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Robert Frost's "To E. T."

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

Edward Thomas and Robert Frost

Edward Thomas and Robert Frost

Introduction and Text of "To E. T."

This Robert Frost poem employs for its title only the initials of his poet-friend, Edward Thomas, with whom Frost had formed a close friendship while residing in England. Edward Thomas is responsible in no small part for assisting in the launching of Frost's illustrious career as a poet. In 1914, Frost published his first collection of poems, North of Boston, and Thomas wrote a glowing review of the book, after which the American audience began to pay serious attention to the works of Frost.

Robert Frost’s poem to his friend, Edward Thomas, plays out in five quatrains, each with rime scheme ABCB. In this poem, the speaker's main focus is on the nature of consciousness after war, especially after experiencing the death of friend who died serving in the war. Frost had encouraged his friend, Thomas, to relocate to New England, but Thomas chose to serve in World War I, in which he died. That death left Frost with his curious musing about the nature of war consciousness.

(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.")

To E. T.

I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained—
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you—the other way.

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

Reading of Frost's poem to his friend, Edward Thomas

Commentary

In this poem, Frost expresses his musings about his friendship with fellow poet, Edward Thomas, who died serving as a soldier in World War I.

First Quatrain: Prompting a Dream

I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,

The speaker opens his musing by revealing that he had attempted to prompt a dream of his friend by spreading the friend's poems over his chest as he dropped off to sleep. The poems were spread over the speaker's chest and resembled the wings of a dove that one sees on tombs. Because the dear friend of the speaker has died, the image works marvelously.

The speaker had revealed that he has only "half-read" through the poems before he dropped them across his body, and he admits that he has spread the poem there with the specific intention of provoking a dream of the friend.

Second Quatrain: What Remains Unspoken

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

The speaker apparently would like to have told his friend that he considered the man both a poet and a soldier. The speaker places those two positions in the odd context of lineage. He said he would tell to the friend's face that he was indeed first a soldier, and then a poet. But then he adds "both," as if to choose one over the other might somehow insult either the friend or either of the two positions.

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The speaker then claims that the friend "died a soldier-poet of your race." So he ends where he begins, in a sense, by placing soldier first in the phrase. By race, the speaker surely means nation. The friend about whom this poem was written is, of course, Edward Thomas, who died serving his country, England, in WWI. Frost likely used the term "race" so loosely, in order to effect the rime with "face." (This use of rime is quite often unseemly, and it happens too often, allowing meaning to take a back seat to rime.)

Third Quatrain: An Unfortunate Omission

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained—
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

In the third quatrain, the speaker reveals that his relationship with the deceased was a close one. They both had intended that nothing between them would ever remain "unsaid." He calls his friend "brother" to demonstrate the closeness of their friendship. However, the speaker is sorry that he did not have the chance to say to his friend that he considered him a soldier-poet.

In addition to that unfortunate omission, the speaker realizes that they had not had the opportunity to say exactly what each would have considered "Victory." The speaker remains somewhat vague about his notion of victory over what, as he just says, "Victory for what is lost and gained."

The speaker senses that his friend felt that by serving in war, the friend had gained a victory, but the speaker likely wishes he could have discussed that with the friend in order to understand it better. The speaker knows what he has lost; he has lost his friend, but now he is having difficulty in accepting that loss as a positive instead of negative event in his life, and also in the lives of both men.

Fourth Quatrain: Death and Questions

You went to meet the shell's embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you—the other way.

It was at the Battle of Vimy Ridge that the Canadian Corps demonstrated its ability to fight successfully. Despite great losses, the Canadians came out victorious with the other Allied troops. In this battle, Edward Thomas died, and the speaker in this poem recognizes the fact.

The speaker dramatizes his friend's death by metaphorically likening it to meeting an embrace, but this embrace is of "fire" from the shell that took the life of Thomas. When the speaker's friend "fell that day," the war was over for his friend, and the speaker says that at the time, it seemed to him that it over more for the dead friend than for himself.

But now it seems the opposite for the speaker. Now that the war is over, that war has become more intense for the speaker than for the friend, likely because the friend will forever continue to remain a casualty of war, which keeps him tied to that event.

Fifth Quatrain: Nature of the Consciousness of War

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

The speaker continues musing on for whom the war is more over, and he poses a question, rhetorical in nature, wondering how the war can in fact be over more for either of them unless he is able to express that fact in words to his friend.

The speaker inserts into his question the fact that the Battle of Vimy (and the larger Battle of Arras) had sent the Germans packing "beyond the Rhine." But the speaker remains in a state of quandary from not knowing how the friend would feel about the war effort and also continuing to wonder if the friend would be "pleased once more with words of mine."

The speaker is obviously referring to the fellow poet-friend's being pleased with the speaker's poem. But the speaker also continues to wonder about the friend's consciousness and how, if he were still living, he would reckon his values with the nature of war and how that reckoning would influence his poetry.

Robert Frost - Library of Congress

Robert Frost - Library of Congress

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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