Judith Oster

Judith Oster: On "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same"

It would seem that we have an enchanted Adam, who delights not only in Eve's voice, and by implication her softness, her calls and laughter, her "tones of meaning" that transcend or bypass words, but one who also delights in nature, in the songs of birds. Adam had arrived in the garden before Eve, and thus he was in a position to notice that her arrival had an effect on the birds. It was her soft eloquence, her calls and laughter, her wordless tones of meaning that became part of their song. These soft, perhaps erotic sounds were daylong; they were in concert with the birds' songs, and that is why they became forever a part of them. Since she was in their song, Adam needed only to hear the birds sing, and he would be hearing the voice of Eve as well. This influence carried beyond the particular spot where she stood; it carried to the birds "in all the garden round," a noun adjunct that suggests, in the way "compass round" does in "The Silken Tent," infinite extension in and around the garden. The sound traveled upward as well: it was carried aloft. But it was not her laughter or her calls that became part of the birds' song. Her calls and laughter were merely the carriers of her wordless "tone of meaning," her "soft eloquence." This intangible essence of Eve, then, is what entered their song.

Not only in space but through time did Eve have this influence, and in manipulation of tenses this poem extends itself almost imperceptibly backward and forward in time, creating (as did Milton) a timelessness within the poem which transcends the time-bound reality that we know Eve also to have introduced. We can assume that the "he" is Adam, since he is listening to Eve in the garden. The first sentence uses "would" as a modal, which hints of futurity even while it is the past of "will." The birds "had added" the oversound "from having heard" Eve's voice-clearly in the past and clearly putting the relationship of Eve's voice and their adding in a sequential relationship. This having been done, "she was in their song," still in the past. It is in the lines that follow that time becomes ambiguous: "her voice upon their voices crossed ("crossed" as past participle modifying "voices" or "voice" as it crossed with their voices) / Had now persisted in the woods so long / That probably it never would be lost. " When is "now" we must ask ? Did we not know the short term of their stay in the garden, we might be tempted to say this is an older Adam telling us that, after so long, the voices still remained "crossed." But we know how little time was spent in the garden, and we notice that not only has time extended beyond the time of Adam in Eden but so has setting changed from garden to woods. The constant common to all time and all place then is the birds' song, audible in garden and woods, audible then as now, but remarkable in that Eve's voice has remained in their song. "Never again would birds' song be the same" makes it clear that Eve's influence has been a permanent one, perhaps implying that Adam in every man in every time would hear Eve when he heard birds sing.

"Never again" is a very resonant phrase, however. One way to read it is with nostalgia for a past that can never again be recaptured. Eve's influence, as we have been told again and again before ever having read this poem, has not been simply to beautify birds' song. Eve's "influence" lost man Eden. Eve's influence introduced mortality, not only erotic pleasure. In fact, with the first couple's new-found knowledge came unsatisfied eroticism. But this poem hints that she came (unmistakably a sexual connotation) precisely to do that, to introduce this dimension to Adam's life for worse—but also for better .

If we analyze the use of the modal "would" in this poem, we find that it is able to obscure time because it introduces a subjunctive mode not bound by time precisely because it is not used to report actual fact, past or present, but wish, fantasy, probability, or intent. We see this first of all when we examine the difference between the sentence "Never again will birds' song be the same" and "Never again would birds' song be the same." In the first we are in a factual present, looking ahead to the future; we would more likely assume from the sentence that now is best, and the future will not be as good. "Would" puts us into a past as it looks ahead into the future. Here, too, time faces in both directions, recalling "Nothing Gold Can Stay," but here there is a difference. In "Nothing Gold" ends are implicit in the beginnings; here, beginnings are implicit in an end. The hopefulness here and in "West-running Brook" may derive from the same source: the presence of an Eve and whatever meanings—literal or figurative—attach (as we explored in the previous chapter) to marriage. "Would" also implies condition: under given conditions there would be a change. If Eve influenced the birds, they would never again be the same. The sentence as it stands in the poem looks both forward and backward, and it can imply either that Eve improved life or that she "diminished" it, for while we are told that she improved birds' song, we bring to the poem our knowledge that she influenced Adam's downfall. Never again would man live in Eden, but something of Eden persists in all time, in all woods. Eve, after all, is with him "wand'ring hand in hand" in a world that lies before them.

This duality of Adam's relation to Eve is reflected in the contrasting tones, the contrasting directions and rhythms of the poem. In fact, the contrasting pulls of tone arise precisely because of these different tones and contrasting voices. There is an uncomplimentary undertone introduced into this lovely lyric of bird song. There are men who would consider the "daylong voice" of a woman to be nagging and unpleasant. Here Eve's voice "crossed" that of the birds; it persisted. There is also the aggressive quality of the expression "to do that to," and when one comes to do something to birds, it could mean that one comes with a purpose, an intent. This too is woman; but combined as it is with beauty and song, softness and sexuality, combined with nature as we see it here in garden, woods, birds, these more aggressive qualities seem to mitigate what would other- wise be sentimental. The combination seems to tie even Eve, even the Eve principle, to reality—daylong, persistent, day-to-day, long-term, but still loving reality. (One is reminded that in "My Mistress' Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun" what begins as less than complimentary emerges, just for that reason, as a far more sincere declaration of love than we find in many more effusive love sonnets.)

