To offer a brief summary of the poem “Departmental” by Robert Frost and its general meaning before launching into a full poetry analysis of “Departmental”, one should begin with the important first lines. At the beginning of “Departmental” by Robert Frost, an ant runs across a moth, and although the reader might think this is leading to a poem about the intersection of the two insects, it instead diverges entirely into an image of the ant walking right by the moth, since “His business wasn’t with such” and hurrying off.
After this point in the poem by Robert Frost, “Departmental” then takes another sharp turn and seems to focus on another ant and the rituals of the dead that are involved in the ant “kingdom”. The elaborate process, involving tiny ant-morticians and onlookers as well as the sense of a royal “burial” for this mysteriously important ant, concludes with the author’s commentary on this imaginary scene he has just witnessed through the process of describing.
There are many ways to go about presenting an analysis of “Departmental” by Robert Frost in terms of interpretation of meaning, although some aspects are easily explained and not open to much debate. In Robert Frost’s poem, “Departmental” the theme of culture and identity is expressed through perspective, simple language, and images that are more associated with human action than what one would consider “ant behavior”.
The lives and culture of ants in “Departmental” by Robert Frost is compared with the rituals and cultural actions of humans and through this unclouded language, Frost relates deeper ideas about the seeming complexity of both “civilizations”—of the ants and the humans. As this analysis of “Departmental” by Robert Frost suggests, the most important aspect of this poem by Robert Frost in relation to culture and identity is the way Robert Frost uses perspective to illustrate the larger concepts of culture within the smaller, more individual frame of identity. By causing the reader to shift her focus from the miniscule to the complex, the author is able to discuss societies—of both humans and ants.
On the surface, this is a very simple poem. To summarize, Robert Frost begins “Departmental” with two very simple and rather droll and common lines about an ant and a moth. There seems to be nothing remarkable, in terms of imagery or language in, “An ant on the tablecloth/ Ran into a dormant moth/ Of many times his size” (l.1-3). In fact, the use of such casual terms in like “ran into” and “tablecloth” seem almost out of place when one thinks about poetry. Many might assume that in order to be poetry, the language must be well chosen and perfected, but this sounds like a short child’s rhyme rather than a work of art. Without delving too deeply into the question of what constitutes art, it is worth pointing out that this deceptively simple use of language and images belies intensity to this poem. Unlike other poetry where the magic is within the language itself, this poem’s strength relies on the associations of culture and identity by comparing ants and their societies to larger ideas about how culture and societies operate and where the place of individual identity lies. Robert Frost begins this poem with unremarkable language and images, but as the poem progresses, the reader becomes increasingly aware of the commentary through his use of widening and narrowing the scope—changing the perspective—as opposed to relying on mere language to accomplish the “trick” of poetry.
The rhyme structure is clean and each line rhymes perfectly with the next, the language is not at all complex, and the images are clear and unclouded by vague language or obscure symbols. This is important to the overall theme of the poem because it is representative of the ants themselves. When one looks at this poem initially, they see neat rhyming lines, brevity, and an unmistakable simplicity. The same is true with ants; most people see them running about on their various focused missions, but there is no seeming complexity to their actions, only a simple drive to take food back to the queen and then go get some more. By imposing human cultural rituals (such as the stately funeral and burial rites) on the lives of ants, Frost is suggesting that maybe people are a lot like these bustling insects when viewed from a certain vantage point. The point here is, both the poem and the lives of ants are deceptively simple. This poem is multi-layered and rich with vivid imagery, just as the lives of ants, when viewed closer and with more imagination become full of miniature stories and causes. The ants, like the poem, have purpose that is at once very clear and simple, but on closer inspection, there are a number of levels to the purposes and actions—everything is just put into more compact terms.
