As we speed along the information highway at the close of one millennium and the beginning of another, it might be wise to stop for a moment, if not by woods on a snowy evening, at least at the next rest area. When Robert Frost slowed his mare to a halt that December night a hundred years ago, he knew he had all those famous promises to keep, but he also knew he needed a moment to reflect on his life, as maybe we do on our own—and our nation’s—at this historic time. Like Frost, we need to listen.
Imagine him listening now. Instead of the rhythm of “easy wind and downy flake,” what might he hear in how we speak today? As a poet, he would wonder about our language and the way we use this distinctly human tool. He would be sure to ask about our “gathering metaphor,” Frost’s term for how our words suggest who we are and what we value. We might have to explain to him how busy everything is these days, so much so that we speak in acronyms, hurriedly recited on a car phone as we access our PCs through AT&T—or, miles to go before we sleep, stop first at an ATM. Like his “little horse” that snowy night, hurry has become our habit, but we do more than shake our harness bells when there is some mistake. Rage is the rule of our roads, and speed the way we communicate, as each new corporate merger or government agency creates yet another set of initials that will vanish like footprints in a blizzard, leaving no tracks to say that anyone had ever been there at all.
And what can we really do. Frost might have reason to ask, pausing to watch us now. We work with the tips of our digits, not our hands, as word processors have replaced pens and intangible e-mail travels as first as light. The grease monkey has tidied up and become the service technician, connecting sensing devices to an Explorer or Land Rover to get us from one shopping mall to the next—or to Wal-Mart for the less adventurous—where we barter our plastic numbers for some new device that should give us time to notice (though we seldom do) if the woods still left are “lovely, dark, and deep.”
“What are your tools today, and what do they do?” Frost would want to know. He understood that what we put in our hands to work with—like the words drat derive from that work—says a lot about who we are. “My favorite tools arc the ax, the scythe, and the pen,” he told a group of communist reporters on his notorious mission to the Soviet Union in 1962. These are certainly not ours today, these cutting tools of individual labor that form the metaphoric center of Frost’s poetry.
Physical work is everywhere in Frost, and its presence is one of his most American traits, connecting him to Franklin, Emerson, and Whitman. The speaker was actually doing something in “After Apple Picking,” and his arches still feel the ladder-rungs from climbing into a Macintosh tree. Frost makes us believe that his hands were the ones wielding that scythe in “Mowing,” to the point that we can feel his arms ache. He hasn’t hired anyone to do this work; that would be elitist, undemocratic—down-right European. No, he is the one out in the field, hands on that two-handled tool.
Those who still split firewood with an ax would agree with the speaker in “Two Tramps at Mudtime”: There is indeed a pleasure in the rhythm of such work, as the arms and back rise and fall in a kind of northwoods dance that the poet calls “the life of muscles rocking soft.” But this is a dance performed alone, and the out-of-work “tramps” who want to be hired don’t quite understand why anyone would work for the sheer pleasure of it. But Frost’s speaker does, and the tool he uses is clearly one that can only be lifted alone.
An ax is a very solitary instrument. It is a tool of separation, cleaving pine in clean-cut pieces and, simultaneously, the person using it from those around him. “Stand back,” a careful chopper says, not wanting to hurt anyone nearby but at the same time implying: I work by myself at this job, with this tool edged for splitting. Like the heartbeat thump of the ax, the scythe has its sound, too—one that is also allegorical. It “whispers” in “Mowing,” but of what? Of things cut down. It speaks through sign language in “The Tuft of Flowers,” where a patch of blooms left by a previous cutter suggests to the speaker that “men work together / Whether they work together or apart.” “This affirmative resolution to the otherwise isolated labor of the poem can’t quite overcome the shadow of Father Time as he levels the grass with his scythe—his favorite tool, just as it was one of Frost’s.
In “The Grindstone,” the grinder, whom Frost calls a “Father-time-like man,” rides that antique sharpening machine “Armed with a scythe.” From Frost’s fourth collection. New Hampshire, the poem follows immediately after “The Ax-Helve,” whose French-Canadian chopper criticizes his Yankee counterpart for using a handle “‘Made on machine,'” as suspicions of the factory and its products as was the poet himself. That old grindstone “under a ruinous live apple tree” may well have been used by Adam, or at least by us descendants of Cain: “For all I knew it may have sharpened spears / And arrowheads itself” As a machine, the simple grindstone is as complex and modern as can be found in Frost, who otherwise retreats as a “lone striker” from the early factory world.
Frost’s crankiness toward the unionized, mechanized workplace is obvious throughout his career and best documented in the 1936 publication of A Further Range. The tools he praises and uses become subtle political statements; they are weapons of defense against not only nature’s inevitable onset but the 20th century’s collective voice, The People, Yes by Carl Sandburg was also published in 1936, and it beat out Frost’s book for the Pulitzer Prize. Frost was mad enough to take an ax to the Illinois poet after he heard the news.