Contrasting with birds and garden and the softness not only named but implemented by means of sound—the predominance of unvoiced consonants, especially "s" and "f"; the pre-dominance of liquids such as "r" and "1" and the semivowel "w," contrasting with the lyric, idyllic qualities of the sonnet—we find the language of argument. What room is there in such an atmosphere for words like "admittedly ," "moreover," and "be that as may be," which carries with it echoes of the more usual "be that as it may" as well as the doubting, noncommittal "maybe." It takes a poet confident and sure of what he is doing to throw words like this into such an atmosphere; and it takes a good poet to succeed in that these words sound right. They sound right because they carry forward the undertone that maintains the duality of the poem, of man's position in love and in the world we inherited from our first parents. They also inject the everydayness that makes the celebration of love so r'eal—the everydayness of Eve, the Eve-ness of everyday—and they allow us to see the humor and the self-irony of a man who persists in defending what, in actual fact, is totally indefensible.

The poem tells us what he "would declare," which expresses, as we have already noted, both a hypothetical situation and an intention. It also expresses what was habitual. What he would declare is that the birds have added an oversound to their song--Eve's tone of meaning. But he soon sees that there is something illogical in this; "admittedly" such a soft eloquence would not be heard by the birds. Well, it would be when call or laughter carried it up; that is, the more seductive, appealing sounds will act as transmitters to the birds, and it is of course that note which will remain of Eve in all future birds. "Be that as may be, she was in their song." The speaker concedes that his claim is only within the realm of possibility, even of make believe; but we also "hear" the oversound of "be that as it may," which we use when we mean: well, it's like that anyway. In either case, it is as if he says: I know it doesn't make sense, I know your argument is sounder, but even so, this is the way I see it. She was in their song.

There are only two indicative sentences in the poem, only two sentences that state fact as we are to believe it really was: (1) "she was in their song" and (2) "to do that to birds was why she came." Ironically, these two "givens" are, in light of provable fact and reason, the most difficult to believe. We can have no evidence for either; yet these are the declarations of the poem. Everything else is expressed with "would" and "could": he would declare, he could believe, only in a particular way could her voice have influenced their song, probably it would not be lost, never again would it be the same. After all, doing this to birds was her intention; it was her reason for coming. He would declare it, and he could believe it.

What everything must finally depend on, of course, is his belief that this is so. Again it is ironic that "he would declare" precedes "and could himself believe." The order of the verbs is ironic, but so is the modal "could" and so too is the emphatic "himself." (Emphasis is also added by a reading of "would" that can lend a tone of stubborn insistence to his declaration, as in "he would do it despite our warning.") He plans to declare this strange phenomenon almost as if he must do so to make himself believe it, as if he talks himself into it with his argumentative line of reasoning that finally breaks down to be rescued by belief. He has not only convinced himself, but he has given in to what his perceptions and his feelings tell him, contrary to all logic and reason. These self-deceptions are not only declared as fact but are declared in metrical regularity as opposed to the jagged rhythm of the voice of logic: "Be that as may be, she was in their song." The self-deceiving first line is also completely regular. The spondaic "birds there" and "birds' song" are picked up in the last line, which ends, nevertheless, as if in answer, in regularity as well as statement of fact: " And to do that to birds is why she came."

So we are expected to believe that Eve came to do something to the birds. In one way, it seems absurd; in another we say, of course, she did something to the way birds sounded, to the way birds were to sound to Adam and all his descendants. She did something to affect, if not the birds themselves, then at least man's perception of birds. From the perspective of the perceiver it is all the same. Looking at the poem in this way, we see that it is no longer simply about human love and the garden of Eden but also about the way man perceives—reads—the world around him. It is also about the way Frost reads the Edenic story. It is about the power of imagination as well as the power of love. The humor in the poem comes from the gentle self-irony of the man who would declare and defend. The pull is between two voices, but it is also between two modes of hearing. We hear two kinds of voices in the poem: the idyllic and the argumentative; but the speaker also hears two voices: the voice of reason and the song of birds.

This Adam is not stupid; any deception is self-deception with his conscious collaboration. There is surely something mysterious about soft tones being transmitted to birds who "admittedly" cannot hear them all and something mysterious about such "learned" song when it is transmitted to an indeterminate future. So be it, because it is being declared by someone who knows it is in his imagination, but who believes in the truth of his imagination. Therefore this poem is about art as surely as it is about love. All tradition would be behind our agreement that no man could have taught the birds how to sing as Eve did. The upward lilt of the phrases ("eloquence so soft," "influence on birds," "carried it aloft") reinforces the lilt and softness of a lyrical female voice, the beauty and softness of an Eve. But at the same time it took an engaged listener—an Adam—to perceive it and to appreciate it, and this required two things: the capacity to love, and the capacity to imagine, to look at nature and create with her, whether a human relationship or a work of art.

