NIGHT, COLD, AND AGE

Here is a seasonal poem by the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963).

This is a very simple poem, but deep in its simplicity.  I will separate it into segments for ease of discussion.

The main and only figure in it is an old man — apparently a a bachelor or a widower — who lives alone in an old farmhouse.

AN OLD MAN’S WINTER NIGHT

All out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.

The old man — lantern in hand, has walked into one of the rooms in the house.  He holds an old kerosene lamp, and by its light he can peer at the windows — all dark, but he can see on the window panes the thin frost that has crystallized here and there — almost like separate stars.  What “looks in” from outside is darkness, but he cannot look back at it because of the lamp he is holding tilted in his hands near the pane — the light reflects off the panes, forming a barrier to the outside in his sight.  So all he sees is the frost and the flat darkness of the panes.

He has come to this room, which apparently contains nothing but some old barrels, but he stands there, having forgotten why he came.  That is the forgetfulness that often comes with old age, and it is age that keeps him from remembering.  So he just pauses there a moment, waiting to remember — but he does not.  It apparently is a seldom used room, and because its door is usually closed, the heat from the stove has not entered the room to prevent frost forming on the window.

And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off;—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.

He had made a hollow noise with his heavy shoes as he had clomped heavily across the boards of the house floor and into the room.  It is hollow because he is walking the floor over the cellar beneath.  The poet says the clomping “scared the cellar under him,” but of course that is a kind of lighthearted way of saying that though there was a hollow sound made in the cellar, no one was there to hear it — the only thing in the house that his clomping about could have scared would have been the cellar — in other words, no one at all.  So he made that hollow sound with his walking to the room, and again with his walking back from it.

He also — the poet says — “scared the outer night” with his heavy steps — a way of showing how loud his hollow-sounding steps sounded in the stillness of the house.  The outside had its own winter sounds, like wind in the trees, or the cracking of branches — but nothing like the hollow sound of the old man’s clomping on the floor over the cellar — a sound like someone slowly beating on a wooden box.

Then he sat there in the room by the stove, with his dim kerosene lamp burning on the table.  It was a light only for him in his aloneness, and he was a light only to himself — he had no one else to commune with in the night.  So sitting there, feeling himself as he was, and “concerned with he knew what” — he experienced the feeling of his body on the chair, the simplicity of his own few thoughts, like a faint, quiet light — “and then not even that,” as he senses the weariness of the night and of his age, and decides to go to bed and extinguish his lamp.

He consigned to the moon,—such as she was,
So late-arising,—to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.

 

The old man, on going to his bed, leaves the snow on the roof and the icicles along the outer wall of the house in charge of  the late-rising moon in one of its phases — it is a “broken,” or partial moon, not a full moon.   It is “better than the sun” for this matter, because the coolness of the moon is in keeping with the cold and the night.  That just means he is leaving the thoughts of the day — which are simple thoughts of the snow and the ice and the farmhouse — behind him as he goes to bed.

He sleeps, his bed in the same room as the stove.  A log in the fire shifts and falls as it burns, making a noise loud enough to disturb the old man momentarily in his sleep, but not enough to wake him.  He only changes his position in the bed, and his breathing becomes slower and more relaxed — and he sleeps on.

The poet now concludes:

One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

 

One aged old man — one man alone, the poet tells us — cannot fill a house.  He cannot fill a farm, or a countryside.  One needs family, or friends and neighbors for that, and this old man is all alone in his old age.  But then the the poet continues, revising his view somewhat:  if an old man can fill a house, or farm, or countryside, then this is how he does it — in his simple and lonesome and solitary and aged way.

If we look at this poem from the perspective of hokku aesthetics, we can feel a strong harmony between the night, the chill and depth of winter, and the age of the old man.  We can also feel a harmony between the single lamp light he holds in his hand, and his solitary life.  Though he is old, his life continues to dimly “burn” like a single lamp flame.

Robert Frost had the most amazing gift of writing as though he were a rural New England farmer, in spite of his having been a college English teacher later in his life.  His poems — at least those like this one –often give us in words somewhat the same feeling we get from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth.