Youth and the Loss of Innocence

Youth appears prominently in Frost’s poetry, particularly in connection with innocence and its loss. A Boy’s Will deals with this theme explicitly, tracing the development of a solitary youth as he explores and questions the world around him. Frost’s later work depicts youth as an idealized, edenic state full of possibility and opportunity. But as his poetic tone became increasingly jaded and didactic, he imagines youth as a time of unchecked freedom that is taken for granted and then lost. The theme of lost innocence becomes particularly poignant for Frost after the horrors of World War I and World War II, in which he witnessed the physical and psychic wounding of entire generations of young people. Later poems, including “Birches” (1916), “Acquainted with the Night” (1928), and “Desert Places” (1936), explore the realities of aging and loss, contrasting adult experiences with the carefree pleasures of youth.

Self-Knowledge Through Nature

Nature figures prominently in Frost’s poetry, and his poems usually include a moment of interaction or encounter between a human speaker and a natural subject or phenomenon. These encounters culminate in profound realizations or revelations, which have significant consequences for the speakers. Actively engaging with nature—whether through manual labor or exploration—has a variety of results, including self-knowledge, deeper understanding of the human condition, and increased insight into the metaphysical world. Frost’s earlier work focuses on the act of discovery and demonstrates how being engaged with nature leads to growth and knowledge. For instance, a day of harvesting fruit leads to a new understanding of life’s final sleep, or death, in “After Apple-Picking” (1915). Mid-career, however, Frost used encounters in nature to comment on the human condition. In his later works, experiencing nature provided access to the universal, the supernatural, and the divine, even as the poems themselves became increasingly focused on aging and mortality.

Read more about gaining knowledge through nature in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.

Throughout Frost’s work, speakers learn about themselves by exploring nature, but nature always stays indifferent to the human world. In other words, people learn from nature because nature allows people to gain knowledge about themselves and because nature requires people to reach for new insights, but nature itself does not provide answers. Frost believed in the capacity of humans to achieve feats of understanding in natural settings, but he also believed that nature was unconcerned with either human achievement or human misery. Indeed, in Frost’s work, nature could be both generous and malicious. The speaker of “Design” (1936), for example, wonders about the “design of darkness” (13) that has led a spider to kill a moth over the course of a night. While humans might learn about themselves through nature, nature and its ways remain mysterious.

Community vs. Isolation

Frost marveled at the contrast between the human capacity to connect with one another and to experience feelings of profound isolation. In several Frost poems, solitary individuals wander through a natural setting and encounter another individual, an object, or an animal. These encounters stimulate moments of revelation in which the speaker realizes her or his connection to others or, conversely, the ways that she or he feels isolated from the community. Earlier poems feature speakers who actively choose solitude and isolation in order to learn more about themselves, but these speakers ultimately discover a firm connection to the world around them, as in “The Tufts of Flowers” (1915) and “Mending Wall” (1915). Longer dramatic poems explore how people isolate themselves even within social contexts. Later poems return the focus to solitude, exploring how encounters and community only heighten loneliness and isolation. This deeply pessimistic, almost misanthropic perspective sneaks into the most cheerful of late Frost poems, including “Acquainted with the Night” and “Desert Places.”