illustrated portrait of American poet Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Start Free Trial

What does "Fireflies in the Garden" by Robert Frost suggest about the limits of symbolism?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In essence, symbols are ephemeral, and their transience limits them. They may be beautiful and convincing, like the fireflies who "Achieve at times a very star-like start," but once the poem is complete, the meanings of the symbol fade, like the light of a firefly. The star can just keep on shining, it seems for eternity, but the firefly cannot; the lifespan of its light is so incredibly short compared to how long the star can shine. This poem, in fact, is relatively short, and its clipped length seems to actually mimic the truncated length of a symbol's figurative power compared to the literal stability of the thing it symbolizes. Frost's poem seems to say that the symbol may aim high, but, at best, it can only "emulat[e]" and "never equal" the permanence of whatever it represents.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Robert Frost's poem "Fireflies in the Garden" is a brief but eminently clear commentary on the limits of symbolism.  Frost uses fireflies as symbols which "emulate...real stars...(in) the upper skies".  He notes that "though they were never equal stars in size, and they were never really stars at heart", they do at times actually "achieve...a very star-like start".  The only problem is, unlike the real thing, fireflies "can't sustain the part". 

Through this metaphor, Frost is saying that although symbols are quite effective at times, almost duplicating that which they stand for, their impact is limited, because they attain closeness to their subject for only a fleeting moment.  Symbols cannot sustain their effectiveness for any length of time; their lustre quickly pales in the face of the real thing.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial