Robert Frost’s well-known poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time” is made up of tightly rhymed (ababcdcd) iambic tetrameter lines; nevertheless, the nine stanzas sound relaxed and anecdotal. The speaker/poet tells of a moment during the Depression when two tramps caught him in his backyard and challenged him briefly on an ethical point: Presumably, there are needy workers who chop wood for a living, and Frost is “playing” with another person’s work. At the very worst, he is stealing a job from someone.
The poem begins with the sudden appearance of the two strangers, who pause to watch Frost at the block; one stays behind a moment and jeers at his efforts. The poet, by his own telling, is not at all awkward with an ax and has been enjoying up to now his own skill and strength. Almost half the poem—stanzas 3, 4, 5, and 6—is devoted to a pastoral diversion from the unpleasant incident as Frost tells with precision how a New England April is really “May” one moment and “March” the next—first lovely and then wicked. Nothing is in bloom yet; a single bird is trying out his first notes, although seeming to use his song to warn the awaiting buds not to be fooled by the temporary warmth. The poet knows what a time he will have come summer, when he will be looking for water with a divining rod, but for right now it is “mud time”: Every “wheelrut” is a brook. Whole ponds form in a hoofprint, and when one turns one’s back the frost shows its “crystal teeth.” This mud-time setting is part of what makes the appearance of the tramps memorable and almost mythic-sounding. “Out of the mud,” “Out of the woods,” they come—to challenge the speaker’s rights.
The speaker clearly knows his rights, but he is rattled, perhaps hurt and angered, at being made light of by a drifter. Most of the issues are in the poet’s own mind and soul, because he seeks to know why he feels so strongly. His conclusion is summarizing and aphoristic in a way characteristic of Frost. He concludes that he has hit on a matter vital to everything for which he stands: “My object in living is to unite/ My avocation and my vocation.” The poem’s last stanza resembles a homily; the sharply worded sentiment seems worthy of one’s taking it entirely to heart. Few poets move more fluently between the small happenstances of life and their larger truths.
Frost’s noted skill is fully demonstrated in the rhymes and the loose yet breathtakingly subtle iambs found in “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” So “easy” is the poet with his craft that one can read volumes of his work without ever sensing any strain to make the rhyme and meter work. One need only note here where the four stresses fall in each line to see how free Frost remains within what are tight metrical constraints in the hands of less-deft poets. At a time in modern American poetry when poets such as William Carlos Williams were insisting that poets break free of the tyranny of the iambic foot, Frost set a powerful precedent. He made new discoveries for formal meter precisely when Williams thought it was safe to decry it.
Despite his skills, Frost feared he would never be taken seriously in the academic community. He ended up widely honored and widely read, but he complained, sometimes without strong evidence, that critics thought him an anachronism in the “free-verse” scene. No doubt the break from the iamb...
(This entire section contains 339 words.)
changed poetry for all time, but fortunately Frost underestimated the academic community’s ability to value him. Important critical work on Frost continues alongside work on poets who for a time were believed to be more important for the second half of the twentieth century. In the time lapsing since Emily Dickinson, none but Frost found such boundless ways of using ordinary American speech, New England vernacular, and formal meter in so fine a poetic outpouring.
Frost was perhaps most fond of the pentameter line. When adopted in blank verse, the pentameter line is thought to approximate ordinary spoken English. In “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Frost shows that he can also make colloquial sounds in the shorter tetrameter line. When rhymed, the four-beat line calls for the rhymed word to appear a stroke faster than in pentameter lines. The shorter the line, the more difficult it is to sound as perfectly natural and at home as Frost does here.
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.