There is no other paradise, and man must therefore create his "paradise within." Frost has evoked the powerful story of Eden, but he will not accept, it seems, the traditional Christian view of the Fall (again, the Old Testament Christian) or of Eve's role. Yes, Eve can be a problem, but listen to what she did to bird song. Listen to her eloquent softness, her call, her laughter. See what it all did for our powers of perception, our creative imagination. To do all that is why she came.

This poem, in showing an Adam who loves and who has the capacity to imagine, who not only makes the best of his lot but positively enjoys it, presents us with a positive and hopeful view of Adam—for all Adams.

From Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and the Poet. Copyright © 1991 by the University of Georgia Press.

Judith Oster: On "Two Tramps in Mudtime"

The question of respect for one's own needs despite an apparent selfishness is raised in "Two Tramps in Mud Time." Because the speaker has had no previous relationship with the tramps—they are "two strangers"—the question can remain the abstract one of what one owes to one's fellow man, what one must give of one's self to the claims of another if the claims conflict, even if there is no obligation to that person, no claim by right of anything except common humanity, human kindness, or guilt in the face of another person's need. One issue in this poem, then, is simply that of selfless giving up as opposed to keeping something for oneself. It is a question relevant to the artist's need to hoard himself as opposed to his human obligation to give himself; it illustrates the kind of conflict in Frost that was generated by his mother's hero tales of self-sacrifice and his opposite need to work for himself in asserting his creative originality (EY 377, 578-79). Like the question in "Love and a Question," this poem too asks how far one is supposed to go in self-sacrifice, how one is to draw the line between personal rights, property, or needs and some other's right to make a claim on his sympathy, to make him feel guilty, or to make him give up something that he need not have given up.

In this case the conflict is further complicated because it seems to be between something that is of little consequence to the speaker, yet vital to the tramps. The claims are not of equal weight: they are work as opposed to play, need as opposed to love. The last stanza, which declares the necessity for uniting vocation and avocation, love and need, work and playas the ideal way of doing a deed, does not resolve the dilemma of who should be chopping the wood. There seems to exist a separation between love and need, work and play.

Yet there is need and need: there is financial need and there is emotional need. There is also right and right—the right of a man to expect sympathy for his need to earn a living and the right of a man to chop wood—especially if it is on his own property—if he wants to do so. In fact the recognition on the part of the speaker is a generous and an unselfish one:

Nothing on either side was said.

They knew they had but to stay their stay

And all their logic would fill my head:

As that I had no right to play

With what was another man's work for gain.

My right might be love but theirs was need.

And where the two exist in twain

Theirs was the better right-agreed. (CP 358-59)

The claim on his conscience may not have been valid or fair, but it worked all the same. Their "logic" did fill his head as they had counted on its doing, and whether he gives up the task or not is irrelevant, for once their logic had fined his head, the pleasure in the task would be gone. At first their claiming the task simply intensified his love for it ("The time when most I loved my task / These two must make me love it more / By coming with what they came to ask "); but then that was before their logic filled his head. The resolution of the poem will depend on whether feeling wins out over logic, and then the question is which feeling—sympathetic feeling for another or feeling about the task that unites work and play, love and need. The separation the speaker sees between work and play, love and need, is, after all, the separation he assumes the tramps to see—it is their logic, and he shows himself to be very sensitive in assuming it. If the conflict is resolved on his terms, we must assume he will give up the task should these claims remain separate; that he will continue to do it should they be united. "Theirs was the better right" only "when the two exist in twain."

Here, as elsewhere in Frost, we are shown the seriousness of "play," for this activity was "play" as long as one did not do it from motives of gain. Pay then was what defined it as work rather than play, that made it vital and "right." That it was hard work in either case is beside the point; that there was something at stake—pride in the quality of the workmanship and the aim—is beside the point. The crucial question is what will be the gain. Of what importance is it to the chopper? At least that becomes the question once the speaker feels himself to have been "caught" in the act (a tacit admission of guilt), which leads him to consider the wood "unimportant" despite the fact that he was loosing his soul, giving vent to whatever was pent up—"the blows that a life of self-control / spares to strike for the common good" (357). Loosing his soul in spending these blows on the wood is an important activity whether the wood is important or not.

In the inability of the tramps to understand his needs, Frost proves them inferior to the speaker who sees theirs. It is, once more, a matter of how one is reading the scene and what one brings to the reading. Frost reads them better than they read him. They see what their agenda permits them to see, a criticism we could level at the socialist critics who made the poem—and Frost—a target on their agenda, often unfairly, certainly missing rich possibilities of interpretation and maybe missing the point or mistaking the resolution.

Another need that the task answers is for a physical connection, muscular exertion, pitting oneself against an earth, a tree, a nature that shows crystal teeth, that moves capriciously between March and May and back in a moment:

You'd think I never had felt before

The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,

The grip on earth of outspread feet.

