The Mountain (1914), one of several poems that Frost claimed to have written in a single sitting (Cramer, 33), opens with a speaker who has journeyed into nature to explore the mountain. He sleeps for the night, and when he awakes he heads further on “at dawn to see new things.” He seems to be lost, a wanderer who, when he first crosses a river and swings around the mountain, must ask, “What town is this?” He is unconcerned with his predicament, however, simply curious about where he finds himself. The man he asks is moving so slowly that “it seem[s] no harm to stop him altogether.” From here the poem becomes a slowly spun yarn of a tale that moves from one absurdity to the next in the style of Mark Twain’s “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
The man the speaker encounters answers directly the speaker’s question about what town he finds himself in, “Lunenberg,” but from there provides only a few direct answers to the speaker’s questions. There are things the man has heard and things he has actually experienced about the mountain, but much of what he recounts is hearsay that he later undoes with further hearsay. It turns out that he is not sure about much of what he says. And near the poem’s close is the most telling line of all: “But all the fun’s in how you say a thing.” The yarn he has spun should itself be satisfactory. He has no need for actual facts or understanding that would get in the way of telling a good story.
The poem is at times humorous. As the poem progresses, the man’s tale meanders more and the absurdity of the speaker’s experience deepens. The ending is perhaps the most comical as the man simply decides to pull out with his oxen, mid-sentence. The speaker is willing to hear even more misinformation, but he is simply left in the lurch.
For all the talk and conversation just about the only thing the man knows for sure is what the speaker already knew at the outset: that there is a mountain. The mountain, as the only certain statement, becomes the poem’s title. The speaker does not even find himself in the right town. He goes looking for guidance, and the person who lives there is of no help. He is out of place and out of house, and the only thing he knows for sure is that the “mountain held the town as in a shadow”—the first line of the poem.
Robert Faggen describes the poem as “Frost’s postromantic ethnographic response to Wordsworth’s ‘Resolution and Independence,’ in which the leech-gatherer saves the romantic, self-obsessed, and tortured wanderer by becoming an icon of moral strength and humility” (136). He also notes that the “brother who understands the importance of work and the survival value of play may have greater integrity than the wandering ‘brother’ seeking miraculous springs” (139). “The Mountain” was first published in North of Boston.
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. Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, 135–139. Heath, W. G. “The Scholar and the Poet in Robert Frost’s ‘The Mountain,’ ” Gombak Review 2, no. 2 (December 1997): 97–107. Muldoon, Paul. “The End of the Poem: ‘The Mountain’ by Robert Frost,” American Poetry Review 30, no. 1 (January–February 2001): 41–46. Perrine, Laurence. “Frost’s ‘The Mountain’: Concerning Poetry,” Concerning Poetry 4, no. 1 (1971): 5–11.
Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Poetry
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