Labor functions as a tool for self-analysis and discovery in Frost’s poetry. Work allows his speakers to understand themselves and the world around them. Traditionally, pastoral and romantic poets emphasized a passive relationship with nature, wherein people would achieve understanding and knowledge by observing and meditating, not by directly interacting with the natural world. In contrast, Frost’s speakers work, labor, and act—mending fences, as in “Mending Wall”; harvesting fruit, as in “After Apple-Picking”; or cutting hay, as in “Mowing” (1915). Even children work, although the hard labor of the little boy in “Out, Out—” (1920) leads to his death. The boy’s death implies that while work was necessary for adults, children should be exempted from difficult labor until they have attained the required maturity with which to handle both the physical and the mental stress that goes along with rural life. Frost implies that a connection with the earth and with one’s self can only be achieved by actively communing with the natural world through work.
Long considered the quintessential regional poet, Frost uses New England as a recurring setting throughout his work. Although he spent his early life in California, Frost moved to the East Coast in his early teens and spent the majority of his adult life in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The region’s landscape, history, culture, and attitudes fill his poetry, and he emphasizes local color and natural elements of the forests, orchards, fields, and small towns. His speakers wander through dense woods and snowstorms, pick apples, and climb mountains. North of Boston, the title of Frost’s second collection of poetry, firmly established him as the chronicler of small-town, rural life in New England. Frost found inspiration in his day-to-day experiences, basing “Mending Wall,” for instance, on a fence near his farm in Derry, New Hampshire, and “The Oven Bird” (1920) on birds indigenous to the nearby woods.
The Sound of Sense
Frost coined the phrase the sound of sense to emphasize the poetic diction, or word choice, used throughout his work. According to letters he wrote in 1913 and 1914, the sound of sense should be positive, as well as proactive, and should resemble everyday speech. To achieve the sound of sense, Frost chose words for tone and sound, in addition to considering each word’s meaning. Many poems replicate content through rhyme, meter, and alliteration. For instance, “Mowing” captures the back-and-forth sound of a scythe swinging, while “Out, Out—” imitates the jerky, noisy roar of a buzz saw. Believing that poetry should be recited, rather than read, Frost not only paid attention to the sound of his poems but also went on speaking tours throughout the United States, where he would read, comment, and discuss his work. Storytelling has a long history in the United States, particularly in New England, and Frost wanted to tap into this history to emphasize poetry as an oral art.