in A Level, English Literature, Essay Technique, Writing Skills

This A* grade Robert Frost essay was completed by one of my students – not in timed conditions. She planned and thought thoroughly before writing, and edited the piece before handing it in. According to the mark scheme it received 23/25 (92%), which would translate to an A* grade at A-Level. However, the piece can be used as an example for any student studying Frost at any level. I have suggested some edits, which occur in bold throughout the essay.

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THE QUESTION:

Compare the effects of two poems which Frost sets in wintertime.

Photo by Fabian Mardi on Unsplash

THE ESSAY

Frost uses the setting of Wintertime in the poems ‘Birches’ and ‘There Are Roughly Zones’ to navigate through his debate concerning the influence of man versus nature, the theme serving to encompass another dimension to this ubiquitous argument that is at the forefront of many of his poems. Though there is potential for destruction in nature, especially so within the harsh Winter months, Frost often posits that the interference of humans in nature is more destructive than nature itself, such as in ‘There Are Roughly Zones’ when nature is ostensibly forced to bring destruction to its own creations; delineated by the symbol of a displaced peach tree. However, parallelling the same need for balance that he discovers here, Frost appears to challenge these concepts in poems such as ‘Birches’ when the influence of humans is not solely a sin, but rather an extension of nature’s own paradox of boundaries that germinates the question that details whether or not they truly exist. Throughout this debate, Wintertime is used to encapsulate the driving energy behind nature, and the consequences faced within the collision of contemporary human ideas and the timeless essence of nature.

In ‘There Are Roughly Zones’, Frost uses the displacement of the innocent peach tree to explore the different dimensions of nature within the seasons; the peach tree is a denizen of a naturally warmer habitat and thus its introduction into the harsh winter of Northern USA is something it was never destined to experience. Frost himself migrated from the temperate California to the more exposed Massaachusets, hence providing an unorthodox comparison between the peach tree and himself. This change in location largely altered his perspective on nature and allowed him to create a personified empathy within the audience for his (personified / extended metaphor) ‘character’ of the peach tree, encouraging readers to transfer to the side of nature, just as he transferred to a more naturally volatile area. Furthermore, Frost’s decision to move was not his own choice and occured after his father’s death when he was a child, potentially making him feel uprooted. This further correlates to the poem where both the peach tree and nature itself are against the imbalance that this change causes; putting the ‘blame’ onto the ‘hearts of men.’ The usage of the plural of the noun ‘men’, significantly generalises the situation, allowing the reader to not only connect to the topic, but to equally evoke feelings of guilt, something that interestingly does not take place in ‘Birches’, despite the similarity in the displayal of destruction of humans. It additionally intensifies the ambience of debate or war concerning the topic and the altercations between nature and man, which is supported by his evocation of the harshness of Winter, hence highlighting the hubris of mankind for putting a peach tree in harm’s way. The semantic field of wintry destruction such as ‘gust that gathers’, ‘betrayed’ and ‘threat’ all provide strong connotations towards something akin to an attack of an enemy, serving to provide an ambience of disquietude to the reader. This is further enhanced by the guttural alliteration in the words ‘gust’ and ‘gather’, with an accreting tension, but despite these harsh signs of Winter in nature, Frost uses antithesis in his ideas to abstract these destructive words, showing that although the Winter caused the possible death of the tree, it was human greed that was the true villain of the tale. In doing this, he acknowledges the reality of the harshness of Winter, cleverly using the characters’ (and potentially the reader’s) own argument against them. 

