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Robert Frost's "The Fear"

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

Robert Frost - with birthday cake on his 85th birthday

Robert Frost - with birthday cake on his 85th birthday

Introduction and Excerpt from "The Fear"

Robert Frost's "The Fear" is a narrative poem from his collection titled North of Boston; the poem consists of 103 lines without a rime-scheme. The poem's atmosphere becomes rather eerie not only because of the darkness late at night and the isolated location of the couple's home but also because of the woman's obsession that she is being stalked by a former lover. She seems to become ever more unhinged as the conversation wears on.

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

The Fear

A lantern light from deeper in the barn
Shone on a man and woman in the door
And threw their lurching shadows on a house
Near by, all dark in every glossy window.
A horse's hoof pawed once the hollow floor,
And the back of the gig they stood beside
Moved in a little. The man grasped a wheel,
The woman spoke out sharply, 'Whoa, stand still!'
'I saw it just as plain as a white plate,'
She said, 'as the light on the dashboard ran
Along the bushes at the roadside-a man's face.
You must have seen it too.'
'I didn't see it.
Are you sure—'
'Yes, I'm sure!'
'-it was a face?'

To read the entire narrative, please visit “The Fear” at the Academy of American Poets.

Reading of "The Fear"

Commentary

This piece is a dramatic, narrative poem featuring a narrator and four characters—a husband, the only named character, a wife, a man, and the man’s son who does not speak.

First Movement: The Narrator Begins

A lantern light from deeper in the barn
Shone on a man and woman in the door
And threw their lurching shadows on a house
Near by, all dark in every glossy window.

The poem begins with the narrator’s description: the husband and wife have returned home after being away for several hours. They are in the barn standing beside their horse and carriage. The wife claims that she saw a man’s face, “as plain as a white plate,” as they were nearing their farm. She insists she saw it, but her husband retorts, “I didn’t see it. / Are you sure—.” He is interrupted by the wife with “Yes, I’m sure!” To which her husband questions, “—it was a face?”

The wife is uneasy about going into the house without discovering to whom the face belongs: “Joel, I’ll have to look. I can’t go in, / I can’t, and leave a thing like that unsettled.” Joel disagrees that someone is snooping around the house and tries to dissuade her going out and trying to find someone. But she is adamant and cries, “Don’t hold my arm!” To which he replies, “I say it’s someone passing.”

Second Movement: Her Complaint of Isolation

The wife then reminds her husband of how isolated their farm is: “You speak as if this were a travelled road. / You forget where we are.” She insists that if anyone is lurking around, it is for the specific purpose of seeing her. Joel then realizes that his wife thinks the man who may be “standing still [ ] in the bushes,” may be a man she once knew.

Joel says, “It’s not so very late—it’s only dark. / There’s more in it than you’re inclined to say. / Did he look like——?” Again, the wife interrupts her husband by saying that he just looked like “anyone,” but she again insists that she has to go look. After he discourages her again, she takes the lantern and tells him to “not to come,” because “[t]his is my business.” Joel then realizes that he wife thinks this prowler is a man with whom she has had an assignation, and he thinks she is being silly: “In the first place you can’t make me believe it’s—.” Again interrupting him, she says it’s either her former lover or someone he has sent to spy on her.

Third Movement: The Broken Pride

Joel derides the idea that this man would care enough to be out snooping around their farm or sending another person in his stead. To which the indignant wife barks, “You mean you couldn’t understand his caring.” She then flatters herself further by adding, “Oh, but you see he hadn’t had enough— / Joel, I won’t—I won’t—I promise you. / We mustn’t say hard things. You mustn’t either.”

Joel insists on accompanying his wife to check for the prowler, and as they advance forward into night, she begins to call out. Finally someone answers her question, “What do you want?” with “Nothing.” The man finally comes forward into the lantern light. She sees that it is not the former lover. Accompanying him is his son. They were simply on their way to “Dean’s” with whom they are to visit for a couple of weeks. The wife is taken aback; she excuses her intrusion on the couple’s journey by saying, “You understand that we have to be careful. / This is a very, very lonely place.” She calls her husband’s name, lets the lantern drop; hitting the ground, its light goes out.

The Dousing of Desire

The simple narration reveals the vanity of a woman who thinks that her former lover is obsessed with her and her disappointment after she realizes she was wrong. At the end, the symbolic dousing of the lantern as it thumps the ground parallels the dousing of the woman’s burning desire to have this former lover taking pains to see her.

Robert Frost - Commemorative Stamp

 U.S postage stamp issued for the centennial of the poet

U.S postage stamp issued for the centennial of the poet

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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