 

The life of muscles rocking soft

And smooth and moist in vernal heat. (CP 358)

A deed done "for. ..future's sake" must exert weighty grip and muscle in the face of so uncertain and capricious a future. It must require poise and balance as surely as does that boy mastering birches.

In this poem, as in "Birches," "love" is introduced where it has not seemed to be the subject: love of the work, love of the feel of the earth, and "the life of muscles, rocking soft / and smooth and moist in vernal heat"; love as it relates to labor, love as it relates to need. We see that only in uniting these will the speaker be entitled to make a claim that equals the claim of the tramps, for love must be related to need and to effort. Only in applying this union to any relationship, any task, or act of creativity does the last stanza seem to be genuinely a part of the poem and not simply the gratuitous nonresolution of Frost's poetic career, which it is so often taken to be.

But yield who will to their separation,

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

Only where love and need are one,

And the work is play for mortal stakes,

Is the deed ever really done

For Heaven and the future's sakes. (CP 359)

In two separate letters, Frost relates this poem somewhat curiously to love of a woman. In his famous assertion that Elinor had been the unspoken half of everything he wrote, he went on to add: "and both halves of many a thing from My November Guest down to the last stanzas of Two Tramps in Mud Time" (SL 450). In writing about his view of imperfection, he said: "I am not a Platonist…one who believes…the woman you have is an imperfect copy of some woman in Heaven…I am philosophically opposed to having one Iseult for my vocation and another for my avocation; as you may have inferred from a poem called Two Tramps in Mud Time…a truly gallant Platonist will remain a bachelor…from unwillingness to reduce any woman to the condition of being used without being idealized" (SL 462).

Love and need, then, must be one, or the relationship, whether in marriage, in friendship, or in art, is exploitation. But there is another factor in a love relationship—in a relationship with any other human being or with one's task—which distinguishes love and need from exploitation, and that is "spending" oneself rather than merely spending another: "be it art, politics, school, church, business, love, or marriage—in a piece of work or in a career. Strongly spent is synonymous with kept. "The speaker in this poem speaks of the soul-loosing blows he "spent on unimportant wood," and if anything entitled him to "keep" the task rather than to give it up, it is the effort, the love with which he spent himself on the task. In the above quotation from "A Constant Symbol," Frost had been speaking of writing poetry: "Every single poem written regular is a symbol small or great of the way the will has to pitch into commitments deeper and deeper to a rounded conclusion and then be judged for whether any original intention it had has been strongly spent or weakly lost (5P 24; emphasis mine). Peculiar to relationships of love and creativity is the opposition of spent and lost. In commerce, one is short by what one spends; in love and in creation, one only keeps by spending, saves one’s heart with losing it; one only fulfills oneself by giving oneself. In "Two Tramps," strongly spent, being strongly spent, is the only real justification for keeping.

The question of respect for self, of integrity of self as opposed to giving up of self, is posed in two ways in "Two Tramps in Mud Time," for there are two relationships: the relationship between the speaker and the two tramps, and the relationship between the speaker and his work. If the relationship between himself and his work is one of love, need, and spending of himself for his task and the perfection of the job for its own sake, then that may take precedence over a relationship with two strangers where there is no love, no pride in work, no effort, no mutuality of give and take. The self and its labor of love are united and preserved, kept, in the face of claims that would separate that unity. If, however, the task separates love and need, if nothing further will be "spent" on it, then the job is exploitive. It had better be given to those who can use it for gain.

While the drama of the poem is more overtly social than sexual, the relationship between love and need, keeping and spending oneself, respect for the needs of the self and the other, and willingness or unwillingness to surrender to it are clearly also applicable to a discussion of love, especially as the poet has drawn attention to this poem in such a connection. If we see the sexual undertone of "outspread feet. / The life of muscles rocking soft / And smooth and moist in vernal heat" it would not be the only poem, as we shall see, to connate earth and love, the act of earth-labor with the act of love. 

From Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and the Poet. Copyright © 1991 by The University of Georgia Press.

Judith Oster: On "An Old Man's Winter Night"

We do not know why the old man is alone, only that he is. We do not know whether the state he has reached in this poem is the result of his aloneness or the cause of it; it is with the state of his life as we find it that we must deal. We feel in this old man a shutting-out that keeps him more frighteningly alone. Here we find salvation neither in a human relationship, nor in communion with the outside world, nor in devotion to a task. There is no sense here of the old man's existing for anything or anyone at all. With his memory failing him, eroding his sense of purpose, the old man strengthens his ego by a stubborn taciturnity, and he protects himself by scaring away what frightens him rather than by inviting in what comforts him. Nowhere in this poem of terrible aloneness are we admitted to the man's feelings of loneliness. We are admitted only to his feeling "at a loss," to his concern with "he knew what," to his consigning of the snow to the moon, and to his falling asleep. If anything, the man seems more alone because we are not admitted into his feelings. Were we sitting in the room with him, we might not be admitted to them either, for in his concern with "he knew what" (and in that triple-stressed sound of the sentence), we feel a taciturnity, a stubborn unwillingness on his part to communicate and, more pathetic still, an unwillingness to admit, perhaps, that he did not know, could not remember what he was concerned with. Thus he not only keeps to himself in the sense of being without others, he keeps his ideas and his feelings to himself.

