Two Tramps in Mud Time

by Robert Frost

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 668

Some might argue that Frost has set up a straw man type of argument in this poem—that he has set up two bitter tramps merely to knock down their position with his own. A quick reading proves the two tramps fairly unimportant figures in the larger poetic narrative. Yet the poem is a great favorite, and it is important to discover the ways this poem extends beyond mere rhetoric.

First, Frost portrays accurately the mixed emotions of both outrage and embarrassment at being jeered at by those at the bottom of the social ladder. Frost’s account of himself reminds the reader how shaky the ground can feel beneath one’s feet when one suddenly gets a catcall from one’s vulnerable, blind side. Nothing shows people exactly how isolated they are from those of other social orders than when sudden, unsociable contact is made. From the point of view of the landed gentry, Frost’s poem captures this emotion almost instantly. Another emphasis is set into motion by the third stanza, however, a new emphasis that allows Frost to get somewhere deeper, to matters of the soul.

Frost’s long digression about the season of April and its peculiar blend of winter and spring is actually a demonstration of what it is he does in the working world. This piece of pure poetry is Frost earning his keep, so to speak. He splits April as cleanly as anyone splitting a stick of oak, displaying his prowess as a wordsmith. Everything he hits with his ax falls on each side of him—nothing missed and nothing in excess. Readers are asked to judge Frost by his “appropriate tool.” Once he is sure that he has shown the reader his skill, he can return to the encounter with the tramp.

Frost alludes to depths greater than those normally plumbed in the matter of the economic depression of the 1930’s. Hard times aside, what is truly destructive in a nation’s troubles is the undermining of human values. By implication, his original idea of “mud time” expands to include a murky moment in American history. He pleads that citizens not yield to an unnatural split between love and work. “Vocation” should not, by Frost’s own logic, have a connotation all that different from “avocation.” Each is a calling, and, in Western religions, callings come from outside the self; there are many famous Old and New Testament calls from God. Frost is a secularist of such spiritual heritage. Here, his reference to his two eyes “mak[ing] one in sight” is both spiritual and a completion of a theme begun with himself (two-footed) hitting his single mark. The tramp presents an occasion to state that there are no important deeds done without the unity of love and need. Frost has tried to “prove” himself integrated in love and need by his having forged this very poem out of his experience both with wood and words. He has strived in the poem to hit and expose the “mortal stakes” buried within his brief encounter. Frost knew what the stakes were from the beginning, and his job has been to make the reader believe the stakes are as high as his line “For Heaven and the future’s sakes” suggests and to entwine in several ways the ideas of love and need. At the end of the poem, it is difficult to pull those words apart or to give one concept a higher value than the other. The poem is a proving ground for the entwining as well of idea and craft. Idea is carried in the flow of thought, and craft is manifest in the ease of his meter. Readers cannot easily separate them, because each so clearly takes some of its strength from the other. So it must be with the concepts of need and love. A division between them is more rhetorical than real. The division between them disappears when the one finds its beginning in the other.

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