A Serious Step Lightly Taken (1942)
Between two burrs on the map
Was a hollow-headed snake.
The burrs were hills, the snake was a stream,
And the hollow7 head was a lake.
And the dot in front of a name
Was what should be a town.
And there might be a house we could buy
For only a dollar down.
With two wheels low in the ditch We left our boiling car
And knocked at the door of a house we found, And there today we are.
It is turning three hundred years On our cisatlantic shore For family after family name. We’ll make it three hundred more
For our name farming here, Aloof yet not aloof, Enriching soil and increasing stock, Repairing fence and roof;
A hundred thousand days Of front-page paper events,
A half a dozen major wars, And forty-five presidents.
“A Serious Step Lightly Taken” provides an aerial view of a lake, a town, and a people. The view provided by a map diminishes hills to two burrs, a stream to a snake, and a lake to the snake’s head. A town becomes a dot; the homes within that town imperceptible.
The serious step lightly taken was to put down roots where the family did, but it occurred by happenstance. They simply broke down on the road, the car having overheated, and ended up purchasing a house. They “knocked at the door of a house [they] found, / And there today [they] are.”
There is a shift between stanzas three and four from a focus on a particular family putting down roots to a country doing so. The speaker recollects that it is “turning three hundred years / On our cisatlantic shore,” referring to the “discovery” of the United States of America. This “discovery” was just as accidental as the family’s discovery of the house.
The poem is concerned with endurance and staying power, with adding “family after family name” for “three hundred more” years. The poem pays homage to the country’s and possibly the speaker’s (and Frost’s own) forefathers. Through all the wars, the “front-page paper events,” and 45 presidents, the country and we survived.
Where a person lives is connected to who he or she is, and the land is a part of the person who cultivates it, just as in “Of the Stones of the Place.” The speaker believes it is important to recognize the efforts of those in the past since we are connected to them. That is why we can move in time so easily to 300 years before and after.
The poem shifts in its technological references from an overheated car to the beginning of the country and the docking of the Mayflower. There is an appeal to the present at the end but also to the past with the “[e]nriching soil and increasing stock.” We must simply repair the fences and roofs and keep going. In this way, time becomes collective and fluid. The people of the past who sacrificed themselves and those of today are all lumped together as one. The poem also emphasizes the role of the agricultural lifestyle in how we started. We are living off the land, “For our name farming here.” We are “aloof” from Europe, from our mother countries, and from our forefathers, yet not aloof. We are physically but not emotionally distant.
The poem ends optimistic about our endurance, but with a caution to not be too haughty despite our front-page events, wars, and presidents. The poem was first published in A Witness Tree.