The narrator has traveled throughout the world, across mountains and rivers, and now finds himself on the path back home. His journey has ended, and he is shocked to find the signs of the dead season all around him: crusted snow, dead leaves, withering flowers. He had not expected such a sight when he returned home, and despairingly considers leaving again. However, he refuses to accept the end of the season without fighting for it and ends the poem on a courageous, hopeful note.
This poem is divided into four stanzas of six lines each. The rhyme scheme for each stanza is ABCBDB.
This work is the final poem in Frost’s 1913 book “A Boy’s Will” and serves as a cap on the theme of exile and return that is introduced in the first poem of the book, “Into My Own.” In this first poem, the narrator expresses his determination to turn his back on his own and travel the world in a quest for self-discovery. The narrator declares, “I do not see why I should e’er turn back, / Or those should not set forth upon my track / To overtake me…”
In “Reluctance,” the narrator’s travels have finally led him back home, but he is dismayed to find nothing left for him but the dead leaves of the winter season. Still, he is unwilling to accept such an ending to his adventures and refuses to “yield” or “go with the drift of things” simply because the season proclaims it to be so. His travels may be finished and the season may be ending, but that does not mean that he has to accept the turn of events without anger or emotion.
This poem also has an additional meaning that stems directly from an autobiographical event in Frost’s life. He wrote this poem while he was living with his mother and sister in Lawrence, Massachusetts, before he had convinced his future wife, Elinor, to marry him. After he was firmly rejected by her during a visit to her school in New York, Frost contemplated committing suicide and becoming a part of the “last lone aster” and “dead leaves.” However, Frost eventually found courage and decided not to go “with the drift of things” and accept Elinor’s rejection. Such an admittance of failure would have been “treason” to his heart and his love.