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An Old Testament offering: the origin of Frost's "Maple".

Abstract: Frost's poem, "Maple," raises three distinct issues: 1) What is the significance of the name "Maple" and of the circumstances contributing to the naming of Maple? 2) What is the significance of the phrase "wave offering" in the biblical passages where the maple leaf was found? and 3) What does the poem mean? My thesis centers on a biblical and etymological analysis of the Hebrew word for "offering" that is central to Frost's poem. The paper begins with an investigation into the Old Testament origins of this phrase and then analyzes the significance of Maple's naming and the poem's relevance to Frost's themes and previous poems.


Once, in his characteristic ironic fashion, Robert Frost referred to himself as "an Old Testament Christian" a phrase that Dorothy Judd Hall appropriated as the title for her fine essay. Hall quotes Frost biographer Lawrance Thompson as saying that Frost's religious belief "provides more problems than any other part of his art--and it happens to be inseparable from his art" (Hall 319). Thompson further noted that Frost came to be "actually soaked in the Bible" (319). Hall quotes him from a 1947 letter to Roy Elliott as saying: "My approach to the New Testament is rather through Jerusalem than through Rome ..." (Hall 323). Clearly, Frost's immersion in the Bible and its themes--especially in the Old Testament--greatly influenced his poetry. Indeed, a review of his poetry will show that Frost's religious belief is a complex amalgam of the Old and New Testament metaphors of justice and mercy as evidenced by his Masque of Reason and Masque of Mercy. Arguably, the depth and subtlety of his knowledge is nowhere better evidenced than in his poem "Maple" in which he uses an obscure theological term to describe the naming of a child.

Written in 1920, Frost's "Maple" is a poignant and disturbing poem. Although it appears to represent an important philosophical statement by Frost, the poems critical status is notable only for the dearth of attention devoted to it. Lawrance Thompson, in his exhaustive three-volume biography, mentions dozens of other poems but not "Maple." The Robert Frost Encyclopedia, a great source for all things Frostean, contains a useful summary but doesn't explore the poems underlying meaning. There are one-sentence references by Johannes Kjorven and Arthur M. Sampley which describe the poem as representing "disbelieving lovers" who look for meaning in the "outer world" (Kjorven 171), and as typifying a "quest into the past" (Sampley 196). Yet, for a poem published in 1921 to have been analyzed first in 1972, and only a handful of times since then, reflects the fact that either the poem is not considered important enough or that its surface, like much of Frost's work, resists analysis. A catalog of neglect isn't necessary to prove the point other than to say that I have been able to uncover only four critics who have written more than a few paragraphs about the poem in the past eighty years. I attribute this to the arcane Old Testament reference in the poem to a "wave offering" which is found in 31 different contexts, while the contexts for "offering" total a daunting 350. Though Frost clearly points the way to the Old Testament, his own context is sufficiently oblique to make exact identification doubtful.

Briefly, the action of "Maple" is as follows. A mother dies in childbirth and indicates to her husband that the infant should be named "Maple." While a child, Maple asks her father about the meaning of her name and he tells her that he doesn't know, that perhaps her mother meant to intimate that she "Be a good girl--be like a maple tree" (22). Not until much later, as a grown woman, is she again drawn to the mystery of her naming. Staring in the mirror one day she decides that "Its strangeness lay / In having too much meaning" (44-45). Once, when she finds a maple leaf "pressed" between two pages in the Bible which refer to a "wave offering" she reads everything on the facing pages without illumination. Additionally, throughout her life people mistakenly called her "Mabel" a fact that she feels she cannot control until one day--believing her name to be "Mabel"--a man tells her that she reminds him of a maple tree. The coincidence of this insight has a mystical effect on the couple and they marry. Subsequently, they return to visit her parents' home to see if they can decipher the mystery of her name.

The poem raises three distinct issues: 1) What is the significance of the name "Maple" and of the circumstances contributing to the naming of Maple? 2) What is the significance of the phrase "wave offering" in the biblical passages where the maple leaf was found? and 3) What does the poem mean? Since critical attention has focused on the phrase "wave offering," I would like to begin with an investigation of this phrase before analyzing Maple's naming.

