Like many of Frost's poems, "Two, Tramps in Mud Time" unites divergent lines of thought by placing in tension opposed or contradictory values: the self and the other, the literal and the symbolic, the general and the particular, the straight-forward and the ironic, and so on. It is generally agreed that, at the end of the poem, Frost leaves it to his readers to apply to their own lives, to their "avocations and vocations," the maxim that love and need, work and play, can and should be one. But less agreement exists as to the message and quality of this "editorializing."
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Regarding the poem's message, critics have focused on whether or not the narrator-author should be understood to have surrendered his job of wood-cutting to the tramps who need the work. The wood-cutting is obviously symbolic, so the matter is usually re-framed as follows: is Frost urging that we sacrifice self for others, or are we to expect those “others” to look out for themselves?
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Be glad of water, but don't forget The lurking frost in the earth beneath . . .
Frost's admonishment to us here not to forget to accommodate antithetical norms illustrates the fact that we do forget, that we normally seek to avoid or escape oppositions of the sort that we find in stanzas one through eight, which are themselves reconciled only in stanza nine: the tension, for example, between the various contradicting images and values in one through five; between pleasures we naturally love and the reasonableness or prudence we know we need; and ultimately between one code of prudence (the tramps') and another (the narrator's). These tensions are so arranged as to climax on an emotional level in the excerpt from stanza five above, with the images of water and frost, the pleasurable preferred to the painful (so the narrator needs to remind us, "don't forget"); and on a more intellectual level in stanza eight, with the logic of the tramps over the weaker right attributed to the narrator—reason over feeling, prudence over pleasure (hence the easy "agreed"). Although diverse, these contrasting images, values, and ideas align in sequences of association summarized in the topics "love," "need," "work" and "play." For instance, love and play first represent the physical delight both in "muscles rocking soft / And smooth and moist in vernal heat," and in the other vernal images as well; and then represent more generally (in stanza eight) any pleasure in life or life of pleasure ("My right might be love . . ."): love-play: narrator, woodcutting, warmth, air, brightness, bird, water, life of muscles, vernal heat—in short, everything in life we are "glad of," symbolized most effectively by the vital water of "brook " and "pond" in five. By contrast, need and work first represent tactics for survival in the marketplace, and then more generally any struggle, difficulty or necessity that "lurks" or "hulks" "out of the mud" or woods, or just out of sight: work-need: strangers, blows, coldness, earth, darkness, silence, frost, tramps, cold logic—in short, everything in life we "dare not speak," "spare to strike," and wish to "forget."
Now the point is that these associated images, ideas, and values are arranged and treated by a method of disjunction and subordination, a pattern which structures and determines how we consciously react to the world presented in stanzas one through eight. Here it is not so much that we agree with what the tramps say, as that we see things in the way they do, by division and negation. This is the tramps' own method and modus vivendi—one hardly unfamiliar to us, or opposed to the way we normally act—which Frost exploits in the form of the poem itself. We are all adept enough in life at being "glad of" what gives pleasure and at shunning ills, just as we are, on the other hand, prudent enough to subordinate pleasure to the need to survive. Thus we appreciate what in nature is pleasurable, and tend to avoid what is difficult and associated with struggle and need (the cold, dark, silent, frozen). Rhetorically, this tendency to see things as existing "in twain " (separate in the sense of opposed and contradictory) is the "common place" we occupy at the beginning and throughout most of the poem ("yield who will to their separation"), which Frost explores for its powers and limits. Accordingly he has us identify on the one hand with the narrator and the images associated with him, and to feel reserve toward those "strangers" who "put him off," and caution or fear at the images associated with them (mud, mid-March, frost, teeth). On the other hand he has us agree with the tramps against the pseudo-narrator's sentimentalized love and self-absorbed play. The point is that in both cases the two exist "in twain."
As a result, commentators have always seen the tramps and narrator as locked into opposition! And yet, although we don't come to realize it until stanza nine, in stanza eight we don't know what the narrator really believes. Actually he is not opposed to the tramps at all: his "right" only "might be love" (pleasure, etc.), and turns out not to be. Until the last, however, the narrator's true position is subordinated to the one attributed to him (which is subordinated in turn to the tramps' own view). The narrator, Frost himself, is "lurking" behind a second or pseudo-self, momentarily eclipsed by a world-view in which the terms of the debate are set—and more importantly by a worldview whose chief characteristic is that there is a debate at all. In short, Frost achieves his effects by manipulating the point of view from which we see and understand the world of. the poem.
This becomes clearer in stanza nine, which not only talks about those preceding oppositions as unities, but which unifies them with various rhetorical devices: paradox ("work is play"), pun ("play for mortal stakes"), simile (''as my two eyes make one in sight"), repetition of the conjunctive "and," unity of idea (the idea of unity itself), and the unifying of form and content of the previous two sections. As a result we learn (or remember) a way of seeing oppositions as unified wholes, which resolves conflict not by avoidance or negation, but by asserting the equal importance of the opposed parts, in nature (cold and warm, water and frost), in self (body and soul, avocation and vocation), in human relations (love and need, narrator and tramps), and in our relations with the transcendent (Heaven and the future's sakes).