This greatly contrasts with the thematic statements of ‘Birches’, where the destruction and mischief from the boy towards nature, paints him as a free spirit rather than an evil or vacuous entity. This is demonstrated through Frost’s portrayal of Winter in the poem, and where the season seems harsh and brutal in ‘There Are Roughly Zones’, the ‘ice-storms’ of ‘Birches’ follow a pattern of unrelenting destruction. However, these ice-storms are unforgiving towards their destruction, unlike the Winter storms that ruefully destroy the peach, and thus it appears that Frost is more concerned with the intent behind both nature and humans, and judging each situation as it comes; after all, boundaries are things to be tested, as learnt by the morals of ‘Birches’. This concept is paralleled in human nature too, for where humans are portrayed as greedy elsewhere in ‘There Are Roughly Zones’, the ‘swinger of birches’ is delineated as free and is not scolded for his actions. Critic ML Rosenthel postulates that the poem causes the reader to notice the ‘shocked sense of the helpless cruelty’ that is shown through the clear disregard of life from the boy, however perhaps this is not what Frost intended, especially since the tone of this composition is lighter and mischievous overall, a comparison to ‘There Are Roughly Zones’. Agreeably, there is a sense of shock at the actions of the boy, and moreover how they are encouraged, especially in light of Frost’s clear disapproval of human acts against nature in other poems and circumstances. However, an alternative interpretation is that Frost does not solely see man as evil and nature as good, or the vice versa, but instead he obliges the reader to judge the character instead of the species. For example, the speaker says he would ‘prefer to have some boy bend’ the Birches than the storms of Wintertime, suggesting that though the birches are fated to be worn down, they can either do so at the hands of a brutal storm, or by the fun of a child looking for entertainment. This could be an allusion to life; we are all fated to die, but one can either wait for the storm to take them or spend the moment in the ecstasy of childhood. This notion on the outlook of life is supported in the speaker’s own revelation that he ‘dream[s]’ he could return to his childhood self, the abstract noun ‘dream’ connoting the sense of a utopia in which adult worries are gone and perhaps on a larger scale of Frost’s meaning across poems: that humans and nature are equally susceptible to a balance of nurture and destruction, encompassed in this poem by Winter’s potential for demolition.

Despite Frost’s use of Wintertime in both poems, it is evident that his central notions around the theme of nature versus man provide very different responses and morals in the two poems. The constant depiction of the destructive nature of Winter, whether it is seen as a necessary balance or a cruel reaction, is used to compliment the contrasting structural undertones that determine the coveted outcome for the reader that Frost looks for, especially foreclosing a multitude of similarities between them in both poems. In ‘There Are Roughly Zones’, Frost uses a vignette structure and static narrative in order to prevent the reader from empathising too much with the human characters that he chastises. The brief yet evocative comparison of Winter and human imagery in the vignette gives a sombre atmosphere to the situation and the static feel parallels the dead status of the tree, heralding warning to those that defy the titular moral of the poem that urges everyone to respect the vague yet significant ‘zones’. The human characters of the poem ‘sit’ safely inside, a lackadaisical verb that is contrasted with the Winter wind that ‘heaves’, however the paradoxical situation later heralds irony, for nature is not the one that abused its laws. It is the humans that do not respect the boundaries, despite superficially appearing to not be responsible with their inactive verb descriptions such as ‘sit’. This irony is not lost on the reader however, and it is paralleled by the static narrative of the entire poem. Contrastingly, the structure of ‘Birches’ praises a mischievous yet thoughtful tone, with a style that evolves and oscillates just like the birch trees that “swing” throughout the poem. The poem appears to follow a stream of consciousness, including vivid memories of the speaker’s past self as if it were a separate character, and though the Winter is still a destructive force, this lighter tone allows for the seriousness of themes such as death and natural wrecks to be undermined by the frivolity of a child. The more fluid and open writing style supports the freedom seen in the boy and paints him alongside nature as if he is destined to be a part of the food chain, like any other animal that must destroy something in nature in order for something else to grow, perhaps why this is preferable to the destruction from Winter. These contrasting writing styles allow Frost to project different feelings and morals onto the audience, while allowing them to form their own judgement on the themes by including dimensions of constants throughout, such as nature, humans and the setting of Wintertime.

