George Montiero: On "Two Tramps in Mudtime"

"TWO TRAMPS IN MUD TIME" was first published in 1934. At the time Frost remarked that he considered the poem to be "against having hobbies." Two years later, when he collected it in A Further Range as one of ten poems to be "taken doubly," he added to its title in the list of contents the thematic phrase,"or, A Full-Time Interest." In both instances Frost provided a clue to his intended meaning. Unfortunately, critical interpretations of the poem have seldom pursued the leads suggested by the poet.

Two such commentaries, published twenty years apart, are particularly instructive regarding the manner in which each reaches out for the meaning of the poem. Each sees the poem as a vehicle for an idea, for a social ideology; but neither finds it necessary to locate the poem in the context of traditional American thought and literature.

Denis Donoghue, writing in 1965, reads "Two Tramps in Mud Time" as a clear instance of the relation between Frost's "temperament and the ideas of Social Darwinism." The poet did not find compelling the arguments for giving the tramps a job, and hence Donoghue reaches this puzzling conclusion: "So need is not reason enough. The narrator has need and love on his side, hence he survives and nature blesses him as the best man. The tramps are unfit to survive because they have only their need, and the Darwinist law is that they should not survive." Donoghue's overall reading of Frost's poem, not to mention his extraordinary application of Darwinist law, defies explanation. The idea that conjoined need and love constitute in themselves a higher claim for survival than need alone is a curious form of Darwinism. Frost's poem does show a concern with personal integrity and the survival of the human spirit, but nowhere does it come close to hinting that need without love, lamentable as it may be, actually renders the mud-time tramps unfit for survival. The narrator may have need and love "on his side" (as Donoghue puts it), but this fact hardly constitutes evidence either that the situation enables him to survive or that "nature blesses him as the best man." There is no indication, either within the confines of the poem or in the facts of the poet's life as we know them, that "Two Tramps in Mud Time" is intended to recall Charles Darwin or to echo the Social Darwinists.

Donoghue's reading bears a curious relationship to Malcolm Cowley's famous commentary on the poem, made more than forty years ago. His Darwinist interpretation is an offshoot of Cowley's "liberal" chastisement of Frost in the New Republic in 1944. Donoghue offers a specific reason for Frost's behavior toward the tramps, while Cowley describes and deplores the poet's reaction to their request. But both critics are interested in faulting the poet for his inhumanity. "In spite of his achievements as a narrative and lyric poet," argues the dissenting Cowley, there is "a case against Robert Frost as a social philosopher in verse and as a representative of the New England tradition" of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Assuming that the poem reflects an actual incident of the depression years, Cowley criticizes Frost for evading the socioeconomic fortune of the masses and retreating into "sermon." Instead of helping men who want work, preaches Cowley, "Frost turns to the reader with a sound but rather sententious sermon on the ethical value of the chopping block."

To acknowledge that Cowley's account of the poem has some, albeit limited, merit, is not, however, to endorse his vestigial reading with its earmarks of the 1930s. It may be granted that Frost was an early outspoken foe of the social excesses he found exhibited in Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the administrators of his New Deal. But to insist unequivocally that in this poem Frost lacks all social conscience is to mislead grievously: Cowley's concept of a social conscience is at best limited.

That the strangers who come at him "out of the mud" display great need, Frost acknowledges. Too readily is his head filled with the narrow logic that he has "no right to play / With what was another man's work for gain." "My right might be love but theirs was need," he admits; "and where the two exist in twain / Theirs was the better right—agreed." Frost is not insensitive to the tramps' need for "gain," for shelter and food perhaps, but, individualist that he is, he is too thoroughly self-reliant and humanistic to assign all priority to satisfying such basic needs. Rather, he hopes to remind us, in offering himself as example, that men have other kinds of need as well and that their failure to meet those needs results from their inability to recognize the high necessity that "love and need" must make one (''as my two eyes make one in sight"). This failure, common to men everywhere, is particularized for the moment in the tramps whose only thought was that, claiming economic need, "all chopping was theirs of right." Frost deplores, of course, the plight of the unfortunates who for whatever reason must totally dissociate need and love, vocation and avocation. He does not deny that poverty is problematic to society; but he does indicate that the necessity for any man to work much or all of his time for pay alone will rapidly dissolve his sense of other values of self and spirit. He concludes triumphantly:

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.

