Close Reading the Wood-pile
About this time every year, when the leaves begin to fall and the soil is perpetually wet and cushiony, I begin to long, strangely enough, for comfortable measurements. The three deer who’ve visited our lawn came back this second morning, so that’s a start. The tiny, unrecognizable bird (sparrow? finch?) fluttered in and out of the green down of a dense cedar pine. She disappeared into the brush, gone long enough for me to miss her, then darted back into sight without a “word to tell me who [she] was.”
Scanning the autumn woods and contemplating birds and future snow, I spot a recently constructed woodpile and recall Robert Frost’s poem “The Wood-pile.” Like my fluttering finch and grazing deer, I’d like to be “someone who [lives] in turning to fresh tasks” enough to forget the handiwork raking leaves, snapping photos, tracing straight lines. Enough to read the landscape with the mind to “go on farther.”
This close-read of the poem appeared in the winter 2007-2008 issue of Umbrella: A Journal of Kindred Poetry and Prose.
In the often overlooked poem “The Wood-Pile,” Robert Frost explores the human life cycle, particularly the process of aging. The speaker is in a middle stage of life, about to embark on the winter of old age, which corresponds to the setting of the poem. Because the speaker is “out walking” in this cold setting, “far from home,” he is transplanted and in an uncomfortable environment. The reader can surmise that a transformation is likely to take place here. The first scene’s elements, “hard snow,” the view of trees “all in lines” that were “too much alike to mark by name or place” give a bleak and uncertain sense to the scene. In this manner, nature is discomforting. It is only the “hard snow” that keeps him there, as the culmination of his life work in old age will give purpose.
He encounters a bird; the bird leads him to a woodpile bound by a tree and a stake. We can read that the bird’s literal purpose is to show dissimilarity between man and bird and the misunderstanding that occurs between them, largely due to the bird’s innocence or naiveté. Bird and narrator are separated literally by a tree: “He was careful/To put a tree between us when he lighted.” Metaphorically, they are separated by age and wisdom. The bird represents a youthful figure, being “small” and foolish, taking “everything said as personal to himself,” as one unsophisticated in the ways of the world might do.
Similarly, like a young person, the bird mistakenly thinks the speaker is after his tail feather. The white feather, in contrast to winter’s white, could be taken as a symbol of innocence. Like the trees that are “too much alike to mark or name a place by,” the bird gives “no word to tell me who he was.” Both the tree and bird’s identities are lost in anonymity. Before the speaker is able to forget the bird for the pile, he must let the bird lead him there. These lines serve not only as transitions, but as thematic devices. Perhaps in his own younger days, he might have gone the way of the bird, but now does not wish the bird “good-night.”
With his description of the woodpile, the speaker contrasts earlier images by stating “not another like it could I see.” Unlike the trees and bird, the decaying woodpile is unique. He also moves from living images to the “dead” woodpile, and here the poem takes a dramatic turn. Frost states, “It was older sure than this year’s cutting,” telling us that the woodpile represents the declining years of life. A pristine quality prevails near the pile as “no runner tracks…looped near it.” And: “The wood was gray and bark warping off it/And the pile somewhat sunken.” Such lines evoke an aging man, his hair grey and his head balding, his body and bones sloped drooping. The vine, like a man’s work, wraps or consumes his life, a theme that echoes in the last lines. The growing tree and falling stake contrast, and represent what holds the aging man—his living familial ties and his cane.
At the emotional fulcrum of the poem, the poet looks at what has come before—the bird, the pile—and works toward a contemplative resolution. The final lines are the antithesis of what has come before, showing us there is purpose. On the one hand, the poet asks what kind of person could leave such art idle, while on the other asserts that art has a function of its own. In aging, we often think our usefulness will decay and we will be abandoned by “someone who lived in turning fresh tasks.” But Frost does not leave the pile “far from a useful fireplace” without final value. Though abandoned, it “warms the frozen swamp.” In a remarkable reversal of common thought, Frost conjectures that it may be in the winter of life when we find fulfillment. He certainly concludes that work and art have persistent, smoldering meaning, even beyond a living end.