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Robert Frost's "A Soldier"

Updated on November 26, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Robert Frost

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "A Soldier"

Robert Frost’s poem, "A Soldier," fashions a variation of the Elizabethan sonnet with the rime scheme of ABBA CDDC EFFE GG; it may be either separated into three stanzas and a rimed couplet, as the Elizabethan sonnet is, or it may be divided into the Petrarchan octave and sestet, also known as the Italian sonnet is done.

(Please note: The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The octave begins by making a claim about its subject; then the sestet continues with an explanatory discourse. Frost’s sonnet works well with the functionality of either form: if one looks at the sonnet as an Elizabethan sonnet or an Petrarchan sonnet, it works well functioning amazingly well.

A Soldier

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,
That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,
But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.
If we who sight along it round the world,
See nothing worthy to have been its mark,
It is because like men we look too near,
Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,
Our missiles always make too short an arc.
They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect
The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;
They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.
But this we know, the obstacle that checked
And tripped the body, shot the spirit on
Further than target ever showed or shone.

Reading of Frost's "A Soldier"

Commentary

Octave or First and Second Quatrains

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,
That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,
But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.
If we who sight along it round the world,
See nothing worthy to have been its mark,
It is because like men we look too near,
Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,
Our missiles always make too short an arc.

By likening metaphorically the “fallen soldier” to a lance that has been “hurled,” the speaker begins his comparison and thought process. A lance lying on the ground fails to be retrieved; thus it gathers “dew” and “rust.”

Nevertheless, the lance continues to designate some target. The fallen soldier continues to point to the goal for which he died. The soldier is like a lance that still points to its designation. While reclining in "dirt," both the lance and the soldier communicate an important intention.

The reader’s attention is then drawn to the citizens for whom the soldier fought and fell: “If we who sight along it round the world, / See nothing worthy to have been its mark.” The speaker knows that those for whom the soldier had died find it difficult to understand why the soldier had to fight and die at all. Why can’t we all just get along? Why should we be fighting in the first place?

But nations are a conglomerate of differing notions. Each nation has to protect the entire nation, not just those who agree with methods enforced to do that protecting. The violent peaceniks have to be protected from their own lethargic stance that would doom the whole nation.

The speaker thus asserts: “It is because like men we look too near, / Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere, / Our missiles always make too short an arc.” The peaceniks look "too near." They march, they yell, they call for peace, but they do not realize that peace cannot be a screamed-for commodity; it must earned, sometimes with blood.

Looking at the world with blinder on, the too many citizens become complacent and denigrate the very real powers of state that can do them good. And it is in the one sphere that governmental authority has it definite duty, to serve and protect its citizens. Sometimes that protection means combating force or other nations who would aggressively attempt to attack another nation.

The soldier whose life has demonstrated his proper duty should be enough to enlighten all of a nation's citizens regarding the purpose of that soldier's action, but there are always those who remain blinkered and thus blind to the realties of earth life.

Sestet or Third Quatrain and Couplet

They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect
The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;
They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.
But this we know, the obstacle that checked
And tripped the body, shot the spirit on
Further than target ever showed or shone.

The average citizen’s imagination is short-sighted. Such individuals cannot imagine or visualize the actual mission of any soldier. But like the lance, the soldiers, "fall, they rip the grass, they intersect / The curve of earth, and striking, break their own.” The soldier's physical fall resembles the fall of a "lance." The drama plays out while the average citizen of insufficient imagination remain smug in their derogatory complaints about the mission of soldiers.

These low-information citizens remains incapable of grasping the sense of duty, the expression of energy, the love of country and life that these soldiers have felt deep in their hearts and minds. The soldiers have never been the pawns of politicians that too many fellow citizens have thought of them. Only the protected ignorant, including indifferent, self-serving politicians, have continued to denigrate them, instead of honoring them as these fallen soldiers deserve.

The couplet of Frost’s poem offers the important message: the soul of that fallen soldier does not end its trajectory by continuing to lie in the dirt; it continues on to its greater home in the spiritual realm with God and the angels.

Frost's intuitive awareness that the soul of each fallen soldier continues its trajectory adds depth to his poem. That the poet, Robert Frost, possessed such spiritual insight is, no doubt, responsible for his ability to continue to gains readers in this tainted, postmodernist besmirched literary climate.

Biographical Sketch of Edward Thomas

It is quite likely that Robert Frost's poem, "A Soldier," was influenced by the death of Frost's close friend, Edward Thomas, who was killed in the Battle of Arras during World War I.

Edward Thomas was born in London on March 3, 1878, to Welch parents, Philip Henry Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Thomas. Edward was the oldest of the couple's six sons. He attended Battersea Grammar and Saint Paul's Schools in London, and after he graduated, he took the civil service examination at his father's behest. However, Thomas discovered his intense interest in writing, and instead of seeking a civil service position, he began writing essays about his many hikes. In 1896, through the influence and encouragement of James Ashcroft Noble, a successful literary journalist, Thomas published his first book of essays titled The Woodland Life . Thomas had also enjoyed many holidays in Wales. With his literary friend, Richard Jefferies, Thomas had spent a great deal of time hiking and exploring the landscape in Wales, where he accumulated material for his nature writings.

In 1899, Thomas married Helen Noble, daughter of James Ashcroft Noble. Soon after the marriage, Thomas was awarded a scholarship to Lincoln College in Oxford, from where he graduated with a history degree. Thomas became a reviewer for the Daily Chronicle, where he wrote reviews of nature books, literary criticism, and current poetry. His earnings were meager and the family relocated five time in the span of ten years. Luckily for Thomas' writing, the family's move to Yew Tree Cottage in Steep Village provided positive influence on his writing about landscapes. The move to Steep Village also had a healthful influence on Thomas, who had suffered melancholy breakdowns because of his inability to engage in his favorite creative writing interests.

In Steep Village, Thomas began writing his more creative works, including Childhood, The Icknield Way (1913), The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans (1913), and In Pursuit of Spring (1914). It was also during this period that Thomas met Robert Frost, and their fast friendship began. Frost and Thomas, who both were at very early points in their writing careers, would take long walks through the countryside and attend the local writers meetings. About their friendship, Frost later quipped, “I never had, I never shall have another such year of friendship.”

In 1914, Edward Thomas helped launch Frost's career by writing a glowing review of Frost's first collection of poems, North of Boston. Frost encouraged Thomas to write poetry, and Thomas composed his blank-verse poem, "Up the Wind," which Thomas published under the pen-name, "Edward Eastaway."

Thomas continued to write more poetry, but with the onset of World War I, the literary market took a down-turn. Thomas considered relocating his family to Frost's new England. But at the same time he was also considering whether to become a soldier. Frost encouraged him to move to New England, but Thomas chose to join the army. In 1915, he signed up with the Artists' Rifles, a regiment of the British Army Reserve. As a Lance Corporal, Thomas became as instructor to fellow officers, which included Wilfred Owen, the poet most noted for his melancholy war verse.

Thomas took up training as an Officer Cadet with the Royal Garrison Artillery service in September 1916. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in November, he deployed to northern France. On April 9, 1917, Thomas was killed in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the first of a larger Battle of Arras. He is buried in the Agny Military Cemetery.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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