Analysis of Robert Frost’s The Self-Seeker

The Self-Seeker (1914)

“Willis, I didn’t want you here to-day:
The lawyer’s coming for the company.
I’m going to sell my soul, or, rather, feet.
Five hundred dollars for the pair, you know.”

“With you the feet have nearly been the soul;
And if you’re going to sell them to the devil,
I want to see you do it. When’s he coming?”

“I half suspect you knew, and came on purpose
To try to help me drive a better bargain.”

“Well, if it’s true! Yours are no common feet.
The lawyer don’t know what it is he’s buying:
So many miles you might have walked you won’t walk.
You haven’t run your forty orchids down.
What does he think?—How are the blessed feet?
The doctor’s sure you’re going to walk again?”

“He thinks I’ll hobble. It’s both legs and feet.”

“They must be terrible—I mean to look at.”

“I haven’t dared to look at them uncovered.
Through the bed blankets I remind myself
Of a starfish laid out with rigid points.”

“The wonder is it hadn’t been your head.”

“It’s hard to tell you how I managed it.
When I saw the shaft had me by the coat,
I didn’t try too long to pull away,
Or fumble for my knife to cut away,
I just embraced the shaft and rode it out—
Till Weiss shut off the water in the wheel-pit.
That’s how I think I didn’t lose my head.
But my legs got their knocks against the ceiling.”

“Awful. Why didn’t they throw off the belt
Instead of going clear down in the wheel-pit?”

“They say some time was wasted on the belt—
Old streak of leather—doesn’t love me much
Because I make him spit fire at my knuckles,
The way Ben Franklin used to make the kite-string.
That must be it. Some days he won’t stay on.
That day a woman couldn’t coax him off.
He’s on his rounds now with his tail in his mouth
Snatched right and left across the silver pulleys.
Everything goes the same without me there.
You can hear the small buzz saws whine, the big saw
Caterwaul to the hills around the village
As they both bite the wood. It’s all our music.
One ought as a good villager to like it.
No doubt it has a sort of prosperous sound,
And it’s our life.”

“Yes, when it’s not our death.”

“You make that sound as if it wasn’t so
With everything. What we live by we die by.
I wonder where my lawyer is. His train’s in.
I want this over with; I’m hot and tired.”

“You’re getting ready to do something foolish.”

“Watch for him, will you, Will? You let him in.
I’d rather Mrs. Corbin didn’t know;
I’ve boarded here so long, she thinks she owns me.
You’re bad enough to manage without her.”

“And I’m going to be worse instead of better.
You’ve got to tell me how far this is gone:
Have you agreed to any price?”

“Five hundred.
Five hundred—five—five! One, two, three, four, five.
You needn’t look at me.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I told you, Willis, when you first came in.
Don’t you be hard on me. I have to take
What I can get. You see they have the feet,
Which gives them the advantage in the trade.
I can’t get back the feet in any case.”

“But your flowers, man, you’re selling out your flowers.”

“Yes, that’s one way to put it—all the flowers
Of every kind everywhere in this region
For the next forty summers—call it forty.
But I’m not selling those, I’m giving them,
They never earned me so much as one cent:
Money can’t pay me for the loss of them.
No, the five hundred was the sum they named
To pay the doctor’s bill and tide me over.
It’s that or fight, and I don’t want to fight—
I just want to get settled in my life,
Such as it’s going to be, and know the worst,
Or best—it may not be so bad. The firm
Promise me all the shooks I want to nail.”

“But what about your flora of the valley?”

“You have me there. But that—you didn’t think
That was worth money to me? Still I own
It goes against me not to finish it
For the friends it might bring me. By the way,
I had a letter from Burroughs—did I tell you?—
About my Cyprepedium reginæ;
He says it’s not reported so far north.
There! there’s the bell. He’s rung. But you go down
And bring him up, and don’t let Mrs. Corbin.—
Oh, well, we’ll soon be through with it. I’m tired.”

Willis brought up besides the Boston lawyer
A little barefoot girl who in the noise
Of heavy footsteps in the old frame house,
And baritone importance of the lawyer,
Stood for a while unnoticed with her hands
Shyly behind her.

