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Robert Frost's "Departmental"

Robert Frost remains America's most noted and beloved poet. His classic works are widely anthologized and studied in the nation's schools.

Dramatic Rendering of Frost's "Departmental"

Dramatic Rendering of Frost's "Departmental"

Introduction and Text of "Departmental"

In Robert Frost's "Departmental," the speaker is musing and speculating about the thoroughly compartmentalized lives of the busy ants.

Departmental

An ant on the tablecloth
Ran into a dormant moth
Of many times his size.
He showed not the least surprise.
His business wasn't with such.
He gave it scarcely a touch,
And was off on his duty run.
Yet if he encountered one
Of the hive's enquiry squad
Whose work is to find out God
And the nature of time and space,
He would put him onto the case.
Ants are a curious race;
One crossing with hurried tread
The body of one of their dead
Isn't given a moment's arrest-
Seems not even impressed.
But he no doubt reports to any
With whom he crosses antennae,
And they no doubt report
To the higher-up at court.
Then word goes forth in Formic:
'Death's come to Jerry McCormic,
Our selfless forager Jerry.
Will the special Janizary
Whose office it is to bury
The dead of the commissary
Go bring him home to his people.
Lay him in state on a sepal.
Wrap him for shroud in a petal.
Embalm him with ichor of nettle.
This is the word of your Queen.'
And presently on the scene
Appears a solemn mortician;
And taking formal position,
With feelers calmly atwiddle,
Seizes the dead by the middle,
And heaving him high in air,
Carries him out of there.
No one stands round to stare.
It is nobody else's affair
It couldn't be called ungentle
But how thoroughly departmental.

Robert Frost reads "Departmental"

Commentary

In this widely anthologized Robert Frost poem the speaker is observing an ant on his picnic table and concocts a dramatic, little scenario of an ant funeral. He seems to amuse himself with the rigidity of his own ideas about the functioning of nature.

First Movement: An Ant's Duty

An ant on the tablecloth
Ran into a dormant moth
Of many times his size.
He showed not the least surprise.
His business wasn't with such.
He gave it scarcely a touch,
And was off on his duty run.

The speaker observes an ant walking across a tablecloth; as he ambles forth, the ant happens upon a dead moth that is much larger than the ant. The ant is unperturbed by the dead moth, hardly even takes notice of it.

The speaker speculates that the ant was not surprised seeing the large moth and because the ant had business elsewhere, he hardly gave the creature a second thought. The ant, according the speaker's musings, "was off on his duty run."

Second Movement: Imagination Engaged

Yet if he encountered one
Of the hive's enquiry squad
Whose work is to find out God
And the nature of time and space,
He would put him onto the case.
Ants are a curious race;
One crossing with hurried tread
The body of one of their dead
Isn't given a moment's arrest-
Seems not even impressed.

The speaker now thoroughly engages his imagination and concocts a whole scenario in which the ant happens upon a fellow ant lying dead. Again, as with the dead moth, the ant would not be perturbed; he would "seem[ ] not even impressed."

Third Movement: His Own Kind

But he no doubt reports to any
With whom he crosses antennae,
And they no doubt report
To the higher-up at court.

However, with those of his own kind, a series of events will take place and without any doubt there will be a traditional set of events that must occur. The speaker is heavily invested at this point into anthropomorphizing these tiny bugs.

Fourth Movement: Ant Language

Then word goes forth in Formic:
'Death's come to Jerry McCormic,
Our selfless forager Jerry.
Will the special Janizary
Whose office it is to bury
The dead of the commissary
Go bring him home to his people.
Lay him in state on a sepal.
Wrap him for shroud in a petal.
Embalm him with ichor of nettle.
This is the word of your Queen.'

The Latin word for ant is "formica"; thus the speaker cleverly claims that in the ant language of "Formic," the death announcement is heralded: Jerry McCormic has died, he was a "selfless forager."

Then orders are sent to the "special Janizary" to come retrieve the body, prepare it, "lay him in state on a sepal," and bury it properly, according to ant procedure. This must be done because these orders come from "your Queen."

Fifth Movement: The Ant Drama Plays On

And presently on the scene
Appears a solemn mortician;
And taking formal position,
With feelers calmly atwiddle,
Seizes the dead by the middle,
And heaving him high in air,
Carries him out of there.
No one stands round to stare.
It is nobody else's affair

The speaker's imagination continues to develop the little ant drama. A "solemn mortician" appears and with a comic gesture takes up the body, lifts it high, and calmly bears it away from the scene.

The speaker reports that no one comes to mourn the victim or even show some curiosity, even though the speaker had earlier reports that "ants are a curious race." The curiosity seems to be the lack of curiosity in certain affairs. Of course, no other ants come to gawk, because they all have their own duties to perform, and this burial "is nobody else's affair."

Sixth Movement: Labels That Fit

It couldn't be called ungentle
But how thoroughly departmental.

The speaker sums up his little speculative drama by asserting that the whole affair could not be considered "ungentle," even though it might be labeled completely "departmental."

The speaker appears to be captivated by the whole scene that he himself has concocted for the sake of his own dramatic entertainment. He must wonder if amazement at his commingling art and science in such a leisurely way. Might some creature above him find an occasion for labeling his labeling those little creatures and come away with a guffaw or so.

Robert Frost, poet poses with his birthday cake on his 85th birthday

Robert Frost, poet poses with his birthday cake on his 85th birthday

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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