Again, contrast this view and its methods with our mode of apprehension in the first two sections. Section one (1-5) controls how we evaluate its images by juxtaposing opposites, presenting first what is the more obvious and pleasurable, and then balancing that with the less obvious and somehow more threatening or difficult. Arrangement is crucial, for it suggests the precariousness of our satisfaction with the seemingly self-evident (the "cheery" tramps, the "unimportant" wood, the sun, the bluebird, the water, the "right" of love). It does so by juxtaposing these with the need to provide ("don't forget") for what is no less real for being less obviously pleasant or present. But note that this is accomplished with our attention directed, not to this one-sidedness of ours, but to the emotional pleasure of act and scene—the implications of inadequacy are only "lurking." Similarly, section two (6-8) brings this pattern to its logical conclusion by sharpening the differences between the pseudo-narrator and the tramps, and by sacrificing one of those "sides," love and play, to the need to work. Here again our attention is elsewhere, on the prudential over the pleasurable, and again the explicit view is that these elements are at odds. Hence, throughout both sections elements are joined only by the disjunctive "but": "But if you so much as dare to speak"; "But he wouldn't advise a thing to blossom"; "My right might be love / But theirs was need"; "The sun was warm but the wind was chill." In sum, careful selection and arrangement of images and actions analogically related to each other and connoting good and bad, the separation of emotion and reason, and various syntactical and stanzaic divisions dichotomize the reader's perceptions and responses, leading him to see the world as the tramps do—dualistically. This is so successfully accomplished, in fact, that we have to ask ourselves how it is that we come to find the claims about unity in stanza nine persuasive at all. Why not agree with Cowley that stanza nine is a sententious sermon, or with Poirier that the poem is a "failure?" Surely stanza nine alone does not overcome the world-view enacted in the preceding eight: why then accept it?
The answer lies, I think, in the fundamental ambiguity of the poem's images, actions, terms, and methods of dividing and uniting. Frost does counter each of these with its opposite, but he does so ambiguously, encouraging us in effect to see the elements of each pair not simply as separated, but also as united. This means that Frost does not rely in the ninth stanza on abstract sermonizing extraneous to the rest of the poem, as Cowley, Cook and others allege, but simply recommends at the end of the poem what he has been surreptitiously doing all along, uniting opposites.
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From this perspective we can now grasp the whole poem as an argument whose conclusion is drawn in stanza nine. Past disjunctive pairs can now be understood as so many examples of unity-in-division, related to each other by analogy, which simultaneously, but on different levels of the reader's awareness, (1) show the powers and limits of the tramps' view, and more importantly (2) prove by inductive generalization the maxim with which the poem ends. We are persuaded, moved to a new "place," by virtue of our having experienced several plausible examples, whose terms then become, in Kenneth Burke's formulation, "equipment for living." And this explains, I think, why Frost refrains from telling us how he responded to the tramps' putative request. It is not that this request is insignificant or irrelevant, since this situation is morally as real as any other we might imagine. Rather, Frost has us answer our own question by requiring us to apply the message we learned from the poem. And we can only answer that the narrator must give the work because, to put it negatively, not to give would be to ignore that "common good" and those "mortal stakes" now before him (and us) in the persons of the needy tramps. To imagine refusing this unity of "self" and "other" in the act of giving is simply to have missed the "message," to have failed to grasp what the poem enacted. To put this more positively, to give the woodcutting is itself a creative "deed" which unites the narrator's love and need just as the woodcutting itself had previously done for him. Indeed, the narrator has been giving (by denying himself) for a long time:
The blows that a life of self-control Spares to strike for the common good . . .
Furthermore, by giving the job Frost in effect concedes that values do often exist "in twain" (the tramps, for one, simply have no choice about uniting values such as love and need, work and play); the narrator's giving thus signals the fact that his ideal realistically admits the tramps' view, and qualifies it without simply negating it: narrator and tramps are thus unified again in their separation. What Frost has done, then, is to equip us, not with Christian, liberal, or any other kind of determinate doctrine, but with a language and experience requiring innovative thought and feeling, practical "wisdom " which completes and finally becomes our "delight."
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Applied to poetry itself, then, love and need, work and play signify Frost's ideal of the "philosophic poet" as one who unites knowledge and action in the unity of art and propaganda, poetic and rhetoric. The poet as philosopher is the rhetorician, not in any narrow partisan sense, but as one seeking to stimulate inquiry, to transform commonplaces, and to move to new perceptions of self and world. It is the classical rhetorical ideal of Cicero, Horace and Sidney, for whom the offices of poet, as of orator, were to teach, move and delight. For too long critics have one-sidedly favored the poetic against the rhetorical, and the romantic "I" against the more pragmatic "we," and in consequence have failed to do justice to one of Frost's most representative poems. It is not unlikely that more rhetorical analyses can enrich our sense of Frost as communicator, and of his work as play for mortal stakes. We have not yet found the lurking Frost.
from "The Lurking Frost: Poetic and Rhetoric in 'Two Tramps in Mud Time'" in Cady, Edwin H. and Louis J. Budd (eds.) On Frost: The Best from American Literature. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Duke UP. Originally published in American Literature 60.2 (May 1988).