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The Draft Horse – Robert Frost

With a lantern that wouldn’t burn
In too frail a buggy we drove
Behind too heavy a horse
Through a pitch-dark limitless grove.
And a man came out of the trees
And took our horse by the head
And reaching back to his ribs
Deliberately stabbed him dead.
The ponderous beast went down
With a crack of a broken shaft.
And the night drew through the trees
In one long invidious draft.
The most unquestioning pair
That ever accepted fate
And the least disposed to ascribe
Any more than we had to to hate,
We assumed that the man himself
Or someone he had to obey
Wanted us to get down
And walk the rest of the way.
         This is a very simple poem about a seemingly random act of violence in which two people are innocently travelling through a grove in a horse-drawn buggy, when their horse is suddenly killed by an unknown man. The form, structure and language all add to the simplicity of the poem, and there is nothing odd or out of place in the poem. There aren’t even any metaphors or phrases that the reader would have any trouble in understanding. This is why, if you try to look deeper into the poem to find its meaning or symbol, there is so much room for interpretation, and so many ways in which the poem can be viewed.
          The poem consists of five stanzas, with a simple ABCB rhyme scheme. The first two stanzas form one sentence each, with no punctuations in either of the stanzas until the full-stop at the end. This gives these two stanzas a very matter of fact tone, and makes sure there are no pauses or chances for contemplation or consideration for what has been said. The third stanza consists of two sentences. This is because the first sentence in this stanza is the last of actually telling the story of the event, and the second sentence is the conclusion of the event, with ‘and the night drew’. Night is obviously what comes after the end of the day, and in this case is used to signify the end of the event. The last two stanzas then simply describe that, and why, the couple then walk away.
           One way of interpreting this poem is by seeing it as a metaphor for old age and encroaching death. In this case, the ‘lantern that wouldn’t burn’ could either signify that the body has lost its radiance and energy, or could be the waning of the sharpness and awareness of the mind. The ‘frail buggy’ is the frail and weak body, and the ‘heavy horse’ shows the struggling and labouring heart. The ‘pitch-dark limitless grove’, could be death, with ‘pitch-dark limitless’ symbolising the black eternity or nothingness of death. In this case, the man could be Death itself, or more likely a servant of Death, seeing as it says ‘the man itself, or someone he had to obey’. This fits because Death or the messenger of Death, by killing the horse, is making the couple have to venture into the limitless grove, or death. This would also explain why the couple ‘ accepted fate’ and were the ‘least disposed to ascribe / any more than they had to to hate.’ They go out into limitless grove of death without question not through fear or hate, but because of the inevitability of the situation. That is why they seem to treat such an abnormal situation with such acceptance, and almost indifference; it is fate. This interpretation, however, does bring about questions such as why the two people in this story share the same body and heart, and why killing one heart kills them both.
          Another way one could look at the poem is by seeing it as a metaphor for the lives of ordinary citizens in totalitarian states, such as Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and West Germany. The link could be to people seeing or noticing strange and unnerving things that they know aren’t right, but accepting them because the other option is to be brought down into them. An example could be when these states encourage people to ‘denounce’ their neighbours, co-workers, families and friends for doing anything that is seen as against the state or its policies. A lot of the time, when someone was denounced, and most of the time they were found ‘guilty’, although a lot of the time they hadn’t committed any crime, they would then disappear, being sent to a work camp or the like, or be formally and publicly charged and prosecuted. When this happened, onlookers would have no choice but to get on with their own lives, for to oppose or question the system meant being persecuted by it. This means that the random act of a horse being stabbed could signify another, perhaps for violent event, taking place to a human being, and the ‘long invidious draft’ could be almost a curtain covering up what had happened from the outside world. Then the man could be an agent of the government, who does what he deems necessary and then disappears again. This is why the people would simply follow along and ‘walk the rest of the way’.

One response to “The Draft Horse – Robert Frost

  1. Thank you for this; it is an interesting and convincing post. I’m not sure that it’s ever really a good idea to describe a poem as “very simple” because as soon as you start digging you will inevitably find layers and depths which will belie that original judgement. Try to make sure that you mention literary features and ideas about ‘structure and form’ in the context of specific examples. So always try to qualify exactly *how* these various strategies and techniques are used, even if just introducing these at the start of a piece. Equally, how could you take your discussion of the stanza structures to the next level by talking about *why* you think the poet has organised his ideas in the way he has. I think that your metaphorical reading of the poem (at one point you call it a play – be careful!) is powerful and convincing; likewise, the contextual political reading is equally interesting. I look forward to reading further posts.

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