Tuesday 31 March 2020

The Wood Pile, by Robert Frost

Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
I paused and said, "I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther - and we shall see."

The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went through. The view was all in lines
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.

A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather -
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.

And then there was a pile of wood for which
I forgot him and let his little fear
Carry him off the way I might have gone,
Without so much as wishing him good-night.
He went behind it to make his last stand.

It was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled - and measured, four by four by eight.
And not another like it could I see.
No runner tracks in this year's snow looped near it.
And it was older sure than this year's cutting,
Or even last year's or the year's before.
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.

What held it though on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.


Like so many of Frost's poems - more than those by any other poet - this one sticks in my mind and recurs.

At a simple level of accurate natural observation; I think of it whenever I encounter a wood pile; and often when an animal tries to escape by running along the path where I am heading - instead of off to one side or another.

Then there is that sense with Frost that there is a further depth to the poem; that it is also about more than what it says (as is all good poetry, of course); and usually with Frost (because he was working in the modernist era) this is about being a poet, creating, his art and craft.

I feel sure that 'small bird' was a particular someone - another poet I would guess - who had a paranoid and persecutory traits, and was "one who takes everything said as personal to himself"- but the point is universal, because we all know such people (or else are ourselves such a person). Frost recognises this in himself; and mocks it!

(It is not that the great poet rises above human pettiness, not at all - Shakespeare craved the title and official coat of arms of a 'gentleman'; the 'honour' denied his father - but instead that great poets know the petty qualities in themselves, and know both their roots and absurdities.)

And the woodpile itself... A poem, a creative work, anything upon which we once lavished effort and attention; and yet have all-but forgotten about. And how different is this from the me-me-me attitude of the small bird. How much better to be "Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks".

Thus the poet reminds and exhorts himself - and there is the further consolation that this forgotten work (the wood pile) is not utterly wasted in the large scheme; since, as it gradually fades from memory, it nonetheless warms the frozen swamp with real but invisible influence.

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