The bear puts both arms around the tree above her
And draws it down as if it were a lover
And its choke cherries lips to kiss good-by,
Then lets it snap back upright in the sky.
Her next step rocks a boulder on the wall
(She’s making her cross-country in the fall).
Her great weight creaks the barbed wire in its staples
As she flings over and off down through the maples,
Leaving on one wire tooth a lock of hair.
Such is the uncaged progress of the bear.
The world has room to make a bear feel free;
The universe seems cramped to you and me.
Man acts more like the poor bear in a cage,
That all day fights a nervous inward rage,
His mood rejecting all his mind suggests.
He paces back and forth and never rests
The me-nail click and shuffle of his feet,
The telescope at one end of his beat,
And at the other end the microscope,
Two instruments of nearly equal hope,
And in conjunction giving quite a spread.
Or if he rests from scientific tread,
‘Tis only to sit back and sway his head
Through ninety-odd degrees of arc, it seems,
Between two metaphysical extremes.
He sits back on his fundamental butt
With lifted snout and eyes (if any) shut
(He almost looks religious but he’s not),
And back and forth he sways from cheek to cheek,
At one extreme agreeing with one Greek
At the other agreeing with another Greek
Which may be thought, but only so to speak.
A baggy figure, equally pathetic
When sedentary and when peripatetic.
This is a poem about a bear but it is also about so much more than just the bear itself. The poem uses “he” and “she” interspersed throughout, so I choose not to use a word of gender unless directly quoting, so as to not confuse. [It may be a typo off the website I took the poem from and if so, then apologies].
Written by Robert Frost, this poem describes how the bear acts and reacts in its natural environment. The description begins with the bear pulling down the tree branches that are over hanging for it to get at some food. But Frost describes the bear like we would a “lover” as it “draws down” the branch. As soon as it has retrieved the fruit it wants, it lets the branch go and the whole movement is described in one fell swoop, as it snaps back “upright in the sky.” There is a sensuous movement being described here, for the poet thinks the bear is a thing of beauty, capable of movement in such an exquisite manner that gives it a majestic manner as it feeds. This poem then sets the tone for the rest to follow, whereby we are led into the mind of the reader who is pro-animal and pro-animal rights in his approach, or so it would seem.
But could there be anything deeper than this when it comes to hidden meaning? To ascertain that, one has to consider what comes next as there are no verse endings like in four line verse. So one line interconnects with another and so on through the poem as we see the thoughts and feelings of the poet.
The progress this bear is making is the sort of progress that is seen as showing realism in the sense that the bear is in the wild but it is in its own element as well, something to not go near, something to watch and honour, rather than fear and hunt. Descriptions therefore, of how the bear “rocks a boulder on the wall” as how it is “making her cross-country in the fall” enable us to see the great animal in its element and at a certain time of year. The Fall, in America and Canada is the time of year we call Autumn, when all the leaves are falling from the trees and life is beginning to run out throughout nature as the elements give way from the warmth of summer, into the Fall and then moves on into winter. For the bear, it is a time of year where there is a lot to do, a lot to find, to store for its hibernation months through the long winter but there is also not a lot of food left for it to grab. That is its dilemma.
The level of progress it makes is called an “uncaged progress” in that it lingers where it needs to and lumbers off “down through the maples” leaving a wake of destruction in its wake as it leads its life in the natural elements. But then the poet makes us think of how we treat nature and animals in general, our attitudes to them and their needs. He says “the world has room to make a bear feel free” but at the same time, “the universe seems cramped to you and me.” It is true that what he is saying is that “man acts more like the poor bear in a cage,” fighting with rage against anything that will inhibit it. In this way, he is saying that we humans are just like the bear, capable of being nice and kind and also capable of living by our most natural, basest emotions and activities.
The bear “fights a nervous inward rage, his mood rejecting all his mind suggests.” How true of humanity is that? We are so fickle at times, wanting things for ourselves over and above the thoughts and needs of others. There is an animal facet to humankind that the poet is making us think of as he paints the picture of the animal in the wild who “paces back and forth and never rests,” just like we do through life instead of focussing on something more solid and more worthy of our time and efforts. The bear’s head is described as swaying “through ninety-odd degrees of arc” as if it is looking at “two metaphysical extremes.” Life for us is like that. We can be taken up with one thing or another when we are either concerned, or worried, so when we look at this poem we need to figure out whether we think the bear is at peace, or not at this moment. Is the bear shaking its head from side to side in rapt contemplation, or is it doing that because life is an endless bore of walking and hunting and eating? Has the bear lost the plot of life and become useless and so, is shaking its head from side to side like some do when they are in the depths of madness? Or, is this shaking of the head that kind of side to side movement that a bear naturally does when moving? The sense of movement in the bear is so strong in this poem, even though the bear “sits back on his fundamental butt with lifted snout and eyes (if any) shut.”
Whatever your answer is should be seen as the correct answer, for with poetry there is no wrong answer, for we each come to the reading of a poem with different life experiences and because of those differing life experiences, we interpret a poem differently to others. Therefore, your answer is just as valid as the next person and should not be taken as wrong, even by your teacher. This bear, to me, is nonchalantly sitting there, minding its own business. In parenthesis, Frost stresses that “he almost looks religious but he’s not.” It is the movement “back and forth” that paints the picture in the mind of the reader that makes them wonder why this bear is doing this. The bear “sways from cheek to cheek” on a magnificent backside, as if contemplating what to do next.
It is as if the bear is thinking things through but it is also described as a “baggy figure,” something reflecting the utterly “pathetic” nature of life “when sedentary and when peripatetic.” The word “Sedentary” is sometimes used to describe someone who sits around not doing very much, so it suggests that life is one where there is not much to do any more. The bear has lost that special lifestyle that a wild bear should have, probably because of the influx of humanity into its natural region, which does suggest that the poet is being pro animal and anti human in his depiction of this animal in the wild. “Peripatetic” as a word, is usually used to describe someone, like a home tutor, who goes from one home to the next to teach his or her subject. Likewise, it here describes the bear’s wandering lifestyle, one of loneliness and despair and therefore, makes this poem quite a sad one, bordering on the depressive.
But then again, this would be natural for this poet because if you look online at his life, you will see that he had a lot of experience of things like mental illness and depression, in himself and his family members, both through his natural family and the family he married into. So, is this poem a metaphor for how he feels his life has gone? Is the bear a metaphor for him, shifting aimlessly on his own backside at times, sometimes feeling that life is nasty, brutish and short?
The answer is up to you, but it is worth a thought.