Examining the size and scope of the images in “Departmental” is important for determining how the poem relates to culture and identity. When one considers the fact that culture and identity, while interrelated, are two distinct aspects of life, it becomes clear that culture is the “big picture” while “identity” is a smaller version or manifestation of culture. Whether pertaining to ants or humans, this is exact notion Frost is trying to convey to his readers by changing the size and scope of the images and concepts from the “big picture” (here meaning culture) to the smaller picture (identity). We are first directed by the poet to focus our attention of the individual, the one ant as he goes about his business, “And was off on his duty run” (l.7) but as the poem continues and our focus widens from the individual to the culture, we are aware of a more complex social system than we might have imagined, one that is full of rituals, as the ants are then described in terms of the “hive” and as a “curious race”.
To further highlight this point, one should look at the first set of images as they relate to both visual and conceptual perception. Frost sets up the reader’s vantage point immediately by causing us to focus on the size difference between the main focus, the ant, and the dormant moth. In this same way, he is also causing the reader to unconsciously place himself in such a perspective since he is the one witnessing the ant. To the reader as he or she forms an analysis of the poem “Departmental” by Robert Frost, the moth looks small and the ant seems even tinier. As the poem continues, we are directed to focus in closer and view the lives of the ants in more intimate detail. While the poem beings with physical and spatial perspective, the scope widens, quite unexpectedly from the image of two apparently simple creatures to the idea one if them, when faced with others of his kind (thus society/culture) realizes a higher purpose. It is the ants, “Whose work is to find out God/And the nature of time and space” (l.10-11). Here the most base and physical descriptions of such minuteness are suddenly put into the perspective of such large and unfathomable ideas as God and the “nature of time and space”.
This unexpected broadening of themes sets the reader up for the more detailed “cultural” descriptions of the ants and their activities and thus the personal identity of the ant we are first introduced to becomes lost in the whole “hive” of his culture. We no longer see this particular ant separately, but are forced to turn our attention on the work of this society rather than the individual. Frost’s portrayal of ants going through the motions of typically human and culturally-driven actions after a death cause the reader to make the association that Robert Frost is commenting on human culture, identity, and society. By changing the perspective and making us smaller, like ants scurrying about, he forces the reader to see from a “God-like” or “bird’s eye” view the seeming inanity of our everyday actions and struggles. While there is not a lot of direct evidence throughout the poem to indicate that Frost is unquestionably making these parallels between ants and humans, the ending lines of the poem, “It couldn’t be called ungentle/ But how thoroughly departmental” make the parallels clearer. Throughout the poem he has been invoking human activities (there’s even a tiny ant-mortician, indicating that these ants have jobs), and by using such a “human business” term as “departmental to not only use as the title, but the closing of his poem, indicates that he was trying to make this connection.
In many senses, this poem breaks away from what a reader might typically associate with “figurative language” and instead focuses on “figurative images and association”. While it might be tempting to use the word “metaphor” to describe this poem (to say that the ant society is just a metaphor for human society) this seems too limiting, as though by merely calling it such would invalidate the humor or overall statement of the poem, reducing it to a simple comment on the way humans bustle about their lives. This complexity and inability to state a clear motivation without falling into the traps of labeling poetry is exactly what makes this poetry. Nothing can be pinned down, and the use of simple and unclouded language and rhyme scheme—two supposedly important elements in the critical study of poems—are used to a benefit somehow higher than some poems we have encountered with layers and layers of possible meaning and interpretation. If the nature and focus of poetry is on simple beauty of form or language, this poem has it (in that it is a fun read and rhymes) and also, when it comes to depth of the final message, if there really is such a thing in poetry, this poem possesses that as well. By taking the reader out of the typical perspective and causing them to see the individual and then the whole, Frost’s poem achieves it’s goal of great complexity masked in simplicity. If indeed, Frost was remarking on human society, one must see how he causes the reader to view the range of sizes and relations of culture and the smaller elements of individual identity
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Poem Analysis of “Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford • Analysis of the Poem “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath • Poem Analysis of “Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas • Poetry Analysis of “Dolce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen • Persistent Themes in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats