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The Wood-Pile

November 28, 2017

The Wood-Pile

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 through. The view 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: I was just far from hoe.
A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And so 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
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.
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,
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.
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
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
What it 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
Could so forget his handiwork in which
He spent himself, the labor 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.

–Robert Frost, 1914

COMMENTARY: After graduating from Harvard at the turn of the century, Robert Frost spent a decade living a quiet, semi-reclusive life in rural New Hampshire. He had inherited a small farm just west of the town of Derry from his grandfather, and for nine years he lived in a white clapboard farmhouse with his wife–going for walks, spending time with his family, and laboring (all too sporadically) at actual farm work. He wrote a good deal of poetry but published nothing with the exception of a few articles in local trade journals on the subject of raising chickens. It must have been an uncertain seed-time for him, his late 20’s and early 30’s, a time of incubation and waiting, dormancy and camouflage. It isn’t terribly hard to imagine him living like that for another 10 years, another 20, writing the best poems of his generation on unread little sheets of inventory paper and then succumbing one day to tuberculosis or a mule kick. That mysterious author “Anonymous” (in more ways than one) has written some of the best literature in the English language.

That image of solitude and invisibility–potential hidden away in the frozen swamps and snowy woods of some random nowhere–defines this little poem, which seems, paradoxically, both fleeting in its glimpse-like digressions and absolute in its suggestions of parable: the way it recreates, detail by detail, the unplanned actuality of a walk in the woods–the nameless trees, the surprising little bird, the rotting woodpile wrapped in clematis: all of this seems unpremeditated, purposeless, and yet, above all, real–the sorts of things anyone might see in a walk in the woods. But slowly, by the tiniest hints, these details turn into broad, metaphoric suggestions. That view “all in lines”–is that the lines of a poem? The wood-pile cut “four by four by eight”–is that stanza and meter? The uncatchable bird–inspiration? The “slow, smokeless burning of decay”–the way handiwork–whether of wood or of words–outlasts the moment of its making, (whether “warming” an empty spot of woods or the dusty corner of a library) yet isn’t entirely invulnerable to time either?

These can only be phrased as questions, and, as questions, aren’t really answerable. The poem isn’t fed into “a useful fireplace”–that is, it doesn’t combust into a single, practical allegory. The workman “turns to fresh tasks”–leaving the pile finished, in one sense, but futile in another. That notion of being done but not done, of being immediate yet hidden, smokeless yet burning, is the paradox at the heart of the poem and the man both.

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From → Nature, Uncategorized

One Comment
  1. Excellent commentary. Of all the details, one I like his description of the way “The hard snow held me, save where now and then/ One foot went through,” both effortless and laborious at once, speaking of paradoxes.

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