Justin W. Price, AKA PDXKaraokeGuy, is a freelance writer, blogger, and award-nominated author based out of Juneau, Alaska.
The Spiritual Act of Chopping Wood
In poetry, it is often assumed, erroneously or otherwise, that the speaker in the poem is the writer of the poem. As in other forms of literature, however, that is not always the case. This is especially true of the persona poem. The persona poem allows the author to take on the voice of another person, often to express an unpopular viewpoint. Frost was quite fond of the persona poem. His most famous is perhaps "Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening." Some could argue that this was actually a short story—it does follow the narrative story arc—while Frost himself would lament this label.
Frost loved to invoke this poetic device frequently. Most of the time, he adopted this technique of “speaking” in the voice of another person to get at some hard or difficult truth. However, one such persona poem—“Two Tramps in Mud time”— is believed by many to be autobiographical and reveals much about how Frost, as the speaker, felt about hard work and nature while offering an intriguing moral take on why one might continue a rather mundane chore for pleasure instead of handing it over to two out-of-work lumberjacks who could use payment.
"Two tramps in mud time." tells a story and sucks the reader in from the first line. The poem, in its entirety, is below.
"Two Tramps in Mud Time" by Robert Frost
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.
Discussion and Analysis
Taking this poem one section at a time, we can see the progression. It begins with the appearance of the “Two tramps”, seemingly “Out of the mud” who stumble upon the narrator as he chops wood. The speaker sets the tone for what the rest of the poem discusses.
Two strangers come along and see him chopping wood. They engage him by mocking him a little bit (“Hit them hard”), and then one of them stands around waiting for the speaker to offer him the job of chopping wood. To the speaker, it’s obvious that the two strangers want to usurp the chore he is engaging in for money.
The second stanza shows us that he has no intention to let out this job, and he begins to lay out his case for why:
“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.”
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Here, we see the speaker show that he is quite skilled at chopping wood and proud of his work. After being mocked by one of the tramps, he shows them that he knows what he is doing. These may be professional lumberjacks, but the speaker is a skilled woodsman in his own right and a proud one with little interest in being mocked or in paying these men for a job that he himself is more than capable of doing. This, even though these two men are unemployed and could clearly use the money. Perhaps a clue besides the writer’s own ego is the philosophical notion that this job is also good for his soul.
It would seem, though, that this was not enough of a reason on its own. Weather comes into play:
“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/ . . . It is snowing a flake; and he half knew/Winter was only playing possum.”
Much beyond giving a clearer picture of the setting, the discussion of the weather gives important insight into the speaker’s frame of mind and motivation for the way he is behaving toward the tramps. The speaker muses that while the weather is currently nice here in the middle of spring, it could also turn at any time. Delaying the task by allowing the tramps to take over could mean that the task does not get completed at all.
This is a ludicrous notion, as surely the speaker must know that these are skilled lumberjacks that could easily perform this task with as much adeptness as himself. There is an urgency here that is heightened when a snowflake appears, and it turns out that “Winter was only playing possum.” So, the speaker can’t be bothered with turning over this task even though these men need the work because the weather might delay this task getting done.
“Be glad of water, but don’t forget/the lurking frost beneath the earth”
Winter is always close and, of course, chopped wood is needed for winter. You can’t trust the weather to hold when there are jobs to be done. The excuse feels lame, but the speaker seems justified—at least in his own eyes—in using it.
These stanzas are largely self-musing; it is only in the sixth stanza where the reader is reintroduced to the tramps, who, it would seem, have sat idly by whilst the speaker mused about the weather—searching for excuses not to offer these men work:
“The time when most I loved my task/The two must make me love it more.”
The speaker views these strangers negatively not only in the fact that he refers to them as tramps but also in that he resents their attempt to usurp his work. He takes this as an affront to his skills, which he spends much of this stanza speaking about.
He makes it clear that he is accomplished and experienced in the task, even though they had previously mocked him for his skills. Perhaps he is bragging about his skills because of this. In fact, their desire to do the job for him causes the speaker to “Love it more.” It also shows the speaker to be selfish or at least lacking in compassion. He could simply tell these tramps he is not interested in having them do the task for him, but instead, he mocks them with the weather and professes his love for chopping wood even more.
This negative outlook turns into disdain and disrespect in the penultimate stanza:
“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.”
Here, not only does the speaker make a judgment about them by calling them lazy, but he also assumes that they have made judgments about him. He assumes that they targeted him as an easy mark who would allow them to work for pay for a job that the narrator is doing for free and on his own.
In the following stanza, the reader learns that he is drawing these conclusions without having a conversation with the tramps. The speaker is splitting the wood for the love of it, but these tramps want to split the wood because they need the money, and the speaker assumes that the tramps find this situation obvious and that he would be more than happy to let them chop the wood.
The final stanza reveals the philosophical viewpoint of the speaker. Splitting the wood is not just a job; it’s a spiritual practice—a way to be one with nature. It is “Avocation and his vocation.” It’s a combination of “Love and need.” In the end, the tramps leave without securing work and without understanding the philosophical concept and the joy that this activity brings to the speaker.
The question still remains; was the speaker justified in his harsh critique of these two so-called tramps? The poem concludes with the idea that his love of and need for this activity provides him with a sense of spiritual fulfillment that would lead one to conclude that paying someone to do this task would ultimately cheapen it. To the compassionate reader, this might seem like a harsh conclusion, but to the speaker, this is reasonable, and he believes himself to be perfectly justified.
- Frost, Robert. Collected Poems, Prose & Plays. Library of America, 2008.
- Two Tramps in Mud Time by Robert Frost: Summary and Analysis, https://www.bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/two-tramps-in-mud-time-summary-analysis.html#.XbZ41-hKjIV.
© 2020 Justin W Price