Robert Frost's "Departmental"

Updated on November 19, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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.

Dramatic Rendering of Frost's "Departmental"

Source

Introduction and Text of "Departmental"

In Robert Frost's "Departmental," the speaker muses and speculates 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 Frost poem the speaker observes 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

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

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.

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 to proposed to Elinor, who had now completed her college education. The two married on December 19, 1895. Their first child, Eliot, was born the following year.

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. His 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. The Frosts' first child, Eliot, died in 1900 of cholera. The couple, however, went on to have four more children, each of which suffered from mental illness to suicide. 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 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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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