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Robert Frost's "A Soldier"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Robert Frost

Introduction and Text of "A Soldier"

Robert Frost’s poem, "A Soldier," fashions a variation of the Elizabethan sonnet with the rime scheme of ABBA CDDC EFFE GG; it may be separated either into three stanzas and a rimed couplet, as is the Elizabethan sonnet, or it may be divided into the Petrarchan octave and sestet, also known as the Italian sonnet.

The octave begins by making a claim about its subject; then the sestet continues with an explanatory discourse. Frost’s sonnet works well with the functionality of either form: if one looks at the sonnet as an Elizabethan sonnet or an Petrarchan sonnet, it works well functioning amazingly well.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

A Soldier

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,
That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,
But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.
If we who sight along it round the world,
See nothing worthy to have been its mark,
It is because like men we look too near,
Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,
Our missiles always make too short an arc.
They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect
The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;
They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.
But this we know, the obstacle that checked
And tripped the body, shot the spirit on
Further than target ever showed or shone.

Reading of Frost's "A Soldier"

Commentary

The Robert Frost poem, "A Soldier," expresses an insightful view regarding the meaning of a soldier's duty; it is a fascinating blending of the English and Italian sonnet.

Octave or First and Second Quatrains

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,
That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,
But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.
If we who sight along it round the world,
See nothing worthy to have been its mark,
It is because like men we look too near,
Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,
Our missiles always make too short an arc.

By likening metaphorically the “fallen soldier” to a lance that has been “hurled,” the speaker begins his comparison and thought process. A lance lying on the ground fails to be retrieved; thus it gathers “dew” and “rust.” Nevertheless, the lance continues to designate some target. The fallen soldier continues to point to the goal for which he died. The soldier is like a lance that still points to its designation. While reclining in "dirt," both the lance and the soldier communicate an important intention. The reader’s attention is then drawn to the citizens for whom the soldier fought and fell: “If we who sight along it round the world, / See nothing worthy to have been its mark.” The speaker knows that those for whom the soldier had died find it difficult to understand why the soldier had to fight and die at all. Why can’t we all just get along? Why should we be fighting in the first place?

But nations are a conglomerate of differing notions. Each nation has to protect the entire nation, not just those who agree with methods enforced to do that protecting. The violent peaceniks have to be protected from their own lethargic stance that would doom the whole nation. The speaker thus asserts: “It is because like men we look too near, / Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere, / Our missiles always make too short an arc.” The peaceniks look "too near." They march, they yell, they call for peace, but they do not realize that peace cannot be a screamed-for commodity; it must earned, sometimes with blood. Looking at the world with blinder on, the too many citizens become complacent and denigrate the very real powers of state that can do them good. And it is in the one sphere that governmental authority has it definite duty, to serve and protect its citizens. Sometimes that protection means combating force or other nations who would aggressively attempt to attack another nation. The soldier whose life has demonstrated his proper duty should be enough to enlighten all of a nation's citizens regarding the purpose of that soldier's action, but there are always those who remain blinkered and thus blind to the realties of earth life.

Sestet or Third Quatrain and Couplet

They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect
The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;
They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.
But this we know, the obstacle that checked
And tripped the body, shot the spirit on
Further than target ever showed or shone.

The average citizen’s imagination is short-sighted. Such individuals cannot imagine or visualize the actual mission of any soldier. But like the lance, the soldiers, "fall, they rip the grass, they intersect / The curve of earth, and striking, break their own.” The soldier's physical fall resembles the fall of a "lance." The drama plays out while the average citizen of insufficient imagination remain smug in their derogatory complaints about the mission of soldiers. These low-information citizens remains incapable of grasping the sense of duty, the expression of energy, the love of country and life that these soldiers have felt deep in their hearts and minds. The soldiers have never been the pawns of politicians that too many fellow citizens have thought of them. Only the protected ignorant, including indifferent, self-serving politicians, have continued to denigrate them, instead of honoring them as these fallen soldiers deserve.

The couplet of Frost’s poem offers the important message: the soul of that fallen soldier does not end its trajectory by continuing to lie in the dirt; it continues on to its greater home in the spiritual realm with God and the angels. Frost's intuitive awareness that the soul of each fallen soldier continues its trajectory adds depth to his poem. That the poet, Robert Frost, possessed such spiritual insight is, no doubt, responsible for his ability to continue to gain readers in this tainted, postmodernist besmirched literary climate.

Edward Thomas, Second Lieutenant

Life Sketch of Edward Thomas

It is quite likely that Robert Frost's poem, "A Soldier," was influenced by the death of Frost's close friend, Edward Thomas, who was killed in the Battle of Arras during World War I.

