Two Tramps In Mud Time: Poem - Summary & Analysis

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Two Tramps In Mud Time

Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily "Hit them hard!"
I knew pretty well why he had dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.

Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn't blue,
But he wouldn't advise a thing to blossom.

The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand,
In every wheelrut's now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
Be glad of water, but don't forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.

The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You'd think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay

And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man's work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right--agreed.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

Summary and Analysis


      Two Tramps in Mud Time by Robert Frost - is one of the best-known poems of 4 Further Range, a volume of poems, first published in 1936. What strikes us about the poem is that the poem is radiant evidence of Frost's visual imagination coupled with psychological insight into human beings. The poem is a dialectic between the poet's avocation and vocation. The poet states it very clear that his object is to unite his avocation and vocation - he wants them to be as inextricably interfused as 'two eyes make one in sight'. The last line of the poem is an invocation to heaven: we are not clear whether it is the heaven of orthodox Christianity or merely a desirable state of existence as conceived by Frost. We might speculate further - heaven may very well be just another name for God.


      Two Tramps in Mud Time is a poem loaded with suggestively so far as its theme goes but the poet has balanced it by choosing a form that is simple and comes home to the reader - story in verse. The poem is in the first person and the poet himself is the pivotal point of all thought and action. The core of the poem is the clash and conflict between two opinions or convictions - the convictions of the poet and those held by the tramps.

      While the poet, was working hard (splitting wood), two strangers seemed to come out of the mud, approached him and one of them asked the poet to hit very hard.

      The poet interpreted the tramp as meaning that he should work for his livelihood. The poet leads a restrained and self-controlled life, so that he could bestow skill and energy on the work. Throughout the poem, the poet intersperses his observations on the sudden pranks and manners of nature. The poet loved doing his work amidst nature. The two tramps, somehow, made the poet feel that he had no right to do something for mere pleasure a thing that could very well be a source of livelihood for another person. Such a person should definitely be given precedence. The poet finally decides that it is best for him to try and unite his avocation and vocation.

The exposition of thought-content throughout the story is developed as follows:

      The first stanza satisfies the three unities of time, place, and action and sets the tone and atmosphere of the poem. In the second stanza, the poet seizes his opportunity for self-justification. The third, fourth, and fifth stanzas mainly record the poet's enthusiastic observation of sudden changes and pranks of the New England climate. Frost here deviates from the main narrative and indulges in a whole-hearted description of personal likings - he describes at length, 'mud time' "when most I loved my task." This description of nature, shows among other things, how April in New England is precariously poised between cold and warmth, winter and spring. Although spring freshens flow freely, the "lurking frost", can put a glaze over the water. The season with its union of opposites, appeals to the speaker's desire for richness and roundedness; and now, with the intrusion of strangers, he senses another kind of balance - this one within himself.

      This stanza effuses with chopper's euphoria. The inquiries of the tramps only serve to increase the speaker's love for the task of splitting wood. In the seventh stanza the focal point shifts from the interrupted chopper to lumber-jacks who suddenly make their appearance on the scene. The eighth stanza presents the situation when a man chops wood out of sheer love and when he is envied and disliked by needy lumberjacks. The ninth stanza fuses the co-ordinates of love and needs and reconciles the tension, the solution being psychological as well as economic.

Critical Analysis:

      The poem Two Tramps In Mud Time has provoked both commendatory and derogatory critical comments. In the poem, the core consists of the contrast between the attitude of the poet and that of the tramps. The poet wants to achieve the unity of "A Full-time Interest", (which is incidentally one poem's sub-title) and live a controlled, rounded life and the others want to separate avocation and vocation. They want to filter love from need, and extricate play from work. Charles Kaplan, trying to emphasize the good points of the poem, says: "A personal experience has been used to highlight universal truths. The idea that the best work is that which combines need with pleasure has been beautifully conveyed." Pointing out the universality of the poem, Kaplan goes on to say; "What is important is man's need to achieve personal equilibrium which is not static, dead-level of passivity but a dynamic one which arises from the resolution of opposing forces, claims and ideals. In the very act of attempting to maintain this tricky balance are found both fulfillment and delight."

      Not with standing the general acclaim that the poem has met, Malcolm Cowley is critical of the poem. He feels that the ending of the poem is very unnatural and very, different from what it would have been in real life. In the poem, the poet shows no sympathy for the tramps. He does not offer any solace or any comfort to the tramps. Moreover, he uses them for generalizing on human nature. When Frost should have helped these men, he turns to the reader with a sound but rather a sententious sermon on the ethical value of the chopping block. Cowley feels that unconsciously, through the poem, the poet's self-centredness and charitable attitude is as clearly visible as the bottom of a pool or clear water.