John Morris confidently writes that "Maple" is a narrative whose "mystery has been unsolved until the present moment." He proceeds to locate the phrase "wave offering" as that found in Numbers 5:25, which he cites as "part of a trial by ordeal for suspected adultery" (Morris 127). This is a bold interpretation that might address the mystery of Maple's name and the burden of its unknown meaning as constituting what Morris calls a "symbolic prophecy of the daughter's sin" (128). However, Morris does not offer any evidence from the poem to justify his reading of a meaning of adultery except that the leaves are scarlet in the fall and therefore representative of sin. It is not a convincing argument; although--in fairness to Morris--he cites the poem in passing as proof of his general thesis of hidden meanings in Frost's work.

Darrel Abel devotes seven pages to making a similar argument. He draws on the same biblical reference and comes to the same conclusion that the poem is about the hidden sin of adultery (Abel 4). Although he, like Morris, doesn't justify his argument based upon the poem's text, he does find a curious quote in which Frost says, "Jealousy is a passion I approve and attribute to angels. May I be guarded and watched over always by the jealousy of a strong nature" (Letters 194). Yet, this too is unconvincing and one reluctantly draws the conclusion that both critics were as unsuccessful as Maple in divining the etymology of her name and of her self.

Katherine Kearns correctly observes of Maple that, "The search for the name disguises the essential search for the mother, whom she finds without knowing." Kearns, however, is reading the poem in support of a thesis of sexuality and mad women in Frost's poems and is not attempting a definitive explication which would provide a plausible explanation for the average reader (Kearns 204).

Mordecai Marcus emphasizes the importance of the biblical connotation of "wave offering" and notes that these are sometimes associated with sin offerings, but he doesn't see the relevance of this possible interpretation to Maple and thus disagrees with Morris and Abel in their assessment of the poem (92). Marcus reads the poem as a search for meaning that is ultimately a failure as it is hampered by "incomplete vision." As concerns the name itself, of all the commentators Marcus comes nearest to its provenance:
   For surely the name had been given in connection with feelings for
   the sexual and bridal, a likelihood reinforced by the message
   coming too late to be significant for Maple and by her covering her
   eyes in what looks like unconscious shame as she decides that they
   must abandon the quest as useless. She and her husband had shared
   this sexual hesitancy in not thinking about the sugar-yielding
   maples. But the name has had its effects. Probably the mother was
   telling Maple, through her name, to possess the giving sweetness
   and symmetry of a maple tree. (92)

Correct in so far as he goes, Marcus does not aspire to give a definitive reading and so the mystery of Maple's meaning, the circumstances of her naming, and the nature of the wave offering is left unsolved. However, as Morris and Abel concur on an interpretation of adultery based upon an identical biblical source for the phrase "wave offering," it is necessary to address the error of their usage, an error that is understandable in light of the variant etymologies of the simple term "offering" in the King James translation.

The exact phrase "wave offering" that is used by Frost occurs 14 times in the King James, while the combination of "wave" and "offering" in a sentence occurs an additional 17 times. On the face of it, Numbers 5:25 would not be a first choice for interpreting Frost's usage since it falls into the latter category, reading: "Then the priest shall take the jealousy offering out of the woman's hand, and shall wave the offering before the Lord, and offer it upon the altar."

The confusion is further compounded by the fact that the word "offering" is represented by seven different Hebrew terms and occurs in five different contexts. According to J. A. Thompson, worship in the tabernacle centered on five distinct types of sacrifices: 1) the burnt offering ("a symbol of a person's total dedication to God"); 2) the grain offering ("a gift to God"); 3) the peace or fellowship offering (which "expressed friendship or communion between the worshipper and God"); 4) the sin offering; and 5) the guilt offering (Thompson 330).

The recurrence of the number five might strike some as numerologically interesting, but Numbers 5:25 would logically fall into the category of either the sin or guilt offering, a conclusion that the tone of Frost's context doesn't support:
   She told him of the bookmark maple leaf
   In the big Bible, and all she remembered
   Of the place marked with it--"Wave offering,
   Something about wave offering, it said."