We are told he was a light to no one but himself—and a quiet light at that—"and then not even that," possibly not fully in touch even with himself He also holds a light, a light that prevents his "giving back the gaze" to the out-of-doors because he is tilting it back toward his eyes. The light he was unto himself and the light he holds unto himself work together to intensify the man's isolation: we understand that his aloneness is not simply the absence of another person in the house or the fact that no one is caring for him; it is that he means nothing to anyone. Moreover it means that he illuminates nothing for anyone else, and we have no way of knowing if he even wants to or was ever able to. This keeping of his light and his concern to himself seems to have some bearing on the man's relationship with the out-of-doors, for his very aloneness makes the world outside and the world in the cellar especially frightening. He could use his light to look out by holding it at the window to do so, but he tilts it toward his eyes. While the tilting could have been involuntary, or for no conscious reason, the result is the same: he cannot see the outside. Had he wanted to "give back the gaze," he could certainly have done so. He may not have cared, or he may have feared what lies outside, in which case the tilt of the lamp prevents his seeing out, protects him from what seems to be "looking darkly" in. The two lights work together, for were he to have cast light outward in either sense, to have been a light to another, to have shone his light out the window, the out-of- doors would not seem to be "looking darkly in at him." With another he would be able to "keep house"—to have a home; this way the house is a "keep"—a fortress against hostile forces, but not a real home. As it is, he reflects only himself and his condition, haunted by what he imagines threatens from without. Even the conjunctive "where" contributes to the sense of his imprisonment in the self: it is not clear what we are to take as the reference of the relative clause "where now he sat." Is it the "light" he was sitting in—his own light, that is? Is "himself" the antecedent? But if we think about it, it is all the same, for he remains locked in that reflexive circle of self, the light he was , only unto himself, the light he shone back toward himself, and the implied passiveness of that sitting.

What light he has will finally depend on the moon—late-arising, broken, chaste, cold, and undependable—and it is to her that he will consign "his" snow, "his" icicles. The moon, "such as she [is] ," is better for holding his possessions, such as they are. She will fulfill his need, perhaps, to feel in possession of something, particularly of the snow and icicles on his roof, as if their very coldness, preserved as it would be by the moon, better at such a charge than the sun, was a part of him. The "empty rooms" seem to have invited the stars—separate stars—of frost. The cold snow and ice seem all he has to give, all he has that he wishes preserved, both of which meanings are inherent in "to keep."

Yet in that dim and frozen atmosphere we hear noise, the noise he makes to scare the cellar and scare the outer night. We hear what must be his futile attempt to scare them back. The night "has its sounds, familiar…But nothing so like beating on a box. "Are we to assume that the poem means that nothing is so familiar a sound, nothing so hollow, nothing so "scary" by virtue of its loudness as beating on a box? We cannot be certain whether the man actually beats on a box, but we cannot escape the image of a man doing so to scare away the sounds, to drown them out, to make a sound when he cannot generate enough light, and the act of a man alone beating on a box seems even more frightening than noises from the cellar or the out-of-doors.

The hollowness and the emptiness of the place and the life are reinforced by the auditory image of resonating sounds and further dramatized by repetitions within the poem—words and structures that echo one another: "Scared" appears three times, "light" "moon," "keep," "night," "one man," "clomping," and "what kept him" twice. (Notice, too, the visual effect on the page of lines 10 and 11,4 and 6.) In this context of man alone, scaring the out-of-doors, consigning snow and icicles, creating voiceless sound by clomping, or maybe by beating, the echoes could seem mocking indeed.

"Most telling, though, is the echo effect in the description of his disturbed sleep: he sleeps, and "the log that shifted…disturbed him and he shifted…but still slept" (italics mine). It is almost as if he is one with that log. Box-beating and clomping over, light put out, he sleeps like a log, moves when the log moves. It is almost as if in the man's aloneness, his connection with no one, no purpose, his lack of connection even with himself and his thoughts, he is less than fully human—not even connected with nature, for the log is no longer alive. It is another example of the deathward pull inherent in the unbroken circle of self. This is an old man's winter night, but we are not allowed to rest the blame for his condition simply on age. What kept him from remembering was age, but we are made to see, at the end, that not only can one aged man not keep a house, but that one man—any man alone—cannot keep a house, a farm, a countryside any better than this.

From Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and The Poet. Copyright © 1991 by the University of Georgia Press.

