The Silken Tent

by Robert Frost

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 633

Relationships, Responsibilities, and Interconnectedness

This poem centers on how our relationships and responsibilities actually help to keep us centered and our souls sure. These relationships and responsibilities are represented as the ropes and cords that support the central wooden pole of a silken tent. As the tent shifts and sways in the summer breezes, the ropes “relent” somewhat, relaxing or slackening a bit in their hold, so that the pole does not seem to depend on any one too much but, rather, depends on all of them at once to remain upright. In this extended simile, the central pole is a person’s soul, and an individual—the “She” of the first line—is compared to a silken tent at noon in the summertime (though it need not necessarily be a “she” or even one person; the poem does seem to address the human condition in general).

The poem suggests that we are, each of us, tied to every other thing on the earth. The speaker says that “countless” ties connect us to all the things on earth, “the compass round,” meaning that we are figuratively tied (as the tent is tied to the ground around it) to all things on the earth: nature, other people, and everything else. This creates the pleasing idea that each person on the planet possesses a fundamental connection to every other person on the planet, to every other living being, to everything in nature. We are “strictly held by none,” and yet these strong connections still exist, even when we are not aware of them.

However, we really only notice these relationships, this “slightest bondage” to everything around us, when something tests us. Only when the “capricious” and unpredictable summer breezes shift the entire tent do we become aware of the ropes that tie it to the ground and the connections that link us to everything else.

Love and Admiration

Although the poem is universal in its implications, the fact that it is a Shakespearean-style sonnet, and that it describes a singular “She,” indicates that it is also a love poem. The speaker can be interpreted as describing a specific woman, one whom he admires and praises. The image of the tent is beautiful, and the poem’s setting in the sunshine and breezes of a summer day is telling: the summer season is often associated with love, as in Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18, which begins, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” It is also significant that the tent is made of silk rather than canvas or some other more utilitarian fabric; silk is light and soft, and calls up associations with sensuality and traditional concepts of femininity. Frost also hints at the texture of silk through the alliteration of s and soft c sounds in words and phrases such as “she,” “sunny summer,” “supporting central cedar,” “signifies the sureness of the soul,” “single,” “strictly,” and “slightly.”

Silk is not necessarily the toughest material, yet it is strong and durable, and the tent of the poem has a strength all its own—partially in its “supporting central cedar pole,” which points to heaven, or virtuousness, and “signifies the sureness of the soul.” The woman the speaker describes, then, is spiritually strong; her soul is steadfast, an admirable quality. The cedar pole itself seems to derive its “sureness” from the many “silken ties of love and thought” that bind it to the broader world, to other people, and to “every thing on earth.” The ties are loose, and the tent’s “bondage” is thus “slight,” or delicate and gentle, yet all-encompassing and profound. The speaker’s description of the tent and its ties is, thus, a positive one, indicating his love for the woman whom the tent represents.

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