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In some essential sense in Frost's poetry, "mud time"--that precarious season between winter and spring, freeze and thaw, control and uncontrol--is always imminent; in that same sense, so too are the "hulking tramps" who begin to wander through the landscape in that season, threatening the equanimity of the socially proprietous speaker and bringing him finally to recognize and reassert his own capacity for control. In "Two Tramps in Mud Time," the strangers materialize out of nowhere, startling the speaker so thoroughly that he mis-hits the wood: this is a dangerous game, axes being what they are in Frost's poetry, capable of striking like a snake, or biting. The strangers are there to take the speaker's job of woodcutting, again a dangerous game, for it is his job to channel his aggressive energy away from others and into the (temporarily inanimate) kindling: "The blows that a life of self-control / Spares to strike for the common good, / That day, giving a loose to my soul, I spent on the unimportant wood." The tramps would deprive him of both his balance and his heat, elements condensed figurally into the dynamic precision of the titanically wrought woodchopper: "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." They would, in short, leave him to less harmless pastimes there in the crux between winter and spring. Warmth, the smooth and moist flow of muscles relaxed by vernal heat, has as its complement in this poem the water that fills every wheel rut and every hoofprint, but water without heat is ice. The speaker, warmed to a task, may be generative, but left to find other outlets becomes sinister: "Be glad of water," the speaker says, "but don't forget / The lurking frost in the earth beneath / That will steal forth after the sun is set / And show on the water its crystal teeth." What these silent strangers would take, then, is all that keeps the speaker from unrestrained appetite, that keeps F/frost from stealing forth in the dark to show his/its teeth.


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