‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’ by Robert Frost is a twenty-eight line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The lines do not conform to one particular rhyme scheme. Instead, they are unified by similar dark images, the repetition of words and phrases, and moments of alliteration. The poem was published in Frost’s 1916 collection Mountain Interval.
One of the most prevalent themes in this piece is that of memory and the effect it can have on one’s perception of their surroundings. The main character, an old man, has lost almost all recollection of his home. This is tied together with the fact that he is completely alone in the “empty rooms.” There is no one to remind him of his life. All he knows is that he needs to stay there. The lack of memories associated with the house darkens the general atmosphere of the poem. The man goes through periods of fear, an emotion that is easily conveyed through the images of the dark night.
Summary of An Old Man’s Winter Night
The poem begins with the speaker stating that there is an old man in an empty house. From the outside, it is pressed by the winter darkness. The complete lack of light is its own character at the beginning of ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’. It seems to stare in through the window panes at the man, and he stares back. Luckily he did not get trapped there and was pulled back to the interior of his house by light at his hand.
The man feels a certain amount of fear about living in this place. It has to do with the infinite number of possibilities outside his door and even below his feet in the cellar. He attempts to scare these off by stomping. When he finally is able to rest, it is in the cave-like darkness of the night. The sleep he enters into is all the better for the engulfing darkness around him. His presence as a single human being fills the space much better when the immensity of the world is obscured.
Analysis of An Old Man’s Winter Night
All out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
In the first set of lines, the speaker begins by describing the setting. The scene immediately comes across as quiet, dark, and somewhat foreboding. At the same time, the home is a sanctuary from the darkness. There is deep darkness outside this house and from where the main character, the old man, is, the dark seems to “look…in at him.” Frost personifies the space outside the house, increasing the fear inherent to the scene.
The dark makes its way into the room through the glass, a “thin frost,” and the bits of condensation that gather on the window “pane.” This occurs in every room throughout the “empty” house. The old man is standing at the window at the beginning of the poem and is only able to draw his eyes away from it due to a light he holds in his hand. Frost uses repetition to emphasize the fact that the man is on the edge of a number of different things. It is only the light that drew his eyes away and it’s only his age that keeps him from remembering the house.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
In the next set of lines the speaker goes on to describe the room the man is in. He is standing with “barrels round him.” He is unsure why he is there or how he even got there in the first place. There is a room below him, a “cellar” and he feels as if he needs to scare off its presence by “clomping” around on the floor. He “scared it once” but will do it again if he needs to. At the same time he “scared the outer night.” Both of these spaces hold the unknown. They are also both dark, cold, and separated from him by a thin divider, a door, or the floor.
The speaker explains that the sound of the man’s feet, which resembles the sound when one beats on a box, is unknown to the outside world. The darkness contains within it a vast array of sounds, but nothing like that. It is this disturbance and reciprocation of the unknown by the old man which comforts him.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
Aside from the noises made by his feet, the old man is completely silent. In line fifteen Frost places him in a chair. His inner thoughts are unknown to the world. The man is the only one that knows them. In the next lines, the speaker describes how the old man sits alone and thinks about the moon. He feels that it, and its softer light and lack of warmth, are better than the sun. This addition to the text makes the darkness outside the house less foreboding. It becomes clear that the old man may not be as scared of it as previously assumed.
The speaker peers into the old man’s mind and describes his appreciation for the moon. Although “she” came up late, the “broken moon…/ [is] better than the sun in any case.” The speaker states that the man’s opinion stems from the continuing winter season. If the sun were to come out the whole dynamic of the moment would change. The speaker expands on why this is a negative for the old man in the next set of lines.
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.
In the final lines of ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’, the old man finds peace in the night. He is briefly disturbed by the sound of a log shifting in the fire, but falls back to sleep easily. He is resting quietly in his life at this moment, but he’s still alone. The speaker states that “One aged man…can’t fill a house” or the countryside or a farm. but, he adds at the end, he can do so on a “winter night.”
The lack of light, and the pressure of the darkness, shrinks the immensity of the world down to a pinpoint of its original size. These moments are smaller, and more easily filled by one as alone as the old man.