William H. Pritchard: On "An Old Man's Winter Night"

Here, more so than in "The Oven Bird," the comfort of a warmly human subject is held out; no one who ever responded to a Norman Rockwell magazine cover could but be taken by the old man, alone in his house ("All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him"), unable to summon up the resources to hold the winter night at bay:

What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand. What kept him from remembering what it was That brought him to that creaking room was age.

But if lovers of Rockwell had paused over these lines and tried to read and listen to them, they might well have noted how odd is their disposition. The "sense" of them is that the old man can't see out because the lamp won't permit him to see out -- all he gets back is an image of himself. And if he cannot see out, neither can he see in; he is so old that he can't remember how or why he is where he is. But what, in the prose paraphrase are concerned and sympathetic insights into the plight of old age, sound rather different when experienced through the sing-song, rather telegraphic formulations of the lines. As with "The Oven Bird" there is a heavy use of the verb "to be": "was" occurs three times in four lines, something a novice writer of poetry would try to avoid. And there are also three "whats," two of which occur in a single line ("What kept him from remembering what it was"), designed to make it hard to indulge in sad feelings about old age -- one notices the way that "age" is quietly buried at the very end of the next line.

Apropos of his sister Jeanie, Frost claimed that as he grew older he found it easier to lie awake and worry about other people's troubles. But he is at least as much a critic of such sympathetic identification with others -- lonely old men or oven birds -- as a practitioner of it. Or rather, some of the best poems in Mountain Interval derive their energy from the play of movement toward and withdrawal from the subject contemplated, play such as can be seen in two lines further on which summarize the old man in his setting;

A light he was to no one but himself Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what.

By itself, the first of these lines could figure as a compelling and moving statement of the human condition, eyesight and insight failing as death comes on. And, typically, Frost won't let us read it just that way, although having said it the poem lodges it in our minds. But the inspiring saying does not stand by itself, isolated in a memorable line; instead, it continues over into the next one, flattening out the ringing declaration by moving it to the homely, revealing, "Where now he sat," then continuing by acting as if the old man's concerns can’t be our concern -- we can't know the "what" that only he is concerned with. An even more forceful, because final, example of this movement toward and away from the subject of contemplation occurs in the poem's final three lines which took at the man, now fallen asleep after "he consigned to the moon" not his soul to keep, but "his snow upon the roof, / His icicles along the wall to keep":

One aged man -- one man -- can't keep a house, A farm, a countryside, or if he can, It's thus he does it of a winter night.

The voice becomes broadly expansive as it moves from "aged man" to the generic "man," separated by expressive dashes; then from house to farm to the larger countryside, as if it is about to break under the weight of all this intimidating, alien nature. And having arrived at just the point where such a break might be imagined, the sentence turns itself around in the middle of a line, with the important "or" -- "or if he can, / It's thus he does it of a winter night." That is where we are to end, with the "what" encountered earlier now transformed into an equally blunt "thus." We know how "thus he does it," but all we know is what we have been shown about it by the poem. Frost's procedure, again typically so, is not to send us out into a "real" world of lonely, aged men on New England farms (they could as well be Minnesotan or Nebraskan ones) but back into the poetic life given sound and shape in a particular, even a noticeably peculiar, order of words and sentence sounds. It is there that any house-keeping, or life-keeping, will have to be accomplished.

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William H. Pritchard.

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Criticism Overview
Title William H. Pritchard: On "An Old Man's Winter Night" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author William H. Pritchard Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered
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