   "You've never asked your father outright, have you?"

   "I have, and been put off sometime, I think."
   (This was her faded memory of the way
   Once long ago her father had put himself off.)

   "Because no telling but it may have been
   Something between your father and your mother
   Not meant for us at all."

Typically, people don't commemorate sins by marking biblical passages; they especially don't memorialize the fact of adultery with the use of a leaf whose name is synonymous with a beloved child and the memory of a beloved wife who died in childbirth. Besides, the Numbers reference doesn't combine the words in the exact phrasing that other references do and so it would seem to be inappropriate for at least two compelling reasons.

The three most common terms for "offering" in the Old Testament are minhah, terumah, and qorban. (1) Minhah occurs approximately 200 times and is often used to mean a gift or present "which is given by one person to another" or "in the sense of 'tribute' paid to a king or overlord" and does not seem like an obvious candidate for Maple's naming.

A second word, qorban, occurs about 80 times and may be translated as "that which one brings near to God or the altar." This usage seems more of a dedication than a gift and comes closer to what I believe is Frost's meaning in the allusion to the biblical text that the maple leaf is marking. Yet, it too falls short of providing a conclusive distinction that might convince a critical reader.

A third word, terumah, occurs roughly 70 times and approximates a sympathetic (i.e., non-adulterous) reading of the poem. According to Vine, "the terumah is really the Lord's, and it is best given freely, willingly, from a generous heart." Also, Vine's extended gloss on this word brings us closer to "Maple": "The "terumah was used in the early period to refer to 'contributions' or 'gifts' which consisted of the produce of the ground, reflecting the agricultural character of early Israel." Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Vine notes that, "The inference seems to be that such 'offerings' were raised high by the priest in some sort of motion as it was placed on the altar." The motion of waving the offering is yet another distinctive characteristic that sets this term apart from the others and bears strongly on the poem's imagery. Thus, terumah is the word that I suggest supplies the meaning for the phrase "wave offering," and for three reasons.

First, the harmonious relationship between Maple's mother and father seems to reflect Vine's condition that the offering--Maple--be "given freely, willingly, from a generous heart," as in the naming passage:
   She put her finger in your cheek so hard
   It must have made your dimple there, and said,
   "Maple." I said it too: "Yes, for her name."
   She nodded. So we're sure there's no mistake.

The detail of the dimple is a curious one and bears upon the intimacy of their relationship. I concur with Richard Poirier when he writes, "Frost is a great poet of marriage, maybe the greatest since Milton, and of the sexuality that goes with it" (22). The age-old technique of poking a finger in the dirt and dropping a seed into the hole corresponds to the process of "planting" Maple and planting her name. In "Putting in the Seed," Frost wrote graphically of such sowing with another connotation besides:
   You come to fetch me from my work tonight
   When supper's on the table, and we'll see
   If I can leave off burying the white
   Soft petals fallen from the apple tree
   (Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
   Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea),
   And go along with you ere you lose sight
   Of what you came for and become like me,
   Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
   How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
   On through the watching for that early birth
   When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
   The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
   Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.

The procreative nature of this poem has three thematic elements which closely connect it to Maple's naming: 1) the intimate relationship of the couple; 2) the springtime ritual of planting (and mating); and 3) the appearance of an "arched body" that is analogous to Maple's birth. Just as the maple seed was "pushed" into the earth, so too was the name "Maple" planted like a seed and pushed into the dimple of the infant's nature. Similarly, Frost metaphorically extends the idea of "sowing" twice to words (such as "Maple") in the poem. The first time characterizes the father's advice: "Dangerous self-arousing words to sow." In fact, Maple's confused sense of identity was aroused by the circumstances surrounding the figurative, nominal, and sexual sowing of her name. This process, like seed planted in the earth, is described in the following lines which contain the second reference to sowing:
   What he sowed with her slept so long a sleep,
   And came so near death in the dark of years,
   That when it woke and came to life again
   The flower was different from the parent seed.

