Robert Frost is the quintessential American poet. Because of Frost’s work, and the masterful way in which he found words to bring to life rural America, there is no shortage of commentary regarding his poetry. I believe I was in Junior High (about seventh or eighth grade) when I first read Frost’s poem, Good Bye and Keep Cold.
Good Bye, Keep Cold seems to have as many meanings as there are commentators. In the poem, Frost is telling an orchard which was planted “on a northerly slope” near a farm house good-bye for the winter season. Frost laments as his imagination considers all the possible injuries which could occur to the orchard while he is away.
The hill which obscures the view of those in the house, could possibly allow the buds on the trees and the tender limbs to be eaten by rabbit, mouse, deer and grouse. He wishes the orchard would call out for his help when he writes, “If certain it wouldn’t be idle to call I’d summon the grouse, rabbit and deer to the wall and warn them away with a stick for a gun.” Frost’s desire to protect his orchard is evident in his desire to see its protection from the coming hungry wildlife.
Frost ends his poem by giving anthropological voice to his beloved orchard when he says, “I wish I could promise to lie in the night and think of an orchards arboreal plight when slowly (and nobody comes with a light) its heart sinks lower in the sod.” In this, Frost is exhibiting a fatherly empathy for the feelings he envisions his orchard may have in the dark of winter’s night. Yet in the equivalent of an audible sigh, Frost pens, “But something has to be left to God.”
As a pastor, I cannot find anything which would allow me to assume Robert Frost knew God intimately and personally; yet I cannot ascertain that he did not. Yet Frost’s life is filled with a gentility and sensitivity which allowed him to exhibit great empathy. In the case of Good Bye Keep Cold, Frost could expand this rapport to even nature itself.
Yet the crux of this poem, its main warning, to an unsuspecting and vulnerable orchard facing wildlife and oncoming winter, is this: “No orchard’s the worse for the wintriest storm; but one thing about it, it mustn’t get warm.” The very thing most would associate with vitality and growth and all that makes springtime and harvest possible, our poet warns against. But why?
The greatest danger to an orchard is an early spring followed by a late freeze. The buds, dormant on the limb, are waiting, indeed anticipating the coming warmth of spring. For temperature to advance too quickly could end up killing the potential of the harvest and perhaps even kill the trees themselves. This is why Frost advises, “How often already you’ve had to be told, keep cold, young orchard. Good bye, keep cold. Dread fifty above more than fifty below.”
While some paint Frost’s work with a brush depicting the sadness of his words as a reaction to the bleakness of the world around him, this is not what I see. Frost understood that while in its dormant state, no sub-zero temperature could cause any damage to his orchard; it was asleep and safe until it was awoken. Yet he was not providing mere “arboreal” insight in this poem; there is also great truth regarding the human condition.
Our society seems to desire great acceleration in many areas while at the same time it consistently retards and hinders natural growth in others. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the Western proclivity to stimulate sexual and physical maturation of its children while simultaneously discouraging mental maturity.
While many reject God as Creator and designer of humanity, I embrace this as an absolute truth. Humanity is separate from all other creation due to the fact we are created imago dei, in the very image of God. God, in His wisdom, chose a timeline for humanity to follow spiritually, physically and mentally. Humanity has uniformly rejected its spiritual heritage, but it cannot seem to overcome the physical changes which are inevitable in healthy people.
Parents today, while protecting their children from maturing and even discouraging responsibility, seem to quicken the physical appearance of their children—especially girls—through either proactive choice or willingly being held captive to the latest cultural style. Now for those without a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ, this is to be expected.
Yet for those who profess to have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, this is nothing less than willful rebellion and the offering up of their children (permanent, enduring people with souls) on the altar of the immediate and passé.
This brings us back to Frost’s Good Bye Keep Cold. Humans are beings with appetites. These appetites are God-given and for them to work appropriately, they must be exercised according to God’s principles. For children especially, to awaken the appetites God has reserved for those who are mature in body and spirit is the equivalent to exposing them to the dangers of which Frost warned; the “fifty above” rather than keeping them in the proverbial “winter of their content” and prematurely exposing them to discontent.
The writer of Ecclesiastes informs humanity, “There is an occasion for everything, and a time for every activity under heaven….and a wise heart knows the right time and procedure” (3:1; 8:5). The rights and autonomy of humanity has not been infringed on by taking away our rights and freedom to choose. The problem with humanity is we have lost both the discipline and patience to wait for the right time.
And the wisdom to keep cold.