Ballads are among the oldest forms of poetry, and so they have had a long time to evolve and change throughout history. Traditionally, ballads were set to song and featured refrains and interludes. Eventually, the song became a distinct style of poetry, which typically meant that the poem could be set to music, if the writer intended, but didn’t necessarily need to be. The one thing that has stuck around throughout the ages, however, is that ballads are nearly always focused on the wonderful complexities of love. A Frosty Night by Robert Graves is an excellent example of such a piece, one that explores this complex emotion through verses that are both simple and complex, in their own unique poetic way. You can read the full poem here.
A Frosty Night Analysis
First and Second Stanza
Mother: Alice, dear, what ails you,
Dazed and white and shaken?
Mother, do not hold me so,
Let me write my letter.
A Frosty Night is written in the ballad style, which means that it is a simplistic type of poem; it follows an ABCB rhyming style, and, as is typical (but not necessarily required) of the ballad, uses love as a central theme, and is written through quatrains. Robert Graves has also written his poem as a duologue, which simply means that it features two characters engaged in a conversation. As a part of this style, he has included an indication for who is speaking in a given line, in very much the same way as in the script for a play — these are not meant to be read aloud with the rest of the poem, but are instead featured as indications for the sake of clarity.
The first two lines of the poem introduce Alice and her Mother as the two main characters that narrate the work. The title of the piece offers contextual detail for the piece, as “a frosty winter night” is a part of the setting. This is an important insight for the introductory paragraph, wherein Alice’s mother asks what is wrong with her child, who vaguely resembles a wintry night, in that she is acting dazed and shaken. The first verse is filled with questions, to convey the worry of the mother, who sees that something as amiss with her daughter. For her part, Alice denies that anything is wrong, and insists her mother leave her alone to write the letter she is working on. Alice’s formal language, including addressing “Mother” twice, juxtaposes her character from her mother’s nicely, portraying her as being a calmer and more rational figure, in contrast to the description of her being dazed and shaken.
Third and Fourth Stanza
Mother: Sweet, my dear, what ails you?
Through green boughs of June.
In the third and fourth stanzas, Alice and her mother begin an argument over what has caused Alice’s state — her mother isn’t accepting her attempts to dodge the issue, so Alice attempts to shrug it off, saying that she was outside and it was cold, and it’s as simple as that. It is important to note that the mother asks what “ails” Alice in the third verse, but changes her perspective in the fourth one, where the winter night is juxtaposed against a June day. Natural imagery makes up an important aspect of A Frosty Winter Night, as the characters use their natural setting to express their feelings and suspicions. In this example, the Mother references the “frosty” night, and the “coldly” gaping moon, but relays an idea that there are birds chirping through green trees, as in June. The first half of the verse describes a dark and unpleasant scene, while the second half juxtaposes its opposite. This suggests that the Mother suspects that her daughter is not “ailed” by anything, but is feeling dazed and shaken for a different reason.
Soft and thick the snow lay,
Skip so bold and high.
The fifth verse is written in very much the same theme as the fourth one, with a notable exception — in this verse, the winter imagery is depicted in a much more calm and tranquil way. Graves describes the snow as being soft and makes a point of mentioning the starlight, and once again compares these images to springtime happiness, further signaling a change in her perspective concerning recent events. The juxtaposed images are the mother’s way of pointing out that something is not entirely right with Alice’s story, but of course, very few people actually communicate with others in such a way. Robert Graves uses poetic devices in A Frosty Night to add depth to the conversation, which would otherwise be fairly unremarkable, and certainly not worth the reader’s time to read. By using natural imagery, juxtaposition, and metaphor here, Graves effectively brings life to the duologue, while also allowing the reader to think of events as being tied to one another in unique ways.
Sixth and Seventh Stanza
Your feet were dancing, Alice,
Alice: Mother, let me go!
Despite the dark imagery and the worrying state of Alice, the cause of her shaken behavior actually has a very simple explanation — she is in love. Alice’s mother points out that she appeared as though she had died and gone to Heaven, as the warn and cold images blend together to portray the dizzying and confusing sensation of first love. Alice was telling the truth when she said she had been out in the cold, but it was not the source of her mental state. A Frosty Night concludes with the Mother’s assertion that someone told Alice they loved her, and she responds by once again demanding that her mother leave her alone, which the audience can portray as a confirmation in spirit, if not in literal affirmation from Alice.
A Frosty Night is an example of a poem that explores a very simple idea in a subtly extravagant way. At its core, this is a love story, where Robert Graves explores a simple conversation between a mother and daughter, where the daughter tries to hide the fact that she is being courted, and the mother can see right through her weak deception. Bur Graves makes the story come alive through his use of imagery and juxtaposition to highlight the feelings and emotions that inform the story, and to give life to his characters, even if only for the tenure of a brief ballad taking place in A Frosty Night. He highlights the idea that this exchange between mother and daughter, as well as the exchange between lovers that took place earlier in the story, is a natural and beautiful phenomenon, by indicating that they are the same as the snow in the winter and the green in the summer. It is a simple message highlighted by complex ideas, which is usually a strong indication of a strong poem — as certainly seems to be the case here.