Judith Oster: On "Desert Places"

This later poem makes a fitting companion piece to "Stopping by Woods." Even the rhyme scheme (aaba) is the same, although in this poem, the poet has not chosen to commit himself to the greater difficulty of linking his stanzas by means of rhyme. This speaker too is traveling through falling snow at night fall. The woods are present in this poem as well, though we are more conscious of their darkness in "Stopping by Woods" and more conscious of whiteness here. While the opening line sounds soothing with its repetition of "s," and "f," and "o," we know as early as the second line that this speaker does not stop, even for a moment—the fields he describes are those he is "going past." What is not presented as frightening in "Stopping by Woods" is frightening in this poem. Nothing here makes one feel that the speaker finds this snowfall attractive, nothing draws him in, for this snowfall does not present a relaxing oblivion; it presents a concrete blankness. Because it is with blankness that he identifies, it presents no escape, only a reminder of self, a self that is not a welcome haven or wellspring. Withdrawal would not be "strategic" and self-preserving. It would be facing a desert.

The open space is surrounded by woods that "have it." They claim it, and the speaker willingly relegates it to them—willing not because of a decision he has struggled to make, but because he is too apathetic, "too absent-spirited to count." The structural ambiguity in this line and its seeming carelessness emphasize his absent-spiritedness, his apathy. We cannot be sure whether "count" is being used in its active sense (to count, to tell what is happening, to reckon up woods, animals and fields) or in its passive sense (to be counted, to count to anything or anyone else). The following line is also enriched by its apparently careless use of "unawares," which could modify "loneliness" or could modify "me." Again, the ambiguous use of the word illustrates that very unawareness, that carelessness that causes us to associate absent-spiritedness with absent-mindedness.

In the third stanza loneliness is in apposition to snow, and just as the snow will cover more and more, will leave nothing uncovered to relieve its smooth unbroken whiteness, so the loneliness will become still more lonely and unrelieved. That same whiteness—snow or loneliness—is what makes desert of a field, helps the woods to "have" the fields in that it obliterates clear boundaries between field and woods, raising, as it does in "Stopping by Woods," the dangerous prospect of boundarilessness. Even when the journey is into one's own desert places, one's humanity or identity is threatened, and loneliness, the apposition suggests, can do this too. What terrifies him so much, however, is not the fact that he is alone, without other people, but that alone with himself he may find nothing—no one and nothing within. Whereas "Stopping by Woods" presented an invitation to the solitude and inertia of snow, this poem presents the attendant fear that once giving in to the self, or going into the self, he will find that the journey has been for nothing. That there is nothing but loneliness, blankness, and absent-spiritedness in the sense of absence of spirit.

The "nothingness" that Frost fears is not the metaphysical void, it is the void he fears in himself. In relating this personal void to the spaces between stars, he suggests that a personal void can have—or seem to have—cosmic proportions, that it can seem at least as important, as vast and as frightening, as anything "out there." This speaker fears the void, but he does not seem, like Wallace Stevens's snow man, to be "nothing himself"; he is capable of beholding what is not there. He is not a man of snow because he has enough feeling to be afraid. His is not yet a "mind of winter," for he can still think about having one, fear that he might discover it if he explores inside himself. He has it "in him"—again, as in "Spring Pools"—the threatening potential of what lies within. The man with the "mind of winter" does not think, but to Stevens there are two kinds of nothingness—"the nothing that is" and "nothing," which is the absence of something. The greater lack is the latter—the absence of imagination in the man who "beholds nothing that is not there." In "Desert Places" the speaker fears blankness "with no expression, nothing to express." There is a difference between "nothing to express" and an expression of nothingness, as Stevens has shown us. The fear in the poem is of the former, but the act of the poem is the latter.

For the poet there is an additional terror in identifying his own "desert places" with the blank landscape: it is a "whiteness…with no expression, nothing to express." If there is nothing there, nothing showing or growing, if there is no spirit, what will he have to say? This fear of nothing to say was a constant one to Frost. To Untermeyer he once confided "a very damaging secret…The poet in me died nearly ten years ago…The calf I was in the nineties I merely take to market…Take care that you don't get your mouth set to declare the other two [books] a falling off of power, for that is what they can't be…As you look back don't you see how a lot of things I have said begin to take meaning from this?…I tell you, Louis, it's allover at thirty…Anyway that was the way I thought I might feel. And I took measures accordingly…I have myself all in a strong box" (SL 201-2). Having nothing more to say was what he assumed lay behind Hemingway's decision to commit suicide—a motive and a decision Frost defended (LY 294) .

Even worse than having nothing to say, perhaps, is emotional poverty—feeling used up, both by the pain of events in life and by the demands of his art. He once wrote: "[poets] are so much less sensitive from having overused their sensibilities. Men who have to feel for a living would unavoidably become altogether unfeeling except professionally" (SL 300). Whatever the basis, the poem ends with the fear of one's own emptiness, one's own nothingness. To traverse these spaces inside the self is to traverse the barren.

