“Two Tramps in Mudtime” (A Few Words for Wednesday)

In an endless quest to simplify blogging while staying true to the mission of this space—to proclaim the joy of being Catholic—here’s a new weekly feature: poems, not necessarily Catholic, that have inspired us in our spiritual journey. Father Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation, was a great one for seeing the Mystery in artistic creation. So call this column a tribute to his insight.

We’re moving into “mud time” here in New England, and I can’t think of a better first selection than Robert Frost’s great poem about a man splitting wood during the spring thaw. A poet could work a whole lifetime and not write a better final stanza. 

What’s Catholic about this poem? It combines physicality with spirituality. This is life—the raw effort of wielding the ax while one’s heart reaches for Heaven—“vocation” in harmony with “avocation.” It’s the same dynamic found in Frost’s other beautiful up-high/down-low poem, “Birches.” Which I’m sure I’ll get to one of these Wednesdays.

One good thing about “Two Tramps” and most of Frost—I don’t feel like an idiot reading it but not understanding it. The meaning and beauty are all right there, in the daily specifics of New England life.

TWO TRAMPS IN MUD TIME
Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily “Hit them hard!”
I knew pretty well why he had dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.

Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn’t blue,
But he wouldn’t advise a thing to blossom.

The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand,
In every wheelrut’s now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
Be glad of water, but don’t forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.

The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You’d think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
The judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man’s work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right–agreed.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

  • Warren Jewell

    Here in the river-wet Midwest, we're actually more in our "Run like hell! It's over the banks!!" time. And, those two sturdies from off the road would have hours of work helping neighbor and stranger and soldier and farmer load sandbags. Tragic times can lead inexorably to times where love meets need, and both in the eternal-run the better for it; and with tired shoulders over a well-earned meal, all would be a little more Christ-like. "More sandbags needed!" – pick up your cross, buddy, and let's get back to it.Thanks! I needed that.

  • James

    Another of Frosts' poems that echoes this theme is "TheTuft of Flowers". It is a personal favorite and wonderfully spiritual in nature.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16021781602272064901 Allison

    Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89). Poems. 1918. 13. Pied Beauty GLORY be to God for dappled things— For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; 5 And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim. All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: 10 Praise him.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16021781602272064901 Allison

    (Hopkins: English poet, Catholic convert,Jesuit priest)

  • Webster Bull

    @James, Thanks for this:The Tuft of Flowers I went to turn the grass once after one Who mowed it in the dew before the sun. The dew was gone that made his blade so keen Before I came to view the leveled scene. I looked for him behind an isle of trees;/I listened for his whetstone on the breeze. But he had gone his way, the grass all mown, And I must be, as he had been,—alone, ‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart, ‘Whether they work together or apart.’ But as I said it, swift there passed me by On noiseless wing a ’wildered butterfly, Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight. And once I marked his flight go round and round,As where some flower lay withering on the ground. And then he flew as far as eye could see, And then on tremulous wing came back to me. I thought of questions that have no reply, And would have turned to toss the grass to dry; But he turned first, and led my eye to look At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook, A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared. I left my place to know them by their name,Finding them butterfly weed when I came. The mower in the dew had loved them thus, By leaving them to flourish, not for us, Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him. But from sheer morning gladness at the brim. The butterfly and I had lit upon, Nevertheless, a message from the dawn, That made me hear the wakening birds around, And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground, And feel a spirit kindred to my own; So that henceforth I worked no more alone; But glad with him, I worked as with his aid, And weary, sought at noon with him the shade; And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach. ‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart, ‘Whether they work together or apart.’


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