For citizens of our busy and increasingly urbanized 21st century world, the bucolic and rural imagery of Robert Frost’s poetry may sometimes seem dated and irrelevant to the issues of our “modern” era. Yet I would argue that the poetry of Frost remains timeless, just as relevant today as it was when written 100 years ago. This timeless quality arises primarily from Frost’s emphasis on certain eternally important themes. As we have seen in previous weeks, these themes include mortality, transition and the importance of historical memory. Today, we turn to the theme of love. As a concept, love may seem outwardly simple. But on closer inspection, questions arise: Whom should I love? How should I manifest my love? Who deserves my love, and who does not?
Frost addresses these tricky questions in “Love and a Question” (1913), beginning on an ominous note with the visit of an unexpected guest to the home of a newly married bride and bridegroom: “A Stranger came to the door at eve, / And he spoke the bridegroom fair … He asked with the eyes more than the lips / For a shelter for the night, / And he turned and looked at the road afar / Without a window light.”
With this man’s arrival, a slight note of discord has entered into the tranquil world of the bride and bridegroom, who were previously alone in their rural house. Although their visitor initially appears harmless, Frost emphasizes his potential danger by highlighting his role as a “Stranger,” completely unknown by both the bride and the bridegroom. He may be a harmless drifter, desperate for shelter on a cold night, or he may be a thief or even a murderer with evil intentions concealed behind his friendly request for shelter. It is with these considerations in mind that the bridegroom must decide how he should respond to the Stranger’s request. Speaking with the man on the porch, the groom’s thoughts turn to his bride, alone in the room behind him. With her image in his mind’s eye, the bridegroom can only think of his love for her: “The bridegroom looked at the weary road, / Yet saw but her within, / And wished her heart in a case of gold / And pinned with a silver pin.”
Here is a vivid portrait of the intimate love of a happy marriage. Perhaps no human relationship carries the same potential for love as a marriage. Tied for life to his bride in the bonds of matrimony, the bridegroom of Frost’s poem clearly loves his newly wedded wife above all else in this world. Indeed, this love is so powerful that Frost’s imagery for it takes on a slightly violent tone: The bridegroom wishes to encase his bride’s heart in gold and stab it with a silver pin.
This imagery does not by any means betoken violence toward the bride by her bridegroom; rather, it indicates the intense sense of protection felt towards her by her husband. But perhaps this protection is too extreme — out of fear for the bride’s safety, the bridegroom does not offer shelter to the Stranger, only giving him some bread and money.
This seeming selfishness of the bridegroom raises the poem’s eponymous “Question”: Should the bridegroom be more sharing of his love? Surely he has room to love more than only his bride, as a stranger in need may be just as deserving of love as those whom we know intimately. But the bridegroom has turned the Stranger away on a cold fall night, and Frost ends with the bridegroom anxiously ruminating over the appropriateness of his actions: “But whether or not a man was asked / To mar the love of two / By harboring woe in the bridal house, / The bridegroom wished he knew.”