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On "The Wood-Pile"


J. Donald Crowley

"The Wood-Pile" is thoroughly typical of many of Frost's mature nature poems. At once narrative and dramatic, the poem seems astonishingly clear even on first encounter. There at its center are the solitary speaker, a familiar figure, and his story, this one—like Frost's others—told in the inevitably simple, straightforward and calm, almost laconic language that characterizes dozens of Frost's other narrative lines. There is the typical stripped minimum of physical action—walking. Here, as elsewhere, the walking is seemingly aimless, has no manifest destination: it is an epitome of Frost's conviction that "Calculation is usually no part in the first step of any walk" (402). But, again as elsewhere, however much the walking appears to lack direction, it is clearly mysterious in that it radiates a high sense of personal destiny. "Every poem," Frost once remarked, "is an epitome of the great predicament; a :figure of the will braving alien entanglements" (401). The speaker simply appears in our field of vision and—to use Yvor Winters' negative criticism in a positive way—seems to be "spiritually drifting." There is the familiar winter landscape, bleak, desolate, initially amorphous and forbidding. There is the appearance of the small bird and the speaker's curious pretense of talking with such creatures. There is the woodpile itself, like the tuft of flowers, the mending wall, the road not taken, the west-running brook, so enigmatically and hypnotically there. And there is the almost dreamlike state of meditation it induces, in some ways calling to mind the sleepy vision of "After Apple-Picking." Finally, there is what Frost called "the vocal imagination," the speaker's voice, his style: that particular quality of sound "which indicates how the writer takes himself and what he is saying . . . , the way he carries himself toward his ideas and deeds" (403). Frost once joked: "Let the sound of [Robert Louis] Stevenson go through your mind empty and you will realize that he never took himself other than as an amusement. Do the same with Swinburne and you will see that he took himself as a wonder" (298). In "The Wood-Pile" Frost clearly takes himself neither simply as an amusement nor as a wonder but as both.

On another level of its structure, beneath the relaxed surface of the language, the poem progresses by way of a series, almost a system, of oppositions, ambiguities, and contrarieties that might be called Hawthornian. "In order to know where we are," Frost has noted, "we must know opposites." The "frozen swamp" is the first obvious instance of this characteristic structural phenomenon and suggests immediately multiple ambiguities in the external landscape: hardness-softness, cold-heat, solidity-fluidity, stability-instability, a surface level and a dimension—as yet untouched but present—beneath the surface. All this is registered against the blankness, the flatness of the minimally specified "one gray day." In the first line, then, we have concentrated an action, a place, a time. There is also a typically Frostian subtlety in the simple prepositions surrounding the action and thus wrapping it in still another operative ambiguity: "Out walking in"—the phrase is so solidly idiomatic, so much a mode of common speech, that all its powers of suggestion (namely, the juxtaposition of externality and internality) are playfully hidden, buried beneath the plainness of the words themselves. This particular tension is elaborated in the relationships between lines 1 and 2. Whereas the first line addresses itself to a continuous physical action and the external landscape, the second is concerned with a pause and a turning inward to the mind of the persona and his fearful response to that landscape. The speaker's decision to "turn back" emphasizes the sharp disjunction existing between this particular mind and this particular reality. The fear and confusion are isolated only momentarily, however, since they are immediately answered to by the courage of the counter-resolution of line 3. There, as the grammatical shift from "I" to "we" signifies, it is not Frost's purpose to annihilate the fear but to use it: the fear and the courage, the will to proceed and the hesitancy to do it, now almost formally define two dimensions of the persona. He has become at once his own reassuring guide and cautious initiate. And since it is the "we" who shall see, what is to be discovered will be informed by both. Still another ironic opposition is in Frost's use of the negative qualifier "No" to decisively introduce the positive affirmation of "going on" and thus to undermine the negative preference to "turn back." It is as if there is in the persona's emotions a mathematical logic in which two negatives interpenetrate to form a positive. The playful blending of "amusement" and "wonder" here illustrates what Reuben Brower calls Frost's "delight of saying the ordinary thing and discovering that it is art."

We might at this juncture turn back to ask what gives rise to the fear in the first place. The question leads back to that "frozen swamp" and to the realization that the place is forbidding and inscrutable because it suggests nature in its least regenerate aspects. It is essentially primordial, totally unformed. Hinting as it does at a sweeping geological sense of time and age, it provides another, prehistoric tension with the fragile minuteness and ephemerality of the mere "one gray day."

