Reluctance. Collection – A Boy’s Will. 1915

OUT through the fields and the woods 
And over the walls I have wended; 
I have climbed the hills of view 
And looked at the world, and descended; 
I have come by the highway home,        
And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground, 
Save those that the oak is keeping 
To ravel them one by one 
And let them go scraping and creeping        
Out over the crusted snow, 
When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still, 
No longer blown hither and thither; 
The last lone aster is gone;         
The flowers of the witch-hazel wither; 
The heart is still aching to seek, 
But the feet question ‘Whither?’

Ah, when to the heart of man 
Was it ever less than a treason         
To go with the drift of things, 
To yield with a grace to reason, 
And bow and accept the end 
Of a love or a season?

Reluctance is about man’s unwillingness to accept life as it flows – with its disappointments. The poet having wandered over fields and walls (suggesting civilization) and hills and woods (suggestive of wilderness) is on his way back home. At a more philosophical level, he is saying that he has seen and experienced all aspects of life and is now home, that is, his journey through life has come to a close. ‘Climbing hills’ refers to the difficulties faced in life and ‘descended’ perhaps to the compromises one has to make in life.

The mood of the poem is pensive. The use of words – ended, dead, lone, gone, wither, aching – all go to create this mood. His melancholy mood is reflected in nature too – the trees are barren, the snow is crusted, the dead leaves lie in heaps and the last of the blossoms are withered.

His mood lightens as he speaks of the Oak, pictured perhaps as naughty for it is ‘keeping’ its leaves to let them go down one by one ‘when others are sleeping’. But this does nothing to uplift his mood.

The conflict between the head and the heart

The heart is restless:

The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question ‘Whither?’

The practical aspects of life assert predominance. Like the ‘horse’ in Stopping by Woods…, his feet are symbolic of his mortal self which question his desires. Reason and practicality demand definite answers. The heart has no definite answers.

All through life man experiences the end of good times and relationships, just as a beautiful season ends. He is helpless and knows that he has no power to control the course of things, yet accepting this fact seems like a betrayal. By letting his mind rule over his heart, by letting practical purposes lead his life when his soul wants something else, he is betraying his heart.

He thinks that even though man knows that things in life are transient, he wants to cling to them and not let them end.

Love and season

Juxtaposing ‘love’ and ‘season’ shows that the poet thinks love too is transient like the seasons. It will come and go like a season. Man knows this and still does not accept it readily. Like the heart wishes for a season to not end, it also wants the love to last forever.

Reluctance and Acceptance

Read a later poem Acceptance (1928) and mark the contrast. The mood is more optimistic. There is optimism even in the setting sun.  Acceptance is about living in the moment without worry for the future. There is acceptance of setting sun, darkness and even the unknown future.

The poem in prose

The poet says that he has traveled through civilization and wilderness, has looked at the man’s creations and nature and has now returned home in the evening of his life.

He describes the winter landscape. The dead leaves heaped and not moving. In the stillness, the large Oak leaves falling one-by-one and making a noise as they are dragged by the breeze on the crusted snow. The last of the flowers have also withered. There is nothing left for him to do in life but his heart is not willing to accept this fact.

It seems like treason for a man to accept gracefully the end of a season or of a love.

Oft-quoted lines

Ah, when to the heart of man 
Was it ever less than a treason         
To go with the drift of things, 
To yield with a grace to reason, 
And bow and accept the end 
Of a love or a season?

Word meanings

Wended:  travel along a route
Ravel:  unwind, free

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