Edward Thomas was born in London on March 3, 1878, to Welch parents, Philip Henry Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Thomas. Edward was the oldest of the couple's six sons. He attended Battersea Grammar and Saint Paul's Schools in London, and after he graduated, he took the civil service examination at his father's behest. However, Thomas discovered his intense interest in writing, and instead of seeking a civil service position, he began writing essays about his many hikes. In 1896, through the influence and encouragement of James Ashcroft Noble, a successful literary journalist, Thomas published his first book of essays titled The Woodland Life . Thomas had also enjoyed many holidays in Wales. With his literary friend, Richard Jefferies, Thomas had spent a great deal of time hiking and exploring the landscape in Wales, where he accumulated material for his nature writings.

In 1899, Thomas married Helen Noble, daughter of James Ashcroft Noble. Soon after the marriage, Thomas was awarded a scholarship to Lincoln College in Oxford, from where he graduated with a history degree. Thomas became a reviewer for the Daily Chronicle, where he wrote reviews of nature books, literary criticism, and current poetry. His earnings were meager and the family relocated five time in the span of ten years. Luckily for Thomas' writing, the family's move to Yew Tree Cottage in Steep Village provided positive influence on his writing about landscapes. The move to Steep Village also had a healthful influence on Thomas, who had suffered melancholy breakdowns because of his inability to engage in his favorite creative writing interests.

In Steep Village, Thomas began writing his more creative works, including Childhood, The Icknield Way (1913), The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans (1913), and In Pursuit of Spring (1914). It was also during this period that Thomas met Robert Frost, and their fast friendship began. Frost and Thomas, who both were at very early points in their writing careers, would take long walks through the countryside and attend the local writers meetings. About their friendship, Frost later quipped, “I never had, I never shall have another such year of friendship.”

In 1914, Edward Thomas helped launch Frost's career by writing a glowing review of Frost's first collection of poems, North of Boston. Frost encouraged Thomas to write poetry, and Thomas composed his blank-verse poem, "Up the Wind," which Thomas published under the pen-name, "Edward Eastaway."

Thomas continued to write more poetry, but with the onset of World War I, the literary market took a down-turn. Thomas considered relocating his family to Frost's new England. But at the same time he was also considering whether to become a soldier. Frost encouraged him to move to New England, but Thomas chose to join the army. In 1915, he signed up with the Artists' Rifles, a regiment of the British Army Reserve. As a Lance Corporal, Thomas became as instructor to fellow officers, which included Wilfred Owen, the poet most noted for his melancholy war verse.

Thomas took up training as an Officer Cadet with the Royal Garrison Artillery service in September 1916. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in November, he deployed to northern France. On April 9, 1917, Thomas was killed in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the first of a larger Battle of Arras. He is buried in the Agny Military Cemetery.

Life Sketch of Robert Frost

Robert Frost's father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a journalist, living in San Fransisco, California, when Robert Lee Frost was born on March 26, 1874; Robert's mother, Isabelle, was an immigrant from Scotland. The young Frost spent eleven years of his childhood in San Fransisco. After his father died of tuberculosis, Robert's mother moved the family, including his sister, Jeanie, to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where they lived with Robert's paternal grandparents.

Robert graduated in 1892 from Lawrence High School, where he and his future wife, Elinor White, served as co-valedictorians. Robert then made his first attempt to attend college at Dartmouth College; after only a few months, he returned to Lawrence and began working a series of part-time jobs.

Marriage and Children

Elinor White, who was Robert's high school sweetheart, was attending St. Lawrence University when Robert proposed to her. She turned him down because she wanted to finish college before marrying. Robert then relocated to Virginia, and then after returning to Lawrence, he again proposed to Elinor, who had now completed her college education.

The two married on December 19, 1895. The couple produced six children: (1) Their son, Eliot, was born in 1896 but died in 1900 of cholera. (2) Their daughter, Lesley, lived from 1899 to 1983. (3 ) Their son, Carol, born in in 1902 but committed suicide in 1940. (4 ) Their daughter, Irma, 1903 to 1967, battled schizophrenia for which she was confined in a mental hospital. (5 ) Daughter, Marjorie, born 1905 died of puerperal fever after giving birth. (6) Their sixth child, Elinor Bettina, who was born in 1907, died one day after her birth. Only Lesley and Irma survived their father. Mrs. Frost suffered heart issues for most of her life. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1937 but the following year died of heart failure.

Farming and Writing

Robert then made another attempt to attend college; in 1897, he enrolled in Harvard University, but because of health issues, he had to leave school again. Robert rejoined his wife in Lawrence, and their second child Lesley was born in 1899 . The family then moved to a New Hampshire farm that Robert's grandparents had acquired for him. Thus, Robert's farming phase commenced as he attempted to farm the land and continue his writing. The couple's farming endeavors continued to result in unsuccessful attempts. Frost became well adjusted to rustic life, despite his miserable failure as a farmer.

