Two Tramps in Mud Time
Robert Frost (1934)
Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily “Hit them hard!”
I knew pretty well why he dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.
Good blocks of beech it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good
That day, giving a loose to my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.
The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.
A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And fronts the wind to unruffle a plume
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake: and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn’t blue,
But he wouldn’t advise a thing to blossom.
The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand,
In every wheel rut’s now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
Be glad of water, but don’t forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.
The time when most I loved my task
These two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You’d think I never had felt before
The weight of an axhead poised aloft,
The grip on earth of outspread feet.
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.
Out of the woods two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps.)
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax,
They had no way of knowing a fool.
Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man’s work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right — agreed.
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.
I fell in love with this poem as a ninth grader, when I first began creating my Poetry Notebooks—collections of poems that spoke to me. They were heavy on Robert Frost, who had taught at my high school, and rhyming nineteenth century poets. I was a conservative reader. It was the third stanza, which describes April weather, especially in New Hampshire, that rang true with me then. That sudden shift from warm to cold and back again that ran across my back as I sat reading on the shed roof—I knew that weather. I understood, too, the metaphorical cold that lurks beneath the surface of the poem, ready to reach out and pull us under. And that was poetry.
As I grew older and wrestled with the big questions—What Am I supposed to Do with My Life?—it was the last stanza that haunted me. Work as play for mortal stakes. I used that as the measuring stick for my various occupations. Was sorting the papers of Arthur Dehon Hill, buried in the back corners of the Portsmouth Athenaeum seriously fun? Yes, it was. Was baking bread and cookies for people I knew play for moral stakes? Yes. Being a baker in a town that took food and art seriously was play for mortal stakes. Does weeding leeks and garbanzo beans play bring together love and need? Yes. Teaching English to a bunch of restless ninth grade boys? It is certainly work. But then, when they soar with an idea, it is the best fun I’ve ever had. When I can no longer answer “yes” to Frost’s vital question, it is time to move on.
The poem came back to me again yesterday as I walked down a trail, far ahead of the botanizing pack of Native Plant Society members. This time, it was the lines on movement that struck me—the “grip of earth on outstretched feet…the muscles rocking smooth and moist in vernal heat.” He was chopping wood, but the same smooth movement of muscle pushing against the earth happens when you walk along a trail, using not your knees, but your hips for propulsion. A gentle bounce gets into your walk and identifies you, weeks later, as someone comfortable walking on a rough surface, carrying weight upon your back. And when the weight is gone, and there is nothing to hold you down, you bound lightly down the street, feeling the earth beneath the concrete. Frost’s poem is like that, too. Earth beneath my feet, emerging again and again (like the two tramps?) in my life.
Chickpeas and Masses of Chard
Inspired by Deborah Madision’s Chickpeas and Shells with Masses of Spinach….
2 cups of cooked chickpeas. Ours come from Sunbow Farm, usually.
2 cups of cooked rice
1 HUGE bunch of chard, chapped. The chard, this time of year, is also from Sunbow. The leaves are as big as my head and it is still tender.
2-3 heads of chopped garlic
Sautee the chard and garlic in the large cast iron frying pan. Add some salt and pepper, a couple of shakes of tamari.
Add the chickpeas and rice. Heat through.
Eat with grated parmesan cheese or peach chutney or perhaps some salsa, depending upon your mood.