Robert Frost’s “Lovely, Blameless Chooser”

Three Robert Frost ‘Puzzles’

Part 3: “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers”

The “lovely chooser

“This strange, cryptic, tender, ironic poem…” is how one of Robert Frost’s biographers described it 1 and most people will share that same impression. I chose it for the third and final “puzzle” of the three. Let’s call it sort of a “climax”, because this one, more than any of Frost’s other poems, truly mystifies the reader.

The poem portrays a woman who has been destined by a “Voice” to be “hurled down,” whatever that might mean. “Voices“—in the plural—do the bidding of the “Voice” and make the downfall happen. But there’s more intrigue to come: the “downfall” must be of her own “choosing”; and it must be done “by joys” and, most importantly of all, the downfall must “leave her always blameless.”

I’m sure you’re already detecting the scent of “tragedy” in the air, without reading a word.

There is plenty here to “puzzle” over: who is the “woman”? Who, or what, are the “Voices” and the “Voice”? What does it mean? What is the point? And why on earth did Frost write this thing? Those are questions that have been asked repeatedly ever since Frost first published the poem, in a little broadside pamphlet back in 1929. One year later, it was added to Frost’s fifth collection: West-Running Brook.

But let’s stop and take it in its entirety now; we can dive for answers later. It’s a bit long, so take your time. Read it through a couple of times. You’ll be glad you did. (Note: the numbering of the lines is my addition, just for the sake of discussion):

“The Lovely Shall Be Choosers”

The Voice said, “Hurl her down!”
The Voices, “How far down?”
“Seven levels of the world.”
“How much time have we?”
5 “Take twenty years.
She would refuse love safe with wealth and honor!
The lovely shall be choosers, shall they?
Then let them choose!”

“Then we shall let her choose?”

10 “Yes, let her choose.
Take up the task beyond her choosing.”

Invisible hands crowded on her shoulder
In readiness to weigh upon her.
But she stood straight still,
15 In broad round earrings, gold and jet with pearls,
And broad round suchlike brooch,
Her cheeks high-colored,
Proud and the pride of friends.

The Voice asked, “You can let her choose?”

20 “Yes, we can let her and still triumph.”

“Do it by joys, and leave her always blameless.
Be her first joy her wedding,
That though a wedding,
Is yet—well, something they know, he and she.
25 And after that her next joy
That though she grieves, her grief is secret:
Those friends know nothing of her grief to make it shameful.
Her third joy that though now they cannot help but know,
They move in pleasure too far off
30 To think much or much care.
Give her a child at either knee for fourth joy
To tell once and once only, for them never to forget,
How once she walked in brightness,
And make them see it in the winter firelight.
35 But give her friends, for then she dare not tell
For their foregone incredulousness.
And be her next joy this:
Her never having deigned to tell them.
Make her among the humblest even
40 Seem to them less than they are.
Hopeless of being known for what she has been,
Failing of being loved for what she is,
Give her the comfort for her sixth of knowing
She fails from strangeness to a way of life
45 She came to from too high too late to learn.
Then send some one with eyes to see
And wonder at her where she is,
And words to wonder in her hearing how she came there,
But without time to linger for her story.
50 Be her last joy her heart’s going out to this one
So that she almost speaks.
You know them—seven in all.”

“Trust us,” the Voices said.

“Strange and cryptic”, all right, and for twenty years at least, the meaning of the poem—and the identity of the woman—was anyone’s guess. And so—stand back!—here comes the parade of “experts” and “pundits”, with no shortage of scholarly pretense and not the slightest reticence to speak with “authority”.

One “expert” finds “Freud” all over the place; of course; who didn’t back then, in the 1930’s? In this and many other of Frost’s poems, “all men’s acts are an effort to regain the warm safety of the womb.” 2 How anyone could find such a notion in this poem, or any of Frost’s poems, is beyond me. By the time this poem had caught the public eye, James Joyce and TS Eliot were sprinkling Freud into their works, so certainly Frost would be doing the same, wouldn’t he? The truth of it is, Frost never spoke of Freudian psychology with anything but a tone of contempt; nor of the academic elite that made such a fetish of it.

