The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 644

“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.

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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 sees a direct relationship between love of the earth and love of another human being. While the first four stanzas appear to lament the passage of an intensely sensitive period of youth, including the poet’s awakening to the beauty of the earth, he now descends to a more inclusive description of his longing to feel its weight and strength with his whole body. While his images are still very tactile, he enjambs them with other, peripheral sensations. No feeling is seasoned enough or sufficiently preserved that does not have just a dash of pain.

In the fifth and sixth stanzas, Frost presents a complex, intensely passionate, and even rough inventory of feelings and sensations. He says that he craves not only the pleasures but also the weariness, the imperfections and faults, the sadness and tears, that are an integral part of love and fulfillment. His catalog of sensuality is characterized by “salty” things and a spicy blend of preservatives: bitter cloves, sweet bark, the salt of tears, and the salt on the wounds of life.

The poet describes his spiritual and physical hunger to embrace the hard actualities of life in the last two stanzas. His hand is made stiff and sore and scarred from leaning hard on the grass and sand. His reference to such scars suggests an implicit acceptance of the scars of experience which come with age. His description of the sacredness of his love suggests that he feels a rough, perhaps almost masochistic, pleasure in resisting death and in reviving the senses. Yet there is a direct and very physical connection between the sensation of his hand on grass and sand, his acceptance of death, and his metaphorical and symbolic hunger to embrace the whole earth, a passion which is even more fully described in the last stanza.

In the final stanza, the poem affirms his hunger to move beyond the effects of mere sensation, exquisite as it may be. He attempts to transcend the limits of sensuality by making a connection between the total spectrum of his emotions and his whole body. In his awareness of the onset of old age, he longs for enough weight and strength to feel the hard actualities of life with his whole being and with his whole length.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 362

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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 136

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.

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