Analysis of Robert Frost’s A Servant to Servants

In this dramatic monologue, a woman “servant” addresses a man who camps on the land she and her husband, Len, own. Several commentators have noted the similarity of the title to “and thou shalt be a servant of servants,” Noah’s curse on Ham, the father of Canaan from the Old Testament (Genesis 9:25). The listener is without a voice, leaving the reader with no other perspective on the information the woman provides about her life other than her own. The poem reads stream-ofconsciousness: The monologue rattles on as the talkative woman veers from subject to subject.

When the poem opens, the woman is expressing gratitude for the man having camped on the land. She seems to be making excuses for being distant or unfriendly, saying that she wanted to come down to the man’s camp and visit him, to see how he lives, but that she has been busy with “a houseful of hungry men to feed.” She is a self-described servant, seeing herself as put upon by those who camp and work on the land. The man she addresses is one of these men, and while in some sense her monologue may be seen to address all of them with her concerns and complaints, she is only directly addressing one.

The woman reveals that she cannot express her emotions any longer. She cannot even raise her voice in anger, nor does she “want” to lift her hand to strike someone. She is listless. She says she can raise her hand if she has to, a sort of implicit selfprotective warning, but she is uninspired. She implicitly describes herself as without expressible emotion and without a voice, despite hers being the only voice of the poem. She is broken; she has lost her spirit and is full of uncertainty.

The relationship between the speaker and the listener is unclear throughout, though there are subtle indications of what it might be. Her apology near the opening insinuates that she had planned to come visit, perhaps even that she was invited to but never responded to the invitation. The real reason for why she did not respond is unknown, but she claims it is because she has been too busy. There is a slight suggestion here and near the end that theirs is a relationship that could become intimate, though either it is not yet or, if it was briefly, it no longer is. Indeed, near the end she confesses: “I’ve lain awake thinking of you, I’ll warrant, / More than you have of yourself, some of these nights.”

In the fourth line the woman exclaims, “I don’t know!” and this phrase is repeated several times. She is so uncertain that she can no longer “know for sure” whether she is “glad, sorry, or anything.” In this way her lack of knowledge can be an indication of two types of not knowing: (1) not knowing how to respond to the man’s interest in her should there be a romantic undertone to the poem, and (2) not knowing how she feels about not only her life or this man but her husband as well. She further explains that there is nothing but a “voice-like left inside” to tell her how she ought to feel. The choice of “voice-like” is complicated, because it is not exactly an inner voice; it is like a voice, but not quite. She says she would feel and would trust her feelings whatever they are, another hint at the possibility of a romantic relationship, if she “wasn’t all gone wrong.” We are left to wonder what has gone wrong as she moves from a discussion about her feelings to one about her surroundings.

Robert Frost/Library of America

The woman talks about the lake that she envies for its “advantages” of being “[c]ut short off at both ends” and being “so long and narrow” as it is. She appears so trapped by her own life that she measures not the distance between herself and the nearby Lake Willoughby but the distance between the lake and where she washes dishes. This is reminiscent of the woman in Frost’s “In the Home Stretch,” who stands at the kitchen sink imagining her future in her new home as she looks “out through a dusty window / At weeds the water from the sink made tall.”

Lake Willoughby is in northern Vermont. Frost stayed at the Conley Farm on the lake in 1909, which is now the Willough Vale Inn. The woman in this piece was said by Frost to be partly based on Mrs. Conley, the hardworking woman he got to know during his stay. Some critics have suggested that the woman is more of a composite of similar women Frost knew throughout his life.

Shortly thereafter it is revealed that the listener has chosen to camp here because of a “book about ferns.” The woman is incredulous that a person would “let things more like feathers regulate” his “coming and going.” The listener may represent a romantic ideal, a person whose life is the opposite of the speaker’s: impractical. It seems to the woman that ferns, like feathers, are a flimsy reason to make life decisions. But she is envious, too, and later discloses that she thinks she could almost “Drop everything and live out on the ground” as well—and, she seems to imply, maybe even with him. She is someone who runs, who seeks change as a medicine, but somehow the changes always “w[ear] out like a prescription.” The change in moving to her current location with her husband certainly has worn out, despite their having moved there precisely because her husband, Len, wanted the best for her. The move took some sacrifice, and Len is overworking “to make up the loss.” His absence may also make her more vulnerable to another’s advances.