Much more vicious than the “Fates” and the “Furies”—or whatever the “Voice” and the “Voices” might be—were the voices of literary gurus who kept trying to unravel this poor woman’s demise. And how stunning to find them so persistent in casting all “blame” upon her. Did they just skip over line 21?

George Nitchie found the woman “willful when young, like the ‘Witch of Grafton'” (see Frost’s poem of that title): “The woman’s every impulse to love is held in check by pride, reticence or external circumstances.” Thus, she now stands condemned to “a kind of stony isolation from husband, children, friends and potential lover.” 3

Back in the mid-1950’s, the students at Palomar Junior College, in San Marcos, CA had to put up with the theories of Prof. Edward Schwarz. He was so proud of his take on the poem that he actually had it published in the literary journal “The Explicator”. 4 In his expert opinion, our lovely chooser has been “proud and incapable of accepting human love”. Now, with her domestic life in ruins, she is “preparing herself for a worthless lover”. This reference to a so-called “lover”, made by Nitchie and Schwarz, is their explanation of the “one” in line 46: that “some one with eyes to see.”

These days, if you click through the internet, you’ll find just as much baseless speculation: “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers” is a feminist manifesto; it’s a cry against male domination; a psycho-erotic journey toward self-destruction; and on and on it goes. Ever since the deconstructionists began ruling the lecture-roost, a poem can now mean anything they want; God forbid.

All of which is gravely unkind and unjust, because Robert Frost was writing about his mother; and the one who cared for her so, the “some one with eyes to see” was, not a “lover” but her son: the poet himself.

I believe it was in 1949, twenty years after the poem was published, when Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant sat down with Frost for her first significant interview (she would eventually become one of his biographers), and this poem was one of the first things she brought up.

“It’s a poem…well…” he evaded, “it has a lot to do with women.” He hesitated to go any further, but then finally: “It’s about my mother.” 5

Of course! One quick look into his mother’s life and everything in the poem just falls into place…

Isabelle Moodie was a beautiful, charming, intelligent young woman, bursting with passion and promise in her youth. A native of Scotland, bereaved of her parents at the age of twelve, she came to Columbus, Ohio, to become part of the happy, well-to-do family of her aunt and uncle, Thomas Moodie. She brought her grandparents’ strong Scottish Reformed Christian Faith with her when she came. She was fiery, articulate, accomplished in everything she attempted, and very popular…

She stood straight still
In broad round earrings, gold and jet with pearls
And broad round suchlike brooch,
Her cheeks high colored,
Proud, and the pride of friends.

Her first proposal to marriage came from a Presbyterian minister. He was financially well-to-do, prominent in the community and he dearly wanted her hand. The arrangement was “safe with wealth and honor” (line 6); but was there any passion between the two? She turned it down, with the excuse that she was “unworthy” to be a minister’s wife… 6

She would refuse love safe with wealth and honor!
The lovely shall be choosers, shall they?
Then let them choose!

A few years later, she chose “passion” and, on March 18, 1873, married the minister’s diametric opposite. William Prescott Frost Jr. was dashing, handsome, exciting…


Not that she sensed such a thing right away. He was the Principle of Lewiston Academy, for goodness’ sake; in Pennsylvania, where Isabelle herself had been teaching. That certainly sounded “stable” enough.

But William had no intention of keeping his position at the school. He was chomping at the bit to get to San Francisco where he would spend the rest of his days drinking and gambling and brawling around. Just two months after the wedding, he left her for the glorious West; landed a job as reporter for the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, and then wrote her to come join him.

It appears that, even on the wedding night itself, Isabelle had already begun to sense the secret depths of her husband’s reprobation, in whatever form it might have taken:

Be her first joy her wedding
That though a wedding,
Is yet—well, something they know, he and she.

