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Robert Frost (1874–1963). Miscellaneous Poems to 1920. 1920.

1. The Ax-helve

(From The Atlantic Monthly, September 1917.)

I’VE known ere now an interfering branch

Of alder catch my lifted ax behind me.

But that was in the woods, to hold my hand

From striking at another alder’s roots,

And that was, as I say, an alder branch.

This was a man, Baptiste, who stole one day

Behind me on the snow in my own yard

Where I was working at the chopping-block,

And cutting nothing not cut down already.

He caught my ax expertly on the rise,

When all my strength put forth was in his favor,

Held it a moment where it was, to calm me,

Then took it from me—and I let him take it.

I didn’t know him well enough to know

What it was all about. There might be something

He had in mind to say to a bad neighbor

He might prefer to say to him disarmed.

But all he had to tell me in French-English

Was what he thought of—not me, but my ax,

Me only as I took my ax to heart.

It was the bad ax-helve someone had sold me—

“Made on machine,” he said, plowing the grain

With a think thumbnail to show how it ran

Across the handle’s long-drawn serpentine—

Like the two strokes across a dollar sign.

“You give her one good crack, she’s snap raght off.

Den where’s your hax-ead flying t’rough de hair?”

Admitted; and yet, what was that to him?

“Come on my house and I put you one in

What’s las’ awhile—good hick’ry what’s grow crooked.

De second growt’ I cut myself—tough, tough!”

Something to sell? That wasn’t how it sounded.

“Den when you say you come? It’s cost you nothing.


As well tonight as any night.

Beyond an over-warmth of kitchen stove

My welcome differed from no other welcome.

Baptiste knew best why I was where I was.

So long as he would leave enough unsaid,

I shouldn’t mind his being overjoyed

(If overjoyed he was) at having got me

Where I must judge if what he knew about an ax

That not everybody else knew was to count

For nothing in the measure of a neighbor.

Hard if, though cast away for life ’mid Yankees,

A Frenchman couldn’t get his human rating!

Mrs. Baptiste came in and rocked a chair

That had as many motions as the world:

One back and forward, in and out of shadow,

That got her nowhere; one more gradual,

Sideways, that would have run her on the stove

In time, had she not realized her danger

And caught herself up bodily, chair and all,

And set herself back where she started from.

“She ain’t spick too much Henglish—dat’s too bad.”

I was afraid, in brightening first on me,

Then on Baptiste, as if she understood

What passed between us, she was only feigning.

Baptiste was anxious for her; but no more

Than for himself, so placed he couldn’t hope

To keep his bargain of the morning with me

In time to keep me from suspecting him

Of really never having meant to keep it.

Needlessly soon he had his ax-helves out,

A quiverful to choose from, since he wished me

To have the best he had, or had to spare—

Not for me to ask which, when what he took

Had beauties he had to point me out at length

To insure their not being wasted on me.

He liked to have it slender as a whipstock,

Free from the least knot, equal to the strain

Of bending like a sword across the knee.

He showed me that the lines of a good helve

Were native to the grain before the knife

Expressed them, and its curves were no false curves

Put on it from without. And there its strength lay

For the hard work. He chafed its long white body

From end to end with his rough hand shut round it.

He tried it at the eye-hole in the ax-head.

“Hahn, hahn,” he mused, “don’t need much taking down.”

Baptiste knew how to make a short job long

For love of it, and yet not waste time either.

Do you know, what we talked about was knowledge?

Baptiste on his defense about the children

He kept from school, or did his best to keep—

Whatever school and children and our doubts

Of laid-on education had to do

With the curves of his ax-helves and his having

Used these unscrupulously to bring me

To see for once the inside of his house.

Was I desired in friendship, partly as someone

To leave it to, whether the right to hold

Such doubts of education should depend

Upon the education of those who held them?

But now he brushed the shavings from his knee

And stood the ax there on its horse’s hoof,

Erect, but not without its waves, as when

The snake stood up for evil in the Garden,—

Top-heavy with a heaviness his short,

Thick hand made light of, steel-blue chin drawn down

And in a little—a French touch in that.

Baptiste drew back and squinted at it, pleased;

“See how she’s cock her head!”