The Poet Farmer

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.
– Two Tramps in Mud Time

Between writing poems and farming, which was Robert Frost’s avocation and which his vocation, is difficult to say. A choice he himself was wary of making.

Well, if I have to choose one or the other,
I choose to be a plain New Hampshire farmer
With an income in cash of, say, a thousand
(From, say, a publisher in New York City).
– New Hampshire

For Frost, poetry and life were one and the same thing. He once said, ‘…If poetry isn’t understanding all, the whole world, then it isn’t worth anything. Young poets forget that poetry must include the mind as well as the emotions. Too many poets delude themselves by thinking the mind is dangerous and must be left out. Well, the mind is dangerous and must be left in.’

The mind and the heart, reason and illusion, dream and reality, practical sense and escape – the conflict that arose from these and the ‘choice’ he made, seeking a fine balance – forms the crux of most of Frost’s poems. Each poem is the result of a thought process either motivated by a practical task or by the keen love for nature and farming tasks. Sometimes Frost lets reason prevail and sometimes flows with dream and imagination. A good example is Birches in which when ‘truth broke in with all her matter-of-fact…’ he is provoked to ask: ‘Now am I free to be poetical?’

While farming allowed him the proximity with nature, which in turn provided the inspiration to write, poetry itself made him feel, contemplate, imagine and dream perhaps just a little too much than would have been desirable for a farmer whose work demanded practicality and objectivity.

As he went about his farming tasks, his poetic sensibilities would surface and he would question the cold detachment of man from nature. Often while engaged in the upkeep of his farms, he would be compelled to wish that men were less practical and methodical about their job of taming nature to their advantage and perhaps a little more imaginative sometimes. This conflict of dream and reality; of fact and dream; lie at the very core of his poems.

His poems have to be appreciated in the light of his unique relationship with the soil – not that of an onlooker, or of a nature worshipper but of a farmer who worked with the very things he wrote about. It would not be wrong to feel that it was primarily aesthetic joy that he desired to reap from his farms.

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.
– The Pasture

In his introduction to the Collected Poems (1949), RF wrote: ‘Our problem then is as abstractionists, to have the wilderness pure; to be wild with nothing to be wild about. We bring up as aberrationists, giving way to undirected associates and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper. Theme alone can steady us down.’

He had a position of advantage as a poet-farmer, here. The themes are universal. The farmer picked them from around him and then the poet composed verse ‘to lodge a few poems where they would be hard to get rid of, like pebbles.’

As a poet he valued the gifts of nature, appreciated the sights, desired aesthetics and natural drift of things – sometimes even to the point of impracticality. So we see a farmer, drifting into sleep and dreams:

…I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
– After Apple-Picking

A cluster of flowers, spared by another farmer, makes him wish:

That none should mow the grass there
While so confused with flowers.
-A Tuft of Flowers

He defends and prays for harvest being left ‘unharvested’! Produce being ‘forgotten and left’!

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.

Then again we find the farmer asserting the value of practicality and labor. Sometimes, just as he begins to anticipate fantasy, the truth breaks in:

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.
– Mowing

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

As a farmer, he stands with the world and his fellow men to understand them and then as a poet he withdraws into himself to attain higher forms of understanding. He delights in both.

How love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.
-Putting in The Seed

The boundary wall mending ritual is observed between neighbors but RF cannot but question:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.
– Mending Wall

He questions cold detachment when asked if he would sell his Christmas trees:

I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare.
-Christmas Trees

The Characters

RF writes of the farmers, neighbors, their life and work, their loneliness and the manner in which they deal with the situations of their life.

Living in secluded farms how guarded they are and yet how they extend help and favor to others.

I always felt strange when we came home
To the dark house after so long and absence.
– The Fear

The fear of tramps, a couple talking:

I didn’t like the way he went away
That smile! It never came of being gay
Still he smiled – did you see him? – I was sure!
Perhaps because we gave him only bread.

I wonder how far down the road he’s got.
He’s watching from the woods as like as not.
– The Smile (The Hill Wife)

A curious farmer, fascinated by the night sky:

He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And bought the telescope with what it came to.
-The Star Splitter

How farm chores are carried out, not without principle:

Moving a flock of hens from place to place.
We’re not allowed to take them upside down,
All we can hold together by the legs,
Two at a time’s the rule, one on each arm,
No matter how far and how many times
We have to go.
– The Housekeeper

More than anything, RF’s aim was to capture ‘the speaking tone of voice in his poetry.’ The ‘tones’ of voice of the Yankees was important for him – the way they clipped their sentences. Brilliant examples of this are The Code, Blueberries, A Time to Talk, Snow, Home Burial, The Census Taker, A Servant to Servants and almost all the rest. But more about this later.

Life on Farms

Son of a journalist father and teacher mother, Robert Frost was introduced to the great literary texts early in life. When he was 16, his first poem, La Noche Triste was published in The Lawrence High School Bulletin. At 20, My Butterfly: An Elegy in appeared on the first page of The Independent, the New York periodical.

So it isn’t as if RF didn’t write poems before, but the ‘Derry years’ are said to be very productive for him as a poet. A gift from his grandfather, the Derry farm was home to the Frost family for ten years (1900 – 1911). Frost raised chickens and taught at the Pinkerton Academy. It was here that he was inspired to write among other poems – Mending Wall, Hyla Brook, and The Pasture. RF enjoyed simple farm chores and the freedom it gave him to be close to nature and men and to compose poems at his pace.

A lump in the throat

In 1911 when the Frosts moved to England, it was as he said, ‘to organize his poetry’. Sure enough, his first collection of poetry A Boy’s Will was published in England in 1913 followed by North of Boston in 1914.

In a letter to Louis Untermeyer, Frost wrote, ‘A poem…begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion finds the thought and the thought finds the words.’

Frost said about Mending Wall, ‘I wrote this poem, Mending Wall, thinking of the old wall that I hadn’t mended in several years and which must be in a terrible condition. I wrote that poem in England when I was very homesick for my old wall in New England…Another which I wrote when I was a little homesick: Birches.’

…lighted city streets we, too, have known,
But now are giving up for country darkness.’
-In The Home Stretch

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