The years that followed were filled with heartache and dread. Her husband’s drunken violence endangered the household; his inveterate gambling reduced them to penury; his restless discontent had them constantly on the move (three different homes plus a hotel residence during their first four months in San Francisco).

His womanizing broke her spirit. 7

Of course, she buried it all. In the 1870’s, that’s what a woman had to do with the shame of domestic discord…

And after that her next joy
That though she grieves, her grief is secret.
Those friends know nothing of her grief to make it shameful.

The chaos of the failing marriage could not be hidden forever, of course; but by that time, most of her friends were a continent away and going their separate ways…

Her third joy that though now they cannot help but know
They move in pleasure too far off
To think much or much care.

Isabelle Moodie Frost did, indeed, have “a child at either knee” (line 31). Robbie was born just a year after their marriage (March 26, 1874). His sister Jeanie arrived two years later (June 25, 1876). On more than one occasion, during those early years, Isabelle had to snatch up her babies and flee to the neighbors to protect them, and herself, from the violent, drunken rage at home. 8

When William died of tuberculosis in 1885, Robbie was eleven. He and his sister had long been traumatized. Isabelle was left to sell off the furniture and pay off her husband’s mountain of debt. She left California with the two children in tow and $8.00 to her name.9 A broken woman, she eventually arrived in New Hampshire, where she would struggle to survive on a schoolmarm’s wage for the rest of her days. (She died of cancer on Nov 21, 1900, at the age of 56).

The poet remembers one cold winter night when she sat by the fire with her two little ones and told them all about the bright and beautiful days of her past:

Give her a child at either knee for fourth joy
To tell once and once only, for them never to forget,
How once she walked in brightness,
And make them see it in the winter firelight.

Little Robbie and Jeanie were the only people she ever told. After all, no grown-up, looking at her situation now, would ever believe she had known brighter days:

But give her friends, for then she dare not tell
For their foregone incredulousness.
And be her next joy this:

Her never having deigned to tell them.
Make her among the humblest even
Seem to them less than they are.

Well, as you can see, there are hints of biographical detail all through the poem; but only hints. Details are obscure; most likely the poem was not written for public consumption; thus the poet’s hesitance to explain it. The poem stands as some kind of private tribute to a beautiful and noble individual who never gave up, who never complained, who pressed on with courage and a fierce determination to raise up her little ones as best she could, in the wake of great personal loss and despair.

“The poem is about women,” Frost also conceded. Oh yes it is, and the frightful trap that a woman can fall into by the making of a single choice: an innocent choice, and pure, a choice made only out of longing for joy. We can make the case that it happens to men too, but that would be a different poem, with a different set of heartaches and consequences.

Our poet, in his young adult years, must have finally pieced together the issues of his mother’s life and asked himself: by what cruel decree is life supposed to turn out this way? Thus the Voice and its agents, the Voices, which some see as God and His host. But Frost inherited too much reverence from his mother for that, I believe. Besides, resentment toward God would render this poem a great disregard of his mother, who taught him Christian faith all her life. Others see Fate and the Furies, as I mentioned before; but that’s probably a little too fancy. Perhaps the Voice and the Voices are just “Life” and its dictates, and who among us would disagree with that? Life is replete with cruel twists and turns—the Chinese call it a “ku-hai” (苦海 “bitter sea”)—and even the most innocent choices in life can leave us ensnared and enslaved in the end. There’s nothing novel here. And that’s why we need a Savior.

Notice the “joys”, of the lovely one. There are seven of them throughout the poem, but how swiftly they degrade as the downfall progresses. Yes, the first joy is a “wedding”, but even that has its issues: something already is “known” by them both (line 24). How sad and desperate the second joy: that her grief is a “secret” one, not known by the world (line 26). The third joy degrades even further: that though the grief is now public for all the world to know, her former friends are too distant—too busy—to notice or care (line 28).

