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Use of Symbols/Symbolism in the Poetry of Robert Frost

Robert Frost takes the familiar objects as the subject matters of his poetry but makes them highly suggestive and symbolic to represent some universal wisdom. Frost’s poetry abounds in  all familiar things like pastures and plains, mountains and rivers, woods and gardens, groves and bowers, fruits and flowers, and seeds and birds etc. But Frost treats all these elements of nature differently from the English romantics. Though Frost is forever linked to the stone-pocked hills and woods of New England, he treated some themes that have universal appeal.

Robert Frost worked individual poems into a larger unity by presenting in them a recurrent speaker ,a wise country person living close to nature and approaching life in a spirit of compassionate realism.Many people assumed that this speaker was Frost himself ,but in fact it was a brilliant artistic creation ,a persona or mask . In addision he wrote many dramatic monologues whose speakers were New England farm people. The poems in which he makes use of the familiar aspects to suggest a symbolic meaning are Mending Wall, The Road Not Taken, Stopping by Woods by Snowy Evening, Birches etc.

In the poem 'The Pasture', we are introduced with a farmer who is engaged in day to day farming life. The Pasture describes simple, every day pleasures on the farm. Here the speaker says he is setting out on an ordinary farm chore to clean the pasture spring of leaves, and perhaps wait for the water to clear. But in deeper sense the poem shows the process of purifying human hearts from sin.

Pasture symbolizes the world. To clean the pasture spring means to purify the heart and soul from sin. Leaves symbolize the sins that lie inside the heart. ’Wait to watch the water clear” means wait until the clear from sins.’To fetch the little calf” means to guide the people who still have weak faith. ’It totters when she licks it with her tongue” means God will send his messenger to guide the ordinary people. So, God will not directly give enlightenment to them.

In the poem ‘Mending Wall’, for example, Frost portrays a typical farming work in the context of New England. The New England farmers built walls as boundaries to their farms. These walls often became weak and broke down. So, they needed mending. The poem Mending Wall is also a poem about two neighbors and a wall. The wall acts as a divider in separating estates-apple and pine trees. It is a very common picture of farming life where the people believe that "Good fences make good neighbors." But the suggestiveness of the poem is very modern in its approach. The poem is based on the modern theme of isolation. Modern men built boundaries and made themselves isolated from each other. Frost’s metaphysical treatment of this physical and psychological isolation is also an evidence of his modernity. In “Mending Walls”, Frost juxtaposes the two opposite aspects of the theme of the poem and then leaves it to the reader to draw his own conclusion. The conservative farmer says:

Good fences make good neighbor
and the modern radical farmer says:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,  

But the question remains unsolved. And it is up to the readers if they will keep the wall or pull down it.
'Stopping By woods on a Snowy Evening' is another poem, in which the familiar things finally become highly suggestive. Apparently, the poem describes the evening walk of a rural farmer, may be the poet himself. But out of his evening walk beside a snowy woods, the traveler discovers a truth universal in appeal.
 
In the poem “Mowing” the poet as a laborer identifies himself with his scythe. The narrator works in the field on a hot day.  He notices that his scythe seems to be whispering as it works. Instead of dreaming about inactivity or reward for its labor as a person would, the scythe takes its sole pleasure from its hard work. It receives satisfaction from “the fact” of its earnest labor in the field, not from transient dreams or irrational hopes. The narrator follows the scythe’s example: seizing on the pleasure of hard work and making hay.

In the poem 'Two Tramps in Mud Time' Frost has taken notice of both the bright and dark aspects of nature. Beneath the apparently beautiful calm there is lurking turmoil and storms:

Be glad of water, but don’t forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath

There is a famous poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. On the surface, it is a poem about a traveler who feels tempted to go into the woods which are “lovely, dark and deep” and to stay there in order to enjoy their strange beauty and charm, but who is not able to carry out his wish on account of the realization that he has promises to keep and miles to go. But the poem has a deeper, symbolic significance. The words “promises”, “miles”, and “sleep” have deeper meanings. “Promises” and “miles to go” imply duties and responsibilities. “Sleep” symbolizes death. There are the promises which he has made to himself and to others, or which others have made on his behalf. And there are the miles he must travel through other kinds of experience before he yields to that final and inevitable commitment-death. We are not told that the call of social responsibility proves stronger than the attraction of the woods, which are "lovely" as well as "dark and deep’. The dichotomy of the poet's obligations both to the woods and to a world of promises is what gives this poem a universal appeal.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The closing stanza of the poem is especially symbolic. The poem symbolically expresses the conflict which everyone feels between the demands of the practical life and a desire to escape into the land of reverie.
 
The poem “The Road Not Taken” was also based on the poet’s personal experience. It was based on his visit to the woods of Plymouth, New Hampshire in 1911-1912. But the poem symbolizes the universal problem of making a choice of invisible barriers built up in the minds of the people which alienate them from one another mentally and emotionally, though they live together or as neighbors in the society. At the heart of the poem is the romantic mythology of flight from a fixed world of limited possibility into a wilderness of many possibilities combined with trials and choices through which the pilgrim progresses to divine perfection.

 'Apple Picking' describes the feelings, of a man who has been plucking apples from the apple trees. He's describing how he takes them off the tree and places them in a bucket and sends them off. His is a tired apple picker. He cherishes the apples like they were jewels. After a long day’s work, the speaker is tired of apple picking and feels sleep coming on.

Similarly the Birch trees in “Birches” symbolize man’s desire to seek escape from the harsh suffering man to undergo in this world.

The poem Design is saying that god is both good and evil and has a design for all things big and small. The whiteness of the flower, spider, and moth represent purity. However the scene itself could be construed as evil. But since everything is under god's design he must have designed it to happen that way. Perhaps he is saying that everything can be looked upon as good or evil depending on your perspective.

In the poem ’Fire and Ice”, fire symbolizes the heat of passion while ice represents the cold hate. The extremes of both passion and hate have the power to destroy and annihilate the world.

Robert Frost’s insightful yet tragic poem “Out, Out--” employs realistic imagery and the personification of a buzz saw to depict how people must continue onward with their lives after the death of a loved one, while also hinting at the selfish nature of the human race, whom oftentimes show concern only for themselves.

Frost begins the poem by describing a young boy cutting some wood using a buzz-saw. The setting is Vermont and the time is late afternoon. The sun is setting and the boy's sister calls him to come and eat supper. As the boy hears its dinner time he gets excited and cuts his hand by mistake. Realizing that the doctor might cut his hand off because of this, he immediately asks his sister to make sure that does not happen. By the time the doctor arrives it is too late and the hand is already lost. When the doctor gives him anaesthetic, the boy falls asleep never to wake up again. The last sentence of the poem which states that "since they [the boys family and the doctor] were not the one dead, turned to their affairs" shows how although the boys death is tragic, people move on with their life.

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