Last Updated on August 2, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520
Robert Frost’s poem “The Silken Tent” was first published in the Virginia Quarterly Review in winter 1939; it opens with the line “She is as in a field a silken tent.” This first line begins the extended simile which comprises the whole poem, whereby the woman denoted by the first word, “She,” is compared to a tent. The poem is written as a Shakespearean sonnet, with lines of iambic pentameter, an alternating rhyme scheme, and a rhyming couplet at the end; these lines comprise a single, unbroken sentence. The fact that the poem is written as a sonnet indicates that the woman is the object of the speaker’s love.
The tent is described as “silken,” which suggests that the woman is soft and delicate, and the setting of the poem (“At midday”) may suggest that she is in the middle years of her life. In lines two through four, the speaker says that the tent’s ropes have slackened in the midday sun, which implies that the woman is more relaxed and perhaps more self-assured in her middle years than she was in her youth. When a tent’s ropes are wet, they become taut, which could allude to the tension and rigidity of youth. When one is younger, one tends to be more rigid in one’s views and principles and more highly strung in one’s emotions.
The speaker then describes the tent’s “supporting central cedar pole,” which, in the simile, represents the “sureness of the [woman’s] soul.” The pole reaches “heavenward” and “Seems to owe naught to any single cord.” In other words, the woman’s soul seems righteous, strong, and independent. However, the word “seems” is important here. The speaker then says that although the pole “seems” independent, it is in fact “loosely bound / By countless silken ties of love and thought / To every thing on earth the compass round.” The implication here is that the woman’s soul is inextricably linked to and supported by her connections to people she loves, as well as by her connections to “every thing” in the world. She is a woman of the world, seemingly connected to every facet of the earth, “the compass round.” The speaker’s meaning here is perhaps that the woman is essential and inseparable from the spirit of the world.
In the concluding lines of the poem, the speaker says that it is only when one of the ropes becomes “slightly taut” in the “capriciousness” of some wind that the woman’s connections to and dependence on the people and the world around her become clear. Although she may, for the most part, seem like a free spirit, she is in fact in “the slightest bondage” to the world around her. Ostensibly this might seem like a criticism, but it is more likely a compliment as to how lightly and how easily the woman carries her bonds. She is, like the tent and like everybody else, inevitably weighed down by these bonds, but she nonetheless is graceful and seems as light and soft as silk, a fabric often associated with sensuality.