Though Frost never made his beliefs clear, many of his poems, such as ‘Birches’ and ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’, present concepts of spirituality that correlate to death, though the former more strongly correlates to reincarnation. The concept of reincarnation versus absolute death is a recurring motif that largely presents itself in ‘Birches’, whilst the fear and anger of potential absolute death of the peach tree seems to overbear the judgement of the voice, perhaps rightfully so, in ‘There Are Roughly Zones.’ After the volta in ‘Birches’, ‘so was I once myself a swinger of birches’, the action stops and turns to future possibility and the extension of one’s mind, noticeably showing an absence of Wintertime which, in light of this recent perspective change, seems transient and inconsequential. Despite this slightly bathetic outcome in the shift, the absence of Winter undermines all of his previous worries about nature versus man and focuses on a greater journey of death and reincarnation: ‘both going and coming back’. This phrase demonstrates the need for balance within life and nature by incorporating a juxtaposition of life and death, whilst alluding to concepts that allow spirits to move more freely between the two; this idea perhaps parallels the free spirit of the boy and suggests why the speaker prefers his interference to the coldness of Winter. This could be a comparison between Winter and absolute death, as opposed to the boy and reincarnation, further strengthening the binary oppositions by likening them to mortal constants as opposed to metaphysical concepts, and thus allowing Frost to connect to the reader through these ideas. Like the peach tree in ‘There Are Roughly Zones’, reincarnation of all life (including the Winter as a synecdoche for seasons and nature), only reaffirms the transience of moments in comparison to potential infinity of life as a whole. However, the speaker of ‘There Are Roughly Zones’ is unsettled by the uncertainty of the peach tree’s reincarnation, whereas the structure of the poem and thoughtful tone of the speaker in ‘Birches’, allows the reader to feel optimistic about the chance of continued life. These contrasting outlooks of the two poems, allow Frost to explore alternative views and encourage the reader to formulate their own opinion, whilst being aided by certain constants such as the Wintertime setting which both poems use as a nexus for these theoretical ideas.

Throughout ‘There Are Roughly Zones’, Frost significantly uses the bittersweet harshness of Winter to delineate the sadness of nature being forced to harm its creations through the hubris of human ‘hearts’. However, when Frost’s preference of nature over man are reversed in his poem ‘Birches’, it appears that not only does he intend to debate concepts of what forms of destruction are morally acceptable to assume balance, something that is thoroughly explored within the WInter setting, but he uses a plethora of allusions to the greater oppositions of reincarnation versus absolute death. This germinates the question about Frost’s concerns for transient issues such as the death of a peach tree, and whom we should blame. Although this controversy seems to trivialise the ideas of man and nature that his poems ostensibly centre on, it is perhaps more accurate to interpret that his constant reference to supperterrestial issues provide a form of retronym for his perspective. Summarily, Frost posits that although reincarnation may be within the realm of possibility, the uncertainty of this form of immortality is crucial to both humans and nature alike to continue balance in the present, with the hope of Spring foreshadowing the future.

MARKS + FEEDBACK

MARK SCHEME

Level 6 22–25 Very good work – do not reserve this level for the very best work you see but ensure you put scripts into this level which fulfil the requirements described below. There will always be some candidates who are at a standard over the top of the mark scheme. 

K Evidence of a very good ability to select relevant knowledge to address the question with effective use of references and quotation. There may be evidence of sensitive awareness of the contexts in which the literary works studied were written and understood. 

U Evidence of very good understanding of ways in which writers’ choices of structure, form and language shape meanings with sustained analysis and sensitive appreciation of literary methods and effects and contexts, possibly including literary genres and conventions

P Personal response to texts will be perceptive, often freshly personal, fully supported with quotation, and may show originality in approach to and treatment of questions. 

C Candidates will express complex literary ideas and arguments with clarity and fluency. Answers will have a coherent structure, with logical progression and effectively linked paragraphs. Expression will be accomplished and appropriate. 

Feedback:

K L5 – more modern vs contemporary audience interpretations 

U L6 – form/structure / lang 

P L6 – personal ideas, mostly clear argument – interesting perspectives, very thoughtful + deep 

C L5 – thesis / argument mostly reinforced but sometimes wavers – comparative thesis would be better, try to keep a consistent argument 

GRADE: 23/25 92% 

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