“Well, and how is Mister——”
The lawyer was already in his satchel
As if for papers that might bear the name
He hadn’t at command. “You must excuse me,
I dropped in at the mill and was detained.”

“Looking round, I suppose,” said Willis.

Well, yes.”

“Hear anything that might prove useful?”

The Broken One saw Anne. “Why, here is Anne.
What do you want, dear? Come, stand by the bed;
Tell me what is it?” Anne just wagged her dress
With both hands held behind her. “Guess,” she said.

“Oh, guess which hand? My my! Once on a time
I knew a lovely way to tell for certain
By looking in the ears. But I forget it.
Er, let me see. I think I’ll take the right.
That’s sure to be right even if it’s wrong.
Come, hold it out. Don’t change.—A Ram’s Horn orchid!
A Ram’s Horn! What would I have got, I wonder,
If I had chosen left. Hold out the left.
Another Ram’s Horn! Where did you find those,
Under what beech tree, on what woodchuck’s knoll?”

Anne looked at the large lawyer at her side,
And thought she wouldn’t venture on so much.

“Were there no others?”

“There were four or five.
I knew you wouldn’t let me pick them all.”

“I wouldn’t—so I wouldn’t. You’re the girl!
You see Anne has her lesson learned by heart.”

“I wanted there should be some there next year.”

“Of course you did. You left the rest for seed,
And for the backwoods woodchuck. You’re the girl!
A Ram’s Horn orchid seedpod for a woodchuck
Sounds something like. Better than farmer’s beans
To a discriminating appetite,
Though the Ram’s Horn is seldom to be had
In bushel lots—doesn’t come on the market.
But, Anne, I’m troubled; have you told me all?
You’re hiding something. That’s as bad as lying.
You ask this lawyer man. And it’s not safe
With a lawyer at hand to find you out.
Nothing is hidden from some people, Anne.
You don’t tell me that where you found a Ram’s Horn
You didn’t find a Yellow Lady’s Slipper.
What did I tell you? What? I’d blush, I would.
Don’t you defend yourself. If it was there,
Where is it now, the Yellow Lady’s Slipper?”

“Well, wait—it’s common—it’s too common.”

The Purple Lady’s Slipper’s commoner.”

“I didn’t bring a Purple Lady’s Slipper
To You—to you I mean—they’re both too common.”

The lawyer gave a laugh among his papers
As if with some idea that she had scored.

“I’ve broken Anne of gathering bouquets.
It’s not fair to the child. It can’t be helped though:
Pressed into service means pressed out of shape.
Somehow I’ll make it right with her—she’ll see.
She’s going to do my scouting in the field,
Over stone walls and all along a wood
And by a river bank for water flowers,
The floating Heart, with small leaf like a heart,
And at the sinus under water a fist
Of little fingers all kept down but one,
And that thrust up to blossom in the sun
As if to say, ‘You! You’re the Heart’s desire.’
Anne has a way with flowers to take the place
Of that she’s lost: she goes down on one knee
And lifts their faces by the chin to hers
And says their names, and leaves them where they are.”

The lawyer wore a watch the case of which
Was cunningly devised to make a noise
Like a small pistol when he snapped it shut
At such a time as this. He snapped it now.

“Well, Anne, go, dearie. Our affair will wait.
The lawyer man is thinking of his train.
He wants to give me lots and lots of money
Before he goes, because I hurt myself,
And it may take him I don’t know how long.
But put our flowers in water first. Will, help her:
The pitcher’s too full for her. There’s no cup?
Just hook them on the inside of the pitcher.
Now run.—Get out your documents! You see
I have to keep on the good side of Anne.
I’m a great boy to think of number one.
And you can’t blame me in the place I’m in.
Who will take care of my necessities
Unless I do?”

“A pretty interlude,”
The lawyer said. “I’m sorry, but my train—
Luckily terms are all agreed upon.
You only have to sign your name. Right—there.”

“You, Will, stop making faces. Come round here
Where you can’t make them. What is it you want?
I’ll put you out with Anne. Be good or go.”

“You don’t mean you will sign that thing unread?”

