Robert Frost's "Two Tramps in Mud Time"

Updated on June 30, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Robert Frost

Source

Introduction and Text of "Two Tramps in Mud Time"

The speaker in "Two Tramps in Mud Time" creates a little drama focusing on his encounter with two unemployed lumberjacks who covet the speaker's wood-splitting task. Labeling them "tramps," the speaker then offers a fascinating philosophical take on his reason for choosing to continue his chore, instead of turning it over to these two needy individuals.

Is it likely that sometimes altruism might play a part in a stunted spiritual progress? Possible the speaker would ascribe to this notion. However, the speaker may also have been "put off" more than his "aim" at the wood by the condescending remark made by one of the accosting tramps.

Two Tramps In Mud Time

Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily "Hit them hard!"
I knew pretty well why he had dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.

Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn't blue,
But he wouldn't advise a thing to blossom.

The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand,
In every wheelrut's now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
Be glad of water, but don't forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.

The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You'd think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man's work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right--agreed.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

Frost reading his poem, "Two Tramps in Mud Time"

Commentary

The speaker in "Two Tramps in Mud Time" dramatizes his encounter with two unemployed lumberjacks who covet the speaker's wood-splitting task. He offers an interesting take on why he chooses to continue his chore, instead of turning it over to these two needy individuals.

First Stanza: Accosted by Two Strangers

Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily "Hit them hard!"
I knew pretty well why he had dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.

The speaker in "Two Tramps in Mud Time" is busy cutting logs of oak; he is suddenly accosted by a couple of strangers who seem to appear out from the muddy ground. One of the strangers calls out to the speaker telling him to hit the oak logs hard.

The man who called out had lagged behind his companion, and the speaker of the poem believes he does so in order to attempt to take the speaker's work. Paying jobs are lacking in this period of American history, and men had to do all they could to get a day's wage.

The speaker complains that the sudden call out from the tramp has disturbed his "aim" likely making him miss the split he had planned to make of the log. The speaker is not happy about the intrusion into his private activity.

Second Stanza: The Ability to Split Wood

Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

The speaker counters the criticism of the tramp by detailing his proven ability to split wood. He describes every piece he cut as "splinter less as a cloven rock." The speaker then begins to muse in a philosophical manner.

Although a well-disciplined individual might think that philanthropy is always in order, today this speaker decides to continue cutting his own wood, despite the fact that the tramp/strangers desperately need cash and could well use what they would earn by cutting the wood.

The speaker, who normally might be amenable to allowing the two unemployed men take on the wood-splitting for some pay, is now put off by the remark and continues to concoct reasons for continuing the work himself.

Third Stanza: Musing on the Weather

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.

In the third stanza, the speaker muses over the weather. It is a nice warm day even though there is a chilly wind. It's that Eliotic "cruelest month" of April, when sometimes the weather will seem like the middle of May and then suddenly it's like the middle of March again.

The speaker seems to reason that he had no time to turn over the job because by the time he explained what he wanted done and how much he was willing to pay them the weather might take a turn for the worse and then the job would have to be abandoned.

Fourth Stanza: Weather Still On Edge

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn't blue,
But he wouldn't advise a thing to blossom.

Then the speaker dramatizes the actions and possible thoughts of a bluebird, who "comes tenderly up to alight / And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume." The bird sings his song but is not enthusiastic yet, because there are still no flowers blooming.

A snowflake appears, and the speaker and the bird realize that, "[w]inter was only playing possum." The bird is happy enough, but he would not encourage the flowers to bloom yet, because he knows there is still a good chance of frost. Beauties of nature are always contrasted with ugliness, warm with cold, light with dark, soft with sharp.

Fifth Stanza: The Philosophy of Weather and The Pairs of Opposites

The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand,
In every wheelrut's now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
Be glad of water, but don't forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.

Water is plentiful in mid-spring, whereas in summer they have to look for it "with a witching wand." But now it makes a "brook" of "every wheelrut[ ]," and "every print of a hoof" is "a pond." The speaker offers the advice to be appreciative of the water, but admonishes his listeners not to dismiss the notion that frost could still be just beneath the surface and could in a trice spill forth showing "its crystal teeth."

The speaker seems to be in a Zen-mood, demonstrating the pairs of opposites that continue to saddle humankind with every possible dilemma. His philosophical musing has turned up the perennial truth that every good thing has its opposite on this earth.

Sixth Stanza: Back to the Tramps

The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You'd think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

In the sixth stanza, the speaker returns to the issue of the tramps. The speaker loves splitting the oak logs, but when the two tramps came along covertly trying to usurp his beloved task, that "make[s him] love it more." It makes the speaker feel that he had never done this work before, he is so loathe to give it up.

Likely, the speaker resents deeply that these two would be so brazen as to try to interrupt his work, much less try to usurp it. He is doing this work not only because he will need to wood to heat his house but also because he enjoys it. That anyone would consider relieving him of performing a task he loves makes him realize more intensely that he does, in fact, love the chore.

Seventh Stanza: Likely Lazy Bums

Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

The speaker knows that these two tramps are likely just lazy bums, even though they had earlier been lumberjacks working at the lumber camps nearby. He knows that they have sized him up and decided they deserved to be performing his beloved task.

That the speaker refers to these men as "tramps" shows that he has little, if any, respect for them. The fact that they might have been lumberjacks does not give them the right to judge the speaker and his ability to split wood. That they thought chopping wood was only their purview further infuriates the speaker. He suspects they think he is just some fool noodling around with tools only they could wield properly.

Eighth Stanza: Who Really Has the Better Claim?

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man's work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right—agreed.

The speaker and the tramps did not converse. The speaker claims that the tramps knew they did not have to say anything. They assumed it would be obvious to the speaker they deserved to be splitting the wood. They would split wood because they needed the money, but the speaker is splitting the wood for the love of it. It did not matter that the tramps had "agreed" that they had a better claim.

The speaker suggests that even if they had the better claim on the job, he could think his way of this conundrum in order to continue working his wood himself. He does not owe them anything, despite their superior notions about themselves, their ability, and their present needs.

Ninth Stanza: Uniting Love and Need

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

The speaker philosophically reasons that he has the better claim to his wood-splitting and is, in fact, more deserving of his labor then the mud tramps. His task is more than just wood-splitting. He is striving in his life to unite the two aspects of human existence: the physical and spiritual. He has determined to bring together his "avocation" and his "vocation."

The speaker is convinced that only when a human can unite into a spiritual whole his need with his love can the job truly be said to have been accomplished. The two tramps do not understand this philosophical concept; they want only money. The speaker is actively striving to unite his love and his need together into that significant, spiritual whole.

Maybe sometime in future the two mud tramps too will learn this valuable lesson of conjoining love and need. But for now they just need to scoot along and leave the speaker to his chores.

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

  • What do you mean when you say in this article "Well, I saw that the drama was going on between the author and the tramps, but in the mid stanzas I saw that he is signifying the nature, so how this nature related to the real drama?" ?

    Nowhere in the article do I say that.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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