Robert Frost’s “Reluctance”

I’ve started re-reading, or perhaps reading for the first time, The Complete Poems of Robert Frost, 1949, and will admit that I am finding it harder to read his poems than I expected. Although I’m sure I had to read many of Frost’s poems in classes I took, I’m not sure I ever really sat down and read his poems in a systematic way. (Since there’s very few marks in the volume I’m reading, I doubt I’ve ever read the book from front to back in any systemetic way.) So, I’m coming to the poems with some preconceptions based on specific poems that I remember but without a real understanding of Frost’s underlying philosophy.

Nor is it easy to suddenly put yourself in the same frame of mind that Frost must have had when he wrote these poems. After all, the earliest of these poems was written nearly a hundred years ago, and that generation saw the world rather differently than we did, even if they are commonly referred to as “modern poets.”

And, there’s no denying that “formal” lyrics impose some unique demands of their own, no matter how polished or modern they may be. Which, of course, is not to say that what has been gained may not outweigh what has been lost by employing such techniques.

Truthfully, I found very few poems in the first section, A Boy’s Will, that impressed me. Still, when I reached “Reluctance” on the last page of this section, it reminded me why “great” poets are considered “great,” and why they remain relevant to our lives.:


Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch-hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question ‘Whither?’

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

At my age this poem rings true in so many ways it’s impossible ” and far too boring ” to list them all. But as a I walk through the old-growth forest in Pt Defiance every day I’m more and more aware that another summer has passed us by, and winter can’t be far behind.

Is it really possible that I went another summer without a single long backpack in the mountains? Is it possible that I never did get out on the Sound in my kayak the whole summer? Is it really true that I will have to wait another five months to see flowers in bloom again?

I know, I know, it’s not like I sat around doing nothing all summer, feeling sorry for myself. Still, Frost is right that I’m reluctant to let this summer pass by, trying to squeeze one more activity in before the fall rains begin.

Who can go through life without regrets? Who would even want to go through life without regrets? To do so would be to deny the very dreams and aspirations that give life so much of its depth and meaning.

10 thoughts on “Robert Frost’s “Reluctance””

  1. Barren leaves of ice
    Stark and cold, uninvited
    Mocking green that once prevailed
    Singing crystalline songs
    In the chill wind
    Beauty and bleakness intertwined
    In a slow winter’s dance

    That’s the emotion I was experiencing when I wrote those lines. But something about the apparent bleakness of winter has always appealed to me.

  2. When I was younger I would argue that I had no regrets, because although I had made mistakes, those very mistakes made me who I am, constituted my identity, the self I wanted to be. I am, for the most part, the person I want to be, I said. (Captain Kirk makes a similar argument, I’m embarrassed to say, in Star Trek 6 or 7, the one where they’re looking for God.)

    As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that different choices at pivotal moments could have improved the quality of my current life, could have furthered my goals today. And I sometimes experience regret about missing those opportunities. Still, if I hadn’t made the choices I did, my current goals would not be what they are, and I would be regretting that my alternate universe goals remain unrealized. The essentials of my life would be different: I might never have met my wife; I might never have turned to writing, or reading novels; I could be someone quite different.

    Obviously, this pertains to major, life-shattering regrets rather than the missed hikes or museum exhibits or concerts or films one could have done. The world is more diverse and overwhelming than anyone can experience; one will always miss some of what one might have wanted to do, all one ought to have done.

  3. I’m hitting 50, evaluating my life, coming up somewhat short — and in trying to retrace my steps, have had my heart broken. This offered me the first solace I’ve found.

    I usually made decisions based on the theory that it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission, and preferable to regret what I’d done than what I didn’t do.

  4. I suspect we all come up somewhat short, Jamie.

    Whenver I mention the name “Judy” all the women in my life, including my daughter, just roll their eyes.

    I suspect that your statement, though, is further proof that great poetry can touch all of us.

  5. This poem by Frost seems to express the same sentiment, though in a gentler manner, as Dylan Thomas’ “The Dying Of The Light”. I’ve just recently (June) passed 50, and I find myself wondering exactly how I should act now that I am “old” – old apparently meaning “eligible to get invites from AARP”. Poems like this mean much more to me now than they would have when I was 20, or 30. Jamie, don’t sell yourself short – we are what we are, and if we give ourselves an honest chance, we often find that’s not bad at all.

  6. I read this poem for the first time a few days ago and it really shook me.

    I made a decision to give up on someone i had strong feelings for quite recently, but now im in two minds again, and i dont really know what the right thing to do actually is.

    Beautiful poem though.

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