The woman wonders if the man likes the place, saying, “I can see how you might” and implying that she does not, that they are different in meaningful ways. But she again repeats, “I don’t know!,” leaving it unclear what exactly she does not know. Is it everything or something specific? It seems it is everything and that in “serving” others she has lost any sense of self. While the repetition of “I don’t know” reveals that she does not know how she feels, it also betrays great anxiety. She is compelled to keep chatting, not letting the man get a word in. The talking is nervous chatter but apparently also self-protection.

The woman continues to disclose while concealing. The monologue is masterful in its withheld information. While the poem fills several pages, the information that seems most pertinent in the piece is revealed only through subtleties.

The woman soon moves from a discussion of the place and the investment she and her husband have in it to saying that Len thinks she will be “all right / With doctoring.” This sudden revelation is startling and unsettling. It suggests that there is something quite wrong with her, perhaps something terminal. It is clear that what is the matter is not physical but is instead this lack of connection to herself, this loss of self that she has experienced. She does not want medicine; she wants rest, and that is something that no one is likely to understand. Her life is Sisyphean; it is about doing “[t]hings over and over that just won’t stay done.” Here she is momentarily hopeful, saying that her husband’s advice is that the “best way out is always through.” This aphorism is instructive; she seems to be trying to make her way through her life, despite her lack of desire and her discontent.

The monologue eventually finds its way to mental illness and an uncle of the woman who “wasn’t right.” We know, too, that she was not always right (nor is she now) and that she has “once been away” to the state asylum. She did not think she belonged there; she was “prejudiced” because her uncle was kept at home, albeit in a cage, so she thought that was how things should be. She says that though her uncle is gone, the cage is still there, and she had “half fooling” said on occasion, “It’s time I took my turn upstairs in jail.” It seems the move to this location was an effort on Len’s part to remove her from the scene, to take her away from the memory of that crate. She “waited till Len said the word,” and when they moved she “looked to be happy . . . for a while.” However, she says again, “but I don’t know!”

As the poem draws to a close, the woman declares: “I s’pose I’ve got to go the road I’m going.” She is aware that she is trapped in her situation and sees no way out of it. She says that she “almost think[s] if [she] could do like” the camper and be free on the land, she would be better, but she also imagines that she will quickly become dissatisfied despite whatever changes take place: “come night, I shouldn’t like it, / Or a long rain.” She lies awake thinking about how these campers in their tents live and imagining what it might be like for her to live this way as well. But she does not have the “courage for a risk like that.” She sees the campers as vulnerable to nature, knowing that their tents could be “snatched away” by the wind, or something more malevolent, while they sleep.

The woman is deeply lonely and longs for more comfort and security than life provides. People come and go for her, and there are few to connect with. She knows there is “more to it than just windowviews / And living by a lake,” but she “need[s] to be kept.” And she is kept in the deepest sense. The two primary themes of her monologue are her being kept and how it relates to her current surroundings, and her family illnesses and how it relates to her current state. If she left, she would have to be kept by someone else, and her unhappiness would return after the newness of the situation wore off. This she seems to know well.

Frost is surprisingly sensitive to the plight of women and wrote about their struggles on several occasions. One of his more sensitive poems on the subject is “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers.”

The monologue is not one of Frost’s best poems, but it is intricate and subtle, offering complexity of the strangest sort. In a sense it is gothic, the crazed uncle an oddity in Frost’s work. That the woman’s mother as a young bride “had to lie and hear love things made dreadful” by the uncle’s “shouts in the night” also indicates the extent to which we become ourselves in some sense, in ways that we just “don’t know.”

“A Servant to Servants” was first published in North of Boston in 1914.

https://www.bartleby.com/118/9.html

FURTHER READING
Cawthon, W. U., and Tom Fitzpatrick. “Frost’s ‘A Servant to Servants,’ ” Explicator 53, no. 3 (Spring 1995): 163–166.
Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, 225–233.
Kearns, Katherine. Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 86–89.
Michaels, Walter Benn. “Getting Physical,” Raritan 2, no. 2 (Fall 1982): 103–113.
Rooke, Constance. “The Elusive/Allusive Voice: An Interpretation of Frost’s ‘A Servant to Servants,’ ” Cimarron Review 38 (1976): 13–23.



Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Poetry

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