Image featuring Robert Graves for the poem A Frosty Night

A Frosty Night by Robert Graves: The Two Different (and Dark) Meanings

Simple, straightforward, and easy to read. These are the ways you can describe the poem “A Frosty Night” by Robert Graves. But a deeper dive into the meaning of the poem will leave many readers confused.

The poem has all the elements of a traditional poem; the meter, the rhyming scheme, stanzas, etc are all in place to call it a traditional poem. The rhyming scheme of ABAB shows the simplicity of the poem. 

But there are some unique elements to this poem that makes it stand out. The first is the structure. It is written in a duologue; a conversation between two people. 

Let’s look at the poem first and then at the different possible meanings of the poem. There could be a sweet and lovely meaning behind it or a very dark one. 

A Frosty Night

Mother: Alice, dear, what ails you,
Dazed and white and shaken?
Has the chill night numbed you?
Is it fright you have taken?

Alice: Mother I am very well,
I felt never better;
Mother, do not hold me so,
Let me write my letter.

Mother: Sweet, my dear, what ails you?

Alice: No, but I am well.
The night was cold and frosty,
There's no more to tell.


Mother: Ay, the night was frosty,
Coldly gaped the moon,
Yet the birds seemed twittering
Through green boughs of June.

Soft and thick the snow lay,
Stars danced in the sky.
Not all the lambs of May-day
Skip so bold and high.

Your feet were dancing, Alice,
Seemed to dance on air,
You looked a ghost or angel
In the starlight there.

Your eyes were frosted starlight,
Your heart, fire, and snow.
Who was it said 'I love you? '

Alice: Mother, let me go!
-Robert Graves

Summary and Analysis of “The Frosty Night”

There are two meanings that readers can interpret. We’ll get into the details later, first let’s look at the definite parts of the poem where the meaning has no variations.

The poem is a dialogue between a mother and her daughter. The scene is established very well. We know that the night is very cold, and the daughter is in a state of unrest.

Mother: Alice, dear, what ails you,

Dazed and white and shaken?

Has the chill night numbed you?

Is it fright you have taken?

Alice: Mother I am very well,

I felt never better;

Mother, do not hold me so,

Let me write my letter.

So in the first two stanzas, the mother asks her daughter if she is feeling alright. Alice is dazed, shaken, and all pale and white. Does her mother ask if this is all due to the cold night? Or is she afraid of something? 

Alice replies that she is perfectly okay. She has never felt better. But she wants to be left alone because she is writing a letter.

Mother: Sweet, my dear, what ails you?

Alice: No, but I am well.

The night was cold and frosty,

There’s no more to tell.

Mother: Ay, the night was frosty,

Coldly gaped the moon,

Yet the birds seemed twittering

Through green boughs of June.

We know that the mother comes and holds Alice, and she finds that something is not okay with her daughter. She asks again what is bothering her. 

To this question, Alice replies that the night was cold and frosty, and perhaps she was out and had taken the chill. She is constantly evading the question about how she is feeling. 

This part is where the direction of the poem changes as the mother goes on talking and describing the chilly night. It seems that she completely forgets about her daughter’s health. 

She says that even though the night was frosty, the birds seemed twittering as if it was past the fresh Spring. 

Soft and thick the snow lay,

Stars danced in the sky.

Not all the lambs of May-day

Skip so bold and high.

The snow was thick, and the stars shone brightly in the sky. The merry jumps of lambs during May are not as bold and high as the stars in the clear sky. There is a contrast drawn by the mother. 

On one hand, she is describing the frosty night, cold and pale, and on the other hand, she is describing other elements of the night that have warm, bright, and happy qualities. 

The last two paragraphs are the most complicated and confusing parts of the poem. The mother starts describing her daughter and she gives a very eerie description.

Your feet were dancing, Alice,

Seemed to dance on air,

You looked a ghost or angel

In the starlight there.

Your eyes were frosted starlight,

Your heart, fire, and snow.

Who was it said ‘I love you? ‘

Alice: Mother, let me go!