In line 4 the speaker, going on, now, as it were, gives himself to the place. He is no longer "out" altogether but in some sense "in." The distance between mind and reality is now diminished even to the point of tactile intimacy implied in the word "held." He who would see submits willingly to being acted upon by the still undefined force within that which he would see. But the explicit oppositions and tensions persist: in the "now" an the "then," the one foot and the implied other, the "here" and the "Somewhere else." Even the syntax displays similarly precarious balances: "The hard snow held me" announces a categorical, absolute condition, and points to a sureness of footing and, concomitantly, an intellectual and emotional security. But the line moves on by way of a concessive clause that turns back on the earlier statement and attaches exceptional circumstances contrary to it. The sentence contains elaborated images of impenetrability and penetrability that are quietly paradoxical because of the conditions they are associated with. The impenetrability suggests sureness and constancy, the penetrability doubt and instability, even danger. What normally seem to be positive and negative connotations are equally mixed in each of these syntactical units, then, and they are joined in fact by a conjunction—"save"—whose playful punning transforms the usual logic of "except" and suggests that the categories of positive and negative have again interpenetrated. To see is, of course, to penetrate into the truth or meaning of a phenomenon or thing. In a Frost poem, however, to see is always to know that there is a point at which the thing to be seen resists and defies penetrability, a point of its being beyond which it is alas unknowable. "The Wood-Pile," like "Neither Out Far nor In Deep," is from this angle a metaphor about the process of penetration and the ultimate limits of that process: a metaphor about the process of the interpenetration of him who sees and that which is seen. It is at once, like so much of Hawthorne's work, an exploration into the wilderness and into the self, a journey at once out and in.

What the persona sees in lines 5 to 9 is merely a "view," since he has as yet penetrated very little—only enough, in fact, to be confronted with an overwhelmingly confusing verticality. He sees merely one-dimensional lines without shape, and the measure of his plight is that he cannot find a language to give a name to the place. But, although he is thus suspended between his desire for certainty and the fact of his fearful uncertainty, his uneasiness and doubt are now informed by his awareness of them. Trying to solve the riddle of the landscape, he comes to know something not so much about that landscape as about himself. He is, he says, "just far from home." If "just" points up the severe, even terrifying, limits of his knowledge at this point of the process, it also simultaneously emphasizes his diminished anxiety regarding those limits. The word at once generates a sense of terror and dispels it. The effect is almost that the terrors of "homelessness," of being lost in undifferentiated space, comprise a condition the speaker has known before and finds so persistent and multifarious as to demand his constant re-engagement.

The small bird now appears, and in a way that seems equally fortuitous and gratuitous. The speaker responds immediately by recognizing it as a dramatic projection of his own fearfulness. In the following lines, the bird's activity adds a horizontal dimension to the speaker's growing spatial consciousness; and, giving the scene intersecting lines, if not shape, it permits the speaker to have for the first time a perspective. Again, the process moves by way of the artful opposition between bird and tree and the little joke by which physical laws seem overturned: the bird "puts" a tree—that is, assigns it a specific material place—between itself and the speaker. The bird is clearly what the speaker has come so far to know best, and he comes to know it by way of what he has previously come to know about himself. As Frost's deliberately confusing pronoun references in lines 12 and 13 imply, the speaker intimately identifies with the bird at the same time he tries to assert his superiority to it. The condition that allows him this intimacy, however, is his physical separation from the bird, marked by the one tree standing between subject and object. The tree, like the mending wall, signifies one of those barriers without which the world would, for Frost, not make sense. The speaker's teasing identification with the bird leads to his awareness of himself as the source of the bird's fearfulness; and this, in turn, clarifies his own relationship with the larger, unredeemed scene, the source of his own fear, which is thus brought further under the control of consciousness. The speaker's awareness is now many- layered, and he now has words for what is at stake. The bird's white tail feather is, of course, that by which he is what he is: it is the unmistakable mark of his irreducible identity and, paradoxically, the sign of his surrender. His fear of its loss turns back on and elucidates the speaker's recognition of his homelessness. "Home" is now understood to mean that point in space where one is at ease, where the self "belongs," where identity is safe.