The ax and scythe connect Robert Frost with the early 20th century because these tools represent individual labor and the small farm, not unions and agribusiness. Not only metaphors linking character with time and place, they also symbolize the poet’s political vision. Wary of anything “departmental,” this self-styled “states’ rights democrat” worked with and celebrated tools that affirm a stubborn individuality—a “live free or die” kind of spirit like that of the state of New Hampshire, where most of them were written.
On their most primitive level, tools such as the ax and scythe aid physical survival by making a clearing in Frost’s woods where the trees in “Spring Pools” “darken nature”—where they “blot out and drink up and sweep away” the “flowery waters” and “watery flowers.” We have survived as a species because of these cutting tools and, Frost would say, maintain a sense of personal liberty by their continued, though out-of-date, use.
Surely, New England’s poet-sage must have chuckled to himself when he answered the communist press the way he did. A man of the people? “The people yes, and no,” as he once said in response to Sandburg’s book. Never anonymous, the worker instead is a farm hand for Frost, for hands wield the kind of tools that separate, that make one one, not part of a bargaining unit.
The pen—that third tool on Frost’s list—must have baffled those Soviet reporters who, no doubt, could understand the other two, given their flag’s hammer and sickle. It had to worry Pravda some, a pen being the voice’s tool. Had they read “Mending-Wall,” they would have seen that Frost is as dexterous with language as his neighbor is with stones. Scalpel-like, his precise point separates that “old-stone savage armed” who won’t go behind his father’s saving from the sharp-tongued speaker. The pen is mightier than the wall, and its articulation divides light from dark—the apple orchard from the pine forest—for in the beginning, as Frost’s Puritan forebears knew, was the Word that brought order out of chaos.
“A momentary stay against confusion”—Frost’s famous definition for a poem—suggests a personal use for this special tool: to hold the poet himself together. “Definition” is a term we use today to describe a healthy body shape; but doesn’t the interior world need to be “defined” as well? Surrounded by mental illness in his family and afraid of breakdown himself, Frost would have seen more than a pun in this connection between language and emotional health. “I armed myself against such bones as might be,” he says in “The Census-Taker,” “With the pitch-blackened stub of an ax-handle.” Like that poem’s speaker, but gripping a pen instead, the poet continually revisits the New England of his private past, where family ghosts haunt the cellar holes.
Frost’s very last poem is worth quoting in full. Appropriately, it appears almost alone on the final page of poetry in the collected edition of 1969. The symbolism of these wrought lines on that snow white page would not have escaped the poet’s keen eye. He would also have been amused at the epigram that keeps cool company with this fierce last lyric. To “get adapted to my kind of fooling,” that two-liner says, requires “in- and outdoor schooling.” A schooling in pens and scythes, perhaps?
And here he is at the end, an ax still in his hand:
In Winter in the Woods
In winter in the woods alone
Against the trees I go.
I mark a maple for my own
And lay the maple low.
At four o’clock I shoulder ax,
And in the afterglow
I link a line of shadowy tracks
Across the tinted snow.
I see in Nature no defeat
In one tree’s overthrow
Or for myself in my retreat
For yet another blow.
This is some scene: an old man’s winter day. The battle goes on “against” whatever darkens and diminishes, be it madness, maples, or the modern state. Outdoors, Frost cut an actual clearing with an ax or a scythe; indoors, using his pen, he opened an emotional wilderness, one poem at a time.
That pen has given wav today to the word “processor,” a term that suggests what Kraft does to cheese or Musak, to sound. We transmit information so quickly on these screens that the single word gets blurred among the blended many: Language synthesized, not purified. Frost might think. To purify the individual word is a deep part of his New England heritage, after all, and a pen’s point etches each letter across the page.
In contrast, our tools today—our “devices,” really—keep us from a sensory participation in the physical world. Just as an acronym is a kind of “virtual” word, so, too, is the computer worked not by muscle, but microscopic “chip.” This chip is a long way from the chopping block, however. Though the communist state that Frost so hated is now largely gone, our devices of work and leisure, the PC and TV, have worked their synthesizing power upon us, blending and processing our habits and voices.
No wonder so many people bought generators and guns as December 31, 1999, approached. Fear is our reason for fences, and we are a people afraid because so much in our lives is out of our control: virtual, intangible.
“If design govern in a tiling so small”—as it seems to in Frost’s “Design,” his allegorical poem about a “snow-drop spider”—what about the enormous but invisible webs that hold us today? “Don’t go there,” we would want to say to that poem’s “white moth,” the same anxious words we use for a “site” that isn’t, which indeed may be more terrifying than one that is.
Reading Robert Frost again now that his century has closed might just be our own best stay against such confusion.