The Code: by Robert Frost - Summary & Analysis

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The Code—heroics

There were three in the meadow by the brook,
Gathering up windrows, piling haycocks up,
With an eye always lifted toward the west,
Where an irregular, sun-bordered cloud
Darkly advanced with a perpetual dagger
Flickering across its bosom. Suddenly
One helper, thrusting pitchfork in the ground,
Marched himself off the field and home. One stayed.
The town-bred farmer failed to understand.

What was there wrong?
Something you said just now.
What did I say?
About our taking pains.
To cock the hay?—because it's going to shower?
I said that nearly half an hour ago.
I said it to myself as much as you.

You didn't know. But James is one big fool.
He thought you meant to find fault with his work.
That's what the average farmer would have meant.
James had to take his time to chew it over
Before he acted; he's just got round to act.

He is a fool if that's the way he takes me.
Don't let it bother you. You've found out something.
The hand that knows his business won't be told
To do work faster or better—those two things.
I'm as particular as anyone:
Most likely I'd have served you just the same:
But I know you don't understand our ways.
You were just talking what was in your mind,
What was in all our minds, and you weren't hinting.
Tell you a story of what happened once.
I was up here in Salem, at a man's
Named Sanders, with a gang of four or five,
Doing the haying. No one liked the boss.
He was one of the kind sports call a spider,
All wiry arms and legs that spread out wavy
From a humped body nigh as big as a biscuit.
But work!—that man could work, especially
If by so doing he could get more work
Out of his hired help. I'm not denying
He was hard on himself: I couldn't find
That he kept any hours—not for himself.
Day-light and lantern-light were one to him:
I've heard him pounding in the barn all night.
But what he liked was someone to encourage.
Them that he couldn't lead he'd get behind
And drive, the way you can, you know, in mowing
Keep at their heels and threaten to mow their legs off.
I'd seen about enough of his bulling tricks—
We call that bulling. I'd been watching him.
So when he paired off with me in the hayfield
To load the load, thinks I, look out for trouble!
I built the load and topped it off; old Sanders
Combed it down with the rake and said, 'O. K.'
Everything went right till we reached the barn
With a big take to empty in a bay.
You understand that meant the easy job
For the man up on top of throwing down
The hay and rolling it off wholesale,
Where, on a mow, it would have been slow lifting.
You wouldn't think a fellow'd need much urging
Under those circumstances, would you now?
But the old fool seizes his fork in both hands,
And looking up bewhiskered out of the pit,
Shouts like an army captain, 'Let her come!'
Thinks I, d'ye mean it? 'What was that you said?'
I asked out loud so's there'd be no mistake.
'Did you say, let her come?' 'Yes, let her come.'
He said it over, but he said it softer.
Never you say a thing like that to a man,
Not if he values what he is. God, I'd as soon
Murdered him as left out his middle name.
I'd built the load and knew just where to find it.
Two or three forkfuls I picked lightly round for
Like meditating, and then I just dug in
And dumped the rackful on him in ten lots.
I looked over the side once in the dust
And caught sight of him treading-water-like,
Keeping his head above. 'Damn ye,' I says,
'That gets ye!' He squeaked like a squeezed rat.

That was the last I saw or heard of him.
I cleaned the rack and drove out to cool off.
As I sat mopping the hayseed from my neck,
And sort of waiting to be asked about it,
One of the boys sings out, 'Where's the old man?'
'I left him in the barn,—under the hay.
If you want him you can go and dig him out.'
They realized from the way I swobbed my neck
More than was needed, something must be up.
They headed for the barn I stayed where I was.
They told me afterward: First they forked hay,
A lot of it, out into the barn floor.
Nothing! They listened for him. Not a rustle!

I guess they thought I'd spiked him in the temple
Before I buried him, else I couldn't have managed.
They excavated more. 'Go keep his wife
Out of the barn.'
Some one looked in a window;
And curse me, if he wasn't in the kitchen,
Slumped way down in a chair, with both his feet
Stuck in the oven, the hottest day that summer.
He looked so mad in back, and so disgusted
There was no one that dared to stir him up
Or let him know that he was being looked at.
Apparently I hadn't buried him
(I may have knocked him down), but just my trying
To bury him had hurt his dignity.
He had gone to the house so's not to face me.
He kept away from us all afternoon.
We tended to his hay. We saw him out
After a while picking peas in the garden:
He couldn't keep away from doing something.

Weren't you relieved to find he wasn't dead?

No!—and yet I can't say: it's hard to tell.
I went about to kill him fair enough.

You took an awkward way. Did he discharge you?

Discharge me? No! He knew I did just right.

There were three in the meadow by the brook, Gathering up windrows, piling haycocks up, With an eye always lifted toward the west, Where an irregular, sun-bordered cloud Darkly advanced with a perpetual dagger Flickering across its bosom. Suddenly One helper, thrusting pitchfork in the ground, Marched himself off the field and home. One stayed.
The Code—heroics


      The title of the poem "The Code - heroics" has a quality which is essentially and typically American in nature. It has the quality which is generally characteristic of all American literature-suggestively. The Code is equivocally significant. It suggests or connotes both a system or a pattern of communication and a system and a norm of faiths, beliefs, ideas and manners. In the poem too, we should expect nothing simple. As is usual with Frost, he weaves complexity with subtlety and in this poem, the title, The Code, means both a way of communication and a system of ideals and moral values. But there is no heaping up of meanings, as in lesser poets. The values and standards of New Englanders serve as the vehicle that helps promote better mutual understanding. It is because they share common faiths and cherish the same values that they are able to understand and explain the conduct of their fellow beings. The two meanings melt and fuse into each other. The style of the narrator and the poet merge and emerge as a symbol of Yankee ethics and moral standards. A critic points out very sharply that the poet chooses for his subject as well as for medium - the Yankee manner.

