Throughout the ages man has attempted to confront the end that comes to us all. Before death, many people hope to solve the mysteries of life by delving into the depths of their own souls. Pulitzer-prize winning American Poet Laureate, Robert Frost not only explored these introspections via the written word, but also, shared his magnificent poetry with the world. Perhaps, he meant to help others in this noble and universal endeavor of facing one’s nature and fate. Out of his numerous poems, three stand out as exemplary of this human dilemma. “Out, Out–” explores the loss of a vital limb and, ultimately, the quite unexpected death of a young man. “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” alludes to the contemplation of and, perhaps, a near brush with death. Lastly, Frost’s famous “The Road Not Taken” looks at the trajectory of a life and how a single choice, seems to have changed the outcome of that life. These three short works demonstrate the universal questions that all people ponder about the human condition.
In his poem “Out, Out–”, Frost uses a variety of figurative language to explore the serious subjects of untimely death and the debilitating loss of a limb. For example, the title itself is an obvious allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Wood expounds, “The quotation marks surrounding the title, as well as the dash after the second repetition of “Out,” are a dead giveaway (pun regrettably intended).”(1) Likewise, the author cunningly employs onomatopoeia to bring to life the buzz saw which fatefully ends up taking the young boy’s life. Moreover, it is immediately repeated, perhaps, for emphasis of its inherent danger. Frost writes, “And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled.” (Line 7) This description not only “give[s] the tool animalistic life,” (Wood 1) but also likens the saw to a kind of wild, rabbid, and perhaps even evil, beast as it robs the boy of his hand. The gravity of the situation seems to instantly mature the boy as he realizes the possibilty, no, probability of his debilitation. He begs his sister, “Don’t let him cut my hand off-/ The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!” (Frost Lines 25-26) At the end, the poem’s tone turns rather detached as the living seem to move on rather quickly from the death. The poet writes, “and that ended it./ No more to build on there. And they, since they/ Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” (Frost Lines 32-34) Wood suggests, “perhaps the speaker is referring to the life, which is snuffed like an extinguished candle…Nothing can be built on nothing.” (2) Unfeeling or not, this much is certain: Frost delved deep into the questions of mortality with his poetry.
Much of Frost’s poetry reflects the places where he spent many of his years. In his New Hampshire collection for which he was honored with his first Pulitzer Prize, (Lovett-Graff 177) the reader is invited into the woods of the bucolic New England state to once again contemplate the questions of man’s nature and fate. One critic points to the final stanza as being an obvious reference to the eternal sleep that comes to us all. He writes, “There’s no missing the broadening of import here, a change that extends, darkly, to the poem’s terminal sleep as well.” (Brown 13) However, Frost does not depart from his usual style of writing, but rather lingers in it just as the speaker of the poem pauses near the woods. Brown continues, “The wish for oblivion that every commentator hears in this closing stanza is unquestionably real, though in expressing this wish obliquely, Frost keeps faith with his characteristic subtlety and tact.” (13) Earlier in the poem, the poet reminds the reader of the solitude in which one goes through life. “The only other sound’s the sweep/ Of easy wind and downy flake.” (Frost Lines 11-12) The speaker hears only the sounds of his horse and of nature. What better place to take stock of one’s place in life! In fact, Frost alludes to this idea of isolation in the first stanza. The speaker intimates that the owner of the land where he is stopping, “will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods fill up with snow.” (Lines 3-4) Through “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the poet paints for us an idyllic scene where one is all but obliged to revisit one’s purpose in life, and to look introspectively.
Though he lived much of his life in the New England area, Frost sought approval for his poetry and solace for himself across the Atlantic ocean in England from 1912-1916. During his years there, he published three collections of poems to great critical acclaim. (Lovett-Graff 177) The second of these, Mountain Interval, contained his second most famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.” Though Frost once confessed that the poem “was a jibe at his frequent walking companion, the English poet Edward Thomas, for anguishing over real-life choices of road,” (Brown 11) many critics and readers have since taken other deeper meanings from it. For example, many have argued that the “Two roads [that] diverged in a yellow wood” (Frost Line 1) symbolize the many choices one must make in life. Later, the poet’s description of one of the roads calls to mind the saying about the grass always being greener on the other side, and includes a subtle personification of the road desiring to be used. Frost writes that the second road, “having perhaps the better claim,/ Because it was grassy and wanted wear;” (Lines 7-8) In addition to indecision and greed or envy, depending on how one sees the description of the road, Frost reveals with his poem another part of man’s nature: regret. In the fourth stanza, the writer laments, “I shall be telling this with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence:” (Frost lines 16-17) This leads the reader to ask, is the pang of guilt for the road taken or the road which was neglected? Either way, Frost once again sneakily forces the reader to introspect and ponder one’s own human condition with his poetry.
In conclusion, it is irrefutable that Frost bequeathed a great gift to the human race with his magnificent poetry. It is a means by which one may ponder one’s own fragile nature and mortal fate. Some suggest “Frost’s poetry illustrates the ways in which the decaying effects of nature are held at bay by the forms into which we mold our understanding of our environment.” (Lovett-Graff 178) Though he never received the coveted Nobel Prize for literature, and only received recognition for his work later in life, his poetry stands the test of time because it examines universal questions: how will the choices I make throughout my lifetime affect my life; how does one manage death’s grasping hand; and finally, what of the loss of vital limbs and sudden or untimely deaths? Lovett-Graff explains, “Frost’s dark vision may belie the idyllic sweetness that has grown up around the image of him, but in many ways they represent far more closely the anxieties he sought to capture of the American spirit seeking to understand the limits of freedom and the wisest use of it.” (178) Though Frost did not acquire the Nobel, he did, and still does, captivate audiences with his words coaxing them to look deep inside themselves for the answers to life’s persistent questions. It causes one to wonder, did the poet answer these for himself through all of his personal frustrations with the American literary community of the time? One can only hope that the man who once described himself as “bursting with unity of opposites” (Brown 11) found peace with himself and the world at his own end.
Brown, Dan. “Frost’s “Road & “Woods” Redux.” New Criterion April 2007: 11-14.
Frost, Robert. “Out, Out–.” Mountain Interval. New York: Henry Holt and Company, November 1916. Print.
Frost, Robert. “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” New Hampshire. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1923. Print.
Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” Mountain Interval. New York: Henry Holt and Company, November 1916. Print.
Lovett-Graff, Bennett. “Robert Frost (1874-1963).” Pendergast, Sara Pendergast and Tom. St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture Vol. 2. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 177-178. Wood, Kerry Michael. “The Contribution of Literary Allusion of Robert Frost’s “Out Out–“.” 8 October 2013. Humanities 360.com. 22 October 2014.