The Poems of Robert Frost | Study Guide

Robert Frost

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The Poems of Robert Frost | Two Tramps in Mud Time | Summary



The speaker is splitting wood in his yard when two tramps show up looking for work. The woodchopper knows that his technique is flawless; the wood falls "splinterless as a cloven rock." He recognizes that his "life of self-control" prevents him from striking a blow "for the common good." Splitting wood is his way of letting loose. He basks in the signs of spring all around him and in the physical pleasures of hard work on a warm spring day. Growing self-conscious, he recognizes the tramps as loggers who are out of work and assumes they are judging his performance with the ax. This self-consciousness gives him pause in which he worries about the self-indulgent pleasure he finds in splitting wood while these two men need the work to survive. Thinking about his own work, he proclaims the right to his sought-after ideal of joining love and need through his vocation and his avocation, the thing he pursues for enjoyment.


"Two Tramps in Mud Time" appeared in A Further Range (1936). Frost scholar George Monteiro quotes Frost's comment that the poem is "against having hobbies." There is a sense in which this is quite believable should we take the speaker's reverence for chopping wood seriously. In this case, the speaker finds himself choosing between his own need and helping others in need of "my job for pay."

The speaker self-confidently acknowledges that the purpose of splitting wood is a discharge of energy saved by his "life of self-control." He has practiced an economy of the self, and the poem raises the question of whether that selfish mode will win out. First, readers learn of the many rewards for the solitary wood splitter. His yard is filled with the beauty of early spring: the heat of the sun and the chill of the wind, the bluebird's song, the wheel ruts and hoof prints filled with snow melt, the "lurking frost" that will "show on the water its crystal teeth."

The best lines are saved, however, for chopping wood, a lyric celebration of balance and focus rewarded on a spring day. The speaker describes "The weight of an ax-head poised aloft, / The grip on earth of outspread feet."

The speaker's heart is full with the love of his task, which is brought into clear relief when the loggers ask to take over for him. Their attention directs him toward self-scrutiny and reconsideration of a self-indulgent choice. That is, he chops wood for "love" while the logger's request derives from "need." In the end, he reaches a self-vindication. A fully integrated deed, he reasons, is his "object in living." For him, this reason means bringing love and need together: his vocation and his avocation. Thus the speaker necessarily chooses self over others and says this is the right thing to do. "Only where love and need are one" can the "deed" come to fruition "For Heaven and the future's sakes."

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