      Like most of the poems we have considered until now, The Code is also a narrative in the form of a dialogue. The episode used to explicate the theme of the poem appears to be frivolous and farcical, though interesting. Though comic, it has a strain of the tragic. The Code is typical of Frost's poetry in that it is rooted in experience. When read only at the verbal and the obvious level, the poem is simply the story of a worker who tried to kill his employer by burying him in a pile of hay because the employer did not appreciate his skill and had also insulted him. But at the deeper level, there is much more to it than meets the eye. In a dramatic manner it illustrates what every body in the rural areas knows very well:

a good hired man will listen to his employer

      so far as the what and when of his work is concerned but he will not be dictated terms as to how to do it.


      The main narrative of the poem is preceded by a dramatization of The Code through a brief story in dialogue which acts as the prelude. When the poem begins the scene is set in a meadow at the time of hay-making. There are three men working and trying their level best to collect the hay before a storm which is imminent comes over finally. Out of the three, one is a farmer bred in the city and the other two are his Yankee hired men. Suddenly one of the Yankees, throwing his pitchfork, quits the scene abruptly. The farmer is completely nonplussed as he cannot understand the behavior of this Yankee. Now the other hired man realizing his master is, ignorant, takes his chance and explains the behavior of his companion. The Yankee tells him that half an hour earlier the farmer had said something about taking pains. He was of course only doing loud thinking but the Yankee took it as an insult. As Lynen points out: This misunderstanding establishes the pastoral contrast. The farmer, for all his city upbringing, turns out to be less sophisticated than his hired hand in that his words have no special significance beneath their outward and obvious meanings. He has just said what he thought in a simple and direct way. By contrast, the Yankee has a far more complicated mind. For him, even the most casual remarks are the medium for hinting at attitudes and judgments. He weighs and interprets every word." This displays a peculiar kind of quaint hyper-sensitivity which is not as absurd and rare as it seems, apparently. If we trace it down to its root, we can see for ourselves that it is an off-shoot of a deep-rooted sense of self-respect. As a critic rightly points out: "The farmer has unknowingly challenged the Yankee's most precious conviction - his belief that a man of honor will take pride in his work, that any hint that he is not doing his best is, therefore, a slur upon his integrity, that no one has a right to question another's character in this manner".

      Now follows the main narrative. The hired man tries to bring out the striking features of regional Yankee culture. The central point, the theme of his talk, is the pride that the Yankee takes in the work he does with his two hands, the value that he places upon dignity of labor and self-respect. He brings out this point very forcefully in these lines: "The hand that knows his business won't be told - To do work better or faster".

      Then, as if to illustrate and strengthen his point with authenticity coupled with the appeal of immediacy, the hired man goes on to narrate, an incident in which he himself took revenge on a farmer who insulted him by asking him to work harder when he was already doing his best. The farmer whose name was Sanders was one of those types of bosses who insist that their people work harder and harder than ever. It is of course true that he himself was a living example of endless work and promptness. This served as a foil to, and brought out the laziness of his men in a glaringly contrasted manner. In his bid to encourage his men he would sometimes go too far; he would threaten to mow off the legs of the workers if they did not work fast. When it got on the nerves of the narrator, he decided to take revenge on his master. One day he with his master had brought a load of hay to the barn. As he was about to unload the wagon standing in the midst of it the farmer (Sanders) shouted an encouraging remark. Now it was too much. The narrator unloaded the entire load of hay on his master. But the man did not die. He managed to escape. In fact, the entire poem is an exposition of, and an advocacy of, the values, ideals and modes and codes which are part and parcel of the Yankee upbringing. This common code of conduct and thinking is not peculiar to anyone (as it is shared by everyone, except the city-bred farmer); it also serves as a medium of communication. This in itself accounts for the narrator's capacity to understand and explicate, what to the city bred farmer was absurd, unaccountable and illogical.

Critical Analysis:

      George Nitchie feels that the farm hand of The Code is a born aristocrat, and his employer invites his death by presuming on the grounds of economic superiority. Placing the poem in its position and in line with the rest of Frost's poems, he says: "Frost has written a handful of poems that assert the desirability, even the necessity, of a degree of collective action, but characteristically such assertions are made with a degree of generality that makes it impossible to derive any really prescriptive social ethic from them. In The Code, we actually see men working together, but under so touchy and hair-triggerish a contact that it is a little surprising that any work gets done at all. Evidently what at most would make a normal man swear, makes a Frost-character murder". There is a certain discordant independence even amidst apparent collective harmony.

      The poem not only juxtaposes rural code of conduct and that of the urbanites; it also simultaneously establishes the fact that in some sense, and to some extent at least, the rural folk are much more sophisticated than their urban counterparts. In a similar fashion, the tragic and the comic, the serious and the gay are woven together. The casual manner in which the hired man narrates his experience is sharply contrasted with the gravity of the incident. Our response to the incident (his attempt to murder his master) is a mixed one: we laugh and we shudder to the spine. This vague ambiguity is in accordance with the general intent of the poet which is not to teach, preach or moralize but to present a picture of the rural world in all its complexity. Yet the didactic intent is unmistakably there in the poem. Frost is most profound when he is most playful; no other poet has been so successful in combining an outer lightness and an inner gravity.


      The language used by the poet is that of daily usage and the style simple, and that which comes home to us easily. It pulsates with the realism of Yankee language, but is stripped of all that is coarse, vulgar and slangy and, in effect, gains finesse.

      The Code, we find, is again one of Frost's simple poems, set in simple rural surroundings - but has a profound meaning to convey.

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