Counterbalancing the gradual emergence of clarity and shape in the landscape is the gradually emerging personality of the speaker: at every stage of the poem, we know the speaker only to that extent which the speaker himself has come to know and understand the landscape. Frost once remarked that if the style of a poem "is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do" (351). The cautious sobriety and reserve within the vocal imagination as it initially addressed the outer terror are now cut across by a tone of humorous self-parody as the speaker engages in reflection. Now he can indulge in the quietly extravagant joke of a pathetic fallacy—"like one who takes / Everything said as personal to himself." Now too, however, the speaker's enlarged awareness and confidence are juxtaposed to, and measured by, his own self-deception. The speaker is himself deceived in thinking that the way for the bird to become "undeceived" is simply to flee the scene—to go "the way I might have gone." The bird, given free play, does not flee but, willing to get lost in order, apparently, to find itself, goes behind the woodpile. He seeks it out as a refuge, a home, in a final effort to discover and preserve identity in this place. Bird and man now embrace the woodpile, bind it by both courage and fear; and what the speaker sees there is conditioned, then, by his awareness of the bird on the opposite side. The logic of this perceptual symmetry, of course, is that the pile of wood has consolations to offer the man—consolations against the threat of formlessness, mindlessness, absence of order. And consolations there are indeed, in the lovely wholeness, the solid three-dimensionality of the woodpile. Here is, at last, the physical universe filled out in shapely and substantial form, caught in a moment of exacting perception that sees into it with a clarity and completeness incorporating at once modes of analysis and synthesis, modes of physical labor and intellectual love: "It was a cord of maple, cut and split / And piled—and measured, four by four by eight." The moment of perception constitutes a symbolic reenactment of the original building of the woodpile. The cutting and splitting and piling refer us simultaneously to the fact of the pile of wood and to that process by which it came to be. The speaker imaginatively duplicates all of the separate, divisible stages of the process of physical activity and then, in an evaluative act of measuring, finds a language—"four by four by eight"—that expresses perfectly the fact of its fully unitary and integrated wholeness of being. Process and fact, energy and form, coalesce and become one in a single continuous act of perception, and in that act the courage and fear have themselves been transformed into love and meditative forgetfulness.

The moment is a perfect illustration of Frost's distinction between what it means to believe in things and what it means, on the other hand, to believe things in (339). The latter is the special task of him who would be poet and person. In this symbolic reenactment, the speaker believes into existence an entity which was potentially there in the emerging but partial lines of the earlier stages of his journey inward. The woodpile, according to Frost's poetic theory, had its beginnings "in something more felt than known" (339). While in one sense, then, the speaker only "reveals" and "discovers" the woodpile, in another he can be said to have "made" it. We have here what William James, in "Humanism and Truth," called a quasi-paradox: "A fact virtually pre-exists when every condition of its realization save one is already there. In this case the condition lacking is the act of the counting and comparing mind. . . . Undeniably something comes by the counting that was not there before. And yet that something was always true. In one sense you create it, and in another sense you find it."

Like the white tail feather, the woodpile is totally singular. It is a far larger, more elaborate and complex symbol of individual form and identity. In its four-by-four-by-eightness there is a marvelous solidity as well as form, a substantiality that makes it not only palpable but, at least initially, permanent. In its apparent permanence it has a homeostatic capacity that heroically confronts the ephemeral and formless flux of the entropic environment. But just as soon as the speaker has become aware of its shape and form—its thereness—he is compelled, notice, to describe it in terms of what is not there: "And not another like it could I see." Thus, in the very process of celebrating the magnificence of its being, he uses language, has a perception, that points ironically to a sad sense of the diminishedness of things. Frost was himself fascinated by what he called "carrying numbers into the realm of space and at the same time into the realm of time" (333). In the same essay, he later quotes Einstein that "In the neighborhood of matter space is something like curved" (334). What Frost has done in "making his count" of the woodpile's dimensions is to carry those numbers into time, and in doing so he has transformed the straightness and angularity of the landscape into curves, into roundness and sphericity. This transformation is initially hinted at, I think, in the multiple suggestiveness of "cord," which is not only the specific name given to 128 cubic feet of fuel wood but, here, a pun on the mathematical term denoting a straight line which joins two points on an arc or curve. The change wrought in the speaker's perception of the scene is a brilliant poetic realization of Frost's conviction that "We are what we are by elimination and by deflection from the straight line."