At the same time, though, and characteristically, the fear is expressed with a kind of bravado: "they can't scare me!" The comparison between the interstellar spaces and his own desert places also serves to aggrandize the speaker and the importance of his personal desert. Then, also characteristically, Frost undercuts both the bravado and the self-importance, mainly by means of metrics. Where the speaker tries so hard to show strength the lines end weakly: they are the only feminine rhymes in the poem; the three rhyming lines of the last stanza all have an added, unstressed eleventh syllable: /ez/. The effect in lines 13 and 14 is to undercut the tone of confidence. By the last line, where bravado gives in to fear, the unstressed ending reinforces the fear by sounding weak in the face of what is feared. The XX rhyme concluding the poem also works against a feeling of closure and resolution.

While the whole final stanza has its metrical bumps, line 14 jolts us the most and alerts us to other tensions with and within that line. For example, whereas "spaces" and "places" are both noun objects of prepositions, rhyming what is also structurally parallel, "race is," as a noun subject and verb, seems out of kilter with the other two. To focus more closely, though, on these words is to notice the possible pun "where no human races" and the tensions that produces between the two possible meanings: in one sense, the contrast between a place where people do not race—no rushing, no competition—and a world where the need to go forward quickly and competitively obtains even in one's private desert. Following on this contrast is another: the active verb of one reading— "races"—contrasts with the static "is" of the other, which creates further tensions. Grammatically, the two would be awkward together, as we do not coordinate an active verb with a stative one. Semantically, the difference is related to two conflicting needs: going, doing, rushing to compete and simply being. Such stasis, though, is located where there is no human life (a concept we will take up in another context in chapter 7). Seen this way, the poem presents another version of the conflict between going and stopping, motion and stasis. While in this poem the outward action is not stopping but going past the field (he races?), what inner desert it represents, of course, goes with him, and, as "Stopping by Woods" reminds us, we must go—move, do—if we are to be.

 

From Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and the Poet. Copyright © 1991 by the University of Georgia Press.

Judith Oster: On "Two Tramps in Mudtime"

The question of respect for one's own needs despite an apparent selfishness is raised in "Two Tramps in Mud Time." Because the speaker has had no previous relationship with the tramps—they are "two strangers"—the question can remain the abstract one of what one owes to one's fellow man, what one must give of one's self to the claims of another if the claims conflict, even if there is no obligation to that person, no claim by right of anything except common humanity, human kindness, or guilt in the face of another person's need. One issue in this poem, then, is simply that of selfless giving up as opposed to keeping something for oneself. It is a question relevant to the artist's need to hoard himself as opposed to his human obligation to give himself; it illustrates the kind of conflict in Frost that was generated by his mother's hero tales of self-sacrifice and his opposite need to work for himself in asserting his creative originality (EY 377, 578-79). Like the question in "Love and a Question," this poem too asks how far one is supposed to go in self-sacrifice, how one is to draw the line between personal rights, property, or needs and some other's right to make a claim on his sympathy, to make him feel guilty, or to make him give up something that he need not have given up.

In this case the conflict is further complicated because it seems to be between something that is of little consequence to the speaker, yet vital to the tramps. The claims are not of equal weight: they are work as opposed to play, need as opposed to love. The last stanza, which declares the necessity for uniting vocation and avocation, love and need, work and playas the ideal way of doing a deed, does not resolve the dilemma of who should be chopping the wood. There seems to exist a separation between love and need, work and play.

Yet there is need and need: there is financial need and there is emotional need. There is also right and right—the right of a man to expect sympathy for his need to earn a living and the right of a man to chop wood—especially if it is on his own property—if he wants to do so. In fact the recognition on the part of the speaker is a generous and an unselfish one:

Nothing on either side was said. They knew they had but to stay their stay And all their logic would fill my head: As that I had no right to play With what was another man's work for gain. My right might be love but theirs was need. And where the two exist in twain Theirs was the better right-agreed. (CP 358-59)

The claim on his conscience may not have been valid or fair, but it worked all the same. Their "logic" did fill his head as they had counted on its doing, and whether he gives up the task or not is irrelevant, for once their logic had fined his head, the pleasure in the task would be gone. At first their claiming the task simply intensified his love for it ("The time when most I loved my task / These two must make me love it more / By coming with what they came to ask "); but then that was before their logic filled his head. The resolution of the poem will depend on whether feeling wins out over logic, and then the question is which feeling—sympathetic feeling for another or feeling about the task that unites work and play, love and need. The separation the speaker sees between work and play, love and need, is, after all, the separation he assumes the tramps to see—it is their logic, and he shows himself to be very sensitive in assuming it. If the conflict is resolved on his terms, we must assume he will give up the task should these claims remain separate; that he will continue to do it should they be united. "Theirs was the better right" only "when the two exist in twain."

Here, as elsewhere in Frost, we are shown the seriousness of "play," for this activity was "play" as long as one did not do it from motives of gain. Pay then was what defined it as work rather than play, that made it vital and "right." That it was hard work in either case is beside the point; that there was something at stake—pride in the quality of the workmanship and the aim—is beside the point. The crucial question is what will be the gain. Of what importance is it to the chopper? At least that becomes the question once the speaker feels himself to have been "caught" in the act (a tacit admission of guilt), which leads him to consider the wood "unimportant" despite the fact that he was loosing his soul, giving vent to whatever was pent up—"the blows that a life of self-control / spares to strike for the common good" (357). Loosing his soul in spending these blows on the wood is an important activity whether the wood is important or not.

