Seasons are a concept that is beautiful, frustrating, and amazing all at once. That the world can be covered in life — common rains to water green grass and flowers of uncountable varieties — one month, and nearly dead in the next — yellow grass, wilted flowers, and dry, brown, dead leaves falling off of trees en masse make for a markedly less scenic walk. And perhaps this is why Robert Frost refers to this poem as A Late Walk, referencing the idea that sometimes it really is too late in the year to be walking around outside, in the midst of dying plants, hibernating animals, and an impending cold that’s always tough to face immediately following a perfect summer. Robert Frost’s poem, A Late Walk, can be read in full here.
A Late Walk Analysis
When I go up through the mowing field,
Half closes the garden path.
The first verse of A Late Walk establishes a rhyming structure — ABCB — and helps to create a sense of setting for the reader. The narrator of A Late Walk is walking through a garden field. Although it is not expressly stated, the imagery of the poem suggests that the time of year is in autumn; “mowing” can refer to using a lawnmower, but it also refers to the fallen tips of grass blades that we now associate with using a lawnmower. “The headless aftermath” helps to confirm this; we can imagine a field that has been freshly harvested, the last grains taken from the field before winter comes to wither it all away. The path is half-blocked, the narrator notes, in an increasingly imagery-based style that completes the autumn image.
And when I come to the garden ground,
Is sadder than any words
In stanza 2 of A Late Walk, even the birds are acting sober, the narrator notes, as he walks into the garden. He describes “tangles” of “withered weeds,” creating a remorseful image of a garden that once was beautiful, but is now twisted and cracked, brown and yellow, and falling apart. The sobriety of birds — noting that sobriety can refer to being “not drunk” or it can refer to being solemn or sad, as is undoubtedly its intended use here — serves to show the narrator that they are not the only ones who is appreciating the fall of summer. Even the birds sound sad as they sing, and why wouldn’t they? Most birds avoid cold climates and migrate vast distances to escape the coming cold. The birdsong, combined with the view of tangled, withered weeds, is too sad to be accurately described, so our narrator continues in silence.
A tree beside the wall stands bare,
Comes softly rattling down.
In a wintry world filled with leafless trees, the narrator spots a single tree in the garden, right at the edge, entirely bare, save for a single brown leaf. And they get to watch as this leaf falls, as though the pull of the narrator’s thoughts was enough for it to at last fall, conforming with the rest of the garden. The third line — “disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought” — is an interesting one. It makes a point of how heavy the narrator’s thoughts feel. Many would be familiar with this idea — sometimes it seems as though solemn thoughts weigh down heavily on the human consciousness, and this particular thought, the one that is the engine for A Late Walk, is strong enough that the narrator is certain that its force alone is what sent the last leaf falling from the tree.
I end not far from my going forth
To carry again to you.
Not far from where they began, the narrator finds one more sign of life; a faded blue daisy (as an “aster” is part of that family of plant), a final sign of beauty, the last flower that can be picked and kept as a treasure to be given to an anonymous individual — a lover, perhaps? A friend? The poem doesn’t say, but it almost doesn’t need to. The sense of capturing the final essence of beauty before the world turns cold and dark is a powerful enough image — the blue flower is the brightest of colours amidst a poem filled with browns and and withering, and the arrival of colour in the poem, just like the arrival of colour in the narrator’s journey, comes only at the very end.
Historical Context to A Late Walk
A Late Walk was published in 1915, in one of Robert Frost’s first successful poetry collections, A Boy’s Will. During this time, Frost had moved back to America from England, away from his family because of the First World War. The sense of sadness that fills each line of this work could be an allusion to Frost’s own sadness — for he suffered both from and by depression for much of his life — and it could also stem from his sudden isolation in an unfamiliar place. If winter happened to be falling at the same time, the poem may as well have written itself. Many of the poems in A Boy’s Life deal with themes of isolation and sadness and many were considered by Frost to be autobiographical in nature as well.
The narrator in A Late Walk is certainly isolated and sad. They are spending time in a dying garden, searching for the last small bits of life before they’re gone forever, fallen to the impending winter. For most, autumn walks are nothing more than a pleasant — albeit less pleasant than in the summer — pastime. For the narrator of A Late Walk, they are commentaries on the fragility of life and the deep sadness that precedes a harsh winter. Taking the historic context of A Late Walk into consideration, it is easy to simply imagine Frost standing in a garden, or a forested area late in autumn, and watching the world as it dies once again, before returning home and writing down what he’d seen and felt — and discovering what he felt “is sadder than any words.”
Whatever the case may have been for Robert Frost, the impression of his feeling is preserved well in A Late Walk. The poem is a strong analysis of an observation that many feel at some point in their life — when the days are short, the winds are cold, and the isolation felt, it can be difficult to describe, or even relate. At times like those, the poetry of Robert Frost can be a comfort, a kind sense of understanding so well-preserved and well-explained, even a full century later.