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Robert Frost's "The Fear"

Updated on November 8, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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 at 85

Robert Frost at 85,1959
Robert Frost at 85,1959 | Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Fear"

Robert Frost's "The Fear" is a narrative poem from his collection titled North of Boston; the poem consists of 103 lines without a rime-scheme.

(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 poem's atmosphere becomes rather eerie not only because of the darkness late at night and the isolated location of the couple's home but also because of the woman's obsession that she is being stalked by a former lover. She seems to become ever more unhinged as the conversation wears on.

The Fear

A lantern light from deeper in the barn
Shone on a man and woman in the door
And threw their lurching shadows on a house
Near by, all dark in every glossy window.
A horse's hoof pawed once the hollow floor,
And the back of the gig they stood beside
Moved in a little. The man grasped a wheel,
The woman spoke out sharply, 'Whoa, stand still!'
'I saw it just as plain as a white plate,'
She said, 'as the light on the dashboard ran
Along the bushes at the roadside-a man's face.
You must have seen it too.'
'I didn't see it.
Are you sure—'
'Yes, I'm sure!'
'-it was a face?'
'Joel, I'll have to look. I can't go in,
I can't, and leave a thing like that unsettled.
Doors locked and curtains drawn will make no difference.
I always have felt strange when we came home
To the dark house after so long an absence,
And the key rattled loudly into place
Seemed to warn someone to be getting out
At one door as we entered at another.
What if I'm right, and someone all the time—
Don't hold my arm!'
'I say it's someone passing.'
'You speak as if this were a travelled road.
You forget where we are. What is beyond
That he'd be going to or coming from
At such an hour of night, and on foot too.
What was he standing still for in the bushes?'
'It's not so very late-it's only dark.
There's more in it than you're inclined to say.
Did he look like—?'
'He looked like anyone.
I'll never rest to-night unless I know.
Give me the lantern.'
'You don't want the lantern.'
She pushed past him and got it for herself.
'You're not to come,' she said. 'This is my business.
If the time's come to face it, I'm the one
To put it the right way. He'd never dare—
Listen! He kicked a stone. Hear that, hear that!
He's coming towards us. Joel, go in-please.
Hark!-I don't hear him now. But please go in.'
'In the first place you can't make me believe it's—'
'It is-or someone else he's sent to watch.
And now's the time to have it out with him
While we know definitely where he is.
Let him get off and he'll be everywhere
Around us, looking out of trees and bushes
Till I sha'n't dare to set a foot outdoors.
And I can't stand it. Joel, let me go!'
'But it's nonsense to think he'd care enough.'
'You mean you couldn't understand his caring.
Oh, but you see he hadn't had enough—
Joel, I won't-I won't-I promise you.
We mustn't say hard things. You mustn't either.'
'I'll be the one, if anybody goes!
But you give him the advantage with this light.
What couldn't he do to us standing here!
And if to see was what he wanted, why
He has seen all there was to see and gone.'
He appeared to forget to keep his hold,
But advanced with her as she crossed the grass.
'What do you want?' she cried to all the dark.
She stretched up tall to overlook the light
That hung in both hands hot against her skirt.
'There's no one; so you're wrong,' he said.
'There is.—
What do you want?' she cried, and then herself
Was startled when an answer really came.
'Nothing.' It came from well along the road.
She reached a hand to Joel for support:
The smell of scorching woollen made her faint.
'What are you doing round this house at night?'
'Nothing.' A pause: there seemed no more to say.
And then the voice again: 'You seem afraid.
I saw by the way you whipped up the horse.
I'll just come forward in the lantern light
And let you see.'
'Yes, do.-Joel, go back!'
She stood her ground against the noisy steps
That came on, but her body rocked a little.
'You see,' the voice said.
'Oh.' She looked and looked.
'You don't see-I've a child here by the hand.'
'What's a child doing at this time of night—?'
'Out walking. Every child should have the memory
Of at least one long-after-bedtime walk.
What, son?'
'Then I should think you'd try to find
Somewhere to walk—'
'The highway as it happens—
We're stopping for the fortnight down at Dean's.'
'But if that's all-Joel-you realize—
You won't think anything. You understand?
You understand that we have to be careful.
This is a very, very lonely place.
Joel!' She spoke as if she couldn't turn.
The swinging lantern lengthened to the ground,
It touched, it struck it, clattered and went out.

Reading of "The Fear"

Commentary

First Movement: "A lantern light from deeper in the barn"

The poem begins with the narrator’s description: the husband and wife have returned home after being away for several hours. They are in the barn standing beside their horse and carriage.

The wife claims that she saw a man’s face, “as plain as a white plate,” as they were nearing their farm. She insists she saw it, but her husband retorts, “I didn’t see it. / Are you sure—.” He is interrupted by the wife with “Yes, I’m sure!” To which her husband questions, “—it was a face?”

The wife is uneasy about going into the house without discovering to whom the face belongs: “Joel, I’ll have to look. I can’t go in, / I can’t, and leave a thing like that unsettled.” Joel disagrees that someone is snooping around the house and tries to dissuade her going out and trying to find someone. But she is adamant and cries, “Don’t hold my arm!” To which he replies, “I say it’s someone passing.”

Second Movement: You speak as if this were a travelled road"

The wife then reminds her husband of how isolated their farm is: “You speak as if this were a travelled road. / You forget where we are.” She insists that if anyone is lurking around, it is for the specific purpose of seeing her. Joel then realizes that his wife thinks the man who may be “standing still [ ] in the bushes,” may be a man she once knew.

Joel says, “It’s not so very late—it’s only dark. / There’s more in it than you’re inclined to say. / Did he look like——?” Again, the wife interrupts her husband by saying that he just looked like “anyone,” but she again insists that she has to go look. After he discourages her again, she takes the lantern and tells him to “not to come,” because “[t]his is my business.”

Joel then realizes that he wife thinks this prowler is a man with whom she has had an assignation, and he thinks she is being silly: “In the first place you can’t make me believe it’s—.” Again interrupting him, she says it’s either her former lover or someone he has sent to spy on her.

Third Movement: "You mean you couldn't understand his caring"

Joel derides the idea that this man would care enough to be out snooping around their farm or sending another person in his stead. To which the indignant wife barks, “You mean you couldn’t understand his caring.” She then flatters herself further by adding, “Oh, but you see he hadn’t had enough— / Joel, I won’t—I won’t—I promise you. / We mustn’t say hard things. You mustn’t either.”

Joel insists on accompanying his wife to check for the prowler, and as they advance forward into night, she begins to call out. Finally someone answers her question, “What do you want?” with “Nothing.” The man finally comes forward into the lantern light. She sees that it is not the former lover. Accompanying him is his son. They were simply on their way to “Dean’s” with whom they are to visit for a couple of weeks.

The wife is taken aback; she excuses her intrusion on the couple’s journey by saying, “You understand that we have to be careful. / This is a very, very lonely place.” She calls her husband’s name, lets the lantern drop; hitting the ground, its light goes out.

The Dousing of Desire

The simple narration reveals the vanity of a woman who thinks that her former lover is obsessed with her and her disappointment after she realizes she was wrong. At the end, the symbolic dousing of the lantern as it thumps the ground parallels the dousing of the woman’s burning desire to have this former lover taking pains to see her.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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