      George Nitchie is one of the sanest critics I have ever come across. He is the least vulnerable to prejudice. He can see both merits and demerits at the same time - not swayed away by either of the two, Though he has some grudge with Frost for encapsulating the philosophy of the poem in the last stanza of the poem, he tries to find reasons for it and find its merits. He feels that it deserves attention for various reasons. Firstly, it represents popular Frost as completely as a poem feasibly can. Secondly, it is his most unequivocal statement of a human objective. It is an amalgam of Frost's recurring motifs - a fact that may escape the cursory glance. Lastly, it is not a convincing formula for what Frost actually does in many of his most successful poems. The poet conveys to us that one should do only that work which the doer loves to do and which, simultaneously, satisfies a need. The situation in which love and need, desire and necessity, are one, recalls Frost's preference for "self-assigned tasks carried out only at the instant urgency of the worker's own desire." This preference can be extended into a doctrinaire individualism, a kind of freedom achieved by refusing to concern oneself with things that cannot be subdued to one's own individual will. Moreover, we live in a world of social obligations and conflicting needs, a world where love and need may not coincide, where it is next to impossible to unite vocation and avocation.

      Like all of Frost's nature poems this poem has a distinctive accuracy precision, simplicity and charm of its own. Frost is happy to the core of his heart when he is amidst bright, benevolent nature. But even the most cheerful scenes of nature 'are darkened by a possible malevolent element. Beneath the apparently beautiful calm, there is turmoil and storm; some - hostile and sinister is always lurking. Commenting on this aspect of poetry, Lynen says: "As the most unexpected times, he gives glimpses of horror. In Two Tramps in Mud Time, he interrupts his genial about the April weather to advise

Be glad of water, but don't forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.

      These vistas opening upon fearful realities do not in the least negate the beauty... The charm of many of the nature-lyrics results from the vividness with sweet, delicate things stands out against the somber background. You cannot have the one without the other: love of natural beauty and horror and indifference at the remoteness and indifference of the physical rid are not opposites, but different aspects of the same views."

      We should also take note of the classical austerity, simplicity and clarity - elements that pervade the poem, with lines of epigrammatic terseness sprinkled in the poem, times when the poet wants to make a point come home to us.

The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

      The speaker does not have peace of mind. He feels that he should have spent his time doing good for his fellowmen. Yet, here he justifies his task of splitting the wood. There is a fundamental difference between the pattern of life of the tramps and the pattern that the speaker has adopted. The speaker is controlled and leads a life of self-restraint, but the tramps (according to the first phrase of the poem) come "out of the mud" and can be equated with sub-human creatures. "Their disruptive effect is immediately evidenced, when the cheery greeting only serves to put the speaker off his aim - both the immediate target and the larger goal in life." The speaker, as pointed out earlier, has been leading a life of self-control which has given him additional strength. He still feels that he should have spent this time doing some public good. That day, he had deliberately chosen a pursuit that was light. The phrases "giving a loose to my soul" and "unimportant wood" assume rare significance in this context.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

      This is the concluding stanza of the poem and is supposed to embody the central thought of the poem. Critics have interpreted this stanza in varied ways. Reginald L. Cook seems to have given a tolerably balanced interpretation of the stanza: "The underlying theme is a defense of the individual against the 'gang security' of those who would without examining the situation suppress his effort because they think they know better how to regiment security... When does a man's self-selected independent effort impinge on, interfere with or violate the welfare of others? In converse the problem is, what justifies another man's appropriation of one's honorably and competently self-selected task? Frost reconciles the tension between heart and need in the four concluding lines of the poem." Frost shows his judiciousness and his humanity in the ideas that he advocates. "The poet isn't sentimental, he knows we have no right to exercise a personal indulgence willfully, arrogantly and sportively when others are in dire need or distress. When we unite love, and need in work that is play for mortal stakes then the motive is pure and the act is justified. His relationship to his fellow man is one of sympathetic understanding. Moreover; it is ruggedly independent, coolly philosophical."


      There can be no fitter conclusion to the poem than the valuation of the poem done by Reginald L. Cook, which puts the poem in a socio-contextual perspective: "It is at once more specific in its personal psychological approach to the problem of living one's life, and more general in its advocacy, like Emerson and Thoreau, of the higher, more conscientious individualism."

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