Robert Frost Questions for English 222 American Literature, CSU Fullerton



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"The Figure a Poem Makes" (Norton Vol. D 250-52); "Mowing" (Vol. D 231-32); "Mending Wall" (Vol. D 232-33); "The Death of the Hired Man" (Vol. D 233-37); "The Wood-Pile" (Vol. D 241); "The Road Not Taken" (Vol. D 241-42); "Birches" (Vol. D 242-44); "Out, Out—" (Vol. D 244); "Fire and Ice" (Vol. D 245); "Nothing Gold Can Stay" (Vol. D 245); "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (Vol. D 245); "Desert Places" (Vol. D 246); "Design" (Vol. D 246); "The Gift Outright" (Vol. D 248).

"The Figure a Poem Makes" (Norton Vol. D 250-52)

1. In his essay "The Figure a Poem Makes," what complaint does Robert Frost make on page 250 against so-called "abstractionists" or radical experimenters in modern poetry? Why can't we just consider a poem as pure sound, or pure wildness (i.e. random association and so forth)? If sound and "wildness" are to be worthwhile, with what do they respectively need to be combined?

2. On pages 250-51 of "The Figure a Poem Makes," how does Frost develop his initial statement that the "figure a poem makes" may be captured with the dictum, "It begins in delight and ends in wisdom"? How does a poem do that? What do you understand by such associated claims as the remark that a worthwhile poem "ends in a clarification of life" and amounts to "a momentary stay against confusion" (251)?

3. On page 251 of "The Figure a Poem Makes," how does Frost differentiate between the scholar and the artist with regard to how they obtain their own kind of knowledge? How does a scholar (or scientist) attain and value knowledge? How does an artist do so? While Frost hardly means to condemn scholars or scientists, it's pretty clear that he favors the way artists arrive at and relate to their kind of knowledge. On 251-52, what justification does he offer for praising artists and poets' way of "knowing"? In particular, what's the result when someone gains and then conveys understanding in the artistic way?

4. On page 251-52 of "The Figure a Poem Makes," Frost shows a certain disdain for political "prating" (251 middle) about big concepts like freedom. He wasn't friendly towards President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, which the Democratic president and his supporters deemed necessary to jolt the country out of the Great Depression during the 1930s; Frost's prose and poetry shows a strong individualist tendency that put him at odds with so-called "collectivist" approaches to life and politics. When it came to art, it seems that Frost thought art should deal with the supposedly permanent elements of human nature and the human condition, not involve itself deeply in immediate social or political issues. Do you agree with that kind of approach, or do you find that prescription too rigid? Explain your response.

"Mowing" (Vol. D 231-32)

5. Mowing the grass or wheat to make hay is the stuff of traditional pastoral poetry, and Frost gives us a variation on that theme in "Mowing" -- one that isn't about a love complaint or an idyllic setting but that rather seems to concern itself with labor. What quality of representation and reflection with regard to the work of mowing, then, do you find in this poem?

"Mending Wall" (Vol. D 232-33)

6. Aside from the obvious, what is a "wall" in the context of Frost's poem "Mending Wall"? How might this poem be explored as a philosophical reflection on the origin and nature of the divisions we make between nature and ourselves, between one person and another?

7. In Frost's poem "Mending Wall," what seems to be the speaker's attitude towards his neighbor? We know they disagree about whether or not their two properties really need a dividing wall, but how does the speaker respond to his neighbor's insistence on upholding tradition and property rights?

"The Death of the Hired Man" (Vol. D 233-37)

8. What difference in perspective do you find in Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man" between the husband Warren and his wife Mary with respect to Silas, the itinerant (i.e. traveling) worker they have long hired to do odd jobs for them? Does Warren's view change or become clearer to us in the latter half or so of the poem, or does it stay the same? Explain.

9. What is Silas' situation in Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man" when he arrives at Warren and Mary's farm? What are some of the key points at which Frost makes his narrator provide us with further information about Silas? How does the poem bring home to us the starkness, the anything but ideal or secure quality, of the old laborer's life?

10. In Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man," the last full stanza seems to contain a genuinely symbolic moment, one that connects "The moon, the little silver cloud, and she" {Mary, Warren's wife} just before Warren returns to announce quietly that old Silas has died. Explore the significance of this section of the poem: in what sense might it be suggestive of Silas' value to Mary, or Silas' predicament more generally? (If you read this part of the text differently, that's fine; the point is to explore its symbolic charge.)

