Katherine Kearns: On "The Hill Wife"

In "The Hill Wife" the woman "sees" nature as alluring and threatening, and she states her fears so convincingly that the tone subverts any rational, fearless response on the reader's part. The birds, the tree, the window, the stranger - all become portents, as ominous a "design" as nature's compiling of white spider, white moth, and white Heal-all in "Design." The Hill Wife implies that a man and woman who loved each other enough would not have to care so much when the nest-building birds came and went around their house. Their marriage is sexually empty, a deficiency reflected in her own empty "nest." The childless house is a frightening, vacant-seeming place. They dread going inside after an absence, "preferring the out- to the in-door night." Like the birds in "driven nests," they rattle their door to drive out whatever has settled there, and by analogy, they are the intruders. Their bedroom is haunted by a "dark pine that kept / Forever trying the window-latch." The tree has "tireless but ineffectual hands" that in waking hours seem "as a little bird / Before the mystery of glass." The symbols merge and conflate, with the husband and wife like birds, with the tree like a bird but also like a man or a woman with "tireless," dangerous hands, with the threatening stranger in the woods like the dark tree tapping at the bedroom window. The whole tenuous asylum depends on closed doors and unbroken windows, but like the other women for whom nature is an objective correlative, the Hill Wife dreams that the barrier between their bedroom and the outdoors is threatened by the tall pine: "And only one of the two / Was afraid in an oft-repeated dream / Of what the tree might do." The ominous tone suggests sexual violation, the "tireless" and hungry hands of the tree seeking and finding the woman in a nightmarish recapitulation of the beggar whose hands she propitiates with food. Or perhaps she dreams, with the same ambivalent fearfulness, of what the tree might do to her husband. If tireless female hands were to find the man, at least as the wife dreams it, they might seduce him out into the night, where he cannot perform the gestures of control - the furrowing of field and felling of trees - that keep nature at bay. Either way, the woman performs the opposite function to her farmer-husband's, for her internal and external landscapes merge, and the wildness in her nature allows her to see nature as wild and alluring. It is a small step from "preferring the out- to the in-door night" to rejecting the asylum of household completely. She disappears into the ferns and is never seen again, becoming quite literally a "hill wife," subsumed into nature, married to it.

From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Criticism Overview
Title Katherine Kearns: On "The Hill Wife" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Katherine Kearns Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite
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