Once he exists in a definitively three-dimensional physical universe, the speaker muses on the fourth dimension in trying to penetrate further into the meaning of the physical fact. Immediately, he meditates on—has a creative vision about—what is not there, what is quintessentially impalpable and increasingly indefinite, what is further and further back in time and of completely mysterious origin. Whereas the physical journey moves forward in space, its ultimate outcome is an inward journey, a meditation, which is a heightened mode of "turning back from here," an action no longer informed by fear alone. The implied and emergent curves of the woodpile the speaker's vision now makes explicit in the imagined loops of the runner tracks he cannot see; and these imagined curves in turn lead the speaker back into an awareness of the actual curved lines explicit in the woodpile itself: the warping bark, the sunkenness, the strings of clematis circling round and round. But the Hawthornian tensions and polarities, of which those curves are the ultimate expression, persist: between the imagined facts and the observable realities, in the references to different points in time, between the one side and the other, between what the clematis had done, what the tree is still doing, what the stake and prop are about to do. All these details catch, in a single, powerful image, a moment of process in which exquisite physical and spiritual form and imminent formlessness, growth and decay, stasis and flux fully interpenetrate, the implications of each participating in and giving value to the other. Now, although the speaker is completely at home in this place, his meditation does not lead to any reassuring consolation or benevolent resolution that would cancel these tensions and contrarieties; instead, it reaffirms and heightens them. For if the speaker's turning inward to the mind is a turning outward to the imagined identity of the woodcutter, and thus implies a consoling movement from solitude to human relationship, it also leads simultaneously to the speaker's recognition of his still distant separation from that imagined home with the "useful fireplace." The very process by which the speaker, along with the frozen swamp, has been warmed by the woodcutter's selfless and forgetful act of love issues in no comfortable, Emersonian notion of transcendent compensation. The condition of distance, of being "far from home," still attaches, as does the implied need to continually "turn to fresh tasks." Space and time have indeed been redeemed within the process of the speaker's vision to the extent that the woodpile as fact and process—as seemingly senseless material waste—is now endowed with a poignant significance and spiritual usefulness. But the implications of that redemption presuppose the necessity of continual other ones at different times, in different places. Seeing the woodpile in all its magnificence, the speaker sees also that its heat warms "only as best it could." And while there are duration, clarity, and beauty in the "slow, smokeless burning," they are apprehended in a vision that focuses on the inexorable fact of decay. The woodpile and the loving vision it induces only momentarily stay the confusion of a universe moving toward nothingness.

The condition of lostness, of homelessness, is not finally overcome; we are, at the end, still more aware of tensions than of unities. Whatever triumph there is lies in the fact that homelessness has now been defined and formalized by intelligence and love, by the process of growing awareness by which the woodpile and the poem have simultaneously come to be. In one sense, Frost himself provides the best gloss on the way the poem works when he says that "it makes us remember what we didn't know we knew" (394). He would agree with William James, I think, that "All homes are in finite experience" and that "finite experience as such is homeless." The process of the poem does not take us from an attitude of fearful doubt to one of certainty in the immutable. Instead, it begins with a felt doubt that arises out of the formless inscrutability of a new place and takes us to an affirmation of that doubt, which, now formalized, persists even after the loveliest but inevitably mutable forms of that place are fully understood. Frost's persona cannot stay there at the woodpile: his existence, it is clear, presupposes the necessity of perpetually walking on to an endless series of other new places equally unformed. What he walks on to, conscious all the while of the roads he does not take, is most often, as Frost says in "Directive," "a house that is no more a house / Upon a farm that is no more a farm / . . . in a town that is no more a town."

from "Hawthorne and Frost: The Making of a Poem." Frost: Centennial Essays. Copyright 1973 by University Press of Mississippi.


Richard Poirier

"The Wood-Pile" is like a sequel to "Home Burial," with the man in this instance wandering from a "home" that seems little more than an abstraction to him and to us. More a meditation than a dramatic narrative, it offers the soliloquy of a lone figure walking in a winter landscape. It is a desolate scene possessed of the loneliness of "Desert Places." Attention is focused on the activity of consciousness in this isolated wanderer, and nothing characterizes him as a social being or as having any relationships to another person. While the poem has resemblances, again, to Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," or Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode," it is more random in its structuring and has none of the demarcations of the descriptive-reflective mode. A better way to describe the poem is suggested in a talk by A. R. Ammons, "A Poem as a Walk." "A walk involves the whole person; it is not reproducible; its shape occurs, unfolds; it has a motion characteristic of the walker" (Epoch, Fall, 1968, p. 118).