From what the mother says, we can understand that Alice was moving her legs in discomfort, or perhaps pain, or maybe excitement. This part of the poem is left open to interpretation as you will see later. 

“You looked like a ghost or angel in the starlight there” is a very weird and peculiar way of describing your daughter. But then she changes the tone completely and describes Alice’s features in a contrasting way. 

Her eyes looked like frosted starlight, the heart was like fire and snow. Just like the mother described the frosty night first and then gave contrasting elements of Spring and Summer, she does the same here. 

The stanza ends with the mother asking “Who was it said ‘I love you?’” and to that the daughter replies “Mother, let me go!”

The poem ends here, and the interpretation is left to the readers. So what is going on with the daughter? And why is the mother talking this way? 

Different Meanings of the Poem

Meaning 1: The first meaning and the most probable one is that the daughter is perhaps in love with someone, and while the night is cold and frosty, the fire of love is burning bright and warm, similar to the contrasting scenes presented by the mother. 

The birds fly through green boughs of June, and lambs skip in May contrasting with the cold and frosty night is very similar to Alice looking pale and white yet “dancing” with the fire in her heart. 

So the daughter is not feeling well due to the cold, but she is also excited (and writing a letter) because she is in love with someone. This meaning is further supported by the last thing her mother says; “Who was it said ‘I love you?’”

Meaning 2: The second meaning is opposite to the first one and quite dark. What if the poem is about the daughter dying? What if the night is not that cold and perhaps she is just feeling the chills due to fever?

There are many reasons to support this meaning. Firstly, the mother is not feeling the chill or cold. She also seems very concerned about the health of her daughter. 

Then there is the peculiar description of her daughter looking pale, white, dazed, shaken, etc. The mother holds her daughter in an embrace, or perhaps to stop her from shaking.

Alice is writing a letter, and our morbid imagination leads us to believe that this is the last letter she is writing for her loved ones.

The daughter is dying, and in death maybe she will find some peace. This explains the juxtaposition used by the mother. How she puts cold with something warm (frosty night, June boughs.)

Especially in the last line when the mother says that Alice looked like a ghost or an angel, yet her eyes had a shine, and her heart had fire and snow. Perhaps this is the final moment of Alice, the sliver of life left in her. 

Literary Devices in the Poem 

End-stopped lines– The poet uses end-stopped lines by using a colon or a semicolon at the end of the sentence to give it a flow of a natural conversation between the mother and the daughter. For example:

I felt never better;

No, but I am well.

There’s no more to tell.

Repetition– The poet repeats a few words from the poem with the purpose of highlighting their importance. For example: “what ails you?”, “night”, “well”, “frosty”, and “danced”.

Alliteration- A few examples of alliteration from the poem include:

Has the chill night numbed you?

Let me write my letter.

There’s no more to tell.

Sibilance– The poet uses sibilance to give a hissing sound and rhythm to the poem. For example:

Soft and thick the snow lay,

Stars danced in the sky.

Skip so bold and high.

Seemed to dance on air,

You looked a ghost or angel

In the starlight there.

Your eyes were frosted starlight,

Juxtaposition– Juxtaposition is a literary device in which two things are placed together with contrasting effect. In the poem the Mother has constantly placed a frosty night along with the spring of May and June. For example:

Ay, the night was frosty,

Coldly gaped the moon,

Yet the birds seemed twittering

Through green boughs of June.

Soft and thick the snow lay,

Stars danced in the sky.

Not all the lambs of May-day

Skip so bold and high.

Your eyes were frosted starlight,

Your heart, fire, and snow.

Imagery– Robert Graves uses imagery to create images in the mind of readers, and allows us to feel the frosty night outside. It is because of the imagery used that the readers are able to actually feel what each character in the poem was feeling.

Conclusion

We cannot say for sure what the poem actually means, but that was the intention of Robert Graves; to keep the meaning of the poem open for interpretation. What’s interesting is the two meanings of the poem are polar opposites. 

One meaning is a lovely, beautiful one while the other is quite dark and morbid. What do you think is the meaning of the poem? Do you find a third meaning of “The Frosty Night?” Let us know in the comments. 

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