Throughout this poem, Frost uses remarkable examples of imagery. These should transport the reader to a version of his landscape, making it incredibly easy to imagine what he’s depicting. Words like “crusting” and scraping” do an excellent job making the scenes feel real in ‘Reluctance.’
‘Reluctance’ by Robert Frost is a beautiful nature poem about the impact of changing seasons and love.
The first stanza describes the speaker arriving home after traveling far and wide. He sees the world in a state he wasn’t expecting. The plant life is dying, and there’s snow on the ground. There are no more flowers he liked to admire, and it appears that everyone has accepted the state of things. Rather than bow to the winter, he’s decided that he’s going to push back and try to reclaim what remnants of fall or summer are left.
You can read the full poem here.
Out through the fields and the woods
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.
In the first stanza of ‘Reluctance,’ the speaker begins by describing how he moved through “fields and the woods.” He’s climbed around walls and up to hills to look at views. The unusual word “wended” is describes how he moved slowly or indirectly towards his destination. This helps convey the speaker’s mood in these moments. He’s in no rush.
He goes up to look around, comes down, and goes by the highway home. Then, “it is ended.” This is a concise ending to the first stanza and one that should make the reader think about the speaker’s experience as well as what else he might be alluding to. His journey has come to an end, and he’s on the path back home.
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
When others are sleeping.
When he looks around him, he finds evidence of “The leaves…all dead on the ground.” He’s somewhat surprised to see this. The only ones left alive are those “that the oak is keeping.” This is a good example of personification. The oak is described as something with the ability to choose, as though it’s the oak’s choice to keep and not drop the leaves. Eventually, leaves do fall, though, and they “go scraping and creeping” over the snow. This scene is filled with vibrant images of life and death. It’s clear that the summer and fall seasons are ending, and the winter is almost fully upon the speaker’s home.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
But the feet question ‘Whither?’
More personification is used in the next lines. He describes the leaves as huddling together and “still.” They don’t blow “hither and thither” as they used to. The happy-go-lucky feeling of summer and fall is gone. Now replaced by darker images of need and cold. Also, he adds, the flowers are gone. This makes his heartache and his feet as “Whither?” He’s questioning whether this is where he wants to be. Despite the time it’s taken him to get home, he’s already thinking about leaving again.
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
Of a love or a season?
Rather than give in to despair, the final stanza takes a more optimistic approach to the situation. He asks a six-line question. Rhetorically, he inquires into when humankind ever accepted the end of something without fighting for it. Never love nor the end of a season should be accepted with a simple “bow.” They are both worth fighting for.
With the inclusion of “love” in the last stanza, readers might find themselves reconsidering the previous images and how they may relate to emotions and relationships.
Throughout ‘Reluctance,’ Frost engages with themes of nature and human will. The latter comes into play in the final stanza when the speaker determines that they aren’t going to just accept and “bow” to the changing seasons. No human being, in the history of time, he suggests (hyperbolically) has allowed such a monumental change to go unquestioned. Just as he’s going to fight against the changing seasons, so too would one might against the loss of love.
Structure and Form
‘Reluctance’ by Robert Frost is a four-stanza poem that is divided into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets follow a rhyme scheme ABCBDB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. This unusual rhyme scheme is well-suited for the subject matter. The lines do not follow an even metrical pattern throughout. Instead, readers can find alternating lines anywhere between six and ten syllables in length, with the last line of each stanza always significantly shorter than the others.
Throughout ‘Reluctance,’ Frost makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines one, two, and three of the fourth stanza.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “walls” and “wended” in line two of the first stanza and “last lone” in line three of the third stanza.
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. This could be through the use of meter or due to their use of punctuation. For example, “And lo, it is ended.”
- Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “I have” in stanza one and “The,” which starts three lines in a row in stanza three.
The tone is sorrowful and, in the end, determined. The speaker is depressed by what he sees around his home, but he’s also not willing to accept the state of things. He’s going to work to fight back the changing seasons.
The mood is contemplative and inspiring. The first three stanzas are darker, but the final should leave readers prepared to fight for what they want, no matter how unlikely they are to succeed.
The word “reluctance” refers to someone’s tentativeness or unwillingness to accept that something is true. The speaker is reluctant to accept the seasons have changed, or that love is lost.
Frost likely wrote this poem in order to explore his speaker’s depth of emotion and the power of human will. He also chose to explore his preferred subject—natural imagery and experiences in nature.
The meaning is that love, like the brighter seasons, is worth fighting for. But readers might also consider whether it’s a winning battle when love is being compared to something that can’t be changed. No one can stop the seasons, and perhaps Frost was suggesting that no one can reclaim a lost love that is truly gone.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Reluctance’ should also consider reading other Robert Frost poems. For example:
- ‘Mending Wall’ – explores the nature of human relationships. The speaker suggests there are two types of people, those who want walls and those who don’t.
- ‘Birches’ – profoundly describes something simple, an ordinary incident, in elevated terms.
- ‘Desert Places’ – a dark poem that uses a snowstorm to depict universal human loneliness and the inevitable return of depression.