However, (with a glance toward the last three lines of the poem), what she became was "different" from her parents in her understanding, different from the understanding her naming should have caused. There is a clear indication that the process of naming her so accurately paradoxically causes her to misinterpret the obvious. The obvious in this case is her quest to know the meaning of her name while she entirely misinterprets the purpose of her life. From her parents' perspective, the intention of the naming wasn't for her to "know" the mere outward appearance of a maple tree, or "to be" like a maple tree, but to grow up in the love that engendered her.

Secondly, the agricultural nature of the terumah offering is reflected by the springtime harvest of maple syrup. Frost directs us to this meaning when Maple muses, "What was it about her name? Its strangeness lay / In having too much meaning" (44-45). What meaning can "maple" have? Etymologically, its Old English root yields no satisfactory definition. However, Frost is an inveterate punster and if we think of the homonym "maypole" and its association with the fertility holiday of May Day, the significance of a "springtime passion for the earth" sheds light on both the agricultural aspect of terumah, as well as on the import of her naming. The maple tree yields produce of sweet syrup in the spring when a springtime passion is not for earth alone.

But we learn that due to a "filial diffidence ... From thinking it could be a thing so bridal" that Maple and her husband "kept their thoughts away from when the maples / Stood uniform in buckets, and the steam / Of sap and snow rolled off the sugarhouse." A human reluctance to think of one's parents in the act of procreation is natural (ask any teenager) and is certainly one reason why Maple did not make the metaphorical connection between her naming and her origin.

Still, there is a deeper cause to her blindness, a spiritual one, that is inextricably connected to the third characteristic of terumah. The sense of terumah as a gift offering in the poem is signified by the placing of a maple leaf (symbol for the child) between two pages of the Bible where Maple read the phrase "wave offering." I believe the father did this after the mother died to acknowledge her supreme sacrifice in giving her life for her child's. The offering is twofold: as thanksgiving for the birth of a child, and as a votive offering for the mother. The thanksgiving is a sacrifice of acknowledgement, a "peace or fellowship offering" to God which, in Vine's interpretation, constituted "the communion between the worshipper and God."

However, it doesn't make much difference whether the father or the mother placed the leaf. What is important is that the sense of a wave offering in Vine's definition is one that is "raised high by the priest in some sort of motion as it was placed on the altar." This is reflected in the poem by the following lines where Maple is absentmindedly musing on the significance of her name:
   So, till she found herself in a strange place
   For the name Maple to have brought her to,
   Taking dictation on a paper pad
   And, in the pauses when she raised her eyes,
   Watching out of a nineteenth story window
   An airship laboring with unshiplike motion
   And a vague all-disturbing roar above the river
   Beyond the highest city built with hands.
   Someone was saying in such natural tones
   She almost wrote the words down on her knee,
   "Do you know you remind me of a tree--
   A maple tree?"

In biblical times, sacrifices and gift offerings were made on an altar ("an elevated place or structure"). In this instance, Maple herself is the "wave offering" placed as she is on the nineteenth story of the "highest city built with hands." In its "unshiplike motion" the airship isn't linear in its progress but is somehow waving in the wind of the upper air currents. The conjunction of Maple on the heights, the symbolic wave offering of the airship, and the epiphanic moment of recognition by her future husband all combine to name and consecrate Maple in a context of a love offering. This is the import of the mother's sacrifice, her ultimate wave offering. Maple's naming is a gesture of love by the mother to the father. She chose "Maple" to remind the father of Maple's conception and how their act of lovemaking, their "springtime passion," resulted in a child "shouldering its way" into the world as a maple "seedling" even as the mother leaves it. It is what Thompson describes as "a gift to God, an act of generosity prompted by love" (330). Maple's nature (sweet), formed by being named "Maple" in a moment of conjugal love, is what attracted her husband to her.

