On a Tree Fallen across the Road (1923)
The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are
Insisting always on our own way so.
She likes to halt us in our runner tracks,
And make us get down in a foot of snow
Debating what to do without an ax.
And yet she knows obstruction is in vain:
We will not be put off the final goal
We have it hidden in us to attain,
Not though we have to seize earth by the pole
And, tired of aimless circling in one place,
Steer straight off after something into space.
The powers that nature has over humanity and that humanity has over itself were of great concern to Frost. He once claimed that he had written only two poems without a person in them and therefore he could not be considered a nature poet. People often find themselves in confrontation with nature in his poems, and these confrontations are usually a cause for reflection and an opportunity for learning.
Instead of depicting the effects of nature on human beings after a confrontation, in this sonnet Frost describes the process of working through a conflict with nature and resolving it somewhat satisfactorily. In the opening stanza a conflict is depicted: A party, which we later learn is traveling by sleigh, has had its journey obstructed by a fallen tree: “the tree the tempest with a crash of wood / Throws down in front of us.” The choice of the word tempest reveals the violence in the action.
This tree, having fallen on this particular road at this particular time, does not have great meaning, but still there is the sense that what “happened” had not only cause but purpose. Indeed, the tree has fallen to “ask us who we think we are.” This random event has a significance that transcends the mere falling of a tree. Nature is questioning human beings—a strange twist. It is usually the other way around, as in Frost’s poem “Design.” Nature wants to know who we think we are trying to make our way in it, who we think we are even being a part of it. We are intruders. We are, ironically, out of our element.
The second stanza reveals what nature finds so disagreeable in us: “Insisting always on our own way so.” Nature does not obstruct us so much as we interfere with it. We insist on making our way, even when that means cutting a swathe through a forest or taking an ax to a fallen tree. Our intrusion on nature here is reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar,” in which the human will is judged by nature, the desire to shape things and to control what is beyond controlling. In Frost, nature likes to stop us in our tracks, to slow our progress and make us consider what we are doing. Usually we are in such a race with life that we do not take the time to slow down and contemplate it, so, on occasion, nature reminds us that we exist both inside and outside of it.
The poem goes on to suggest that nature need not control us: “And yet she knows obstruction is in vain: / We will not be put off the final goal / We have it hidden in us to attain.” We will go on, and this gives us a certain independence from nature. We will not be hindered by its whims. Our willing and our determination are both criticized and admired. But even more than that, there is a shared goal among us that is not totally revealed in the poem; we only know that it is “hidden in us to attain.”
There is a power struggle going on in which the prevailing force is human will. Frost asserts that we do not “have to seize earth by the pole.” While we may be striving to master nature, we do not have to seize and restrain it in order to do so. Our ability lies in mastering nature with our attitudes, a philosophical approach quite usual with Frost. It is not necessary to cut a swathe through a forest or to take an ax to a fallen tree in order to resume our path after nature’s intrusion. It is in our power to overcome the impediment with mind and will, as Frost does in the writing of this poem.
The poem is a reminder that we will not be restricted by nature’s force. Nature is met, contended with, and circumvented. The larger meaning is that whatever causes havoc in our lives, we must go on, one knee up after another (as in the poem “A Leaf-Treader”) until we have made our way. The thirst for greater knowledge sends us off in search of even greater challenges. We become bored with circling; eventually we will steer off into space for “something.” Significantly, Frost is not uncritical of the very human desire to veer off after something. While the poem discusses the natural landscape, it has more to do with inner landscapes. (In the poem “Tree at My Window” Frost is similarly concerned with both “inner” and “outer” weather.) Veering off into space describes the human appeal to the universe for meaning and explanation. While Frost encourages us to not let nature impede us, he also warns us to keep our demand for answers in check. While the poem places man in nature contending with an obstacle, the obstacle in the end becomes himself—ourselves.
Jeffrey Cramer reports that Frost wrote to his good friend Louis Untermeyer in 1949, “Most accidents are just to ask us who we think we are. And after all who in Hell are we?” (85). “On a Tree Fallen across the Road” was first published in October 1921 in Farm and Fireside and was later collected in New Hampshire with the subtitle “(To hear us talk).”
Bagby, George F. Frost and the Book of Nature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993, 112–114. 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.