In the inability of the tramps to understand his needs, Frost proves them inferior to the speaker who sees theirs. It is, once more, a matter of how one is reading the scene and what one brings to the reading. Frost reads them better than they read him. They see what their agenda permits them to see, a criticism we could level at the socialist critics who made the poem—and Frost—a target on their agenda, often unfairly, certainly missing rich possibilities of interpretation and maybe missing the point or mistaking the resolution.

Another need that the task answers is for a physical connection, muscular exertion, pitting oneself against an earth, a tree, a nature that shows crystal teeth, that moves capriciously between March and May and back in a moment:

You'd think I never had felt before The weight of an ax-head poised aloft, The grip on earth of outspread feet. The life of muscles rocking soft And smooth and moist in vernal heat. (CP 358)

A deed done "for. ..future's sake" must exert weighty grip and muscle in the face of so uncertain and capricious a future. It must require poise and balance as surely as does that boy mastering birches.

In this poem, as in "Birches," "love" is introduced where it has not seemed to be the subject: love of the work, love of the feel of the earth, and "the life of muscles, rocking soft / and smooth and moist in vernal heat"; love as it relates to labor, love as it relates to need. We see that only in uniting these will the speaker be entitled to make a claim that equals the claim of the tramps, for love must be related to need and to effort. Only in applying this union to any relationship, any task, or act of creativity does the last stanza seem to be genuinely a part of the poem and not simply the gratuitous nonresolution of Frost's poetic career, which it is so often taken to be.

But yield who will to their separation, My object in living is to unite My avocation and my vocation As my two eyes make one in sight. Only where love and need are one, And the work is play for mortal stakes, Is the deed ever really done For Heaven and the future's sakes. (CP 359)

In two separate letters, Frost relates this poem somewhat curiously to love of a woman. In his famous assertion that Elinor had been the unspoken half of everything he wrote, he went on to add: "and both halves of many a thing from My November Guest down to the last stanzas of Two Tramps in Mud Time" (SL 450). In writing about his view of imperfection, he said: "I am not a Platonist…one who believes…the woman you have is an imperfect copy of some woman in Heaven…I am philosophically opposed to having one Iseult for my vocation and another for my avocation; as you may have inferred from a poem called Two Tramps in Mud Time…a truly gallant Platonist will remain a bachelor…from unwillingness to reduce any woman to the condition of being used without being idealized" (SL 462).

Love and need, then, must be one, or the relationship, whether in marriage, in friendship, or in art, is exploitation. But there is another factor in a love relationship—in a relationship with any other human being or with one's task—which distinguishes love and need from exploitation, and that is "spending" oneself rather than merely spending another: "be it art, politics, school, church, business, love, or marriage—in a piece of work or in a career. Strongly spent is synonymous with kept. "The speaker in this poem speaks of the soul-loosing blows he "spent on unimportant wood," and if anything entitled him to "keep" the task rather than to give it up, it is the effort, the love with which he spent himself on the task. In the above quotation from "A Constant Symbol," Frost had been speaking of writing poetry: "Every single poem written regular is a symbol small or great of the way the will has to pitch into commitments deeper and deeper to a rounded conclusion and then be judged for whether any original intention it had has been strongly spent or weakly lost (5P 24; emphasis mine). Peculiar to relationships of love and creativity is the opposition of spent and lost. In commerce, one is short by what one spends; in love and in creation, one only keeps by spending, saves one’s heart with losing it; one only fulfills oneself by giving oneself. In "Two Tramps," strongly spent, being strongly spent, is the only real justification for keeping.

The question of respect for self, of integrity of self as opposed to giving up of self, is posed in two ways in "Two Tramps in Mud Time," for there are two relationships: the relationship between the speaker and the two tramps, and the relationship between the speaker and his work. If the relationship between himself and his work is one of love, need, and spending of himself for his task and the perfection of the job for its own sake, then that may take precedence over a relationship with two strangers where there is no love, no pride in work, no effort, no mutuality of give and take. The self and its labor of love are united and preserved, kept, in the face of claims that would separate that unity. If, however, the task separates love and need, if nothing further will be "spent" on it, then the job is exploitive. It had better be given to those who can use it for gain.

While the drama of the poem is more overtly social than sexual, the relationship between love and need, keeping and spending oneself, respect for the needs of the self and the other, and willingness or unwillingness to surrender to it are clearly also applicable to a discussion of love, especially as the poet has drawn attention to this poem in such a connection. If we see the sexual undertone of "outspread feet. / The life of muscles rocking soft / And smooth and moist in vernal heat" it would not be the only poem, as we shall see, to connate earth and love, the act of earth-labor with the act of love.

from Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and the Poet. Copyright © 1991 by The University of Georgia Press.