The irony--one might even say the tragedy--is that Maple doesn't recognize the confluence of these elements operating in her life and divinely shaping her ways. The reason for this lies at the heart of Frost's philosophy and his poetics. Maple erred in trying to read a literal explanation of "wave offering" from the Bible and this prevented her from understanding her own meaning. She was blinded to the clues of her naming when she returned to her parent's home even when she and her husband were confronted with the explanation:
   Once they came on a maple in a glade,
   Standing alone with smooth arms lifted up,
   And every leaf of foliage she'd worn
   Laid scarlet and pale pink about her feet.
   But its age kept them from considering this one.
   Twenty-five years ago at Maple's naming
   It hardly could have been a two-leaved seedling
   The next cow might have licked up out at pasture.
   Could it have been another maple like it?
   They hovered for a moment near discovery,
   Figurative enough to see the symbol,
   But lacking faith in anything to mean
   The same at different times to different people.

There are many things going on in this wonderful passage. First, the twenty-five year old tree is emblematic of the mother who was twenty-five when she bore Maple, even as Maple is now twenty-five. The "smooth arms lifted up" are themselves a kind of wave offering in which the tree has given all that she possesses (the foliage) in the symbolic death of fall, even as the mother gave her life. The tree was no more than a "two-leaved seedling" when Maple was born, which reflects the period of gestation for both Maple and the seedling, and which corresponds to the sexual action of planting and the symbol of the "seedling" in "Putting in the Seed." Frost here comes as close as anywhere in the poem to spelling out its meaning. The reader is precisely in Maple's position of not knowing, of hovering near the moment of discovery, in the presence of the symbol, only "lacking in faith" to attain the resolution of what it may mean. Frost compactly arrays these terms in three lines for our interpretation and it is only the reader's own lack of faith "in anything to mean / The same at different times to different people" that keeps us from understanding what appears to be a clear message. The putting in the seed of the maple tree is in fact the "symbol" of her name, and the springtime passion for earth and love which Maple's nominal twin--"maypole"--expresses, is the "meaning" of her name, a meaning which only "faith" can connect in a moment of "discovery" or, to use a better Frostean word, "revelation."

This revelation is tragically denied Maple because she has mistakenly framed her entire life upon a false assumption: "Her problem was to find out what it asked / In dress or manner of the girl who bore it." But the name, in fact, asks nothing. The question she unnecessarily poses herself is expressed in teleological terms that are unknowable through any empirical means that she can employ since the answer lies in a "faith" which she lacks. But a faith in what? The faith required of her is of a certain kind of knowing. We learn in the beginning of the poem (8-14):
   Well, you were named after a maple tree.
   Your mother named you. You and she just saw
   Each other in passing in the room upstairs,
   One coming this way into life, and one
   Going the other out of life--you know?
   So you can't have much recollection of her.

This passage is seminal to understanding the problem of "what it asked" in the naming of Maple and highlights the importance of a theme that Frost articulates in two of his most important poems: "The Trial by Existence," first published in The Independent in 1906, and "Kitty Hawk" first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1957. The ideas of ascent/descent ("passing" in "Maple"), forgetting, and trial link Frost's first, fourth, and ninth books. (2) Remarkably, those two poems in particular bridge a span of half a century and all four of the themes of risk, trial, ascent, and forgetting are present in both "Trial" and "Maple," with a devotional element that links "Maple" to the following passage in "Kitty Hawk":
   This wide flight we wave
   At the stars or moon
   Means that we approve
   Of them on the move.

Frost extended the devotional symbol of a "wave offering" over the years and transformed the flight at Kitty Hawk into a metaphorical "wave" to the cosmos; what he calls elsewhere "the shape of human flight," a "divine" and defining gesture, much like the naming of Maple (Frost 281).

The final question to be answered is what we might postulate as the meaning (at least in this context) of the poem. How are the concepts of risk, trial, ascent/descent, and forgetting operative in the poem? The risk entailed is in assigning a name that possibly may be misunderstood by the person named. The poem concludes, "Better a meaningless name, I should say, / As leaving more to nature and happy chance. / Name children some names and see what you do." In Maple's case, her naming instilled in her a lifelong trial of questioning what it is she meant as a symbol rather than as a person.

