The Joy of Purposelessness


Robert Frost and the Joy of Purposelessness


Influenced by the philosophy of William James and living near the land once inhabited by American Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost displayed realism in his poetry that cut to the very essence of human existence.

His work was an exploration, disguised in symbolism and metaphor, into a way of life and an understanding of the world. His conclusions may be unsettling to some, as vast numbers of people feel not that “[t]he fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows” (GL 1031), but that the child-like security of conventional “wisdom” and the following of antiquated edicts is preferable.

The underlying theme in Robert Frost’s poems such as “Mending Wall” and “Gathering Leaves” is Frost’s conviction that life is ultimately an exercise in futility, but, more importantly, that this is a good thing, and life is more fulfilling upon this realization.

Seemingly suggesting that this line from Macbeth:

“[Life] is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing,”

—had influenced him, Frost used another phrase from the same scene, “Out, Out” as a title to one of his other poems. In “Gathering Leaves” a similar stanza can be found:

“I make a great noise
of rustling all day
like rabbit and deer
running away.”.

Using the task of raking leaves as a metaphor, Frost’s narrator ponders the significance of his pile of leaves, “and what have I then?” (1041). The second, third, fourth, and fifth stanzas of this poem can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the stages of human life.

In the second stanza, the rustling around all day like a rabbit or deer can be seen as youth. In the third stanza, the collection of mountains of leaves can be viewed as adulthood, accumulating money and assets. In the fourth, as is often the case later in life, one wonders after working one’s whole life amassing material objects: what else is there? Finally, in the fifth stanza, the speaker evaluates what he has, “Next to nothing for weight” (1041) or consequence. Then the leaves wither and die.

In the poem “Mending Wall” Frost describes the symbolic gesture of repairing a fence that serves no practical purpose, as a futile attempt to build barriers against the organic properties of nature and, being of nature, human beings’ innate desire to be free. The speaker’s uninquisitive neighbor performs the task of mending the fence behind the reasoning that “good fences make good neighbors” (1031). He refuses to consider, unlike the speaker, “What I was walling in our walling out” (1031).

Under the magnifying glass, this scene can be seen as a representation of all human behavior and events. When questioning the motives behind one’s actions with an open and objective mind the impracticality and meaninglessness of such gestures as repairing an unneeded fence is indicative of the purposelessness of all actions born out of the stagnant and unquestioning mind. One is left to wonder if his or her (the people in the poem, but also, all people’s) time could not be better spent. T

he speaker and the neighbor in “Mending Wall” damage their “fingers rough with handling [the boulders]” (1031) mending a fence that serves no other purpose than to suppress nature’s (and by association human nature’s) instinct to be free. In the grand scheme of things, where everyone lives for a relatively short time and then dies, what is the point of placing an inordinate amount of importance on purposeless tasks such as rebuilding a wall, or gathering leaves, that in the end amount to nothing?

Fortunately, this purposelessness must not be confused with nihilism. Taken at face value, “Gathering Leaves” reads with an upbeat mood. The first stanza, “Spades take up leaves /no better than spoons, /and bags full of leaves /are light as balloons,” (1041) seems an amusing anecdote. This is a clear indication that the insight that leads to the realization of the purposeless life was not cause for despair, but a revelation that the temporal aspect of a life without restriction is to be revered, cherished, and enjoyed to the fullest.

Frost’s feeling that how life is “taken” is subjective to the individual was summed up nicely by Laurence Perrine: “Flowing through his poetry like an ocean current is the idea that life can have value only if you believe it has. Conversely, if you believe it hasn’t, it hasn’t” (The Committee 88). To those who do not value life and wish to do harm, Frost points to people’s ultimate insignificance, “I know of no better way /to close a road, abandon a farm /reduce the births of the human race /and bring back nature in people’s place” (TT 263). This stanza from “The Times Table” suggests that Frost preferred the incorruptible qualities of nature over the destructive tendencies of man.

There is a big difference between people with different perspectives, even when they are performing the same task: “Oh, just another kind of outdoor game, /one on a side. It comes to little more” (MW 1031). The comparison between the speaker and his neighbor in “Mending Wall” shows how taking trivial tasks and events taken too seriously can lead to angst and suffering. As the great philosopher and scholar of the ancient Eastern ways of liberation, Alan Watts, once wrote:

Paradoxical as it may seem, the purposeful life has no content, no point. It hurries on and on, and misses everything. Not hurrying, the purposeless life misses nothing, for it is only when there is no goal and no rush that the human senses are fully open to receive the world. (176)

It is the person who never questions conventional wisdom who loses the most in life. The neighbor in the “Mending Wall” “moves in darkness” according to the speaker. Never going beyond his wall, he is sheltering himself from the true richness and grandeur of life. This condition is a pandemic catastrophe in a world currently dominated with a materialistic, self-centered, and sheep-like mentality.

Robert Frost used poetry as his vehicle to convey to his audience his profound ideas and feelings of the contentment found in living a life of bare-bone experience in contrast to a pre-programmed diet of convention and dogma. As Watts was wont to say, people should be cautious to not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the actual moon. Nature was often the explicit setting that Frost used as a cover for his implied deeper meanings. This is no mere coincidence as nature is reality. It is the poet’s task to use words to describe the things that cannot be said. Reality, at its heart, is what is left when you take away all of the words.


Written in Fall of 2005.





Works Cited:

Frost, Robert. “Gathering Leaves.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature Reading

  Thinking Writing. Ed. Michael Meyer. 7th edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s,


—. “Mending Wall.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature Reading

  Thinking Writing. Ed. Michael Meyer. 7th edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s,


—. “Time Table.” The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, Complete and Unabridged. Ed. Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1969.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. ed. James Farrow. October 1993. The University of

  Sydney. 1 Nov. 2005


The Committee on the Frost Centennial of the University of Southern Mississippi, comp.

Frost: Centennial Essays. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1975.

Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen. New York: Pantheon Books Inc., 1957.


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