Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Poem of the Week
The Wood-Pile

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The Wood-Pile

Robert Frost

I have lived a charmed life, dear readers — I have never had to split and to pile a cord of wood. My friend Odilon, up in a part of Canada where people still know their neighbors and therefore know how to do things, because that’s how the habits and the finesse of work gets passed along, doesn’t go out into the woods to chop down trees, but he does get cords of wood delivered and he splits the logs into convenient chunks, stacking them in the shed for use in the winter. Other people I know do go harvesting trees here and there; we’ve got woods so thick with pine and spruce, unless they’re thinned out they start to get starved. In any case, it is a lot of work, of a sort that I’ve never had to do.

The narrator in our Poem of the Week, “The Wood-Pile,” is out walking on and about a frozen swamp, half on a whim, it seems, because he says he’s going to go back home, and then he says, right away, no, he’ll go on a little farther. It must be cold — you may know that it’s harder for a swamp to freeze right across the top than a pond, because everywhere the grass or the reeds or some stunted shrub pokes up, you’ll get warmish pockets of air, and that’s where your foot will go crashing through, as the fellow’s foot does here. But it can’t be too cold, either. It’s a funny kind of “weather” all around. There’s a bird — Frost doesn’t name it, but it’s got a fancy white tail-feather it’s proud of, and it thinks — as our speaker whimsically assumes — that the man is after it. That suggests to me that the little feathered critter is what we called, in our neck of the woods, a “snowbird,” just for that white tail feather and the white belly; “dark-eyed junco” is its official name. But the brief play between the bird and the man comes to an end when the bird flies behind, of all things, a wood-pile, a whole cord of wood, four by four by eight.

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What’s a cord of wood doing out there? Well, it could be that the unknown man who cut the trees and corded the wood was going to come back to pick it up. Could be — but there are no marks of sled-runners on the snow, so it can’t have been recently. And the bark is warping off the wood. And the pile has sunk a little. And, most telling, nature herself seems slowly to be reclaiming it, as clematis vines have curled up and over and around it, as if to make a bundle. So, our speaker says, it must have been there for at least three winters. Why is it there? Why did the man leave it?

Frost often writes about work, often undertaken with a neighbor: mowing hay alongside another man he doesn’t know well; taking turns with somebody at a grindstone; baling hay with a college kid and a local tramp who is very fine at that one task; picking apples all day long from up a ladder. Yet he knows that work is not the prime end of man, even here on earth. Still, what could prompt somebody to do all that work with the ax and the saw, with his hands and his back, in the woods at the verge of a swamp, and then not to use any of it, but to let it “burn,” so to speak, slowly, not in a fireplace but in that swamp, as it decays? And by the way, as Frost knew and as he figured his readers would know, the rotting of wood is like a slow silent fire. It gives off heat — so slowly, and so little at any time! The speaker interprets it in a way that seems to give the unknown woodsman the benefit of the doubt. He had to have been somebody who pitches himself into fresh tasks, abandoning what he’s done if it doesn’t seem necessary anymore. And still, there is that wood-pile, accomplishing nothing. What do you think of it, reader?

“Wood in Snow,” Peder Monk Monsted. Public domain.

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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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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 a stake and prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
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.

Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymns, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast for paid subscribers, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. Paid subscribers also receive audio-enhanced posts and on-demand access to our full archive, and may add their comments to our posts and discussions. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.

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Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
Poem of the Week
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