The themes of ascent/descent, represented by Maple's "passing" her mother in "the room upstairs," is a metaphor for the "passing" that occurs in Plato's heaven in the Tale of Er in Book X of the Republic:
   Then he beheld and saw on one side the souls departing at either
   opening of heaven and earth when sentence had been given on them;
   and at the two other openings other souls, some ascending out of
   the earth dusty and worn with travel, some descending out of heaven
   clean and bright.

The same image is expressed in "The Trial by Existence" in the lines:
   The trial by existence named,
   The obscuration upon earth.
   And the slant spirits trooping by
   In streams and cross- and counter-streams

And similarly in "Kitty Hawk" by the "rise and swoop" of the plane which metaphorically represents humanity's spiritual ascent and descent. In an identical sense Frost is consistent in the action of his metaphors by describing how the spirit of Maple's mother passed her, "One coming this way into life, and one / Going the other out of life--you know?" (One can hardly read "you know" without seeing the poet's wink behind it.) In any case, there is a sense in which Maple's "trial by existence" was named by her naming. This was the mystery, "the obscuration upon earth" by which she was tried and puzzled all her life.

Further, her teleological quest in understanding the meaning of her name so that she might know how she should live is the "risk" at the heart of life: What is her purpose? She doesn't know, cannot know, because it is "forgotten" The passage in which the father reminds her is worth repeating:
   You and she just saw
   Each other in passing in the room upstairs,
   One coming this way into life, and one
   Going the other out of life--you know?
   So you can't have much recollection of her.

Similarly, in Plato's tale the spirits entering the world are required to drink of the river Lethe:
   They encamped by the river of Unmindfulness, whose water no
   vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink a certain
   quantity, and those who were not saved by wisdom drank more
   than was necessary; and each one as he drank forgot all things.

Likewise, in "The Trial by Existence," forgetting is a central aspect of "negative" identity:
   But the pure fate to which you go
   Admits no memory of choice,
   Or the woe were not earthly woe
   To which you give the assenting voice.

In order to acquire "positive" identity, Maple must "remember" what she never knew, an impossible act that requires more than reason--it requires the faith that she was lacking, that something could mean, "The same at different times to different people." This act of remembering what is lost is a Platonic trope that Frost is fond of and uses to his own metaphorical ends.

The final thematic link between "Trial" and "Maple," between knowing and being, lies--as usual with Frost--in both symbol and action. The last two stanzas of "Trial" read:
   'Tis of the essence of life here,
   Though we choose greatly, still to lack
   The lasting memory at all clear,
   That life has for us on the wrack

   Nothing but what we somehow chose;
   Thus are we wholly stripped of pride
   In the pain that has but one close,
   Bearing it crushed and mystified.

Ultimately, there can be no complete knowing, only being, and even that being is a kind of "diminished thing" whose satisfaction lies in a wise acceptance of the futility of knowing anything for certain. Figuratively, in the symbol of the leaf, Maple is "crushed and mystified" by being "pressed" between the pages of the "big Bible"--the ultimate book of Being and Knowing. The Bible (which requires belief in order to interpret) refuses to yield its knowing to her and she even loses the place where the knowing might have been found. This typifies Maple's epistemological position at poems end.
   And anyway it came too late for Maple.
   She used her hands to cover up her eyes.
   "We would not see the secret if we could now:
   We are not looking for it any more."

Her covering up her eyes is not, as Marcus suggests, an act of shame; rather, it is a symbolic veiling, a downward-looking that blinds her to the truth of the fact before her and expresses the fact that she is not "looking for it any more" Her defeated resignation is an acknowledgment that she cannot know the meaning of her name (life) and must bear the mystery, if not crushed, then certainly mystified. The enigmatic last three lines, with the concluding Frostean epigram, are crucial to understanding the poem: "Better a meaningless name, I should say, / As leaving more to nature and happy chance. / Name children some names and see what you do." Mordecai Marcus reads these lines as satire, but I believe such a reading misses the mark. Frost is in earnest here. This is one of what he called his Heraclitan "dark" sayings that must be read metaphorically and not literally. In other words, he's not suggesting that calling a child "Nick" or "Amy" will result in a different destiny than John or Mary. The name "Maple" took on an epistemological and ontological significance for Maple because she made it do so, in error, and not because her parents intended for her to do so. Frost is illustrating the existential problem of how limited knowing affects our faith and then, invariably, affects our living. For Maple, it affected her both positively and negatively. On one hand she wondered--as an epistemological example of doubt and seeking--about her name all her life; on the other hand, this wondering represents a belief in the importance of the meaning of names that transformed her into a type of what she was "named," i.e., believed. For Maple, "to be" was synonymous with "to know," and since she couldn't know her etymology, in an epistemological sense, she was unable "to be" Maple in an existential or ontological sense.