The man in the poem is not, like Stevens' Crispin, "a man come out of luminous traversing," but more like the "listener" in Stevens' "The Snow Man." In each poem is a recognition of a wintry barrenness made more so in Frost by a reductive process by which possibilities of metaphor - of finding some reassuring resemblances - are gradually disposed of. At the end, the speaker in Frost's poem is as "cool" as is the listener in Stevens, and also as peculiarly unanguished by the situation in which he finds himself. It is as if the wintry prospect, the arrival at something like Stevens' First Idea, a cold clarity without redeeming deceptions, has in itself been an achievement of the imagination. It is something won against all such conventional blandishments as the "misery" of what Harold Bloom calls the "Shelleyan wind" in "The Snow Man" or the flirtatious bird in "The Wood-Pile."

The persistent difference between Frost and Stevens applies here, too, however. It resides in the kind of context the reader is asked to supply for each of the poems. Thus, despite the absence of characterizing detail, the speaker in "The Wood-Pile" shapes, from his very opening words, a human presence for us in his sentence sounds, his voice; he makes us imagine him as someone in a human plight "far from home." By comparison, the "voice" in "The Snow Man" belongs not to a person but to a quality of rumination, and Bloom is succinctly generalizing about the poem - he calls it Stevens' "most crucial poem" - when he remarks of its author that "the text he produces is condemned to offer itself for interpretation as being already an interpretation of other interpretations, rather than as what it asserts itself to be, an interpretation of life" (Poetry and Repression, p. 270).

"The Wood-Pile" is about being impoverished, being on the dump - to recall two related states of consciousness in Stevens - with no clues by which to locate yourself in space. All you can assuredly know about "here" is that you are far from "home":

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.

If this is a situation that resembles winter visions of Stevens, the sound resists any effort to bring visionary possibilities into being. The voice of this man ("So as to say for certain I was here / Or somewhere else") cannot be expected to test the poetic potentialities of what is seen and heard and can even less be expected to cheer itself up by indulging in the hyperbolic or the sublime vocabularies. There is an informality even in the initial placements - "out walking . . . one gray day" - of the spondaic effect of "gray day," as if it were a scheduled occurrence (like "pay day") and of the possible metaphoric weight in what he says, as in the allusion (but not really) to the lack of adequate support he can expect in this landscape ("The hard snow held me, save where now and then / One foot went through"). Such anxious and innocuous precision about the relative hardness of the snow or the size and contour of the trees is humanly and characterologically right. It expresses the kind of paranoia that goes with any feeling of being lost and of losing thereby a confident sense of self. Paranoia, displaced onto a small bird chancing by, becomes the motive for metaphor: the bird is endowed with the characteristics being displayed by the man observing him:

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.

There is a combination here of yearning, competitiveness, and resentment that threatens to become ludicrous, a parody of the romantic search for associations and resemblances. And the parodistic possibility is increased by the syntax of the lines about the bird's tail-feathers. They could mean that the bird was foolish to think that the man had this particular design upon him. But the lines could also be the speaker's rendition or imitation of what he thought the bird was thinking, i.e., "Who does that man think he is to think that he can get hold of my tail-feathers?" In any event, there is more "thinking" proposed than could possibly or profitably be going on. That the paranoia and self-regard confusingly attributed to the bird are really a characterization of the man who is observing the bird is further suggested by the accusation that the bird is "like one who takes/ Everything said as personal to himself" - a jocular simile, given the fact that there is only "one" person around to whom the comparison might apply. If all this is to some degree comic, it is feverishly so, the product of intense loneliness and displacement. From its opening moment the poem becomes a human drama of dispossession, of failed possessiveness, and of the need to structure realities which are not "here," to replace, in the words of Stevens, "nothing that is not there" with "the nothing that is."

The only probable evidence of structure that he does find, already put together, is the "wood-pile," a forgotten remnant of earlier efforts to make a "home" by people who, when they did it, were also away from home. The pile of wood, which lets the speaker promptly forget the bird, once more excites his anxious precisions. He still needs to find some human resemblances, evidences in zones and demarcations for the human capacity to make a claim on an alien landscape. What he discovers is sparse indeed, his reassurance equally so, as we can note in his rather pathetic exactitudes:

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.

