The use of symbols is a hallmark of modern American poetry. Symbolism implies an indirect suggestion of ideas. A poet may not convey his thought or meaning through direct statement but through symbol. Robert Frost makes the best use of symbols. Frost’s symbols are all derived from the ordinary, commonplace objects and phenomena of Nature, and from the common, everyday events and situations of human life. Such symbols are not peculiar to Frost; they have rather been used by all poets through the ages, as they come to mind naturally and spontaneously.
First of all, we take up Frost’s Mending Wall. On the surface level, it is a poem which accounts two New Englanders, one of whom wants to build a boundary wall between their respective fields, for “Good fences make good neighbours”. The other does not think the fence as necessary between two neighbours. On the deeper level, however, the fence puts on a symbolic significance. It symbolizes national, racial, religious, political and economic conflicts and prejudices, which divide man from man, nation from nation, religion from religion. The vital question is whether the man-made boundaries be demolished to create a world-order and a universal brotherhood, or whether they are really needed. Read on another level, the dispute between the two neighbours symbolises the clash between tradition and modernity, between age and youth. The modern young want to do away with the old and the traditional, and re-build society, while the old up-hold the value of the traditional and customary. The poem, which appears simple on the first reading, becomes complex and suggestive later on.
Another symbolically rich poem is Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. It admits of several interpretations. On the surface level, it is just a simple anecdote narrating how the speaker (not necessarily the poet) pauses one evening along a country road to watch the snowfall in the woods. The first three stanzas are matter of-fact descriptions, but the fourth and the last stanza of the poem is highly symbolical. Speaking of it, the noted critic Lynen notes down that “this is the core of the poem, a moving personal experience exquisitely rendered. Yet in reconsidering it one cannot quite shake off the feeling that a good deal more is intended. The poem is not just a record of something that once happened to the poet; it points outward from the moment described toward far broader areas of experience. It expresses the conflict which everyone has felt, between the demands of practical life, with its obligations to others, and the poignant desire to escape into a land of reverie, where consciousness is dimmed and the senses are made independent of necessity”. The surface meaning is that the speaker will have to fulfill certain duties, before he can go to bed; but the ‘promises’, the ‘sleep’, and the ‘miles to go’ widen to include more important aspect of his life and, further, elements of every man’s life. “Sleep here is, of course, the well earned reward at the end of day’s work; but reaching out beyond this, as indeed the whole poem transcends its rural setting, the idea of sleep merges with the final sleep, death itself”. It stands in contrast to the snowy woods, whose allurement is to an irresponsible indulgence ending in the loss of consciousness; it is normal death, the release at the end of a life in which man has kept his promises and travelled the whole distance through human experience. Lynen rightly points out that “Frost’s symbols define and explain each other”. For one thing, the ‘wood’ in Frost’s poetry is an ever-recurring complex symbol. It symbolises perilous or sensuous enjoyment, the darkness of ignorance, as well as the dark inner self of man.
Through his symbols Frost can accommodate vast concepts within little space. In the poem Out, Out, for instance, he tells the story of how a boy loses his hand by accident while cutting wood and dies only a few hours after. The effect of pathos is so intense that one may suppose that this constitutes the poem’s main value. But sad events do not in themselves create moving poetry. Frost has actually managed his description in such a way that the boy’s story symbolises realities present everywhere in the human situation. The key to the poem’s meaning is to be found in the fact that the loss of the hand causes almost immediate death. Usually, such an accident would not be mortal, particularly when the improved medical facilities are available at hand. His death is caused, rather, by his recognition of what the loss of a hand signifies in terms of his life:
the boy saw all—He saw all spoiled. – and that ended it.
The ‘all’ that the boy sees is the complete ruin of his life. The hand has always been associated with power and creativity; in the boy’s case, it is quite literally the means of life and livelihood. The boy sees it clearly that in the loss of his hand, he has lost the possibility of ever becoming a man who can achieve fulfilment. The poem, thus, implies that anything less than this fulfilment or completeness involves such a maiming that the individual, in an essential way, dies. The boy’s death symbolises, in the words of Lynen, the “destruction of man’s essential humanity”.
Another symbolically significant poem is An Old Man’s Winter Night. It is one of Frost’s finest poems, but has received very little critical attention. It shows an old man alone in his farmhouse on a winter night. First he is seen standing alone in a ‘creaking room’, unable to see out of the windows, unable to remember why he has come there. The imagery emphasises the very narrow limits of his thought. The imagery of light is important, for it “symbolizes consciousness, a consciousness which in his case is fading out in a weak, lonely, and purposeless old age” :
“A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, cornered with he knew not what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.“
The ‘inner ‘light’ goes out as he falls asleep, and all that remains is the concealed light of the wood stove and the pale moonlight outside. This faint illumination stresses the old man’s torpor as he lives on, almost unaware, without kindred or reason for living. In describing him as ‘asleep’, the poet depicts his condition as a living death in which the simple processes of physical life continue to function in an automatic way, long after the consciousness which makes for real life has faded out. The poem is not just a portrait of old age, but a definition of death itself. Through Frost’s blending of old age, night, and winter, we see death as a disappearance of order and meaning. One might argue that order and meaning in the external world depend on the organizing power of the mind, and this is one important aspect of the symbolism in the poem. But the total meaning is more complex than this, for Frost also implies that there is a similar organizing power in nature. When the old man can no longer ‘keep’ his house, farm and countryside, these are kept by the moon. There are two kinds of order, the human and the natural; when the first fails, the second saves the world from chaos. Moreover, if the moon can assume the powers of the mind, there must be an essential affinity between the two kinds of order. The poem may emphasize the pathos of old age and the horror of death, but it also implies a faith though death always seems to threaten universal annihilation, order, meaning, and, therefore, life itself can’t realty be destroyed. Further, the moon symbolizes not the thoughts of the day, active and practical, but those of reflection at night. It is primarily a symbol of the imagination, that special power by which the old man, if he were able, would ‘keep’ his countryside. Thus, the moon is an important symbol in the poem. It symbolizes “the organizing power which dies for the individual when his consciousness fables but which cannot itself die, because though it controls and exists within the physical, it it a principle”. The portrait of the old man alone on a winter night symbolizes not only age and death, but any situation in which man’s ability to keep watch upon his world seems to fail. Lynen makes the following observation about this poem : “The house and farm, when combined with the countryside, take on a very wide significance. The farmstead, like the house in which Eliot pictures Gerontion, suggests human institutions, society as a whole, and even an entire culture: and the countryside of the old man, the nation, and beyond this, the world”.
Frost communicates his ideas and feelings through a symbolic and oblique method. His poems like Fire and Ice, Two Look at Two, Birches, Acquainted with the Night, Most of It, Directive, Design, Departmental, and many others are all symbolic and reveal different levels of meaning. However, Cleanth Brooks rightly points out that Frost often states his themes overtly and explicitly, and, therefore, such poems lie outside the symbolic mode. Such is the poem Two Tramps in Mud Time, which states the theme—the balance between avocation and vocation —clearly, and it must be read, like many other poems, as a simple lyric. But the symbolic method is invariably suggestive and indirect, and it is amply found in Frost’s poetry.