The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“To Earthward” is a lyric poem of eight stanzas contrasting the airy pleasures of youth with the more earthy, yet more spiritual and congruent, passions of maturity. Robert Frost wrote the poem in 1914 while he was living at Little Iddens in England. He was not to publish it until nine years later, when he was close to fifty years old.
While the development of a kinesthetic motif is central to the meaning of the poem, Frost makes it clear that human experience necessarily embraces different forms of sensuality and that joy and pain are always mixed. His poem distills a select number of especially vivid images that combine a variety of sensual impressions. For example, the musk and grapevine springs combine taste and smell; the honeysuckle coalesces touch and odor; the lips both taste and feel.
The poem is evenly divided into two sections. The first four stanzas recall the paradisiacal intensity of the sensual pleasures of youth, while the last four describe the attraction of human spirit toward the earth, an attraction which necessarily involves the more holistic experiences of maturity. The first section describes youthful love in exquisitely tactile terms. The touch of love “at the lips” (perhaps a kiss) was as much as the poet could bear. He recalls living on air that teased him with what may have been the scent of musk, and he remembers the confusing swirl and ache from the touch of dew shaken on the knuckle.
In the final four stanzas, Frost describes the experiences of maturity and the mixed nature of passionate love. He now...
(The entire section is 644 words.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
All eight stanzas consist of four lines each which are rhymed abab. Each stanza has three lines with three stresses modified by a two-stress fourth line. The poem starts with a trochee (strong accent first), which is followed by an anapest (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable). This startles the reader and directs attention to the word “lips,” with its connection to passion, and it puts a special emphasis on the word “love,” the subject of the poem. Generally, however, the poem maintains a relatively constant iambic rhythm (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable).
The poem has many monosyllabic words. This suggests a need to strip away complications and to simplify to get at fundamental truths. The poem’s images can be somewhat confusing, however, because they tend to merge a sense of the fragile and of the strong. Most suggest primary sensations, and there are no strong visual images anywhere. Instead, the poem’s imagery depends on the primitive sensations relating to touch, smell, and taste.
Frost once wrote of his hunger to “lean hard on facts, so hardthey hurt.” In “To Earthward,” he sets up a delicate balance of contraries in which images of pain become as much a correlative of fulfillment as pleasure. To the mature poet, pain, the “aftermark of almost too much love,” is now a corollary to the airy pleasures of youth. This delicate balance is further developed, not only in the first four stanzas dedicated to the poet’s remembrance of his youth and in the four dedicated to his description of maturity, but also in the balance of lips and air, air to earth, earth to his scarred hand (which necessarily pushes the earth away while it presses to the earth), and his hand to his full length, which would be pressed to the earth without resistance, as if they were made one.
Finally, in embracing the earth, the poet may also be reconciling himself to the feminine aspect of his nature. Archetypically, the earth is commonly regarded as a female symbol. The poet thus appears to embrace and become reconciled with the feminine and nurturing facet of his being.
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Frost. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.
Burnshaw, Stanley. Robert Frost Himself. New York: George Braziller, 1986.
Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
Galbraith, Astrid. New England as Poetic Landscape: Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
Gerber, Philip L. Robert Frost. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982.
Lathem, Edward Connery. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Robert Frost: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Poirier, Richard. Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Potter, James L. The Robert Frost Handbook. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.
Pritchard, William H. Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Thompson, Lawrance Roger, and R. H. Winnick. Robert Frost: A Biography. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.