There be dragons!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Frost's "A Time to Talk"

Here's the poem:

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don't stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven't hoed,
And shout from where I am, 'What is it?'
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

Most of my students see this as a poem about friendship, as, on a cursitory read, it appears so to be. Another happy little bucolic pastorale by that friendly grandfather figure, Robert Frost.

But there are certain nuances/difficulties in the poem. The title is a reference to Ecclesiastes 3:7 which reads

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven...A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to talk

The passage goes on to ask

What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth? I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life.


...that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.

Now Frost was no Pious Percy, quite the opposite, but his command of the scriptures and his use of them in other places is obvious; "Provide, Provide" or "Never Again Would Bird Song be the Same" or "The Road Not Taken". Consequently, it seems safe to assume that here again he is making a reference to this passage in Ecclesiastes reminding us all that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

In the first line of the poem we are introduced to the first person speaker who claims that "a friend" is calling to him from "the road". The friend represents anyone with whom the speaker has familiarity - but we learn in the second line that he sits astride a horse, symbol of power and royalty. There is a vague resemblance, then, to the horsemen of the Apocalypse in this nameless friend on the road. Also important is that the friend does not call for a friendly chat, but merely calls to the speaker at first; we assume a friendly parley because of the speaker's last lines "I go up to the stone wall / For a friendly visit" but that is witness only to the speaker's perspective. The friend on the horse merely calls to him and in that call is a sense of command which obliges the speaker to cease his work.

The speaker is obviously in medias res, hoeing a field with several more still to work; he makes note of "all the hills I haven't hoed" and yet prides himself in not continuing his work. In fact, the sense of self-satisfaction in the speaker is remarkable. There is no overwhelming sense of filial love for the neighbor, nor is there a sense of interest in what is to be told to him - he seems almost reticent to have to lose the time in the field in order to hear what, apparently, is meaningless talk. Instead, the speaker seems duty bound as he "plods" toward the friend for the friendly visit. The repetition of the word "friend" at the end of the poem echoes the word's use at the beginning and connotes a sense almost of irony or impatience in the duty-bound speaker. Again, he isn't going up to the road out of love, but out of duty, congratulating himself on the way.

The identity of the speaker and the identity of the friend become more clear with the revelation of a few ambiguities in the poem. First the fact that the friend is working in the field refers again to a scriptural passage, Matthew 20, in which Jesus relates a parable about the laborers in the vineyard;

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
"About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.
"He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?'
" 'Because no one has hired us,' they answered.
"He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.'
"When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'
"The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'
"But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'
"So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

In Frost's poem, the friend on the horse is in a position to the speaker is the master would be to the servants; coming to bring news of other laborers, perhaps, or of some other significance. Moreover, the speaker's sanctimonious self-righteousness makes him akin to the indignant early workers. What might the reaction of such an attitude be to being told that more workers were going to arrive for the same pay?

Second, the speaker claims that he "thrust (his) hoe in the mellow ground, Blade-end up and five feet tall". This is a seemingly innocuous image, except that to do so would be to cover the handle in dirt. Why not lay the tool on the ground? Indeed, with the blade end sticking up the tool thrust into the ground bears a striking resemblance to a grave marker; the shaft the body, the blade the head of a man. Moreover, the ground is described with the adjective "mellow" - this seems a direct contrast to the idea of ground being rough and needing toil. The speaker seems almost to find the earth pleasant, passive, yielding easily to the hoe; he has mastered it. Finally, The speaker makes a specific point that the thrust-in hoe is five feet tall", a little less than the height of a man. Thus with the cessation of work there is the hint of death.

Third, the stone wall to which the speaker approaches separates the field from the road. Traditionally, the image of a wall represents the barrier between two worlds; life and death, sleeping and waking. Frost himself uses the image in another poem "Mending Wall", a commentary about the isolation of each person from the other and in which he claims that "Good fences make good neighbors". Understandably the wall is made of stone; as stones rose in the field they would be set to the sides and built into a wall. But the quality of stone is also used in tombs and the coldness of stone resembles the permanence of death. The speaker calling to him from the other side of the wall, then, seems to be calling him not to friendship but to either temporary or permanent cessation from his work.

As yet the speaker is still separated from that other world by the stone wall, but his plodding indicates that, though he is older he is still reluctant to enter into "friendly visit" with the possibility of permanent cessation in death. His attitude of self-congratulation at his neighborliness is belied by the reluctance with which he gives up his important work in the field and accepts what the "friend" on horseback has to offer. Frost's poem, then, is not one of the importance of friendship, but of the importance of clarity in our attitude toward the necessities that intrude on our own little world of important work. The smaller "deaths" that intrude into our world of work offer us the opportunity to prepare for that greater death that eventually arrives on the road to call us for a "friendly visit".

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