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Robert Frost and the Sound of Sense in His Poems

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

A young Robert Frost in thoughtful mood.

A young Robert Frost in thoughtful mood.

Robert Frost And The Sound of Sense In His Poetry

Just about everyone who loves and reads poetry knows a line or two of Robert Frost, but do they know what the sound of sense is? Some of his most famous poems are highly quotable and slip off the tongue easily, but not many know that this most hard-working of poets had a theory that helped him construct his poems.

'To judge a poem' Robert Frost wrote,' apply the one greatest test. You listen for the sentence sounds.'

Robert Frost developed his idea of what good poetry should sound like from thinking deeply about the English language and how people spoke it in their everyday dealings. He was interested in human sounds, in how a bird lover or musician might be drawn to how a bird sings.

But he was also strongly traditionalist, so he believed that these sounds should only be expressed in regular meter, predominantly iambic pentameter. Sentences to Frost were not only words but a kind of music formed in the 'cave of the mouth.'

'They are only lovely when thrown and drawn and displayed across the spaces of a footed line.'

He didn't have much time for the radical modernists—poets like T.S.Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and later e.e.cummings.

'Tennis with the net down is not tennis,' he famously said about those who broke too freely with historical convention. According to Frost, poetry should be written in strict iambic or loose iambic.

But it took him a long time to establish this sound of sense and sell it to America and eventually the English-speaking world. A struggling farmer and teacher for many years, he left the USA for England in 1912, hoping to make a breakthrough with his poetry. It worked. His first book, A Boy's Will was published a year later, and with the help of the pioneering Ezra Pound, he began to establish a solid name for himself.

When he returned to the USA a few years later, he had enough material for a second book, North of Boston, which brought him the recognition he craved.

In this article, I want to look into Frost's sound of sense and try to understand what that means in his poetry. I've chosen three of his poems: "Mending Wall", "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening" and "Directive".

Frost's Sound of Sense In His Poems

Frost's sound of sense is a challenge to many readers who care for his poems and isn't universally accepted in the world of the critic.

The abstract sounds within words are very much bound up with regional pronunciation and idiosyncratic delivery—an American from Georgia state reading a Frost poem would sound very different to someone from the north of England for example.

What impresses me is the fact that Frost strongly believed in reading poetry out loud so that these sounds could be heard and the sentences come alive.

Poets who prefer free verse shun the idea of traditional iambic meter as the sole means of frameworking sentences. They see poetry not so much as a traditional tennis court but as a huge expansive field where experimental sports are played and new rules made. For many young poets writing today, sound is important, but ideas and poetic textures take priority.

"Mending Wall" from North of Boston (1914)

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Sound of Sense in "Mending Wall"

Let's go a bit deeper into Robert Frost's sound of sense by looking at some of his poetry and remembering that here was a poet who loved to cause a bit of mischief and steal the show whenever he could.

Mending Wall is a good starting place and works on many different levels. On the one hand, it's nothing but a simple story of two farmers mending a dividing wall; on the other, it's a metaphor for the boundaries we as humans build.

In the opening four lines, the narrator sets the scene alongside an old dry stone wall on a farm, the stones collapsed, and strewn around. He's talking to himself, maybe shaking his head because the frost has caused the wall to fall in places.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Who or what could love a wall? These initial words are puzzling and imply that the weather (or a force of nature or God) has no respect for walls and the work of man.

Frost's sound of sense is apparent in the simple language he uses and the moods each line creates within each clause. If you read it through you'll notice many words are single, sends, spills, pass, work, made ....even whole lines have single syllable words.

Line 10:

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

an echo of an actual New England farmer talking with a colleague, perhaps?

As the poem progresses, the story broadens. The narrator, the speaker, is joined by another—a neighbor, and they walk the wall, mending as they go. Then they reach some pine and apple trees, where the wall could be left as no wall?

Here Frost becomes mischievous. The neighbor is from old farm stock, unimaginative, 'like an old-stone savage armed' and won't entertain ideas of what to wall in or wall out.

'Good fences make good neighbors' is all the neighbor says, repeating the phrase his father and likely his ancestors have always said.

Alliteration and Assonance

There are many poetic devices in Frost's work, but like many modern poets, he wouldn't have been a slave to them. He was more interested in capturing 'dramatic tones of meaning . . . across the rigidity of a limited meter . . . ' and striving to get 'tune' into his sentences.


occurs when vowel sounds are the same in words that are close together. In "Mending Wall", for example, lines 9 and 10 read:

To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,


same sound consonants—occurs in lines 13 and 14:

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.


same sounding letters starting words, close together—you'll find in lines 32 and 40:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know....

and again:

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

Robert Frost's Poetry And Sound of Sense

When asked if he thought himself a Nature poet Frost replied:

'There's always something else in my poetry.'

That something else is usually wrapped up in a metaphor and given to the reader to unpack and interpret in any way they want. Some say this is the beauty of Frost's multi-layered work—it's never literal; there are hidden meanings, despite the colloquial language.

Many of his poems appear straightforward, based on a New Hampshire landscape, for example, taking the form of a dialogue or inner narrative. The language is often simple yet within it are embedded metaphors, images and ambiguity.

As the reader digests the lines, different soundscapes and meanings combine to produce darker and more complex possibilities. The sound of sense comes through again but in slightly altered ways.

For example, the poem 'Acquainted With The Night' could be interpreted as nothing more than the dull travels of a walking man as he plods through a city at night. Yet, look deeper and you'll discover that this short work is a metaphor for depression, grief, and the journey through despair on a dark night of the soul.

