An Old Man’s Winter Night (1916)
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.
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 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.
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 of the great poems in A Mountain Interval and one of the few in which Frost puns his own name, “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” provides a New England scene made quite familiar by the old country poet. The poem describes the “inner and outer” weather on a winter night, as in “Tree at My Window.” Here, also, the curtain on the window is not drawn as if to separate man from nature, and that exposure allows “All out-of-doors” to look “darkly in.”
The descriptions of winter are faithful. The thin frost on the windowpane, when reflected by the light of an oil lamp, is described as “almost in separate stars.” And that reflection on the windowpane also keeps the man from being able to see out or to give “back the gaze” to the outdoors looking in. The creak of a cold and silent house is familiar to any who have spent a winter night alone; the “clomping” of a solitary man in an empty house of many rooms is also heard clearly. “[T]he roar / Of trees and crack of branches” are winter sounds in the night that here musically seem to accompany the man’s breathing as he sleeps. The poem gives a vivid depiction of the cold loneliness that winter in the country brings, but the poem consists of more than truthful visions.
Somewhat similar to the old man who went to bed, bumped his head, and did not wake up until morning, this old man finds himself in a room trying to remember what it was that brought him there, as though he has bumped his head and temporarily lost his memory. The experience of walking from one room to another in search of something and then wondering why he is there is familiar. But in this instance the impression is that this is a more common occurrence for an old man who lives isolated and alone.
The “in clomping here” and “in clomping off ” is “nothing so like beating on a box” but re-creates the image of the “treading—treading” of Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” In Frost it also seems that “sense” is “breaking through.” But, as in Dickinson, “then a Plank in Reason” breaks, and Frost states that “[o]ne aged man—one man—can’t keep a house, / A farm, a countryside.”
In “Desert Places” Frost writes, “They cannot scare me with their empty spaces / Between stars— on stars where no human race is. / I have it in me so much nearer home / To scare myself with my own desert places.” In “Old Man’s Winter Night” the old man “scared it once again . . . scared the outer night.” The creaking in the night seems to be what brings this man from one room to the next, checking up on things. But he also finds that the empty house reminds him that he is a “light to no one but himself ” and a “quiet light, and then not even that.” His isolation causes him to be “concerned with he knew what.”
Resignation comes later in the poem, when the man consigns himself to the “broken” moon. And with nature bearing down, the “snow upon the roof ” and the “icicles along the wall to keep,” he falls into a deep sleep, in preparation for the long day of work waiting for him on the other side. Even a log that “shifted with a jolt / Once in the stove” disturbs only briefly the deep sleep that night brings for the man who must keep a house, a farm, and a countryside tomorrow. The country tiredness is reminiscent of the dreamy imagery and the distant, repetitive “rumbling sound / Of load on load of apples coming in” in “After Apple-Picking.”
John Cunningham holds that “his burning lamp, and his concerns, and his fire to which he responds even in his sleep all represent the presence of his humanity” (272). Laurence Buell points out the similarities to Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Mr. Flood’s Party,” of which Frost was fond.
Buell, Laurence. “Frost as a New England Poet.” In The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, edited by Robert Faggen, 101–122. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Cunningham, John. “Human Presence in Frost’s Universe.” In The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, edited by Robert Faggen, 261–272. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Davis, Charles G. “Frost’s ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night,’ ” Explicator 27 (1968). Hoffman, Tyler. Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry. Hanover, N.H.: Middlebury College Press, 2001, 165.
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