This is an intricately layered poem that also describes the difficulties of finding one’s own path through life. In ‘Provide, Provide,’ Frost makes use of an ironic and sometimes mocking tone, he confronts themes of life, death, and legacy.
The poem begins with the poet describing one woman, Abishag, who used to be beautiful, the star of Hollywood, but is now an ugly crone, forced to clean as a servant. She can fall from grace, and so can you, the poem implies. Through the second-person perspective, Frost’s speaker suggests that “you” decide how you want to live and how you want to die. It might be easier, the speaker says, to purchase friendships, focus on wealth, fame, and power. But, in the end, everyone needs to “provide” themselves with the kind of life they are willing to die with.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Provide, Provide’ by Robert Frost is a seven stanza poem that’s separated into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These tercets follow a very simple and consistent rhyme scheme of AAA BBB CCC, and so on, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. Frost also chose to structure these lines in the metrical pattern of iambic tetrameter. Each line contains four sets of two beats, the first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. This pattern remains consistent throughout the poem, and in tandem with the rhyme scheme, imbues the lines with a sing-song-like rhythm that emphasizes the inescapable nature of Frost’s larger themes.
Within ‘Provide, Provide’ Frost makes use of several poetic techniques. These include alliteration, caesura, enjambment, and half-rhyme. The latter, half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the use of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “pride” in line one of the first stanza and “die” and “mind” in stanza three. The same long “i” appears again later on in the text with “relied on” and “occupy”.
Another technique, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “picture pride” in the first line of stanza two and “Make” and ”mind” in the third line of stanza three.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half. Sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. There is only one moment in this poem, but it is an important example of the technique. It appears in is the last line: “Than none at all. Provide, provide!” The punctuation in the middle of the line allows the last words, repeating the title, to hold even greater emphasis.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout ‘Provide, Provide’. They include the transitions between lines two and three of the first stanza and lines two and three of the sixth.
Analysis of Provide, Provide
The witch that came (the withered hag)
Was once the beauty Abishag,
In the first stanza of ‘Provide, Provide’ the speaker introduces the reader to a female character. He describes her as a “witch” and “the withered hag”. Despite her current appearance and perception, she used to be “the beauty Abishag”.
The name Abishag is found most prominently in legendary history within the Bible, in reference to the story of King David. She was a young girl, around twelve years old, who was brought to the king as a servant. Abishag was told to lie beside David and keep him warm without having sex with him. The second line, which speaks to servant-like actives seems to reference this history.
The picture pride of Hollywood.
For you to doubt the likelihood.
The second stanza of ‘Provide, Provide’ takes the poem very much out of the world of the Bible and into contemporary society. The speaker mentions “Hollywood” and how she used to be the “picture pride” of that scene. This young woman was an important person in the world of Hollywood, films, famous actors, and actresses, and rich patrons. Now though, like many others, she has fallen. The speaker reminds the reader that many of the “great and good” have fallen from grace, so there’s no reason to doubt that the same happened to Abishag. (And therefore, to “you” as well.)
Die early and avoid the fate.
Make up your mind to die in state.
In the third stanza, the speaker moves away from Abishag’s specific story and into a broader depiction of how one should live and the power of fate. He continues to use the second person narrative perceptive, addressing the reader directly as “you”. The speaker tells the reader that they should, very simply and concisely, “Die early and avoid the fate” of falling as Abishag and many others have.
The poet is aware of the absurdity of this directive and through his language is attempting to make a larger statement on life, loss, and how those two things are reconciled within one’s mind.
If one is unable to succumb to an early death, they should “Make up” their mind to “die in state”. The use of the word “state” here refers to a particular way of being. One should die as they choose, with the correct appearance portrayed to the outside world. Perhaps in riches or respectfully. Either way, everyone has to face death eventually.
Make the whole stock exchange your own!
Where nobody can call you crone.
Frost’s speaker encourages the reader to take on the “whole stock exchange” in the first line of the fourth stanza. One should embrace the world, accept a throne if need be, and make sure one is elevated enough to avoid being called a “crone”. Even if this does happen though, as the rest of the poem suggests, one will still eventually meet their end.
This is a very simple, self-concerned way of looking at the world. Rather than worry about death, loss, and pain, one should, the speaker suggests, focus on frivolous pursuits and therefore lose nothing that is too painful to part with. The next stanzas delve into the pros of purchasing friendship, creating success, and striving for power.
Some have relied on what they knew;
What worked for them might work for you.
In the next three lines of ‘Provide, Provide’ the speaker recalls how “Some have relied on what they knew”. At the same time, there are also those who have worried only about “being…true”. These are two different ways of approaching life, and the speaker acknowledges that either might “work for you”. He is simply suggesting, as he has been in the other stanzas, that there are many ways to move from birth to death, but the “death” part is unavoidable. One should make up their mind to live in a specific way so that they may die in that mental “state”.
No memory of having starred
Or keeps the end from being hard.
The sixth stanza gets right to the heart of the poem and the conflict/pain the speaker is providing solutions on how to avoid. If one has “No memory of having starred,” an allusion to Hollywood, then things are not “hard”. If you go through life without any real success, love, or friendship then it’s going to be a lot easier when it comes time to die.
Better to go down dignified
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
In the final lines, this very straightforward speaker states that it’s “Better to go down dignified” with only purchased, or “boughten” friendship at one’s side. This way, death won’t be messy, no one will be heartbroken, and “you” can die in the appropriate “state”. This is one way of approaching the troubling morality of humankind.
If one dies with ‘boughten friendship” it will be an improvement over dying with “none at all”. The title is reiterated in the last lines of the poem. It reemphasizes the poet’s main themes of life, and the molding of a life one can live with. One should “provide” themselves with the kind of friendships and career they want. But always keep in mind that no matter who one is, it’ll all be lost eventually.