Introduction by Peter Davison
February 3, 1999
In February of 1912 Robert Frost wrote a poem called “The Wood-Pile,” a poem that meant something special to him — he would single it out for reprinting in his annual Christmas card nearly fifty years later,just before he died. The poem emerged at a crossroads in his life: he was about to make “a great leap forward,” as he had written to the editor Susan Hayes Ward in 1911. 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.
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. 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. I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious strides as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home. But I didn’t go forward to the touch. I stood still in wonderment and let him pass by; and that, too, with the fatal omission of not trying to find out by a comparison of lives and immediate and remote interests what could have brought us by crossing paths to the same point in the wilderness at the same moment of nightfall. Some purpose I doubt not, if we could but have made it out. I like a coincidence almost as well as an incongruity.
To me the letter seems fateful. It signals the crystallizing of Robert Frost’s talent at Plymouth, his determination to “set forth for somewhere,” his hesitant welcoming of the true bond between speaker and hearer. The voice in which his poems would take place would alter shortly: it would be the voice more of the farmer than of the teacher, “the sound of speech.” And the poem he wrote next, in the same month he wrote this letter, was “The Wood-Pile,” the first-written poem and cornerstone of the collection he would entitle North of Boston when it was published in London in 1914.
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.
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 hethought.
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.
He went behind it to make his last stand.
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.
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? — of clematis. 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. 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.
Source: The Atlantic Online via Facebook