The poet was certainly no stranger to trauma in his personal life. Four of his six children died early, and he suffered from bouts of depression for most of his adult life. You could say that, by writing poetry, he was able to exorcise his demons through the potency of his language.

Although not religious in the conventional sense, he was heavily influenced by certain biblical texts. This poem echoes passages from the book of Isaiah, for example, which talks of being 'acquainted with grief.'

'These poems are written in parable so the wrong people won't understand, and so be saved,' wrote Frost.

Frost's poetry has inspired many a college class because the language is simple enough to understand yet has multiple meanings. You may think there's only one road, but many more appear as you journey along in thought.

A Frost poem can easily become a catalyst for self-exploration and discovery.

'I'm always saying something that's just the edge of something more.'

Robert Frost

Robert Frost's farm in Derry, New Hampshire

Robert Frost's farm in Derry, New Hampshire


Work—farm work, land management, physical graft, contracts.

Human Condition—Solitude, Loneliness, Grief, Existence, Fear, Death, Love, Extinction, Depression, Life decisions, Communication.

Travel—Landscape, Rural Issues,

Nature—Trees, Flowers, Animals.

The Journey—spiritual transformation, self discovery.

More On The Sound of Sense

In the popular mind, Robert Frost is famous for 'realistic depictions of rural life.' That may be true on one level—just think about the Hollywood movie The Shawshank Redemption, in which one prisoner asks another about to be released to look for a hidden package in a stone wall close to an oak tree 'like something out of a Robert Frost poem'—but the poet himself always wanted something more.

He wanted his poems to be parables, full of hidden meaning and images, to be understood by only those able to travel the right road. But where does the sound of sense fit in with hidden meaning?

Well, Frost carefully composed most of his poems with an emphasis on rhythms within sound—the various short and long vowels combined with hard and soft consonants—to produce memorable and meaningful lines that made sense when heard by listeners.

"Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening" (1922)

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Many readers and critics think this poem's speaker offers a choice between life and death—promises and commitments or resting in the lovely snow-filled wood. Some take it to the extremes and see suicide as the subject matter. The inner thoughts expressed in the poem are those of someone contemplating the end.

Frost offered no definitive interpretation—that's up to the reader.


This is perhaps the most well-known of Frost's poems. It combines steady rhythms and straightforward rhyme within a framework of four beats per line, the strong imagery immediate and stark.

As the poem progresses, the reader is taken into the mind of the speaker - a person riding home from a day's work? The woods before him look inviting as they fill with snow, but the man can't hang around to appreciate this; he has to move on because of his deadlines, his commitments and promises.

In literal terms, this is a quaint winter countryside scene, nothing more. Picture woods, snow, horse, man, and a dark evening. Yet is there not something else to consider? Frost's figurative language invites us to look for more, the ambiguous lines in each stanza sending the reader's mind in different directions.

As a result, questions arise. Why are these woods significant? Why stop? Will the man abandon his horse and head off into the woods? The man has deadlines and is far from home. Perhaps he wants to quit the journey and go sleep under the trees?

These preliminary questions help form other ideas. There seems to be some tension created in the man's mind. He's torn between a need to go on and a longing to stay.

Even his horse is puzzled by this curious situation. A creature of routine, the horse, reminds the owner that this is no place to rest. There could be hidden dangers. Better move on, keep those long-standing promises.

"Directive" (1947)

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry --
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there's a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods' excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone's road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put up a sign CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.
First there's the children's house of make believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.
(I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Three or More Possible Meanings Within Frost's "Directive"

"Directive" has been called Frost's last major poem and is in loose iambic blank verse. Written a couple of years after the end of World War Two, it's a metaphorical journey out of chaos into a less confusing world. At least, that's what the poem suggests on first reading!

With Frost, however, it's never that straightforward! The title, for example, is strangely official and comes from the Latin direct, put straight. Is this poem then a set of guidelines that will help put the world straight if followed?

1. A Return Home – As readers, we're invited to back out of all this now too much and return to a simpler time and place where the human soul can be itself, drinking water out of a stolen goblet at some utopian watering place. Before that, however, the reader will have to become lost, for it's only through being lost that someone can be found and gain meaning from the journey.

The descriptions, imagery and language combine to form a series of invitations, fairytale-like in places, that encourage and challenge the reader. There's a definite beginning, middle and end.

2. The Spiritual Quest - Could it be that Frost is persuading us to make this precarious journey with him as a trickster of a guide because he thinks we as readers need religiousness in our lives? He talks of an ordeal, lost cultures, destiny and being saved; of drinking from a goblet, the Holy Grail no less, the Arthurian symbol said to be used at the Last Supper.

Some will be saved - a reference to the New Testament Mark, 16.16 - those who are baptized, presumably in the brook 'the water of the house' that is no more a house.

3. How To Read My Poetry - Is this 62-line poem a guide to understanding Frost's poems and the underlying meanings so many contain? Is he saying that his—all—worthwhile poetry is nothing more than childish make-believe, creations from a playhouse? Well, yes and no. With Frost directing, you might expect more than one correct answer! Or none!

Sooner or later, you have to put childish things away, lose yourself in the journey and prepare to 'drink and be whole again beyond confusion.'

By using a brook as a metaphor for the energy within poetic sentences - the flow, the rhythm, the sounds—Frost is encouraging his readers to drink in the sounds as it were.

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee

And I'll forgive the great big one on me.

— Robert Frost


The Art of Robert Frost, Tim Kendall, Yale University Press 2012

Cambridge Introduction To Robert Frost, Robert Faggen, CUP 2008

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2014 Andrew Spacey