The poem here could be read as a commentary on the earlier "The Tuft of Flowers" where, instead of a bird, a butterfly acts as a kind of pointer who "led my eye to look / At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook" and where these flowers, in turn, direct his attention to signs of work having been done by another man with "A spirit kindred to my own;/ So that henceforth I worked no more alone." "The Wood-Pile" is obviously a much starker poem. The "tuft of flowers" was left as a kind of signature, a greeting and communication; the pile of wood was simply forgotten by the man who cut and carefully stacked it, as he went on to the distractions of other things. The wood-pile cannot therefore prompt the gregarious aphorisms which bring "The Tuft of Flowers" to a close: "'Men work together,' I told him from the heart,/'Whether they work together or apart.'" Remnants of a human presence in the swamp only remind the walker that he is completely alone in a place that has been deserted. And his aloneness is the more complete because there are no alternatives outside the present circumstances which give him any comfort. Even when he thinks of a fireplace it is not with images of conviviality but only with the observation that it would be "useful." The wood burns of itself, with a warmth that cannot be felt and without giving any evidence whatever that it belongs in the world of men and women. "With the slow smokeless burning of decay" is a line whose sound carries an extraordinary authority and dignity because it has emerged out of the more sauntering vernacular movements at the beginning of the poem. It induces a kind of awe because it is the acknowledgment of nature as a realm wholly independent of human need or even human perception, and it belongs not only in what it says but in its very cadence with Wordsworth's evocation at the end of his sonnet "Mutability" of "the unimaginable touch of Time."

If the speaker "resembles" anything at the end of the poem, it is the wood-pile itself, something without even a semblance of consciousness; it is wholly self-consuming. As in "Desert Places," another poem about a lonely man walking in a landscape of snow, the man in "The Wood-Pile" could say that "The loneliness includes me unawares." This line is a little poem in itself. It has a syntactical ambiguity more common in Stevens than in Frost. It can mean both that the loneliness includes him but is unaware of doing so, and that the loneliness includes him and he is not aware of its doing so by virtue of his near obliteration. In either case he is not so much included as wiped out; he is included as if he were inseparable from, indistinguishable from, the thing that includes him. He is on the point of being obliterated by the landscape, rather than allowed to exist even as an observer of it, much less a mediating or transcending presence.

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright 1977 by Oxford University Press.


William H. Pritchard

The "persona" narratives from the book - "Mending Wall," "After Apple-Picking," and "The Wood-Pile" - also strive for inclusiveness although they are spoken throughout by a voice we are tempted to call "Frost." This voice has no particular back-country identity, nor is it obsessed or limited in its point of view; it seems rather to be exploring nature, other people, ideas, ways of saying things, for the sheer entertainment they can provide. Unlike poems such as "Home Burial" and "A Servant to Servants," which are inclined toward the tragic or the pathetic, nothing "terrible" happens in the personal narratives, nor does some ominous secret lie behind them. In "The Wood-Pile," for example, almost nothing happens at all; its story, its achieved idea or wisdom, the whole air with which it carries itself, is quite unmemorable. A man out walking in a frozen swamp decides to turn back, then decides instead to go farther and see what will happen. He notes a bird in front of him and spends some time musing on what the bird must be thinking, then sees it settle behind a pile of wood. The pile is described so as to bring out the fact that it has been around for some time. With a reflection about whoever it was who left it there, "far from a useful fireplace," the poem concludes. And the reader looks up from the text, wonders if he has missed something, perhaps goes back and reads it again to see if he can catch some meaning which has eluded him. But "The Wood-Pile" remains stubbornly unyielding to any attempt at ransacking it for a meaning not evidently on the surface.

This surface is a busy one, as when the speaker meets the bird:
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.

