We never learn what the speaker “did” in this poem, and that is how the poet forces reflection on the part of the reader. The speaker speculates about his punishment for being “Not Quite Social” in his actions and explains that the “thing” he did was not really forbidden, nor was it imposed or expected. He explains away, seeming to ask forgiveness, but his request is not entirely genuine.
In the second stanza “the city’s hold on a man is no more tight / Than when its walls rose higher than any roof,” and the allusion to fortress walls is evident. There is a sudden recognition that men who are free are little less controlled than those who are confined. The reader is forced to look at society in terms of what is deemed appropriate and acceptable behavior and to reflect on his or her attitude toward antisocial behavior.
By not revealing his crime, the speaker focuses not on his behavior but on our behavior as a society, in terms of our attitudes and the subsequent penalties on those who do not adhere to social norms and the mores of our time. The poem is laden with images of trial and condemnation.
The speaker is trapped on earth, unable to flee, but he has opportunity in other ways. He is able to will his air to nature, after all. And if anyone who is “free to condemn [him] to death” should “leav[e] it to nature to carry out the sentence,” nature will allow him to grow old and die of natural causes as opposed to artificial ones, with this action on his conscience. The poem is largely polite, though tongue-incheek, but in the end some of the politeness is set aside. The plea for forgiveness is not authentic; the speaker does not take himself seriously, nor are we to take him that way. He withholds. He will adhere only to minimum standards of politeness, as in death, when he will pay a “death-tax of fairly polite repentance.” The walls that we build around acceptable behavior are particularly confining, even after death.
To be social is to behave in acceptable ways. Those who do not we imprison. The idea that impolite behavior is criminal is compelling as it requires a different way of looking at what is considered transgressive behavior.
Frost once noted during a reading that this poem “goes with” another of his poems, “The Lost Follower,” where those who leave poetry, the “golden line / Of lyric” never do it for “darkness” but instead for “golden light divine” (Cramer, 114). Our spirit is often swayed by “religious pranks,” but those who fail at being poets never do it in favor of “moneymetal banks.” Instead, the danger to poetry is always in a different direction, toward what people believe are greater callings: music, politics, and so forth.
While the poem can be read as a discussion of the social consequences of transgression, it is clear that, given Frost’s connection between “The Lost Follower” and “Not Quite Social,” the speaker in this poem is a poet. The poet has never really been and never really will be social, in the usual sense of the word. Here Frost wills to us “common stock” the “air of his breath,” his words, his poetry, and only subtly offers what might be described as a “fairly polite repentance.” It was never in him to be too polite.
The poem was first published on March 30, 1935, in the Saturday Review of Literature. It was later collected in A Further Range.
Broderick, John C. “Not Quite Poetry: Analysis of a Robert Frost Manuscript,” Manuscripts 20, no. 2 (1968): 28–31.
Cramer, Jeffrey S. Robert Frost among His Poems: A Literary Companion to the Poet’s Own Biographical Contexts and Associations. Jefferson, N.C.: MacFarland, 1996.