Robert Frost

Departmental by Robert Frost

‘Departmental’ by Robert Frost is a clever poem that presents a satire of ant society. It suggests that the control and compartmentalization in the ant world would not work, or should not work, in human society.

The poem describes ant society in the simplest possible terms. When walking away from this poem, readers should find themselves amused and interested in the differences between human culture and ant society. But, undoubtedly, it’s clear that the two different groups do not share the same values. The rules and structures of ant society should not be implemented in the human world.

‘Departmental’ was first published in 1936 in the author’s A Further Range.

Departmental by Robert Frost


Summary 

Departmental’ by Robert Frost is a clever and satirical poem about the rules of the ant world. 

In the first lines of this poem, the poet emphasizes how uncurious ants are. If one encounters something strange or new, they aren’t going to investigate unless it’s their job to do so. The same can be said for an ant who encounters the dead body of one of its comrades. It’s not their job to care about it. The Queen gives out commands and everyone obeys without questioning her. The poem concludes with the description of ants’ lives as “departmental.” 

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-13 

An ant on the tablecloth

Ran into a dormant moth

(…)

Ants are a curious race;

In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker begins by describing an “ant on the table cloth.” He narrates how it encountered a moth many times its size and didn’t express any surprise about seeing this creature. (It should be noted that one’s ability to interpret emotion in an ant may be questionable.) The ant did not bother with the moth because he was “on his duty run.” 

The ant was busy, with no time for the surprises, twists, and turns of life. But, the speaker does know that if he encountered an ant whose job it is to explore strange occurrences, it would be “put… onto the case.” Throughout this poem, the poet takes a light-hearted and satirical approach to his description of ants. For example, noting that a hive member would work to “find out God.”

Lines 14-28

One crossing with hurried tread

The body of one of their dead

(…)

The dead of the commissary

Go bring him home to his people.

In the next few lines, the poet describes what happens if an ant comes across “the body of one of their dead.” The reader should contrast the ants’ lack of emotion with the way that a human being, or even other animal species, would react to the same occurrence. Ants’ very ordered society continues into the next lines. The speaker includes the words that come forth in “Formic” and declares the death of “Jerry McCormick.” They stay quite clearly who he was, what his job was, and that his body should be brought home to his people. But, there is no emotion associated with the lines. This creates another distinction between ant society and human society.

Lines 29-43

Lay him in state on a sepal.

Wrap him for shroud in a petal.

(…)

But how thoroughly departmental

Queen’sen’s words continue into the next lines with demands as to what the colony, or at least those within in it whose job it is to deal with issues like deaths, should do. 

Just as she commanded, the ants with corresponding jobs appear and start taking care of the body. Words like “mortician” are juxtaposed against other light-hearted words, like “atwiddle.” This depicts how calmly and emotionlessly the ants go about their business. They are not perturbed by anything they’re not meant to be perturbed by. It is “departmental” how the ants deal with their dead, although not entirely ungentle, Frost says. So, the ants are not without redeeming qualities, but their lives are incredibly different than the emotional lives of human beings.

Structure and Form 

‘Departmental’ by Robert Frost is a forty-three-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of AABBCCDD, and so on, changing end sounds as the lines of the poem progress. The lines are also quite visually similar. This is due to the fact that the poet uses around the same number of syllables throughout the poem. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example,case” and “curious” in lines twelve and thirteen and “him home” in line twenty-eight.
  • Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting and effective descriptions. They should inspire the reader to imagine the scene in the greatest detail as possible. For example: “Ants are a curious race;  / One crossing with hurried tread / The body of one of their dead.”
  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three as well as lines fourteen and fifteen. 


FAQs 

What are the themes in ‘Departmental?’

The themes of this poem are compartmentalization and control. Frost was likely considering the differences between human and ant society and suggests in these lines that the latter is quite cold and unfeeling (although not without its redeeming features). It is entirely different than the freedom and emotion found within humanity. 

What is the purpose of ‘Departmental?’ 

The purpose is likely to speak out against methods of control, as seen in the ant world, exhibited in the human world. Frost clearly does not want to see the same lack of emotion over death or lack of curiosity in everyday human life. 

What is the tone of ‘Departmental?’

The tone in this poem is satirical. However, there are some spots that are mlight-heartedrted and descriptive. Frost takes a humorous approach to other elements as well. For example, suggesting that there is a section of ants whose job it is to investigate God. 

Who is the speaker in ‘Departmental?’ 

The speaker is unknown. They are someone who has insight, fictional or otherwise, into the world of ants. They are unnamed and ungendered, and therefore, understanding exactly who they are is not important for one’s overall understanding of the poem. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘Departmental’ should also consider reading some other Robert Frost poems. For example: 

  • The Road Not Taken’ – is about the choices and opportunities in life. The poem highlights the sensation of regret that accompanies all the roads that a person doesn’t take.
  • The Pasture’ – a thoughtful and image-rich poem that depicts the chores a farmer has to complete. 
  • Reluctance’ – a powerful and thoughtful poem. It depicts the changing seasons and what it’s like to push back against winter.

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About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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