Women at Home

Robert Frost is often at his best as a poet when “home” is at its worst, and it could not be much worse than in most of his poems about women in the country. In a peculiar way, his treatment of women recalls a nineteenth-century novelistic convention in which the repression of women, and the restriction on their active participation in the outdoor world, force them into exercises of imagination and fancy. Men can busy themselves with affairs outside the “home,” and women are sometimes to be gratified with what is brought back to them, as in “Flower-Gathering.” But when in Section V of “The Hill Wife” the woman has an “extra-vagant” impulse, it is not to bring back flowers but to escape altogether.

It was too lonely for her there,
   And too wild,
And since there were but two of them,
   And no child,

And work was little in the house,
   She was free,
And followed where he furrowed field,
   Or felled tree.

She rested on a log and tossed
   The fresh chips,
With a song only to herself
   On her lips.

And once she went to break a bough
   Of black alder.
She strayed so far she scarcely heard
   When he called her—

And didn’t answer—didn’t speak—
   Or return.
She stood, and then she ran and hid
   In the fern.

He never found her, though he looked
   Everywhere,
And he asked at her mother’s house
   Was she there.

Sudden and swift and light as that
   The ties gave,
And he learned of finalities
   Besides the grave.

Frost’s sense of the plight of women who have nothing but a home to keep—with too little work if childless, too much if there are boarders or workers on the farm—is responsible for a series of remarkable poems about the frustrations of the imagination and its consequent expression in the distorted forms of obsession, lies, or madness. Very often “home” is the prison of madness, recognized as such by the keepers and so acknowledged by the victims, like the woman in “A Servant to Servants,” who has been to an insane asylum and who is not afraid of the men who board in her house “if they’re not / Afraid of me. There’s two can play at that. / I have my fancies: it runs in the family. / My father’s brother wasn’t right.”

The poem is a long soliloquy delivered to outsiders. In the many poems where one finds them listening to Frost’s isolated country talkers these outsiders usually say nothing or so little that what pretends to be dialogue makes us at a certain point nervously wonder whether it is not really only soliloquy, or an expression of mad loneliness searching through an interior monologue for a listener. These particular outsiders are supposedly camping on the land rented out by the woman’s husband Len. Understandably, she is glad to have someone to talk to; she is worried at the end …

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