Robert Frost: The Ax-Helve What’s the story? The speaker is in his ‘yard’, chopping up some wood with an axe, when the swing of his axe is stopped by a man who has crept up behind him. (Normally, the only interference he experiences when chopping wood is from the low-lying branches of trees – when he’s chopping in the woods.) The man – Baptiste – is a French-Canadian neighbour. He takes the axe and inspects it. They don’t know each other very well and the speaker seems a little alarmed by this sudden and unexpected interruption (understandably), thinking that perhaps Baptiste has come to confront him about something – hence his desire to ‘disarm’ him first. It turns out that the reason is far less dramatic; Baptiste wishes only to tell him that the helve (handle) of his axe is ‘bad’ – not handmade, but mass-produced on a machine, and likely to ‘snap right off’. He invites him to his house, where he says he will give him a much better axe that he has made himself.
That night, the speaker visits Baptiste’s house, where he is welcomed into the kitchen, where Mrs. Baptiste sits rocking in a chair. (She almost rocks herself into the stove.) Baptiste says she can’t speak English very well, but the speaker is not so sure, musing that she seems to know more than she lets on, as she watches Baptiste get out his axes. He points out their various merits, paying particular attention to the handles: the lines are not ‘put on it from without’, but genuine; they are the native grain of the wood. It is this quality that gives the tool its strength, he says.
They talk of other things – ‘knowledge’ – Baptiste reveals that he does not send his children to school, but keeps them at home, instead, and the speaker wonders if he has invited him to visit because he desires friendship. Perhaps the whole axe thing was just a way for Baptiste to initiate friendship. Yet the axe is the final image of the poem, standing erect on a horseshoe. The two men look at it, and the speaker likens it to the snake in the Garden of Eden, whilst Baptiste refers to it as a feminine ‘she’, with a cocked head.
Essay Questions You should answer at least one of the questions below.
1. “Some have called me a nature poet, because of the background, but I’m not a nature poet. There’s always something else in my poetry” Faggen, 109.
What, in your opinion, is the ‘something else’ in ‘The Ax-Helve’?
2. Frost commented that his poems have a 'propulsive and disturbing effect':…my poems - I should suppose everybody's poems - are all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless … Forward, you understand, and in the dark.
In what ways does ‘The Ax-Helve’ leave the reader in the dark?
3. In an interview in 1916, a year before ‘The Ax-Helve’ was published, Frost said: You know the Canadian woodchoppers whittle their ax-handles, following the curve of the grain, and they’re strong and beautiful. Art should follow lines in nature, like the grain of an ax-handle. False art puts curves on things that haven’t any curves.
In what ways can ‘The Ax-Helve’ be said to ‘follow the lines in nature’?
4. The narrator’s accounting of Baptiste’s motives seems at the least condescending, if not worse, and reveals some of his contempt for his French Canadian neighbour. Faggen, 84.
Write about the relationship between Baptiste and the narrator in ‘The Ax-Helve’.
5. In crafting ax-helves, Baptiste displays sensuous, if not sensual pleasure, blending love and need, work and play, craft and power. Faggen, 84.
In what ways might the ax-helve be considered a metaphor for the reading and writing of poetry?
6. In the early part of the twentieth century, there was enormous controversy about the influx of French Canadians into New England and their refusal to assimilate into American schools and speak English… The underlying dramatic tension of the poem is really about human equality and education. Faggen, 84-85.
How does this context affect your reading of ‘The Ax-Helve’?
Except where otherwise stated, all quotations are from The Cambridge Introduction to Robert Frost, Robert Faggen, CUP, 2008