Analysis of Robert Frost’s The Milky Way is a Cowpath

The Milky Way is a Cowpath

On wings too stiff to flap
We started to exult
In having left the map
On journey the penult.

But since we got nowhere,
Like small boys we got mad
And let go at the air
With everything we had.

Incorrigible Quidnuncs,
We would see what would come
Of pelting heaven with chunks
Of crude uranium.

At last in self collapse
We owned up to our wife
The Milky Way perhaps
Was woman’s way of life.

Our un-outwitted spouse
Replied she had as soon
Believe it was the cow’s
That overshot the moon.

The parabolic curve
Of her celestial track,
As any might observe,
Might never bring her back.

The famous foster nurse
Of man and womankind
Had for the universe
Left trivia behind.

And gone right on astray
Through let-down pasture bars
Along the Milky Way
A-foraging on stars.

Perennial as flowers,
To where some allege
This universe of ours
Has got a razor edge.

And if she don’t take care
She’ll get her gullet cut,
But that is no affair
Of anybody’s but”

The author of these words
Whose lifelong unconcern
Has been with flocks and herds
For what they didn’t earn.

In this 1962 poem, first published in Frost’s final collection, In the Clearing, Frost expresses the growing concerns for the future of mankind that he feels as he nears the end of his life. Frost manipulates the nursery rhyme about the cow that jumped over the moon as he does in “Lines Written in Dejection on the Eve of Great Success.” In both poems he is concerned with the space race of the cold war following World War II.

The poem begins with humanity traveling on “wings too stiff to flap,” and the image of a rocket with its stabilizing fins comes to mind. “We star[t] to exult” having left the earth, the “map,” on the penultimate journey into space. But the speaker remarks that when our rockets “got nowhere / Like small boys we got mad / And let go at the air / With everything we had,” making a clear allusion to war. We sent our rockets into the sky, but when they did not land on the moon, we got angry. At the time of the poem’s publication, the United States had not yet landed on the moon. The poem is a reminder that while rockets may travel in search of the moon, they can also be used to deliver warheads. All such efforts are seen as juvenile—both trying to go to the moon and building nuclear weapons.

The United States is described as “incorrigible Quid-nuncs,” busy-bodies, and the knowing speaker asserts that “We would see what would come” of nuclear weapons. They will lead to self destruction. He sets about downplaying going to the moon by putting woman in the position of thinking that a cow has again simply “overshot the moon.” She is in the knowing position, contrasted with the juvenile “boys” who should be men. The woman views what the men are doing as trivial. She has a more sensible attitude and is cast as the wiser sex. Here the poet who has been described as a male chauvinist is anything but.

The parabolic curves of the cow and the rocket work with a double meaning. A parabola describes either the cow jumping over the moon or the curve of a spaceship’s trajectory. Parabolic is also describes something that is a parable, making the word function doubly.

The rocket and the cow go on feasting on stars, foraging across the universe by accident, but the universe has a “razor edge.” Because humanity has been starved for space travel, it has gone off the path it is supposed to be on, and that will not lead to good. If humanity does not take care, it will get its “gullet cut.”

The fourth line of the poem speaks of the space race as “journey the penult,” and the message is clear and haunting: This mission is the second-tolast step. The last step will undoubtedly be total destruction. The author-farmer who has been “unconcerned” with whether flocks and herds can earn money is now the only person in the know. He knows something of cows and seems to know something of those who have gotten off their usual feed, their “natural” graze.


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