blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "An Old Man's Winter Night"

Jay Parini

Perhaps the most haunting poem in Mountain Interval is "An Old Man’s Winter Night," a poem about an old man dying in the wintry climate of New England and alone: "All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him / Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars." The poem meditates implicitly on the human condition as a whole, though it remains neatly, even maniacally, focused on the single old man here who "stood with barrels round him -- at a loss." The old man is somehow made to bear the weight of all human loneliness, even though "a light he was to no one but himself / Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what, / A quiet light, and then not even that." The man’s inner light, as it were, goes out as he sleeps; there is nothing left but the glimmer in the woodstove and the pale moonlight. The poem ends with a handful of deeply haunting lines:

One aged man -- one man -- can't keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter's night.

The word "keep" is central here, as elsewhere in Frost, carrying a freight of ambiguous meanings. The word's original denotation, in the Anglo-Saxon, is "to hold, to seize." By implication, a person’s duty in life is to bear witness (as in the title of a late volume by Frost, A Witness Tree ), to maintain a vigil. Frost's poet is a hermit who nonetheless lets his light shine, keeps the faith, holds steady against the chaos of the universe.

From "Robert Frost" in The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Copyright 1993 by The Columbia University Press.

Judith Oster

We do not know why the old man is alone, only that he is. We do not know whether the state he has reached in this poem is the result of his aloneness or the cause of it; it is with the state of his life as we find it that we must deal. We feel in this old man a shutting-out that keeps him more frighteningly alone. Here we find salvation neither in a human relationship, nor in communion with the outside world, nor in devotion to a task. There is no sense here of the old man's existing for anything or anyone at all. With his memory failing him, eroding his sense of purpose, the old man strengthens his ego by a stubborn taciturnity, and he protects himself by scaring away what frightens him rather than by inviting in what comforts him. Nowhere in this poem of terrible aloneness are we admitted to the man's feelings of loneliness. We are admitted only to his feeling "at a loss," to his concern with "he knew what," to his consigning of the snow to the moon, and to his falling asleep. If anything, the man seems more alone because we are not admitted into his feelings. Were we sitting in the room with him, we might not be admitted to them either, for in his concern with "he knew what" (and in that triple-stressed sound of the sentence), we feel a taciturnity, a stubborn unwillingness on his part to communicate and, more pathetic still, an unwillingness to admit, perhaps, that he did not know, could not remember what he was concerned with. Thus he not only keeps to himself in the sense of being without others, he keeps his ideas and his feelings to himself.

We are told he was a light to no one but himself—and a quiet light at that—"and then not even that," possibly not fully in touch even with himself He also holds a light, a light that prevents his "giving back the gaze" to the out-of-doors because he is tilting it back toward his eyes. The light he was unto himself and the light he holds unto himself work together to intensify the man's isolation: we understand that his aloneness is not simply the absence of another person in the house or the fact that no one is caring for him; it is that he means nothing to anyone. Moreover it means that he illuminates nothing for anyone else, and we have no way of knowing if he even wants to or was ever able to. This keeping of his light and his concern to himself seems to have some bearing on the man's relationship with the out-of-doors, for his very aloneness makes the world outside and the world in the cellar especially frightening. He could use his light to look out by holding it at the window to do so, but he tilts it toward his eyes. While the tilting could have been involuntary, or for no conscious reason, the result is the same: he cannot see the outside. Had he wanted to "give back the gaze," he could certainly have done so. He may not have cared, or he may have feared what lies outside, in which case the tilt of the lamp prevents his seeing out, protects him from what seems to be "looking darkly" in. The two lights work together, for were he to have cast light outward in either sense, to have been a light to another, to have shone his light out the window, the out-of- doors would not seem to be "looking darkly in at him." With another he would be able to "keep house"—to have a home; this way the house is a "keep"—a fortress against hostile forces, but not a real home. As it is, he reflects only himself and his condition, haunted by what he imagines threatens from without. Even the conjunctive "where" contributes to the sense of his imprisonment in the self: it is not clear what we are to take as the reference of the relative clause "where now he sat." Is it the "light" he was sitting in—his own light, that is? Is "himself" the antecedent? But if we think about it, it is all the same, for he remains locked in that reflexive circle of self, the light he was , only unto himself, the light he shone back toward himself, and the implied passiveness of that sitting.

What light he has will finally depend on the moon—late-arising, broken, chaste, cold, and undependable—and it is to her that he will consign "his" snow, "his" icicles. The moon, "such as she [is] ," is better for holding his possessions, such as they are. She will fulfill his need, perhaps, to feel in possession of something, particularly of the snow and icicles on his roof, as if their very coldness, preserved as it would be by the moon, better at such a charge than the sun, was a part of him. The "empty rooms" seem to have invited the stars—separate stars—of frost. The cold snow and ice seem all he has to give, all he has that he wishes preserved, both of which meanings are inherent in "to keep."