“Make yourself useful then, and read it for me.
Isn’t it something I have seen before?”

“You’ll find it is. Let your friend look at it.”

“Yes, but all that takes time, and I’m as much
In haste to get it over with as you.
But read it, read it. That’s right, draw the curtain:
Half the time I don’t know what’s troubling me.—
What do you say, Will? Don’t you be a fool,
You! crumpling folkses legal documents.
Out with it if you’ve any real objection.”

“Five hundred dollars!”

“What would you think right?”

“A thousand wouldn’t be a cent too much;
You know it, Mr. Lawyer. The sin is
Accepting anything before he knows
Whether he’s ever going to walk again.
It smells to me like a dishonest trick.”

“I think—I think—from what I heard to-day—
And saw myself—he would be ill-advised——”

“What did you hear, for instance?” Willis said.

“Now the place where the accident occurred——”

The Broken One was twisted in his bed.
“This is between you two apparently.
Where I come in is what I want to know.
You stand up to it like a pair of cocks.
Go outdoors if you want to fight. Spare me.
When you come back, I’ll have the papers signed.
Will pencil do? Then, please, your fountain pen.
One of you hold my head up from the pillow.”

Willis flung off the bed. “I wash my hands—
I’m no match—no, and don’t pretend to be——”

The lawyer gravely capped his fountain pen.
“You’re doing the wise thing: you won’t regret it.
We’re very sorry for you.”

Willis sneered:
“Who’s we?—some stockholders in Boston?
I’ll go outdoors, by gad, and won’t come back.”

“Willis, bring Anne back with you when you come.
Yes. Thanks for caring. Don’t mind Will: he’s savage.
He thinks you ought to pay me for my flowers.
You don’t know what I mean about the flowers.
Don’t stop to try to now. You’ll miss your train.
Good-bye.” He flung his arms around his face.

“The Self-Seeker” is largely a dialogue between the “The Broken One,” who remains unnamed, and his friend Willis. It opens with The Broken One saying that he did not want Willis to visit today because there is a lawyer coming and he is going to “sell [his] soul, or, rather, feet.” The description is an attempt at humor in the face of misery. The Broken One jokingly says that he is selling his feet as a pair for $500. He has injured his legs in a mill accident, and he will sign paperwork this day to settle the case. Willis responds that his feet nearly are his soul, and we learn later what he means. His feet are not his soul, but they can take him to what is: “[Y]ours are no common feet,” he says. Willis insists that if The Broken One is going to sell his soul to the “devil,” he is going to stick around and see it happen.

The speaker thinks that Willis is going to help The Broken One “drive a better bargain,” but Willis is unconvinced about the deal. He is not certain that The Broken One will ever walk again, nor is he convinced that the settlement is adequate compensation for the loss. The Broken One says the doctor thinks he will “hobble.” Willis argues that there are “[s]o many miles you might have walked you won’t walk” and that he has not yet “run [his] forty orchids down.” There is disappointment and empathy in his tone. The Broken One is a great lover of orchids and apparently spends his leisure time trying to find, identify, and catalog them. The loss of his legs is not only a loss of what he can do with them to make a living; the even greater loss is that it will interfere with the fulfillment of his orchid aspirations.

The Broken One likens himself to a “starfish laid out with rigid points.” He is afraid even to look at his legs. Throughout the conversation, Willis remains unconvinced that the settlement is necessary. He wonders if it is all in The Broken One’s head and if it is not that he cannot walk but that he will not. It is here that we learn a bit more about how The Broken One lost the use of his legs.

Robert Frost/Flickr

As always in Frost the damage was done through work, not play, similar to the poor boy in “Out, Out—,” who not only loses his hand to the saw but his life. Here the “shaft had [the speaker] by the coat” in the wheel-pit, and his “legs got their knocks against the ceiling.” The leather belt of the machine is personified in their discussion, as is the buzz saw in “Out, Out—”; the machine had it in for The Broken One. Malicious intent on the part of an object is not unfamiliar in Frost. The Broken One says that the belt did not “love [him] much” because of the work he made it do, likening his own work to Ben Franklin’s with electricity and a “kite-string.” He says, “[t]hat day a woman couldn’t coax him [the belt] off.” The speaker becomes romantic about his mill work, calling the sounds of the buzz saws music and the work his life. Willis says with despondent practicality, “[w]hen it’s not our death.” The comment is dismissed: “What we live by we die by,” The Broken One says. Here it is also mentioned that The Broken One boards with a Mrs. Corbin. He is a blue-collar worker with little goods or money to show for the work he has done. He is selling his feet because he must, because he has to “take what [he] can get.”

