In this, the first of his truly great poems, he finds warmth in observing how the labor of our hands ends in "the slow smokeless burning of decay." The syntax and artistry of this poem's last sentence may embody Robert Frost's discovery of his true mission as a poet.
Peter Davison is the poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly.
Her most recent poetry collections are Connecting the Dots (1996), and Selected Poems 1960-1990.
In “The wood pile” and “Stopping by woods on a Snowy evening” by Robert Frost, the author takes in the first interpretation that they are alone.
Frost's poem speaks of finding a kind of order hidden away in the depths of the woods, that perfectly cut and measured cord of wood, "four by four by eight," the only one to be found, a cord of wood tied up with a cord of -- what? It is a poem about trees, like those that had sounded over the house in Derry, and which Frost would write about in "The Sound of Trees." ("They are that that talks of going/ But never gets away..../ I shall set forth for somewhere,/ I shall make the reckless choice ...") These trees are "too much alike" to let the speaker know "whether I was here or somewhere else." When the bird hides from the walker he puts trees between them; and when the walker finds the wood-pile it is propped between one live tree and one dead stake, like a body of work that is propped between the established civilization of Europe and the live-but-frosty land of New England, between the meter of a poem and its rhythm, between stasis and motion.
Any careful reader of Frost's work can point to twenty or thirty of his poems that tell in one form or another what he thought to be the story of his life, the story of a man who ran away from civilization, quitting for his own reasons, and went off into the woods, at the risk of getting lost, and found there something worth taking note of, something that lay at the heart of the mystery, a directive, say, or a star in a stone boat, or a pasture spring, or the song of a darkling thrush -- or a decaying wood-pile.At Christmas in 1911 Frost took the train to visit Susan Ward -- the only editor who had consistently encouraged his work -- in New Jersey.Frost had sent her a sheaf of the last and best poems in A Boy's Will, his first collection of poems (which he would publish in England in 1913).In New Jersey they spoke about his work and of his plans, as yet unannounced, for the future.After his return to Plymouth, Frost wrote to Ward as follows: Two lonely crossroads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners.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. 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. It was a cord of maple, cut and split And piled -- and measured, four by four by eight. 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.That year the Frost family, after many years stuck on a farm in Derry, New Hampshire, had at last uprooted themselves enough to move, for a season, one hundred miles north to Plymouth, New Hampshire.There, Frost taught college students (women) for the first time in his life, and was observed to be speaking in a different, less formal, more casual way -- a way new to him.The practically unbroken conditions of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much travelled.Judge then how surpised I was the other evening as I came down one to see a man, who to my own unfamiliar eyes and in the dusk looked for all the world like myself, coming down the other, his approach to the point where our paths must intersect being so timed that unless one of us pulled up we must inevitably collide.