Yet in that dim and frozen atmosphere we hear noise, the noise he makes to scare the cellar and scare the outer night. We hear what must be his futile attempt to scare them back. The night "has its sounds, familiar…But nothing so like beating on a box. "Are we to assume that the poem means that nothing is so familiar a sound, nothing so hollow, nothing so "scary" by virtue of its loudness as beating on a box? We cannot be certain whether the man actually beats on a box, but we cannot escape the image of a man doing so to scare away the sounds, to drown them out, to make a sound when he cannot generate enough light, and the act of a man alone beating on a box seems even more frightening than noises from the cellar or the out-of-doors.

The hollowness and the emptiness of the place and the life are reinforced by the auditory image of resonating sounds and further dramatized by repetitions within the poem—words and structures that echo one another: "Scared" appears three times, "light" "moon," "keep," "night," "one man," "clomping," and "what kept him" twice. (Notice, too, the visual effect on the page of lines 10 and 11,4 and 6.) In this context of man alone, scaring the out-of-doors, consigning snow and icicles, creating voiceless sound by clomping, or maybe by beating, the echoes could seem mocking indeed.

"Most telling, though, is the echo effect in the description of his disturbed sleep: he sleeps, and "the log that shifted…disturbed him and he shifted…but still slept" (italics mine). It is almost as if he is one with that log. Box-beating and clomping over, light put out, he sleeps like a log, moves when the log moves. It is almost as if in the man's aloneness, his connection with no one, no purpose, his lack of connection even with himself and his thoughts, he is less than fully human—not even connected with nature, for the log is no longer alive. It is another example of the deathward pull inherent in the unbroken circle of self. This is an old man's winter night, but we are not allowed to rest the blame for his condition simply on age. What kept him from remembering was age, but we are made to see, at the end, that not only can one aged man not keep a house, but that one man—any man alone—cannot keep a house, a farm, a countryside any better than this.

from Toward Robert Frost: The Reader and The Poet. Copyright 1991 by the University of Georgia Press.

 William H. Pritchard.

Here, more so than in "The Oven Bird," the comfort of a warmly human subject is held out; no one who ever responded to a Norman Rockwell magazine cover could but be taken by the old man, alone in his house ("All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him"), unable to summon up the resources to hold the winter night at bay:

What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.

But if lovers of Rockwell had paused over these lines and tried to read and listen to them, they might well have noted how odd is their disposition. The "sense" of them is that the old man can't see out because the lamp won't permit him to see out -- all he gets back is an image of himself. And if he cannot see out, neither can he see in; he is so old that he can't remember how or why he is where he is. But what, in the prose paraphrase are concerned and sympathetic insights into the plight of old age, sound rather different when experienced through the sing-song, rather telegraphic formulations of the lines. As with "The Oven Bird" there is a heavy use of the verb "to be": "was" occurs three times in four lines, something a novice writer of poetry would try to avoid. And there are also three "whats," two of which occur in a single line ("What kept him from remembering what it was"), designed to make it hard to indulge in sad feelings about old age -- one notices the way that "age" is quietly buried at the very end of the next line.

Apropos of his sister Jeanie, Frost claimed that as he grew older he found it easier to lie awake and worry about other people's troubles. But he is at least as much a critic of such sympathetic identification with others -- lonely old men or oven birds -- as a practitioner of it. Or rather, some of the best poems in Mountain Interval derive their energy from the play of movement toward and withdrawal from the subject contemplated, play such as can be seen in two lines further on which summarize the old man in his setting;

A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what.

By itself, the first of these lines could figure as a compelling and moving statement of the human condition, eyesight and insight failing as death comes on. And, typically, Frost won't let us read it just that way, although having said it the poem lodges it in our minds. But the inspiring saying does not stand by itself, isolated in a memorable line; instead, it continues over into the next one, flattening out the ringing declaration by moving it to the homely, revealing, "Where now he sat," then continuing by acting as if the old man's concerns can’t be our concern -- we can't know the "what" that only he is concerned with. An even more forceful, because final, example of this movement toward and away from the subject of contemplation occurs in the poem's final three lines which took at the man, now fallen asleep after "he consigned to the moon" not his soul to keep, but "his snow upon the roof, / His icicles along the wall to keep":

One aged man -- one man -- can't keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It's thus he does it of a winter night.

The voice becomes broadly expansive as it moves from "aged man" to the generic "man," separated by expressive dashes; then from house to farm to the larger countryside, as if it is about to break under the weight of all this intimidating, alien nature. And having arrived at just the point where such a break might be imagined, the sentence turns itself around in the middle of a line, with the important "or" -- "or if he can, / It's thus he does it of a winter night." That is where we are to end, with the "what" encountered earlier now transformed into an equally blunt "thus." We know how "thus he does it," but all we know is what we have been shown about it by the poem. Frost's procedure, again typically so, is not to send us out into a "real" world of lonely, aged men on New England farms (they could as well be Minnesotan or Nebraskan ones) but back into the poetic life given sound and shape in a particular, even a noticeably peculiar, order of words and sentence sounds. It is there that any house-keeping, or life-keeping, will have to be accomplished.

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright 1984 by William Pritchard.

Return to Robert Frost