According to Shakespeare, “brevity is the soul of wit.” According to a popular expression, “slow and steady wins the race.” According to a lot of sources, contemporary and otherwise, there’s a certain value in taking things slowly, in the smaller, less grand aspects of life. A truly skilled poet, one might argue, is capable of expressing deeper emotion in a single stanza than a less skilled poet maybe were they to write an entire epic. Sometimes, a brief shot of emotion can be more overpowering in its simplicity than the greatest of laments.
Robert Frost’s ‘A Question’ follows this theme strongly. It is one of the shorter works written by the poet, but it is filled with powerful emotion that renders the titular question as something to truly consider and think about in day-to-day living.
A Question Robert FrostA voice said, Look me in the starsAnd tell me truly, men of earth,If all the soul-and-body scarsWere not too much to pay for birth.
‘A Question‘ Analysis
A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.
No need to do a verse-by-verse analysis of ‘A Question’ — this is the entire poem. And despite its small size, it says a lot. At its face value, the poem can be read and understood fairly easily. How might one weigh the tragedies of life against its potential and its opportunities? If the human soul originates in a place where there is no pain — God, Heaven, or whatever it is you believe in, if you do believe in those concepts — then how can the silence of nonexistence compare to the pains of life? It’s a highly philosophical and very abstract question.
Who the voice in the stars in is unidentified; were the “m” in “me” capitalized, we could safely assume the voice is God, but it seems likely this is intentionally kept ambiguous. Still, to assume it is God or a God-like figure would make sense as a concept, but the point of the poem is, as the title suggests, the question itself. Are all the soul-and-body scars too much to pay for the life that deals them? And, in a much darker image, what if the answer to the question is “no?”
As a commentary on life, we can see the narrator wondering to themselves what it is they get from living that makes it worth the pain, and the fact that the poem ends there indicates what a difficult question it is to answer. The poem also suggests that this suffering is destiny — discussing pain as an “entry fee” for living suggests that no matter who you are or where you’re born, it is likely that you will find yourself questioning whether living is quite worth the pain associated.
On the other hand, this makes perfect sense as an analysis — everyone experiences pain at some point or the other. Personal loss, grief, tragedy; in a sense, these are destiny, and that seems to be what this poem is getting at. And in those moments of suffering, we have to be able to remember the best parts of our life and remember that there is light that makes our lives worth living, and that makes our suffering worth enduring.
For Robert Frost, that can’t have been an easy task. Frost certainly did not have the easiest of lives, and this is strongly reflected in his work. ‘A Question’ was published in 1942. By this point in Frost’s life, he had lost both of his parents, his sister four of his six children, and his wife. During the course of their lives, Frost himself, along with his sister, mother, daughter, and wife, suffered from depression. For years upon years, Robert Frost suffered scar upon scar upon a scar. And in this light, ‘A Question’ makes an incredible amount of sense — how many times over the course of his difficult life would Frost have asked himself what the point of it all was? How much more grief could one human heart possibly take?
On a lighter note, however, it is interesting to notice that one of Frost’s most famous works is the final stanza of his poem The Lesson For Today, which was written in 1941 and published in the same collection as ‘A Question’:
I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori
And were an epitaph to be my story,
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
“Memento Mori” is a Latin expression that translates into “remember your mortality,” or, as common translation expresses it, “remember you will die.” But what is especially worth noticing is the final line of the poem, eventually used in Frost’s epitaph, which was to say that Frost considered his relationship with the world to be a “lover’s quarrel.” Reading that description, it certainly seems as though Frost was able to answer his own question, and to say that, like any pair of lovers, life had its high moments and its lows for him. That Frost lived to be eighty-six when he died suggests that he did eventually beat his own demons, and never quite gave in to the depression that haunted him. But at the same time, he was asking himself through his poetry what the point of all the suffering was, he was also expressing a deep and intimate relationship with life that could only be described as a relationship between lovers, albeit ones who fight often.
This is a fairly upbeat interpretation for a very dark poem; throughout this part of Frost’s life, he would have been dealing with a lot of personal grief and sadness. The tragedies and hardships that plagued Frost’s life cannot be understated and seen in that light, this poem does seem to be largely a reflective commentary on his own turbulent life, an expression of the questions and doubts that would have been a part of everyday life for Robert Frost. Thankfully, he was able to channel his pain into his poetry, and was able to give much to the world; a great many people, unfortunately, find themselves on a path that is far more destructive. But as this poem indicates, Frost was not quite like that himself. Quite the opposite, really — in his poetry, as ‘A Question’ demonstrates so well, he created beauty out of even the darkest sentiments.