‘To Earthward’ by Robert Frost is an eight stanza poem separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Frost has chosen to conform this piece to the structured rhyming pattern of abab cdcd, and so on, alternating as the poet saw fit. A reader should also take note of the pattern of rhythm he chooses to utilize.
The meter is iambic, meaning that it is made up of sets of two beats. One is unstressed and the other stressed. There are three iambs in the first three lines of each stanza and then only two in the fourth. This form is quite similar to hymn meter in that it utilizes iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Frost did not make this choice lightly as the text verges on the worship of one’s human emotions and experiences.
The poem was written in 1914 while Frost was living at Little Iddens in England. It was not published for another nine years.
Summary of To Earthward
The poem begins with Frost’s speaker describing the days of his youth and how they were spent among sweet things. All of his senses were stimulated in a way that was almost too much for him to handle.
As the speaker aged his desires changed. He no longer looked for moments of pleasure in his life, but those of pain. This was in an effort to fully realize his own existence, experience a fuller range of emotions, and turn himself “earthward.”
Analysis of To Earthward
Love at the lips was touch
I lived on air
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins with a shockingly passionate line. He is describing passion, particularly that associated with love. In this instance, it comes to him via “the lips.” He recalls being greatly moved by a kiss. It was so “sweet” he could not “bear it.” The emotions associated with the moment were overwhelming, but in a positive, very memorable, way.
In the second half of this stanza, he goes on to state that the emotions associated with love and passion were once “too much.” This statement makes it clear that he is no longer in the same position that he was. A period of time has passed and now he is recalling what love was like in his youth. In those days life’s necessity had yet to catch up with him. He “lived on air.” This shows the freedom he managed to maintain. The phrase continues into the next stanza, showing what kind of air he lived on.
That crossed me from sweet things,
Down hill at dusk?
The air that came to him in those days was that which was “crossed…from sweet things.” Everywhere this speaker went in his youth “sweet things” came. This wide-ranging word could be used to refer to additional moments of passion or other life experiences. They were attracted to him as much as he was drawn to them.
In the following phrase, he questions what the sweetness was that imbued his life. He thinks it was perhaps,
From hidden grapevine springs
It could be this smell that travels “Downhill at dusk” and moves around him through the days of his youth.
I had the swirl and ache
Dew on the knuckle.
When the speaker was young, the days he lived were filled with the “swirl and ache” that came from the “sprays of honeysuckle.” This lovely line is being used as a metaphor, once again for love. His mind, heart, and body were consumed with the swirling and aching feelings associated with love. They came to him from the honeysuckle flowers he encountered along the way.
He imagines himself gathering up the honeysuckle and how “Dew” would land on his “knuckle.” It would be knocked loose by the movement of his hand. It is impossible to escape the sexual innuendos in these lines and those which follow. Frost will continue to relate flowers and materials of the earth to his own pleasure and past.
I craved strong sweets, but those
It was that stung.
The fourth stanza begins with Frost’s speaker stating that when he was young he was always looking for “strong sweets.” He was seeking out any experience that could bring him pleasure or joy. The “sweets” he found during those days were “strong.” He was unprepared for how they’d make him feel or the impact they’d have on his emotions.
The speaker references another flower in these lines, this time a rose. It was not the thorns of the rose, as one might expect, that hurt the speaker, but the petals. The beauty he was encountering was what injured him.
Now no joy but lacks salt
I crave the stain
As Frost has passed the halfway point in ‘To Earthward’ the poem takes a turn. From this point on the speaker is not reminiscing but discussing what his life is like now. Now that he is older he states that there is,
…no joy but lacks salt.
He cannot find happiness in a moment that is without pain. There is “salt” in everything he does and experiences. He continues on to say that there is nothing that is not “dashed” or marked by “pain.” What he once relished in his youth is no longer as pure as it was.
The world is now changed due to his age and inherited responsibilities. It is not necessarily a bad change that he is experiencing through. It has imbued him with a new craving. Rather than something sweet he is seeking out “the stain” and the “weariness” that comes with living.
Of tears, the aftermark
And burning clove.
The speaker continues to elaborate on his new needs in the sixth stanza. He is looking for experiences that bring him “tears” and “aftermark[s].” The “musk” he used to smell in his youth is no longer there, and he doesn’t want it to be.
His senses crave stimulation similar to,
And burning clove.
He is seeking out pain in an effort to fully realize his life on the planet. As he is aging, he is more determined to feel alive and experience everything he can.
When stiff and sore and scarred
In grass and sand,
In the last two stanzas, the speaker describes one moment of pain. He thinks of times in which he has been “leaning on” his hand in “grass or sand.” The tiny pieces push into his skin and after a time his skin starts to ache. This is a connection to the earth, but it is not strong enough. The stiffness and soreness he experiences from these brief moments do not satisfy him.
The hurt is not enough:
To all my length.
In the final quatrain of ‘To Earthward’ the speaker completes his emotional and spiritual journey to the earth. He has been seeking out its power and its strength. The speaker has a deep desire to know the world physically and to “feel” it,
[…] as rough
To all [his] length.
He is looking for a full-body experience that makes him feel grounded, alive, and at one with the planet. Rather than seeking ephemeral pleasures as he did when he was young, he is looking for something physically real, even, and especially, if it brings him pain.