Robert Frost: Poems

Major Themes

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Nature

Frost places a great deal of importance on Nature in all of his collections. Because of the time he spent in New England, the majority of pastoral scenes that he describes are inspired by specific locations in New England. However, Frost does not limit himself to stereotypical pastoral themes such as sheep and shepherds. Instead, he focuses on the dramatic struggles that occur within the natural world, such as the conflict of the changing of seasons (as in "After Apple-Picking") and the destructive side of nature (as in "Once by the Pacific"). Frost also presents the natural world as one that inspires deep metaphysical thought in the individuals who are exposed to it (as in "Birches" and "The Sound of Trees"). For Frost, Nature is not simply a background for poetry, but rather a central character in his works.

Communication

Communication, or the lack thereof, appears as a significant theme is several of Frost's poems, as Frost presents it as the only possible escape from isolation and despair. Unfortunately, Frost also makes it clear that communication is extremely difficult to achieve. For example, in "Home Burial," Frost describes two terrible events: the death of a child and the destruction of a marriage. The death of the child is tragic, but inability of the husband and wife to communicate with each other and express their grief about the loss is what ultimately destroys the marriage. Frost highlights this inability to communicate by writing the poem in free verse dialogue; each character speaks clearly to the reader, but neither is able to understand the other. Frost explores a similar theme in "Acquainted with the Night," in which the narrator is unable to pull himself out of his depression because he cannot bring himself even to make eye contact with those around him. In each of these cases, the reader is left with the knowledge that communication could have saved the characters from their isolation. Yet, because of an unwillingness to take the steps necessary to create a relationship with another person, the characters are doomed.

Everyday Life

Frost is very interested in the activities of everyday life, because it is this side of humanity that is the most "real" to him. Even the most basic act in a normal day can have numerous hidden meanings that need only to be explored by a poetic mind. For example, in the poem "Mowing," the simple act of mowing hay with a scythe is transformed into a discussion of the value of hard work and the traditions of the New England countryside. As Frost argues in the poem, by focusing on "reality," the real actions of real people, a poet can sift through the unnecessary elements of fantasy and discover "Truth." Moreover, Frost believes that the emphasis on everyday life allows him to communicate with his readers more clearly; they can empathize with the struggles and emotions that are expressed in his poems and come to a greater understanding of "Truth" themselves.

Isolation of the Individual

This theme is closely related to the theme of communication. The majority of the characters in Frost's poems are isolated in one way or another. Even the characters who show no sign of depression or loneliness, such as the narrators in "The Sound of Trees" or "Fire and Ice," are still presented as detached from the rest of society, isolated because of their unique perspective. In some cases, the isolation is a far more destructive force. For example, in "The Lockless Door," the narrator has remained in a "cage" of isolation for so many years that he is too terrified to answer the door when he hears a knock. This heightened isolation keeps the character from fulfilling his potential as an individual and ultimately makes him a prisoner of his own making. Yet, as Frost suggests, this isolation can be avoided by interactions with other members of society; if the character in "The Lockless Door" could have brought himself to open the door and face an invasion of his isolation, he could have achieved a greater level of personal happiness.

Duty

Duty is a very important value in the rural communities of New England, so it is not surprising that Frost employs it as one of the primary themes of his poetry. Frost describes conflicts between desire and duty as if the two must always be mutually exclusive; in order to support his family, a farmer must acknowledge his responsibilities rather than indulge in his personal desires. This conflict is particularly clear in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," when the narrator expresses his wish to stay in the woods and watch the snow continue to fall. However, he is unable to deny his obligation to his family and his community; he cannot remain in the woods because of his "promises to keep," and so he continues on his way. Similarly, in "The Sound of Tree," Frost describes a character who wants to follow the advice of the trees and make the "reckless" decision to leave his community. At the end of the poem, the character does not choose to leave (yet) because his sense of duty to those around him serves as the roots that keep him firmly grounded.

Rationality versus Imagination

This theme is similar to the theme of duty, in that the hardworking people whom Frost describes in his poetry are forced to choose between rationality and imagination; the two cannot exist simultaneously. The adults in Frost's poetry generally maintain their rationality as a burden of duty, but there are certain cases when the hint of imagination is almost too seductive to bear. For example, in "Birches," the narrator wishes that he could climb a birch tree as he did in his childhood and leave the rational world behind, if only for a moment. This ability to escape rationality and indulge in the liberation of imagination is limited to the years of childhood. After reaching adulthood, the traditions of New England life require strict rationality and an acceptance of responsibility. As a result of this conflict, Frost makes the poem "Out, Out--" even more tragic, describing a young boy who is forced to leave his childhood behind to work at a man's job and ultimately dies in the process.

Rural Life versus Urban Life

This theme relates to Frost's interest in Nature and everyday life. Frost's experience growing up in New England exposed him to a particular way of life that seemed less complicated and yet more meaningful than the life of a city dweller. The farmers whom Frost describes in his poetry have a unique perspective on the world as well as a certain sense of honor and duty in terms of their work and their community. Frost is not averse to examining urban life in his poetry; in "Acquainted with the Night," the narrator is described as being someone who lives in a large city. However, Frost has more opportunities to find metaphysical meaning in everyday tasks and explore the relationship between mankind and nature through the glimpses of rural life and farming communities that he expresses in his poetry. Urban life is "real," but it lacks the quality and clarity of life that is so fascinating to Frost in his work.