This is why I characterized the poem as "disturbing." Frost always dwells on the metaphysical import of daily events, but he is more allusive than Emerson is in his correspondences and far from being as programmatic as Swedenborg is in his. Frost's allegorical epistemology is an endless simile of being "like" but never quite the same as any given system of belief. His poems are the Cheshire smiles of Modern poetry that appear and disappear only to leave us wondering about the exact form of what he believed. Yet, his fears were real and clearly stated. In the "Introduction to E. A. Robinson's King Jasper" he writes:
   Two fears should follow us through life. There is the fear that we
   shan't prove worthy in the eyes of someone who knows us at least as
   well as we know ourselves. That is the fear of God. And there is
   the fear of Man--the fear that men won't understand us and we shall
   be cut off from them.

The first fear was operative for Frost as an individual; the second as a poet. The fear of God prompted gestures of faith and dialogue. In his essay on Montaigne, Emerson wrote, "We are natural believers. Truth, or the connection between cause and effect, alone interests us" (Emerson 292). But Maple, "lacking faith in anything to mean / The same at different times to different people" could not make the connection between cause and effect, between the maple leaf and the maple tree that was her age, between her parents and a springtime passion. Thus, she fails, in Emerson's terms, of being a "natural believer" by being blind to the presence of truth that is revealed by cause and effect reasoning. This problem of faith is one of knowing for Frost as he writes in "Education by Poetry": "... Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not easy with figurative values.... You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history."

Maple was literally not "home" in the metaphorical "science" or "history" of her naming. Although she and her husband were "Figurative enough to see the symbol," their lack of faith, their inability to see the connection between cause and effect, is what prevented them from understanding her naming and finding herself "safe"--i.e., soteriologically "saved"--in her family's history. Another way to view it is that Maple could not locate her name in the "book of life" and in melancholy resignation could only say, "We are not looking for it anymore." Maple's failure lies not in her failure "to know" Maple or even "to be" Maple; her failure lies in the words "We are not looking for it anymore." Looking has a virtue of its own, the quest for knowledge represents a way of living and knowing that is not dependent on facts but only on faith. For Frost, the end of looking is the end of faith and the end of a possibility for a meaningful life.

The final question the poem raises is why doesn't the father just tell Maple the meaning of her name? Maple understanding her origin is analogous to being "saved," hence, the language and symbols of "faith" and "seeking" that Frost uses. If the father would tell her, she would understand everything. But Frost had very particular notions of salvation. As Dorothy Judd Hall observes in two different places, "Frost's spiritual tough-mindedness resisted 'mass mercy,' as Paul calls it (A Masque of Mercy) and any general kind of salvation--Christian or other" (323). Hall observes that "Frost viewed life on earth as a spiritual trial ('The Trial by Existence') where the conditions of judgment are undisclosed (A Masque of Reason), and where the quality of mercy often seems capricious (A Masque of Mercy)" (324).

Maple's "conditions of judgment" are known to the father but they are undisclosed to her. Frost notes elsewhere that he is in agreement with Jesus' mysterious teaching in Matthew 13:10-15 of how the knowledge of salvation will be deliberately kept from some as he notes in "On Taking Poetry":

But this thing that I've brought up before here. I've quoted it, I think, in a couple of places, and it's always coming into my head: that these things are said in parable so the wrong people can't understand them and so get saved. It says that twice in the New Testament. It seems very harsh and undemocratic, doesn't it? (Frost 819)

It may seem so, but to Frost it was perfectly just, since all of life to him was a balance between the two principles of justice and mercy.

