“Departmental,” a Frost poem of the 1930’s, typifies its author in several ways. It is playful, full of clever rhymes, and closely observant of a natural scene that mirrors aspects of human life. In this Depression-era poem, Frost focuses on the popular theme of social organization. It is almost a fable, though it implies, rather than states, its moral.

To follow an ant on a tablecloth, the poem says, is immediately to see dutiful and specialized behavior. “Departmental” focuses on ants’ way of dealing with death. If a particular ant finds a dead moth, its only obligation is to report the moth to “the hive’s enquiry squad.” Even when it encounters the body of another ant, it merely informs the proper authorities, who arrange for a “solemn mortician” to bring the body back home and give it a dignified burial, while the rest of the colony continue about their business: “It couldn’t be called ungentle./ But how thoroughly departmental.”

As observed, the ant colony excludes a host of what one considers human reactions. There is no “surprise” at death, no pausing to mourn or reflect on its meaning. The ant does not slow down, is not at all “impressed.” Other than a formal report, there is no talk, no standing around and staring, as one expects at the scene of a fatal accident. Everything is routine, designated behavior and prescribed ritual. Ants are efficient; they eschew all the impractical reactions of human beings. Frost’s ants are not...

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