Frost's ideology in this poem has its roots deep in the nineteenth century; and to understand his poem's relationship to that century; we must turn, pace Donoghue and Cowley; to the traditions of Concord transcendentalism. Specifically; we must look to Henry Thoreau, whose work, encountered early, had a pervasive and formative impact on Frost's life as well as on his poetry. The spiritual morality of the individual self expressed in "Two Tramps" is endemic to both Thoreau and Frost, while Frost's economy accords perfectly with Thoreau's views on work and labor as nurture for the human spirit. In "Two Tramps" the kinship of Frost and Thoreau is evident at every turn.

Take Walden for the moment. In chapter 13 Thoreau contemplates his metaphoric "House-Warming." He begins by talking about woodpiles:

I loved to have mine before my window, and the more chips the better to remind me of my pleasing work. I had an old axe which nobody claimed, with which by spells in winter days, on the sunny side of the house, I played about the stumps which I had got out of my bean-field. As my driver prophesied when I was plowing, they warmed me twice, once while I was splitting them, and again when they were on the fire, so that no fuel could give out more heat.

These few sentences anticipate Frost's poem as a unit, but they have their closest dramatic equivalence in the second and sixth stanzas:

Good blocks of oak it was I split, As large around as the chopping block; And every piece I squarely hit Fell splinterless as a cloven rock. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 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.

In situation, motif, and theme, the passage from Walden offers a meaningful context for "Two Tramps."

For a full understanding of the transcendental tradition behind Frost's poem, however, a more useful document is Thoreau's brilliant essay "Life without Principle." A discursive presentation of his central ideas on society, labor, and the self, this essay was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863, after having served for several years as a lyceum talk. It is an important manifestation of Thoreau's dedication to the spiritual needs of the self and to the idea that the self must be served constantly in its struggle against the destructive pressures of socialization. As such, it can now serve us as a kind of manifesto of the intellectual and literary tradition to which "Two Tramps in Mud Time" properly belongs.

Frost is wary of those who want to take his "job for pay." Thoreau's more generalized complaint makes the same point. "The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse. If the laborer gets no more than the wages which his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself." In fact, such a laborer is deceived in that he is "paid for being something less than a man" when his aim should be "not to get his living . . . but to perform well a certain work. . . . Do not hire a man who does your work for money," cautions Thoreau, "but him who does it for love of it."

Frost takes these Thoreauvian ideals and dramatizes them in his lyric poem. It is not the tramps who work for the love of the work, it turns out, but the poet himself, and consequently he cannot without compromise and self-betrayal give way to those who work merely for wages. He must, in Thoreau's words, "be fastidious to the extreme of sanity, disregarding the gibes of those who are more unfortunate than ourselves." Thoreau reminds us that, surprisingly, "a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well": "There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living. All great enterprises are self-supporting. The poet, for instance, must sustain his body by his poetry, as a steam planing-mill feeds its boilers with the shavings it makes. You must get your living by loving."

The values that Thoreau conveys discursively and didactically in "Life without Principle" Frost exalts in narrative subsumed by lyric. Given such commitments, there is no question that Frost must fail Cowley's test in socioeconomics and collectivist philosophy, but so must Thoreau. Frost might have said, with Thoreau: "To be supported by the charity of friends, or a government pension,—provided you continue to breathe,— by whatever fine synonyms you describe these relations, is to go into the almshouse." Frost did say that a man "should be a large-proportioned individual before he becomes social."

In sum, "Two Tramps in Mud Time" should not be read as the one-sided, frontal attack on socialist or collectivist thinking that Cowley would have it be, nor should it be read as Donoghue's illustrative apologia for the wondrous workings of Darwinist law. Grounded in social and transcendental ideas the poet shares with Henry Thoreau, the poem stands in opposition to that capacity for self-betrayal and degeneration which inheres in each and every man: that propensity to "quarter our gross bodies on our poor souls, till the former eat up all the latter's substance." When the thematic and ideological affinities of Frost and Thoreau are fully recognized, we shall have a surer sense of what Frost is about in his poem " against having hobbies." Thoreau's statement that "the whole duty of life is contained in the question how to respire and aspire both at once" is an adage the import of which Frost seems not to have missed. As he insisted in the early 1950s, at the age of seventy-eight, "I have never outgrown anything that I ever liked. I have never had a hobby in my life, but I have ranged through a lot of things."

From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.

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Title George Montiero: On "Two Tramps in Mudtime" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author George Montiero Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 15 Feb 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance
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