An old man stands alone in his house in the middle of winter. Because of his age, he does not remember why he is in the house or even his identity, but he maintains his presence against the grueling winter outside. At one point, he becomes frightened by the cellar beneath his feet and the dark night outside, and he stomps his feet loudly to frighten away the unknown. Eventually the old man dozes in front of the fire and, after being disturbed by a shifting log, falls into a deeper sleep.
In terms of form, the poem does not have a traditional rhyme scheme, but instead makes use of alliteration (“doors,” “darkly”; “beating,” “box”; “separate,” “stars”;), personification, and haunting images.
From the title of this poem, the reader might expect a warm and cozy narrative about an old man in front of a crackling fire. Frost denies this comforting expectation and instead creates a haunting narrative — one of the darkest works in his 1916 “Mountain Interval” – that describes an old man slowly dying alone during a harsh New England winter.
The poem never clarifies the reason why the old man is alone, only reiterating that he is completely isolated and beyond the comfort of companionship. The most terrifying element of this poem is the old man’s loss of memory; he has no recollection of his purpose or identity and simply finds himself standing “with barrels round him – at a loss.” Not only is the old man isolated in body, he is isolated in mind: even the memories of past happiness cannot comfort him.
Even in this state of abject isolation, the old man still has the stubbornness and courage to fight for his existence and scare off the fears that creep in around him. Although the old man does not remember exactly what he is afraid of in the cellar or in the outer night, he clings to the act of “clomping” as a familiar and yet unfamiliar comfort. The overwhelming sense of loneliness and fear is accentuated by the noises all around the old man: the cracking of branches, the roar of the trees. However, the old man himself remains silent throughout the poem. When he does make sounds, he resorts to the more animalistic action of stomping his feet rather than trusting his voice.
By rendering the old man mute, Frost strives to instill the readers with the same sense of isolation that the old man himself experiences. If the poem included glimpses of the old man’s inner thoughts, the readers would feel a sense of kinship with him, even a degree of companionship. As it is, however, the reader is forced to remain a silent observer who cannot connect to the inner workings of the old man’s mind.
Yet the poem does not end on a completely hopeless note. Although the man is frightened of what he does not know, he still succeeds in “scaring” off the unknown and falling into a comforting sleep. Frost suggests that even a person in the depths of isolation and loneliness is still capable of maintaining a presence and “keeping” a house. Though Frost focuses solely on the old man, this idea can also be read as a discussion of the human condition as a whole. The old man’s behavior in the house is not ideal or necessarily human, and he is still doomed to face death and perpetual loneliness, and yet his house is still his own because of his tenacious grasp on it and his refusal to abandon himself entirely.