Frost’s first poem to appear in print, “My Butterfly," had been published on November 8, 1894, in The Independent, a New York newspaper. The next twelve years proved a difficult time in Frost's personal life, but a fertile one for his writing. Frost's writing life took off in a splendid fashion, and the rural influence on his poems would later set the tone and style for all of his works. However, despite the success of his individual published poems, such "The Tuft of Flowers" and "The Trial by Existence," he could not find a publisher for his collections of poems.

Relocation to England

It was because of his failure to find a publisher for his collections of poems that Frost sold the New Hampshire farm and moved his family to England in 1912. This moved proved to be life-line for the young poet. At age 38, he secured a publisher in England for his collection, A Boy's Will, and soon after North of Boston.

In addition to finding a publisher for his two books, Frost became acquainted with Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas, two important poets of the day. Both Pound and Thomas reviewed Frost's two book favorably, and thus Frost's career as a poet moved forward.

Frost's friendship with Edward Thomas was especially important, and Frost has remarked that the long walks taken by the two poet/friends had influenced his writing in a marvelously positive manner. Frost has credited Thomas for his most famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," which was sparked by Thomas' attitude regarding not being able to take two different paths on their long walks.

Returning to America

After World War 1 broke out in Europe, the Frosts set sail back to the United States. The brief sojourn in England had had useful consequences for the poet's reputation, even back in his native country. American Publisher, Henry Holt, picked up Frost's earlier books, and then come out with his third, Mountain Interval, a collection that had been written while Frost was still residing in England.

Frost was treated to the delicious situation of having the same journals, such as The Atlantic, soliciting his work, even though they had rejected that same work a couple of years earlier.

The Frosts once again became owners of a farm located in Franconia, New Hampshire, which they purchased in 1915. The end of their traveling days were over, and Frost continued his writing career, as he taught intermittently at a number of colleges, including Dartmouth, University of Michigan, and particularly Amherst College, where he taught regularly from 1916 until 1938. Amherst's main library is now the Robert Frost Library, honoring the long-time educator and poet. He also spent most summers teaching English at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Frost never completed a college degree, but over his entire lifetime, the revered poet accumulated more than forty honorary degrees. He also won the Pulitzer Prize four times for his books, New Hampshire, Collected Poems, A Further Range, and A Witness Tree.

Frost considered himself a "lone wolf" in the world of poetry because he did not follow any literary movements. His only influence was the human condition in a world of duality. He did not pretend to explain that condition; he only sought to create little dramas to reveal the nature of the emotional life of a human being.

Frost and Thomas

The Friendship of Frost and Thomas

In Steep Village, Thomas began writing his more creative works, including Childhood, The Icknield Way (1913), The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans (1913), and In Pursuit of Spring (1914). It was also during this period that Thomas met Robert Frost, and their fast friendship began. Frost and Thomas, who both were at very early points in their writing careers, would take long walks through the countryside and attend the local writers meetings. About their friendship, Frost later quipped, “I never had, I never shall have another such year of friendship.”

In 1914, Edward Thomas helped launch Frost's career by writing a glowing review of Frost's first collection of poems, North of Boston. Frost encouraged Thomas to write poetry, and Thomas composed his blank-verse poem, "Up the Wind," which Thomas published under the pen-name, "Edward Eastaway."

Thomas continued to write more poetry, but with the onset of World War I, the literary market took a down-turn. Thomas considered relocating his family to Frost's new England. But at the same time he was also considering whether to become a soldier. Frost encouraged him to move to New England, but Thomas chose to join the army. In 1915, he signed up with the Artists' Rifles, a regiment of the British Army Reserve. As a Lance Corporal, Thomas became as instructor to fellow officers, which included Wilfred Owen, the poet most noted for his melancholy war verse.

Thomas took up training as an Officer Cadet with the Royal Garrison Artillery service in September 1916. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in November, he deployed to northern France. On April 9, 1917, Thomas was killed in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the first of a larger Battle of Arras. He is buried in the Agny Military Cemetery.

Questions & Answers

Question: What type of poem style is Frost's "A Soldier"?

Answer: Robert Frost’s poem, "A Soldier," fashions a variation of the Elizabethan sonnet with the rime scheme of ABBA CDDC EFFE GG; it may be separated either into three stanzas and a rimed couplet, as is the Elizabethan sonnet, or it may be divided into the Petrarchan octave and sestet, also known as the Italian sonnet.

Question: When was "A Soldier" written?

Answer: Frost's "A Soldier" appears in his collection titled "West-Running Brook" published in 1928. Therefore, he wrote the poem prior to 1928.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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