FEBRUARY
1996

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

02-08-96

The Insect Poetry of Robert Frost

Robert Frost, like many other well-known poets, included insects in his work. In "Departmental" he chronicles the behavior of ants. The poem begins with a description of a scene familiar to most of us, "An ant on a tablecloth..." Frost captures in poetic words communication between ants using formic acid — "Then word goes forth in Formic." He also notes that ants have a habit of carting off their dead, but the job appears to fall to specialized individuals. Thus his conclusion that: "It couldn't be called ungentle. But how thoroughly departmental."

Frost also took note of butterflies. In his "Blue-Butterfly Day," early spring butterflies are sky-flakes or flowers that fly and all but sing.

"They lie closed over in the wind and cling
Where wheels have freshly sliced the April mire."

In "My Butterfly" Frost remembers watching butterflies flying during the summer months. They were free but controlled by the wind, something he notes was not unlike his life.

In "To a Moth Seen in Winter" Frost is moved to ask:

"And now pray tell what lured you with false hope
To make the venture of eternity
And seek the love of kind in wintertime?"

Of course, Frost feels sorry for the moth out of season, but laments that he really can't do much to save its life because he is "tasked to save my own a little while."

Frost also spied fireflies in the garden and suggested that as night falls these insects try to emulate stars. But they don't equal stars in size. About the best they can do is: "Achieve at times a very starlike start."

In "The White-Tailed Hornet" Frost writes about a hornet more commonly known as the white-faced hornet. It is the hornet that builds the paper-mache nests the poet calls the Japanese crepe-paper globe that some people collect for home decorations. Frost made accurate observations of this insect relative to its stinging behavior. The insect stings in defense of its home and seldom stings when away from its nest. After having been stung Frost concluded:

"That's when I went as visitor to his house.
As visitor at my house he is better."

Frost also observed that the hornet captures houseflies to feed to the larvae. In the poet's words:

"He's after the domesticated fly
To feed his thumping grubs as big as he is."

In the seventh of Frost's "Ten Mills," entitled "One Guess," the poet talks about a common insect.

"He has dust in his eyes and a fan for a wing,
A leg akimbo with which he can sing,
And a mouthful of dyestuff instead of a sting."

What insect is he talking about? The dusty road grasshopper that flies from spot to spot exposing a yellow underwing and when caught lets you have it by spitting up a brownish liquid from its mouth. Frost had no doubt caught one and experienced firsthand that insect's defensive mechanism!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann