A wanderer in a strange landscape realizes he is “far from home” and decides to turn back. But something urges him to go farther, deeper, to become thoroughly lost. As soon as he resolves himself to do so, a guide in the form of an animal appears and leads him onward. Sound like a classic formula of fairytale and myth? Such journeys, in the mythologies of the world, lead to revelation, understanding, and transformation. Frost’s poetry is full of roads and paths; of travelers en route waylaid by indecision, by their sense of the gravity of the choice. In “The Wood-Pile,” the speaker’s decision to go on comes easily, but one has difficulty articulating where the journey ultimately takes him. This poem is immensely appealing, but what does it say? Something, certainly, about decay. Something about human effort, in any arena, and what it comes to. Something that hints at despair but does not wholly despair in its subject (for the last two lines are crushingly beautiful; they carve themselves—or ought to—a permanent place in the language). But what that something is is difficult to say with certainty. A better approach to a difficult poem may be to flesh out our intuitions and observations and see where that leaves us.
Lines 1through 10 set the scene. After this quasi-introduction, the poem moves from bemusement (aimed at the bird) to studious contemplation (the why and wherefore of the woodpile) to what strikes me as a sharp realization of despair in the last two lines. What is the source of this despair? It may be recognition of a general condition of life—that life decays into death—or the fate of human labor—that it is futile, that its fruits decay. Or it may be a recognition of tragedy specific to this occurrence. “I thought that only / Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks / Could so forget his handiwork,” the speaker says, but what if this is euphemistic? Perhaps what the speaker really feels goes unspoken, and this is just whistling in the dark. If one explanation for why one would abandon such hard work is that the person “lived in turning to fresh tasks,” the other—perhaps more plausible—is that tragedy has struck. Which is to say, at worst, perhaps the person no longer lives at all. The speaker recognizes the woodpile as the visual, decaying reminder of an unknown tragedy, and it is slowly disintegrating. This is like a darker take on “The Tuft of Flowers,” where an artifact of human endeavor brings unadulterated joy.
Yet slow fires bring warmth; is the despair, then, really so unmixed and monochrome? The penultimate line gives a strange sense of agency to the woodpile: “as best it could.” As if the warming of this frozen, otherwise featureless swamp has become a worthwhile task, which the woodpile strives to accomplish to the best of its ability. But worthwhile to whom? To the swamp? To the speaker? If warmth is in the mind of the beholder, perhaps the woodpile has indeed warmed the frozen swamp—by being incongruous; by adding features to a repetitive, unwelcoming landscape; and by turning the speaker’s thoughts to human presence in such a place.
A few more questions the reader might ask herself: Why is the speaker in the swamp, and why does he decide to keep going? He seems to be seeking something—something notable. This something is not amusement, for he soon dismisses the bird. Rather, the speaker seeks something more somber and thought-provoking—something ultimately of human construction. Returning to the bird, is the speaker’s dismissal of it as “foolish” meant ironically? For it certainly seems ironic to accuse the bird of taking “[e]verything said as personal to himself” when this is just what the speaker is doing with the bird. He sees a bird in front of him flitting from tree to tree and presumes that the bird is regarding him, considering him warily, concerned with what he will do. The speaker is, in effect, taking nature as personally conversing with him—as if nature were concerned with what decision he makes, whether he goes back or keeps on, whether he goes after a bird or watches a woodpile. Perhaps the site of the decaying woodpile conveys to the speaker the depth of nature’s unconcern.