yearning to move on, though we know we will not.

In a form of reverse personification – there must be a term for that – Frost compares himself to a tree:

My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder”

presents him as having roots and branches and the subsequent lines suggest that the motion of the trees inspires in him a desire for motion. The difference, he says, is that, whilst they are eternally rooted, one day he will “make the reckless choice” and go quietly whilst they stay, swaying noisily. So, though he has begun by appearing to denigrate the trees for their unsettling effect, he ends by, as it were, taking their advice and doing what they cannot do themselves – uprooting themselves and moving on.

To E.T.

Nothing to do with Spielberg or aliens! This is an unusually personal poem apostrophising Frost’s late friend the poet Edward Thomas who died in WW1 in 1917. The form is strict pentameter and the 2nd & 4th lines of each quatrain rhyme. This is an uncharacteristically rigid structure; it could be argued that such is the intensity of feeling of the poem that a very controlled form was required to contain it. We have a 1st person narrator speaking directly to the late Thomas in a tone which is at the dignified end of the colloquial spectrum; words like “slumbered” , “foe” and “unsafe” contribute to this very slight feeling of formality. For once there is no overarching metaphor; the imagery is within the poem, with the simile “Like dove wings on a tomb” describing the opened book lying on Frost’s chest and the metaphor “the shell’s embrace of fire” suggesting that Thomas ran towards a death which may even have been welcome. (Tanita and Charlotte, do you remember “The Sonnet Ballad” by Gwendolen Brook in which death is personified as a coquettish woman who steals Brook’s lover away in war? I think the same idea may be going on here. Cecily, Emily and Louise, ask me for a copy of that poem for AO4 purposes).

Frost is hoping that, by dozing off over his late friend’s poems, they may be supernaturally reconnected so that Frost might give his friend the praise and plaudits he never got around to giving in life. He feels that, with his friend having died with things unsaid, there will never be closure of the war for him; he is lamenting what he has lost.

This is a love poem, but it’s brotherly love. It’s about death and the impact on those left behind. Plainly it links with Edward Thomas!

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

This poem is in octameter with a rigid aaba rhyme scheme within each quatrain. Since the poem is about obligation and lack of freedom, perhaps such a strict form is appropriate to the content. The syntax is simple with an inversion in the opening line, and the lexis is straightforward. In fact it is so simple as to sound like a nursery rhyme. There is a 1st person narrator and the tone is conversational.

Whilst the poem could be read as merely about a man stopping for a rest on a long journey, some have seen the snowy woods as representing a temptation to escape from the demands of life, possibly into numbing death on this “darkest evening of the year”. We might (for AO4 purposes) compare this to Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” in which he states

“many a time
I have been half in love with easeful death”

The final verse would then be seen as a turning back from temptation towards responsibility –

“I have promises to keep”

So we once more see Frost beginning in the concrete and moving, almost imperceptibly, into the abstract world of metaphor.

I don’t like the attributing of a cute personality to the “little” horse (what do I care how big his horse is?) but I like the use of the senses in the velvety intensity of the darkness (repeated) and the onomatopoeic sibilance of

“The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.”

And the howling “ee” sounds which accompany it.

In terms of your themes sheet we’re looking at seasons and woods, arguably death, but mainly responsibilities.

Two Look at Two

This is in pentameter but lacks a rhyme scheme. It is not 1st person narrator and its syntax and lexis are more than usually complicated with reversals and sophistication. The poem is narrative and the tone conversational though not colloquial. There is an internal simile when the doe is described as perceiving the couple as being

“Like some up-ended boulder split in two.”

The poem is about the way humanity relates to, and benefits from nature; almost always in Frost’s poetry the effect nature has on humanity is positive and benign. In this respect he can be likened to Wordsworth, an English Romantic poet (as was Keats, actually) who also argued that man is invariably blessed by his contact with the natural world (AO4)

Frost creates a sense that both parties in this interaction are equal – if anything the buck feels superior, viewing them “quizzically”. This encounter is presented as a reward from the earth to the couple for the respect and love that they have shown towards it.

Gathering Leaves

The rhythm of this poem is mainly 4/5 beats to the line, working to an abab rhyme scheme within each quatrain. It is another poem with a nursery rhyme feel which creates a deceptive illusion of simplicity. The tone is conversational, the lexis and syntax simple in the extreme and the concrete anecdote of collecting autumn leaves is told by a 1st person narrator.

Beginning in the realm of the concrete, the poet describes, using similes –“light as balloons” “Like rabbit and deer”- and metaphors – “the mountains I raise”- the seasonal maintenance task of collecting up the fallen leaves. He describes in detail, using the senses, the weightlessness and colourlessness of the leaves, repeating the phrase “next to nothing” three times to stress the seeming insignificance of the leaves. In the final quatrain he moves into the realm of philosophy asking,

“Who’s to say where
The harvest shall stop.”

