A Formalist Critique


Robert Frost\'s

"The Woodpile"

Eng 307

Paper #1

For many readers of Robert Frost\'s "The Woodpile", it may be tempt­ing to disregard it as being no more than some strange story about a de­serted pile of wood. It is certainly more than that. I found myself thinking that perhaps the wood was left there for the lost traveler to find, (indeed he was lost, because he wasn\'t sure exactly which way to go, as illustrated by the opening lines of the poem, wherein Frost writes, "\'I will turn back from here. No, I will go on farther-and we shall see.\'") but there is no evidence in the text to really support this theory of intent. I have thus come to the conclu­sion that the wood symbolizes man\'s efforts to control nature, and, more importantly, that it represents how man\'s efforts to harness and/or control nature are temporary. In addition to this idea of the fleetingness of man\'s efforts, appears the sub-theme of being lost; this only serves to lend fur­ther support to the more general theme of "man versus nature". Just in case anybody reading this has any doubts, I will be attempting to prove my point about this by citing several lines of text which appear to support this thesis.

In the first line of the poem, it appears that the narrator knows where he is, or at least that he\'s been there before, "in the frozen swamp". However, as the poem unfolds it becomes more apparent that he is in fact lost, or perhaps not sure of himself or which way he should go. He knows he is walking through the frozen swamp, but the fact that he questions himself indicates that he is lost. This is the first representation of man\'s helpless­ness against nature, and also an important use of irony; he seems at first to be confident of his surroundings, the frozen swamp, but it is revealed to us that he is not sure which way to go. In line four, we also see possible conno­tations that nature has the power to either support man, or to trip him up; "the hard snow held me, save where now and then one foot went through." The un­derlying theme of being lost continues to develop in lines five through nine, wherein the narrative describes a view of lines 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."

The introduction of the small bird further contributes to the meaning of the poem. In an effort perhaps to understand the bird, the narrator at­tributes human thoughts and emotions to the bird\'s behavior. The bird\'s motives are not explained, but remain ambiguous, as the narrator can\'t really know what they are. After a few more close readings of the third stanza, I decided that there is textual evidence to support that the bird quite possi­bly is more confident than the man in their surroundings, and that the man appears to be trying to forget he is lost by applying these human attributes to the bird, thus making it seem to himself that the bird is in less control than he is. This is almost sarcastically noted in line thirteen which states, "who was so foolish as to think what he thought." Since he can\'t really know what the bird may be thinking, there is another use of irony here. The nar­rator is really the foolish one because he is the one who is lost, and he thinks the bird is the one who is unsure of himself, and even fearful of him.

In line number eleven, the author chooses the word, "lighted". I con­sidered this word for quite some time. At first reading, it seems to mean that the bird is simply flying from perch to perch, in an effort to avoid close contact with the man; however, "lighted" could possibly mean that the bird is also a source of light, or that he is guiding the lost man through the frozen swamp in some way. Additionally, the word "undeceived" appears in line sev­enteen. This may serve to suggest that the man was trying to deceive