The Idea of Work in Frost's Poetry

Ronald L. Ecker

Work is one of the most significant concerns in the poetry of Robert Frost. "My object in life," Frost writes, "is to unite / My avocation and my vocation." The poet is thus a strong believer in the will to work, but is also a believer in maintaining one's individuality. He recognizes along with the necessity of vocation the need to find pleasure in that vocation, and to allow oneself a proper degree of personal extrication.

It is the balancing of work and pleasure that Frost is concerned with in the poem "Two Tramps in Mud-Time," from which the above quotation is taken. We find the poet busy at the chopping-block on a sunny day in April; he is splitting blocks of beech, not so much for the wood itself as for the pure love of exercise. Chopping wood, Frost confides, is an excellent way to give vent to one's energies and emotions, to deal with the various tensions of "a life of self-control." But right in the middle of his vigorous catharsis, two tramps--whose only livelihood has been chopping wood in the lumber camps--happen upon the scene. And the poet becomes immediately aware of the motive behind their lingering:

They thought all chopping was theirs by right.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
My right might be love but theirs was need
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right--agreed.

The descent of these hungry tramps upon the chopper's pleasure is like the chill wind that comes along in May and puts you "two months back in the middle of March," or like the bluebird in spring who knew "Winter was only playing possum," and "wouldn't advise a thing to blossom." And in his frustration, his yielding to the "better right" of the indigent woodsmen, the poet realizes more than ever that work brings a man the greatest fulfillment only when the motives of love and need are united within him:

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.

But while such a union is Frost's objective, the poet does not profess to be a stranger to work's unpleasant side. As he observes in one of his most famous poems, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," there are indeed times when there are no prospects of pleasure or rest, but only the exigent firmness of duty's call:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Nor is Frost a stranger to the necessity of capitulation when one has pushed oneself to the point of exhaustion. In "After Apple-Picking," the ladder is yet tilted to the sky, the barrel is yet to be filled, but the poet has so driven himself that in his dreams "Magnified apples appear and disappear," and he must simply admit, "I have had too much of apple-picking."

It is with such times as this in mind that Frost, in the poem "Birches," declares:

It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

But as Frost here implies, the answer to life's discouragements is not to surrender unconditionally to despair but simply "to get away" and "then come back." As Old Pike remarks in "From Plane to Plane," "A man has got to keep his extrication." It is extrication that Frost is advocating in "Birches"--extrication here symbolized by the poet's own habit as a youngster of swinging from time to time on birch branches. When one needs escape from the pressures and trials of life's labors, "One could do worse than be a swinger of birches."

It is life without such extrication that Frost satirizes in "Departmental" and "The Bear." The former, dealing with an ant colony, is a brief but incisive look at the coldly efficient and thoroughly dehumanizing aspects of bureaucratic society. "The Bear" presents a contrast between the roving independence of a bear in the forest and the seeming imprisonment of man in the bustling, neurotic world of modernity.

But if too much regimented work drains one of one's energies and individuality, Frost sees too little work as equally detrimental to one's well-being. Work is at least a matter of self-respect. The consequence of a man failing to meet his responsibilities--the loss of self-respect, as well as the respect of others, incurred by an unwillingness to work--is movingly shown by Frost in "The Death of the Hired Man." Silas is an old man who has never held a steady job. Hired more than once by a farm couple, Warren and Mary, he had always managed to wander off in haying time, "when any help is scarce," only to return in winter looking for a little money when he was not needed. Now he returns once more to the couple's farm only that he might have a decent place to die. He is a broken man, dying with "nothing to look backward to with pride." And like a pitiful stray hound, he cannot be turned away:

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.

In "From Plane to Plane," a poem of a considerably brighter mood, Frost again deals with matters of respect in regard to work. Two farm hands--young Dick, "fresh and full of college," and Pike, who has "hoed and mowed for fifty years"--notice the Doctor passing leisurely by in his buggy, and they begin debating while they hoe as to whether "these professions really work." It is Pike's opinion that "That class of people don't know what work is." And when Dick defends the Doctor's mien as a "small self-conferred reward of virtue," Pike replies, "You've got no social conscience."

Yet Pike himself is quick to agree that every man must allow himself a little detachment:

The important thing is not to get bogged down
In what (one) has to do to earn a living.

It is Dick's contention that the Doctor, like any man, has this right of extrication. The brilliance of the poem lies in the way Dick is able to convert Pike's way of thinking without the latter fully realizing it. When Dick discourses about the unselfish beneficence of the sun, he is speaking about that kind of dedicated service such as the Doctor himself performs:

He bestows summer on us and escapes
Before our realizing what we have
To thank him for.

And Pike, unaware of the analogy, produces an appropriate one of his own as he thoughtfully remarks:

That's where I reckon Santa Claus comes in--
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A Santa Claus was needed. And there is one.

Thus the poet feels there is a mutual appreciation and sense of fellowship that should exist among all sincere workers, irrespective of class. For while each man must maintain his own "extrication," there are many deeds to do, many "promises to keep." And, as Frost points out in another fine poem, "The Tuft of Flowers," "Men work together . . . whether they work together or apart."

Robert Frost

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

English 482
Professor Penrod
University of Florida
March 24, 1964

Copyright 1964, 2004 by Ronald L. Ecker

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