The fourth joy is heart-rending: her little ones on “either knee”; the only ones who will give ear to the story of “how once she walked in brightness” (line 31). The fifth joy: that though new friends have come, they would never suspect—and she never tell—that she had once aspired to greater things (line 37). And is the sixth joy even a joy at all? The self-knowledge (since others will never know it) that her “failure” in this new tooth-and-claw way of life is a “failing from strangeness”, having come “from too high” and “too late to learn”.

Finally…blessedly…and most moving of all: the seventh joy comes; and the seventh joy…is a joy! There is “some one“! Some one “with eyes to see” (line 46). He somehow sees “what she has been”; and loves her now “for what she is”.

And what this some one sees is wrong; it troubles him. What wonderful comfort and relief comes at last, when someone sees “wrong” where we have seen “wrong”. Don’t you agree?

He “wonders” at “where she is”; even wonders out loud “how she came there” (line 47); he “wonders” because it is wrong; because it never should have happened this way. And though she refrains from divulging her story—even to him!—her last and greatest joy (maybe the only real one!) is her love for him:

…her heart going out to this one
so that she almost speaks.

That some one is her son, Robert Frost himself; and what an atrocity those early interpretations were!

“The Lovely Shall Be Choosers” is a heart-rending tribute to a beautiful, noble and courageous person. It speaks volumes about the longings and the passions of the heart in a troubled, broken and perilous world. More importantly yet, it places a premium on “compassion” and inspires us all to better “see”—with these “eyes that see”—the hurts and the heartaches that lie deep within the lives of those all around us.

Coming soon, on a Frigate near you: those wonderful villains in Odysseus’ front yard! What would a writer do without villains?

Note: Special thanks to reader, Ms Stacey Sawyer for correcting my photo of Isabelle Moodie Frost. In the opening paragraph, I erroneously attached the photo of Frost’s daughter, Irma Frost Cone. Thank you Stacey!

  1. Jean Gould, Robert Frost: The Aim Was Song, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, 1964, p. 215
  2. Sidney Cox, Robert Frost: Original “Ordinary” Man, Henry Holt, New York, 1929 p. 15. Another example of this despicable trend is James Ellis’ Freud-riddled, highly-sexualized interpretation of Frost’s Birches. “Robert Frost’s Four Types of Belief in ‘Birches’, The Robert Frost Review, No. 3, Fall, 1993, p. 70-74.
  3. George W. Nitchie, Human Values in the Poetry of Robert Frost, Duke Univ Press, Durham NC, 1960 p. 102.
  4. Edward Schwarz, “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers”; The Explicator: Oct. 1954, vol XIII: no. 1
  5. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Robert Frost: Trial By Existence, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1960, p. 304. I have not been able to locate any mention of the exact year of this interview. It surely is recorded somewhere.
  6. Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost: The Early Years, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1966, p. 5.
  7. ibid. p. 10-11, and throughout chapter 2.
  8. ibid. p. 11.
  9. ibid. p. 45.

Categories: Books and Literature, poetry

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11 replies

  1. The photo at top is of Frost’s daughter, Irma, not his mother “in later years,” correct?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Stacey,
      Oh, thank you for that correction. I went back and looked through all my bios and all I could find was a young photo of Irma, but she certainly looks more like the one I posted. I don’t know where that photo was published or how this one got labeled as such, but I’m sure I found it mislabeled under a search of Isabelle’s name. I will make the switch on that. The photo of Isabelle is just as beautiful. Thank you for helping me correct that. I would have kept that embarrassing error up for years without your good eye.


    • Thanks for elucidating this poem
      It was a toughie!


      • Hi Sharon. I’m glad you found it helpful. And I do have a little gift for my email subscribers. Just sign up for it and send me an email with an address (don’t post it) and I’ll put it in the mail. I then discard the address.


  2. Well done. Do you have any thoughts or feelings about the fact that this is the only free-verse poem to be found among Frost’s poems?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Profound and moving. How often we make judgements with flawed perspectives. May our dear Lord allow us to see people through His compassion and care. Only then will we truly know how to love people.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was a fascinating read!!

    Liked by 1 person

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