"The Wood-Pile" (Vol. D 241)

11. In Frost's "The Wood-Pile," the speaker muses about some chopped wood left out in the forest rather than stacked where it can be reached to heat the chopper's home in winter. How is this poem both a reflection on the labor we engage in and, at the same time, on how we invest what we do and make with purpose and significance? So far as you can tell, what does the poem as a whole privilege -- the wood-chopper's labor and the product he created, or the speaker's own communion with objects like that wood-pile? Which is more true, if either is more true -- the purposeful labor, or the quiet reflection? Explain your answer.

"The Road Not Taken" (Vol. D 241-42)

12. In lines 6-12 of Frost's "The Road Not Taken," how does the speaker describe the supposed difference between the two paths that he mentions? So how different are they, based on what the speaker says? (Be attentive to these lines -- it's easy to misconstrue them and thereby miss much of the poem's complexity as a reflection on the "paths" that make up a person's life.)

13. What time frames can you find in Frost's "The Road Not Taken"? One of them is of course the moment at which the speaker made a choice and walked down one path rather than the other, but what other temporal horizons would it make sense to recognize, and how might this temporal complexity lead us towards a strong understanding of the poem's final stanza?

"Birches" (Vol. D 242-44)

14. In Frost's "Birches," we are treated to the adult speaker's recollections about the fun he had swinging from sinewy birch trees during his boyhood. How does the speaker transform those recollections into a reassertion of the human bond with nature as well as, perhaps, a meditation on religious notions about going to one's otherworldly reward at the end of life?

"Out, Out--" (Vol. D 244)

15. In Frost's "Out, Out--," with its title borrowed from a line by Macbeth at the hollow end of his bloody career (see Macbeth 5.5.23-24) a young boy just finishing up the day's work with a saw cuts his hand off and dies in surgery when the country doctor arrives to amputate the hand. How is the boy's death regarded by others in the poem, and how does the speaker's attitude compare to the regard shown?

"Fire and Ice" (Vol. D 245)

16. In Frost's "Fire and Ice," the speaker alludes to the end of the world. The general meaning of fire and ice seems to be that the first references a religious perspective in which the world finally burns, as in the "End Times" of Christian theology, and the second references a scientific perspective in which the sun eventually burns out, leaving the planet cold and lifeless. But how does Frost's speaker turn "fire" and "ice" into symbols that speak more directly about human nature itself? What seems to be the speaker's attitude towards "us"?

"Nothing Gold Can Stay" (Vol. D 245)

17. Frost (a native Californian) was a fine observer of the natural environment in his adopted New England, and here in the short poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay," he shows the same acuteness as poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Gerard Manley Hopkins. How does Frost's speaker turn a simple nature-observation into a broader contemplation of the transient quality of life, as well as change our traditional perception of the color "gold"?

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (Vol. D 245)

18. In the first stanza of Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," what purpose does the speaker give for stopping where he does? How, in the next two stanzas, does he go on to build a sense of the oddness of this action he has taken, "stopping by woods" on a dark winter night?

19. Many readers of Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" catch the almost hypnotic quality of the final stanza, with its repetition in the final two lines and its initial summation, "The woods are lovely, dark, and deep," If, then, this poem ends with something like a "call of the woods" to the speaker and perhaps to us, how would you give voice to that call? What is being offered, beyond the literal level of simply going farther into the woods or staying longer in them? At the same time, why might it not be quite right to leave the matter at this primeval level? How, that is, does the poem as a whole cast the woods as part of the human world as well?

"Desert Places" (Vol. D 246)

20. The Norton editors rightly point out on page 231 that while Frost is certainly a fine observer of nature, his outlook with regard to it can't be equated with that of American Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau. How does this poem both connect the speaker with the landscape and yet leave us with a rather unsettling sense of the relationship thereby posited between them? Furthermore, what does the final stanza, with its response to C17 French philosopher Blaise Pascal's often-quoted thought, "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me" (La silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie, from Pensées), add to the poem's psychological depth?

"Design" (Vol. D 246)

21. The speaker of Frost's "Design" asks a question after William Blake's heart -- as when in that romantic poet's "The Tyger," the speaker asks the beautiful but deadly predator, "what immortal hand or eye / dare frame thy fearful symmetry?" What explanation, if any, does Frost's speaker arrive at for the existence and behavior of "dimpled spiders" like the one that stalks the white moth on the heal-all plant (Prunella vulgaris)? If you don't think an "explanation" is what the speaker is mainly trying to achieve, how do you read the poem's significance?

"The Gift Outright" (Vol. D 248).

22. Perhaps the key line in Frost's "The Gift Outright" (which the poet wrote in 1942 and later recited at President Kennedy's inauguration in January, 1961) is the eleventh, in which the speaker says that Americans "found salvation in surrender." In the context established by the poem, how do you interpret that line? What sense of American history, what relationship between the people and the land, does the poem imply?