"Maple" demonstrates Frost's preoccupation with parables and the kind of transcendental understanding that makes life meaningful. In the poem, being named is synonymous with being made, and knowing why we were named is synonymous with knowing why we were made. Maple's maker, in this case her father, would not explain to her the terms of her making because it is there before her. She is, in the soteriological framework of the poem, lost. In "Education by Poetry," Frost writes: "The only materialist--be he poet, teacher, scientist, politician, or statesman--is the man who gets lost in his material without a gathering metaphor to throw it into shape and order. He is the lost soul" (Frost 724). This is Maple's dilemma: lacking even an elementary metaphysics to see her naming metaphorically, she is lost in the reductive materialism of her symbolic nature. She sees only a tree instead of the mysterious process of planting a seed and watching it grow into a child. Frost loved such paradoxes in life as well as in poetry. The poem allegorically addresses the big questions of epistemology and teleology through the simple, metaphorical expedient of naming a child.

Lastly, the poem has a sad epilogue. In a self-referential passage, Frost ironically writes:
   What was it about her name? Its strangeness lay
   In having too much meaning. Other names,
   As Lesley, Carol, Irma, Marjorie,
   Signified nothing.

These are the names of Frost's four children, names which signify "nothing" and are theoretically safe from the tragedy of not-knowing--that state of ontological limbo where those unable to "recollect" their origin are doomed to a Platonic half-life. Yet, tragically, Frost's son, Carol, committed suicide in 1940 after a long bout with suicidal tendencies; Irma was committed to an asylum in 1946 suffering from a paranoic fear of sexual predators; and Marjorie died in 1934 at the age of 29 in childbirth, like Maple's mother. One wonders what Frost thought in later years when he re-read this poem. In Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, mothers refrain from calling their children by name until they are older, fearing that the call will bring not only the child but an evil spirit of fate which will now have an "address" by which to locate the child. In life, such a superstitious expedient is no more effective than naming children after heroes in hopes they emulate their namesakes or naming them after plants or trees.

Ultimately, the poem teaches that one cannot know what will save one since salvation is contingent on faith and not on knowing. The tragedy of Maple is not that she didn't know the meaning of her name but that she didn't have faith to give meaning to her life.

Trevecca Nazarene University


Abel, Darrel. "Robert Frost's 'True Make-Believe.'" Texas Studies in Literature and Language 20.4 (Winter 1978): 552-78.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems. New York: Bantam, 1990.

Hall, Dorothy Judd. "Old Testament Christian." Centennial Essays III. Ed. Jac Tharpe. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1978.

Frost, Robert. Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays. New York: The Library of America, 1995.

Kearns, Katherine. "The Place is the Asylum': Women and Nature in Robert Frost's Poetry." American Literature 59.2 (May 1987): 190-210.

Kjorven, Johannes. Robert Frost's Emergent Design. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press Intl., 1987.

Morris, John. "The Poet as Philosopher: Robert Frost." Michigan Quarterly Review 11 (1972): 127-34.

Marcus, Mordecai. The Poems of Robert Frost: An Explication. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

Plato. The Republic. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive. Web. 25 Nov. 1999.

Poirier, Richard. Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.

Sampley, Arthur M. "The Myth and the Quest: The Stature of Robert Frost." Critical Essays on Robert Frost. Ed. Philip L. Gerber. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. 189-98.

Thompson, J. A. Handbook of Life in Bible Times. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987.

Untermeyer, Louis, ed. The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963.

Vine, W. E., Merrill F. Unger, and William White, eds. An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985.


(1) All subsequent discussion of these terms is taken from Vines Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, eds. W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White, Jr. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985), 166 ff.

(2) For more background on "Kitty Hawk" and its thematic similarities to "Trial by Existence" see Michael Karounos, "The Business of the Soul: Frost's Flight of the Spirit at Kitty Hawk" in The Robert Frost Review (Fall, 2000), 7-28.
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Author:Karounos, Michael
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Date:Jan 1, 2012
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