Suddenly we’re not talking about the value of leaves anymore but the value of things on a wider scale, maybe the value of people. This reminds me of “After Apple Picking” in that it seems to me to suggest that we, too, are a crop. This poem might, then, be intimating that we have no right to determine the value of others.

Desert Places

This connects in my mind with “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, only it is much darker. It is in pentameter and rhymes aaba within each quatrain. The syntax is not complicated though the opening line is lyrical rather than following patterns of normal speech in this generally conversational poem. In terms of lexis, archaisms such as “ere” and “benighted” add distance and lyricism. Beginning with an anecdotal description of snowfall and his response to the way that snowfall obliterates the landscape creating a huge sense of emptiness, the 1st person narrator poet looks beyond this, beyond even the solar system with its immense

“empty spaces
Between stars”

to the even more immense, more terrifying “desert places” within his own psyche.

Given the snow this obviously comes in under seasons on your teachit themes sheet. I think it’s really a “dark night of the soul” poem, though; it’s bleak!

A Leaf Treader

This is a poem in 3 stanzas each of 8 lines, of which the 2nd rhymes with the 4th and the 6th with the 8th in each. There is no regular meter although, when read aloud, a treading rhythm develops. This is because the enjambment overrides the look of the lines on the page, eg line 10-11. The 1st person narrator tells his anecdotal story of leaf treading in a conversational tone.

This description of a seasonal maintenance task, part of the natural rhythm of the seasons, becomes more significant than this; the poet seems to be talking about not only keeping on top of the leaves but also keeping on top of life. The introduction of the ideas of fear and safety suggest this. Frost seems in this poem, as in “The Sound of Trees”, to identify with the trees, claiming,

“They spoke to the fugitive in my heart
as if it were leaf to leaf.”

At the same time, though, he feels threatened by them:

“And when they came it seemed with a will
to carry me with them to death.”

Frost has to hold out against the “invitation” of the personified leaves to die with them:

“it was no reason I had to go because
they had to go.”

The word “invitation” suggests that Frost is not averse to the idea. He chooses instead, though, to stick with life and his next duty; treading down the snow.

Life seems to be presented as a chore, akin to the seasonal agricultural chores in which he is engaged. Death appears almost tempting, a release. In this respect the poem could be linked with “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, which can be interpreted in a similar way. In both poems the poet chooses life and duty, but with a sense of reluctance.

Neither Out Far nor In Deep

This poem in 4 quatrains has a metre which hovers around 6 beats to a line and a simple abab rhyme scheme in each quatraine. The meter is somewhat like a hymn and the poem altogether is reminiscent of the work of Emily Dickinson, a 19th C Americam poet (AO4) The lexis and syntax are simple and the whole poem seems to be about nothing. As so often with Frost, however, the simplicity is deceptive. (The same is true of Dickinson.) In the final stanza the poem is revealed as a metaphor; people choose to pay attention to the things they cannot reach or change – the sea- turning their backs on reality – the land. Despite their powerlessness and lack of understanding of things unknown and unknowable –

“They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep”-

people still choose to ignore the realities of life as represented by the land. Their incapacity is not “ever a bar” to them and their yearning for the unknown and infinite. This could be read as a poem about human spirituality. If so the view is ambivalent; he seems to sneer at humanity’s stubborn refusal to engage with real life but at the same time admire its persistence in looking for something better. The final question could be an invitation to the reader to continue the philosophical debate. The tone is conversational but there is no “I” figure in this poem.

There Are Roughly Zones

This poem had no regular meter but the line length does not dip below 1o beats. The form is suitable to the presentation of an argument, a set of reasoned and fluent thought processes. Rhyme comes in blocks of 5 or 6 lines and is not strictly organised. The poem is told by a 1st person narrator and is conversational in tone, though the lexis and syntax is more complex than is usual for Frost. Beginning with a concrete discussion of whether a peach tree will have died in a storm, the poet moves on to consider humanity’s perhaps unreasonable desire to push the boundaries:

“What comes over a man, is it soul or mind-
That to no limits or bounds he can stay confined?”

In the same way that peach trees should not be brought this far north, he is saying, there are other general rules that should be followed -

“roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed.”

If we choose to break those laws there is a consequence in suffering, in this case for the peach tree. Even so, humanity feels let down when thwarted in its desire to explore and extend.

Frost refers to

“this limitless trait in the hearts of men.”

As with “Neither Out Far nor In Deep”, I get a sense of ambivalence in this last line: there are rules; we need to take responsibility but the word “limitless” suggests a sneaking hint of admiration for this determination to pursue Manifest Destiny(AO4)