The Draft Horse

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.

—Robert Frost

15 thoughts on “The Draft Horse

  1. I’m a big Robert Frost fan, but I don’t recall seeing this one before now. It leaves quite the picture. And, yet, I cannot describe it any better. I picture the fiend as dressed in a black cloak and scurrying hither and yon, but that’s as far as I can write. Thanks!

  2. 1 Man, if this is the only poem by Robert Frost you don’t get, that’s pretty good. Some of them you have to think about for years. The glory of it is that it wont go away and you keep thinking about it till you understand.

    2 There is an essay by a chap called William Logan. It is called the other, other Frost—or something like that. It talks about this poem, which is where I first knew of its existence. (The title is playing on an essay by Randall Jarell about the Other Frost, or something like that. I recommend Jarell as both interesting and often useful.)

    3 It is important to notice that the horse and the buggy are mismatched, as Logan points out. It is crucial that they have a draft horse hooked up to a buggy: you need to understand why this is important before you can understand what is going on.

    4 There is a book on Robert Frost written by a somewhat small-minded chap that makes a few good points. I’m not sure if I’ve reviewed it on the illustrious pages of this blog and I’m not going to go searching, but it is published by ISI books and their catalog is not that vast yet—something about the poet as philosopher, I think. He makes the point that there is no understanding Frost without understanding that Frost was a dualist. He also makes a point of putting every photograph of himself with Frost that he owns into the book. It does help me with this poem to know that Frost thought evil a reality like good. It doesn’t at all hinder the point the perceptive William Logan—who never, to my knowledge, got his picture taken with Robert Frost—makes in his rather more valuable essay.

  3. That’s right, Frost just wrote this for fun, so we could have some yuks.

    Enough of this trying to figure out the meaning, man. I mean, it’s making my head hurt.

  4. Frost did seem to write poetry for fun, but be careful not to yuk too soon-you may be laughing when there is no joke.

    Sometimes it helps to take bits of the poem and compare them to others. For instance, the imagine of the night drawing through the trees in one lone invidious draft leaving the “unquestioning pair” to walk could be compared to the Woodsworth (I believe) poem with the imagine of the “meanest flower that blows doth leave thoughts that lie too deep for tears” both are images following tragedy, but have a subtle quality of mystery that seems to transcend emotion and even intellect.

    I disagree with the notion of the poem as dualistic. The narrator is not inclined to seek truth, being “unquestioning”, but is disposed to ascribe the least so that he can hate (evil).

    With evil, comes good, but where is the good in the poem? A limitless grove, no light, invidious night, too frail a buggy, a dead horse, and a senseless act of violence.

    How often do we kid ourselves and presume we understand, even after our “ponderous beast” (intellect) can no longer serve us? Why do we do so? Is it better to ascribe the least to allow us to feel something, anything, even hate, else be left to confront emptiness of the invidous night?

  5. I hated this poem, and I have an update:

    On a Darker, Frosted Night
    (An Update to The Draft Horse, by Robert Frost)

    With weak lights that wouldn’t burn
    my old car refused to start;
    like some heavy, sluggish old horse
    It had stopped in a dangerous dark

    and a man rushed out of a street
    and grabbed my car with a cry
    and reaching back for a knife
    deliberately stabbed my tires

    and down, like a ponderous beast,
    with a crack of the shaft came my car
    as the night raged through the streets
    in one loud invidious dark

    I shot the son of a bitch
    with no wretched acceptance of fate
    I was the most disposed to ascribe
    just as much as I must to raw hate

    I assumed that the man himself
    or someone he had to obey
    wanted all that I had
    and would leave me dead in the way.

  6. the horse symbolizes a higher power and the killer represents some form of liberation and the two people riding the buggy seemed as if they were the townspeople that didnt seem to be to upset with their leader being removed

  7. I like this poem. To me it tells us of the insignificance of life, and fate, shown through the bathos in the last stanza of ‘We assumed that the man himself Or someone he had to obey Wanted us to get down And walk the rest of the way’, but also, and more discreetly shown through the first stanza that gives a sense of hopelessness and impending doom from the very beginning – ‘a lantern that wouldn’t burn’ and ‘a pitch-dark limitless grove’ foreshadows the upcoming death.

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