In “The Draft Horse”, Robert Frost offers the reader a seemingly simple story of a violent event that takes place during a journey made by a couple of people in a horse-drawn buggy. On one level the poem is simplicity itself, containing no words or phrases that should cause the reader any difficulties. However, when one asks the question: “What does it all mean?” the poem becomes somewhat problematical.
With a lantern that wouldn’t burn
In too frail a buggy we drove
Behind too heavy a horse
Through a pitch-dark limitless grove.
And a man came out of the trees
And took our horse by the head
And reaching back to his ribs
Deliberately stabbed him dead.
The ponderous beast went down
With a crack of a broken shaft.
And the night drew through the trees
In one long invidious draft.
The most unquestioning pair
That ever accepted fate
And the least disposed to ascribe
Any more than we had to to hate,
We assumed that the man himself
Or someone he had to obey
Wanted us to get down
And walk the rest of the way.
“The Draft Horse” comprises five four-line stanzas with an ABCB rhyme scheme. The first two stanzas each form complete sentences and the third contains two sentences. These are the stanzas that describe what happens. The fourth and fifth stanzas, that attempt to explain what has happened, form one sentence between them. This all seems very straightforward and understandable, as though a witness to an event is trying to state what has happened and then seeks to offer an opinion as to what it was all about. However, this matter-of-factness only serves to make a puzzling event even more mysterious.
What happens in the poem is that, as the couple are driving through “a pitch-black limitless grove”, a man appears from out of the trees and stabs the horse through the heart. The horse falls dead and the man disappears, leaving the couple with no choice but to “walk the rest of the way”. To repeat, this is a very simple, straightforward story, but the reader cannot just leave it like that. Why would Frost have written this poem if he had only wanted to say “a stranger killed a horse”?
The reader is therefore faced with the fact that “The Draft Horse” is a symbolic poem that must be read at another level, otherwise it has no purpose. But what is that purpose, what are the symbols and what do they mean?
Are any clues given by the opening stanza? The imagery here seems to be all negative. There is “a lantern that wouldn’t burn”, “too frail a buggy” and “too heavy a horse”, the latter suggesting that it is a slow animal that is unsuited either for the task at hand or for escaping from danger. The couple in their buggy find themselves in the dark, in what sounds like a contradiction in terms given that a grove is a small wood but this one is “limitless”. Could it be that these are symbols of old age, with the dim lantern representing the fires of life sputtering towards its end, the frail buggy being the infirm body and the horse which dies being the heart giving way under its burden? At first sight this seems like an adequate explanation, but why, in that case, is the heart separate from the body and why do the two people appear to share the same body and heart? Also, this interpretation would not fit the rest of the poem, because the couple do not die but are able to carry on walking.
Again, who is the man who kills the horse but does the couple no harm? If he is Death, or the agent of Death (as implied by “someone he had to obey”), why are the couple still alive and walking at the end of the poem? A different solution to the puzzle is seemingly called for.
Clearly this is a poem about death, because the horse is killed, but in terms of the poem’s symbolism, what exactly is it that has died? One way of approaching this poem is to assume that the couple, presumably the poet and his wife, although it is not stated that this is what “we” means, have reached old age and their way through life has, up to now, been protected by the “buggy” of possessions or the common beliefs of society. The buggy is therefore what stands between them and the “pitch-black limitless grove” of doubt and fear that surrounds them and through which they must make their way.
As they have got older, their own weapons against darkness have been gradually fading to “a lantern that wouldn’t burn” and the buggy has become “too frail”. Likewise, the horse is described as a “too heavy” draft horse because it is good for no other purpose and cannot help them to escape from any emergency that may arise; indeed, it is an easy victim when a life-changing event occurs.
The death that is portrayed is therefore that of comfort and security, which can come suddenly to anyone and leave them with no option other than to rely entirely on their own ability to “walk the rest of the way”. The symbol works just as well for a breakdown in health or a loss of fortune, social standing, or the means to earn a living. Any disaster can arrive without warning and leave one’s “buggy” without the means to draw it forward. The man who kills the horse is Fate, intervening without warning to leave one exposed to the “long invidious draft” represented by the dark wood through which the couple are travelling.
It should be noted that the couple accept what has happened as being normal and natural and not to be fought against or even objected to. They are: “The most unquestioning pair / That ever accepted fate”, and would appear to take a very different line to that of, say, Dylan Thomas who would have urged them to “rage against the dying of the light”. Frost was himself an old man when he wrote this poem (it appeared in his final collection “In the Clearing”, published in 1962 when Frost would have been 87 or 88 and had less than a year left to live).
However, there is also an element of resentment implied by the situation in that the fate that befalls the couple has perhaps been ordained by someone at one remove from the man who represents Fate. He has no choice but to do what he does and impose that person’s will on the couple. At one level this could be interpreted as the action of an agent of an unfeeling government, taking away the supports of old age. Or is this man an agent of God who deprives them of their health? Whatever interpretation one prefers it is welcomed only because it is inevitable and not because it is desired.
As a poem, “The Draft Horse” is disturbing because it implies that everyone must, as they get older, go through the same experience. The calm, measured tone of the poem, which is very low on emotional content and with not even a word of regret for the fate of the horse, is almost shocking in its stark acceptance of Fate that strikes two people out of the blue and who have, apparently, led completely blameless lives to this point (“… the least disposed to ascribe / Any more than we had to hate”). Because the poem is symbolic, it can take different meanings depending on the individual circumstances of the reader. It therefore leaves the reader with further questions to answer.
© John Welford