Robert Frost’s late poem “The Draft Horse” is phrased in simple language and composed as a ballad with an x/a/x/a rhyme scheme. However, the meaning of those simple words is open to varied interpretation. Consider the first quatrain.
With a lantern that wouldn’t burn
But how does one understand such a lantern? Surely it gives off no light, but why not? Is the oil or the propane somehow incapable of being ignited, or is the poet speaking symbolically of a failure of eyesight brought on by advanced age? (Frost was in his 80’s when the poem appeared in his last collection.) Might the casually noted disability be one with several others soon to come and describe without anger or even frustration a disturbing factor of an unfriendly universe?
In too frail a buggy we drove
Why is the vehicle not more substantial? Who is the “We” that are driving. The first impulse is to say the weak buggy symbolizes a body or bodies debilitated by age, but perhaps the buggy’s frailty (“frail” being a word more often associated with physical weakness than with mechanical deficiency) is another aspect of the hostile universe.
“Behind too heavy a horse” We know from the poem’s title that this is a draft horse that may not be suitable for drawing a buggy for two. Is the horse overweight? Is it aged? Or is this weightiness another unsuitability like the useless lantern and the rickety conveyance being drawn?
Line four shifts to the area through which the horse and buggy are attempting to travel. The words are simple but their possible meanings breed confusion. How can a “grove,” or treed area smaller than a woods or forest, be “limitless” or without end? More and more the situation seems to symbolize not just the plight of two individuals but a universe beyond human comprehension - a universe of malevolence.
Stanza two lacks those confusions of meaning and interpretation. In language devoid of surprise, horror, confusion or disgust, the speaker tells us that a man emerged from the leafy darkness, took the horse by its head, and fatally stabbed it between the ribs.
In stanza three readers are reminded of the overweight animal and the frail conveyance by the unemotional description – “The ponderous beast went down/ With a crack of a broken shaft.” Then follows a simple yet perplexing description of nature.
And the night drew through the trees
In one long invidious draft.
The poem’s single obscure word is “invidious.” Does it mean giving offense or arousing ill feeling? How can the night give offense? Can the night be envious, grudging, jealous, or unjust? Which of the several meanings of “draft” does the speaker intend? A draft of air? An inhalation? Is the fact that the poem is named “The Draft Horse” intentional or accidental? When combined with the verb “drew,” might “draft” be the same as “draught” in a draught of beer? Is the poet playing with us?
The final two stanzas return to the simple, neutrally connotative language of the rest of the first ten lines. The humans are a “most unquestioning pair” though there are more question marks than periods in this analysis. The overtones of invidious are picked up when the speaker describes them as accepting their fate without ascribing it to hate.
The horse slayer or “someone he had to obey” (perhaps the designer of Frost’s poem “Design”) simply decided that the pair must walk through the darkness.
Lionel Trilling in Partisan Review (Summer 1959) spoke of Robert Frost as “a terrifying poet. . . , one who expressed “the terrible actualities of life.” The sunbathers in “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep” were confronting “the empty immensity of the universe.” Randall Jarrell too wrote not of Frost’s affirmations of virtues, pieties and ways of feeling but of his “recognition of the essential limitations of man.”
“The Draft Horse” is a magnificently understated design of terror - "If design govern in a thing so small."