The bird is teased for its egoism in thinking that the world revolves around his subjective hopes and fears, and his nervousness is amusing because never was there a less predatory or even purposeful figure than the walker in this poem, who early along - in deciding to continue rather than turn back - put it this way: "No, I will go on farther - and we shall see." See what? See things like a bird lighting in a tree, and be free to make up a story about why it doesn't speak, or how jealously protective it is of the white feather in its tail? Being free to "see" means indulging in such harmless playful fantasies the freedom of whose play is a measure of its solitary creation, far from any human or social situation. Perhaps the point of maximum play occurs in the lines about the bird's caution as he lights in the tree and determines to look only: "And say no word to tell me who he was / Who was so foolish as to think what he thought." The monosyllabic tongue-twisting aspect of these lines is effective in mixing up the reader: who is more "foolish," man or bird, and how on earth can one tell?

Then there is the wood-pile itself, a cord of maple, split, 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 grey 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 ...

This is a thoroughly unexciting presentation of what might lay claim to be the world's most unexceptional phenomenon, yet it engages the man enough to occupy him for the remainder of the poem. More interesting than anything it "says" is the way the presentation resists, as solidly as does the sunken woodpile, our readerly efforts to find a message in it, to take it as a symbol for something or other important. In so resisting us, the woodpile confirms the teasing character of the whole poem, always leading us on, promising that around the next corner, past the next tree, we shall see something, if we but have faith to follow the walker: and then, sure enough, there it is - an old woodpile with clematis wound round it, its very situation (its "stake and prop" about to collapse) precarious.

This is all we see, except that Frost moves to reflection, concluding the poem with these lines in which the pile of wood is extended into something more:

I thought that only
Someone who lives 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.

The final line has been rightly admired, but its brilliance almost blinds us to the fact that the reflection which it concludes is in no sense a stunning or profound one. The thought that "someone" who abandoned this pile of wood must be one who "lived in turning to fresh tasks," is certainly uncontroversial and hardly provocative of further speculation. Again the interest lies not in "content" but in the way a sentence develops over seven lines, winding from the "I" to the "someone" and finally to the "handiwork" whose thermal activity is celebrated in the ingenuity of the final three lines. As with other moments in the poem, no great claims are made, no meanings are held out for everyone to use, no praise or blame is assigned to motive or action.

Early in "The Wood-Pile" the walker is surrounded by "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 . . ." By the poem's end a marking has been taken, a place named, though in a way so fanciful as to establish that it is poetry we are responding to when we try to think of that decaying pile, warming the frozen swamp as best it can.

To alter the walker's final thought: only someone, like a poet, who lives in turning to fresh tropes could write a poem like the one Frost has written here, and it is an appropriate conclusion to what remains the most original, even revolutionary, book he would ever write. We need to recall once more the language Edward Thomas used in defining and in praising it, about how Frost trusted his convictions about the validity of speech in poetry, of sentence sounds employed with "no purpose to serve beyond expressing it, when he has no audience to be bullied or flattered, when he is free, and speech takes one form and no other." Despite the presence of back-country characters and scenes in this "book of people," it is as a book of sentence sounds that it most truly exists, as a triumphant vindication of the poetic theory Frost had designed, and as a monument to how much could be accomplished by trusting to the rendering of speech. At the end of "Home Burial," the wife lashes out at her husband in exasperation: "You - oh, you think the talk is all . . ." But for the composer of these poems, the talk is all, whether that of his imagined characters or of himself speaking aloud.

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright 1984 by William Pritchard.


Robert Faggen

. . . In "The Wood-Pile" the narrator finds in his frozen swamp ambiguous evidence of order and cultivation that does not yield simple revelations. The facts—the behavior of the bird and the woodpile itself—become hard to read in this ecologically complex environment.

The narrator's purposes remain obscure, though he seems ambivalent about them. Is he escaping, fleeing, or seeking something? At first he wants to "turn back" but then continues with "we shall see." See something literally or colloquially, as in "see what will happen"? There is a ruefulness in his recognition that he is "far from home":

[lines 1-9]

Ungraspable, beyond our naming or taming, the place is inhuman. One senses that the narrator is testing himself, attempting to overcome his fears and expectations in an environment indifferent to his ego. All the while he convinces himself of a decision and of his power of choice, both of which are soon mocked.

What he eventually sees are indications of life and form—the little bird and the woodpile—that do not conform to the uniformity of the trees; they are evidence of the Lucretian swerve of independence and order in a chaotic world. He attempts to infer some intention, purpose, or design from these facts, which resist comprehension. The bird, probably a white-tailed junco, becomes the target of the narrator's projections about purpose. According to the narrator, this bird is defensive, sure that he is after him for his white tail feather. But the narrator checks his own anthropomorphism with the wonderfully ambiguous qualifying phrase "Who was so foolish as to think what he thought." The real problem is the antecedent of the relative pronoun who, the bird or the narrator. Is the narrator foolish to try to think what the bird thought, or is the bird foolish for thinking that the narrator is after his tail feather? Both readings reveal something about the narrator and his quest for meaning:

[lines 10-16]

On one level the narrator appears to be mocking the bird for his paranoia and egotism, "like one who takes / Everything said as personal to himself." But the foolishness may be the narrator's for projecting onto the bird his own thoughts and his human tendency to see the world in terms of his own ego.

But the narrator's attention to the white feather in the bird's tail suggests that the bird may well indeed have something to fear; the narrator's attention to it betrays his lack of indifference to an unusual trophy, a thing of beauty, that he might want to capture or possess (not unlike the narrator seeking the trophy nest in "The White-Tailed Hornet"). The narrator asserts his own freedom from this desire with the line "One flight out sideways would have undeceived him," while confirming his own inability to liberate himself from this desire to take off "the way I might have gone," if he were still not bound to his instincts. The bird goes behind the woodpile, according to the narrator, "to make his last stand":

[lines 17-22]

Why does the bird go behind the woodpile? Probably not to make his last stand. Rather, the woodpile is the location of his nest, as the junco is the kind of bird who builds nests in fallen logs and close to the ground. The white feather, despite the attention of the narrator, serves the purpose of mating, not beauty for human eyes.

A carefully cut "cord," perhaps a play on chord, of the hardwood maple, it seems a religious sacrifice or a work of art, at least purposefully ornamented and finished by the clematis. But the clematis itself is seeking material upon which to grow. And it might also show the bird's real motive in going to the woodpile—seeking the seeds of the clematis for food. There is a network of growth and destruction. These aspects of the tangled swamp are lost on this seeker of ordered perfection comprehensible in human terms:

[lines 23-34]

Its isolation and age are remarkable indications of what appears to have been an inexplicable and, more important, deliberate action of waste. The environment overwhelms, threatens, and destroys any angular form of human order that can be imposed upon or made from it. The tree growing next to it—like the Darwinian Tree of Life, which encompasses both life and extinction—supports the pile, while the man-made stake and prop are "about to fall." The human destruction of a tree to create form is subsumed by the larger Tree of Life. . . .

The speaker of "The Wood-Pile" seems surprised that someone could build such an altar as the woodpile, "far from a useful fireplace." As a form set against the chaos of nature, it appears to serve no survival function, and that is its glory. What kind of individual would do this?

[lines 34-40]

The speaker's revelation is ambiguous. His own quest for perfection (the white feather, the perfect work of art) is mocked by the thought of a creator who moves on from form to form. There is a Lucretian lesson in this, that the fear of death and the concern with immortality are likely to produce fear and foolishness. The woodpile is an example of waste for its own sake. Its creator moves on with little concern for how others perceive what he has done or for the future of what he has made. But was his motive the "sheer morning gladness at the brim," as the speaker of "The Tuft of Flowers" said in hope of discovering a common faith? If the woodpile is a metaphor for a human effort at form or art or individuation—free from practical constraints—it reveals only that all attempts at transcendence lead back to some form of ecological function in the material world: "To warm the frozen swamp as best it could / With the slow smokeless burning of decay." The woodpile takes on a life of its own. Like Darwin, Frost moves past thinking about who made the cut wood, a creative agent of change, to the wood itself, which serves a purpose even in its death. Indeed, its presence and decay allow for clematis, and the clematis provides seed for birds. And it does in its decay actually allow enough warming so that trees can grow, from the bacterial breakdown into methane, though the phrase ''as best it could" indicates the limits Frost tends to ascribe to any single effort. The woodpile with its apparent merging of formal and final causes at the hands of an absent creator would be an example of l'art pour l'art were it not for the fact that its apparent ecological function defeats the projections and hopes of the narrator. Here too, Daphne eludes Apollo. The speaker would be as indifferent as the bird, as indifferent as the woodchopper, and indifferent to the woodpile itself as its purpose and design collapse into the swampy chaos of biological interpenetration and transformation. The conclusion expresses a recognition of the vanity of human pursuit in a pluralistic and inhuman universe.

from Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Copyright 1997 by The University of Michigan


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