Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
I paused and said, “I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.”
The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went through. The view was all in lines 5
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.
A small bird flew before me. He was careful 10
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather—
The white one in his tail; like one who takes 15
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.
And then there was a pile of wood for which
I forgot him and let his little fear
Carry him off the way I might have gone, 20
Without so much as wishing him good-night.
He went behind it to make his last stand.
It was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled—and measured, four by four by eight.
And not another like it could I see. 25
No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it.
And it was older sure than this year’s cutting,
Or even last year’s or the year’s before.
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis 30
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
What held it, though, on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one side a stake for a prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks 35
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay. 40
The speaker is walking through a frozen swamp. He considers going back but decides to continue. A small bird flies ahead of him, interacting with him cautiously. Then the speaker happens upon a decayed woodpile, for which he forgets the bird. He wonders who made the pile and why that person left it there to rot.
“The Wood-Pile” generally follows the Frostian
However, other lines present more stress and great irregularity, as in line
Others simply mix and match feet to achieve natural speech rhythms. Such is the case in line
The result of this formal variation is a poem that sounds like the speech of a good storyteller but looks and reads like poetry.
There is no discernable rhyme pattern, although the first and last lines conspicuously rhyme (and reinforce each other: gray day and decay). Tasks and ax rhyme near the poem’s conclusion, and several end-words repeat: see, here, tree and trees, him and himself.
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.
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.