Willis remains unconvinced about the speaker’s decision. “But your flowers, man, you’re selling out your flowers,” he says desperately; “What about your flora of the valley?” But The Broken One is not shaken; he does not want to fight. Instead he wants to be “settled” in his life, to “know the worst, / Or best” and get on with it.

Willis is concerned The Broken One will be giving up his soul, his love of nature. In his inability to walk, he will be unable to gain pleasure from all the flowers for the “next forty summers” by continuing his orchid quest. The Broken One is consistent in his decision, showing no vulnerability. He insists that even his passion for flowers has its price—that is, no price, since “they never earned [him] so much as one cent.”

Their conversation is interrupted by the lawyer ringing the doorbell. The big-city Boston lawyer soon appears, accompanied by a shy young girl named Anne whose hands are held behind her back. Soon Anne and The Broken One engage in a discussion about flowers. The girl has hidden in her hands two ram’s horns orchids. The Broken One is pleased that she did not pick all of those she saw and left the “rest for seed.” He is her teacher, she his study.

Anne will, if the Broken One does not regain the use of his legs, do his “scouting in the field” for flowers. He has trained her not to gather bouquets, but always to leave some flowers for reproduction. The lawyer is in a hurry and urges The Broken One to sign the documents he has brought without reading them. He explains that he stopped by the mill on the way and feels that it would be “ill-advised” to push for more than the $500, but Willis thinks it is a swindle, saying that a “thousand wouldn’t be a cent too much” and continuing to advise The Broken One against the signing of the papers.

The poem ends in heartbreak. The Broken One believes that Willis wants him to be paid for the flowers, but he knows that the lawyer does not know what that means. Willis wanted him to be compensated for all of his losses, not only the loss of his legs, but the loss of where those legs could have taken him. His love of botany makes the flowers his greatest loss. The Broken One finally reveals his emotions truthfully in the final line, when he is at last alone, by flinging his arms around his face. He is truly broken now, though throughout he resisted such a description.

“The Self-Seeker” is not one of Frost’s finer narrative poems, but it does highlight many of the concerns found in some of his other, better poems. Frost the botanist is revealed here in his discussion of the ram’s horn, the yellow lady’s slipper, the purple lady’s slipper, and the Cyprepedium regina.

Frost’s love of nature and human sympathy is revealed through the value Willis places on the loss of The Broken One’s legs; first and foremost it will be a loss of the enjoyment of flowers for him. The poem also highlights Frost’s concern with class issues and the contrast between city and country life so often found in his work. The Boston lawyer is contrasted with the poor mill worker and is not cast in a positive light. He is not to be trusted and is described as the devil. The mill worker is reduced to “selling” his legs because as a laborer, his body is his work and is all that he can sell. The dialogue of the poem is not particularly engaging, and the imagery, other than the description of The Broken One as a starfish, is limited. The poem is not highly metaphorical, nor does it demonstrate a skillful use of particulars. But it does paint a vivid picture of the utter vulnerability of the working class when an accident can destroy not only one’s livelihood but one’s life. The poem pales in comparison to the many other narrative poems in North of Boston such as “Death of the Hired Man,” “Mending Wall,” and “Home Burial,” but is not out of place in the volume.

The title is a bit vague as well, referring perhaps to The Broken One, who, with the loss of his feet, has lost his essential self, his “soul.” But it might just as well be applied to the lawyer, who, by signing people’s lives away in hasty settlements, is a “Self-Seeker” of the worst kind.

Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, 155–160.
Perrine, Laurence. “The Sense of Frost’s ‘The SelfSeeker,’ ” Concerning Poetry 7, no. 1 (1974): 5–8.

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