‘The Wood-Pile’ by Robert Frost is a thirty-nine line poem that is contained within one block of text. It is written in blank verse. This means that there is not pattern of rhyme or rhythm, a common feature of Frost’s work.
It was first published in the collection, North of Boston. While very imagistic, this piece is unified by a common feature, the walk. The speaker begins in the “frozen swamp” at the beginning of the day and by the end of the poem is by a woodpile. This fact makes the text easier to follow. It also helps to unify the images if they are all seen and described within one journey.
Additionally, a reader should take note of the importance of a human presence in the text. From the first lines Frost’s speaker expresses a worry about embarking on this journey. He the encounters a very frightened bird. By the time the poem reaches it conclusion, he has a number of questions about a mysterious man who entered the woods before him. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of The Wood-Pile
‘The Wood-Pile’ by Robert Frost describes a speaker’s journey through the woods to a strangely placed, and abandoned, woodpile.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is making his way through a frozen swamp. He isn’t sure the journey is a good idea, but he is committed to making it. He soon comes into contact with a frightened bird which seems at once interested in who he is, and terrified that he’s going to try something. The speaker has no desire to harm this creature and wishes he could convey that fact to the bird.
His attention is soon drawn by a pile of wood, abandon, leaning against a tree. It has clearly been there fr a long time. The speaker can’t understand the man who would spend all day cutting it and then choose to leave it in that spot, far from any home it could warm.
Analysis of The Wood-Pile
In the first lines of this piece the speaker begins by stating that he was out “in the frozen swamp one gray day.” It was in this place that he was struck by uncertainty. He thought to himself that maybe continuing on wasn’t the best idea, he could turn “back from here.” This thought is immediately shot down at the beginning of the next line. He is going to continue on and “see” what happens. Here, an interesting element of chance is inherent in the speaker’s actions. The mystery of what’s going to happen next also draws a reader into the narrative, ideally making one want to know what “shall” be seen too.
The swamp the speaker is traveling through is engulfed in winter. There is snow covering every surface, some of which is so hard that the speaker can walk on it. The snow “held [him]” most of the time. There were moments though in which “One foot went through though.” While the speaker struggles to maintain his progress, he observes the trees around him. They are all pin straight and seemingly identical. This does not provide him with a great view or a way to navigate by natural irregularities. Everything is very much “alike.”
At this point the speaker states that it does not really matter where he is. All he needs to know at this moment is that he is “far from home.” The trees do not guide him forward or back. The swamp seems to be a kind or purgatory he must suffer through to reach either heaven or hell.
The speaker has an encounter with a “small bird”in the next stanza. This is a moment of light in his rapidly darkening journey. The bird,
[…] was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
The animal is somewhat scared of the speaker, always making sure he can get away in case the speaker tries anything. The speaker states that the bird does not, in words, tell him what he’s thinking. The next lines show that he does have a very good idea of where the worry comes from though.
It is due to the bird’s concern the speaker is going to come “after him for a feather.” Perhaps one of the white ones in his tail. This is something the bird is will not let happen. It seems like the speaker is somewhat offended by this stance. He tells the reader that if the bird would just fly “out sideways” the speakers inaction “would have undeceived him.” Even in this place, which seems so far from civilization, there is mistrust.
In the next set of lines the speaker directs the reader’s attention to a nearby woodpile. His attention was drawn away from the bird and at that same moment the bird flew behind the wood. The speaker focused in on the history of the wood. He knew that it,
Was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled— and measured, four by four by eight.
The pile is on its own. It was carefully cut and stacked and then abandoned for no reason the speaker can discern. This fact adds an element of mystery to the narrative. It is also interesting to note that this is one of the only elements of the piece which is human made or at least human-caused. What follows is the results of this chopping of wood and the way the forest retook the pieces.
In the next set of lines the speaker continues to describe the woodpile and its strange position within the forest. He looks around it, thinking he’s going to see “runner tracks” which would indicate that someone had been their semi-recently. The tracks are also something one would just assume to see, there had to be some presence there at some point.
As he scans the area there is nothing. There is no indication that anyone has been there that season, or even,
[…] last year’s or the year’s before.
The wood also shows signs of its age. It is greying, having lost its life many times over by now. There are also spots in which the “bark” is “warping off it.” Additionally, the speaker notices that the “pile” is “somewhat sunken” into the ground. This tells him that a number of seasons have gone by since it was placed there. The ground has flooded, drained, and flooded again and the wood remains, mostly, where it was left.
The speaker refers to “Clematis” in the twenty-ninth line. This is a type of buttercup that has been wrapping itself around the wood. It has bound up the logs, as if reclaiming them. They are in a “bundle” now. Aside from the wrapped clematis, the wood is held in its place by a tree on one side and a “stake and prop” on the other. Whoever cut the wood, years ago now, left it this way.
At this point the stake and prop are starting to fall down. The fact that the supports are giving out is another indication that it has been a long time since a human being intervened in the land.
In the next lines the speaker wonders over what kind of person would be able to abandon the logs this way. He thinks that it would only be,
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork…
This person he is envisioning is constantly on the move, at least mentally. His life changes, his priorities shift and hard work is completed and then forgotten. It is clear in these lines that the speaker’s opinion of this person is mixed. He is at once envious and disapproving that someone was able to so casually leave behind wood “far from a useful fireplace.” The kind of life this person must live is quite different from then speaker’s.
The final lines depict the wood as “warm[ing]” the freezing cold swamp it has been left in. It is reincorporated into the landscape, bettering all organic life, through decay.