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.
At a poetry reading in the Library of Congress, Robert Frost apparently described “The Draft Horse” as a poem “that nobody knows how to take“. That’s one way to look at it. Another way is that everyone who reads it seems to quite confidently take it in a different direction.
It has been called an allegory of the atom bomb–but, though first published in 1962, it was actually written in the 1920s, long before the bomb.
It’s been called an allegory of American expansionism.
It has been suggested as “a metaphor for the lives of ordinary citizens in totalitarian states, such as Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and West Germany.” (West Germany. Really.) “Then the man could be an agent of the government, who does what he deems necessary and then disappears again.“
Again, “In many cultures, the horse is traditionally a symbol for power. The horse has played a large role in American history. Robert Frost’s The Draft Horse may be a reflection of the power struggles he saw around him and the senseless actions he perceived in the conflicts.“
How about “One analysis of the poem is that fate is unavoidable. Why struggle to stop or question fate when by its very definition it cannot be stopped?“
Here’s the complete commentary from one blogger: “I’m on a bit of a poetry moment right now. The Draft Horse by Robert Frost is possibly one of the best poems ever written and well worth sharing with anyone willing to read writing at it’s highest art form.” (“it’s”, sic. Also, he miscopied one of the lines as “Any more than we had to hate,” thereby losing the meaning.) A more extensive commentary is in a comment posted to that blog:
I love this poem ! i think it is a great description of postlapsarian life. Laterns wont burn buggies are frail, the horse is too heavy.the night is so dark …
amidst all that a fellow deliberately stabs your horse.
People of good will are always hesitant to blame problems on hate.
and any way walking is a fine way to get there
And then there’s this thesis towards an M.A.:
“WHY I KILLED THE DRAFT HORSE:
THE GOLDEN BOUGH, ROBERT FROST, AND “PROGRESS”
by Eugene Charles McGregor Boyle III
The absence of criticism on Robert Frost’s “The Draft Horse” suggests that it is a challenge to Frost scholarship. This reading views Frost’s strange and neglected poem as a return to a monomyth offered by James Frazer’s hugely influential The Golden Bough. In “The Draft Horse,” Frost reconsiders the concept of ceremonial sacrifice that undergirds Frazer’s encyclopedic study of world culture and, by performing ceremony as a kind of modem poesis, Frost complicates the hero/sacrificial object role and critiques the progressive ideology that grounds Frazer’s account to fashion a troubling epic for modern America that implicates its national readers in a kind of savagery.“
(Supported with references not just to Frazer’s “Golden Bough” and Eliot’s “Wasteland”, but also Dante’s “Inferno” and Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu”, among others.)
Here is another take on it: “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.“
Well, why does it have to have a “purpose”? It’s a poem, for god’s sake. Maybe the poem “means” exactly what one or other of the above-quoted commenters thinks… but maybe Frost just had a strange dream. Or maybe someone had told him of an incident. Maybe the rhymes and images just floated around in his head. Who knows? Who cares? It’s a poem and, for some reason, it resonates (differently) with a lot of people. It’s an odd poem. Enjoy!