Departmental by Robert Frost: Summary and Analysis

The poem Departmental was published in 'A further Range' in 1936. The poem is light in tone and movement. The poem originally appeared with a substitute 'The End of my Ant Jerry' which is more in tune with the satirical notes of the verse.

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

The poem is a satire on the orderliness, ‘a criticism of standardization ‘.  It is a warning that the ant order if brought into the human way of existence, would kill the very spirit behind living.’ The poem seems to be in the form of the fable, but it can be easily regarded as a satire on governmental bureaucracy or of academic specializations, 'in the structure of colleges and universities." These are the two highly organized departments known to man. The poet has rendered this poem in the form of an ant-fable because ants are especially known for their high sense of organization.

An ant on the table-cloth moved hastily towards a sleeping insect which was many times bigger in size. While running towards it; the ant did not show even the least surprise, as it was not his [ant's] business to show surprise. He did not touch the moth and continued his course. The ant did not bother about and face the moth as it was a member of the "enquiry squad'', whose work is to find out the ways of God and the nature of time and space, and thereby the ant would have to explain his case to the moth. Ants belong to a peculiar race; it is such a race as move with fast motion by the body of the dead ant without stopping even for a moment as though least concerned about such things. But whatever ant conies on the aerial link, he gives him information about the dead ant, and in this way the report is passed on to the higher officials. Then the word is officially circulated that Jerry McCormic is dead, Jerry who was a soldier on duty. Now the special Janizary whose duty is to bury the dead will go and bring the body of the dead home to his people for a final homage. The orders were also passed that the ant should be given the State honor by placing him in a 'calyx-leaf', by wrapping him up in a petal for shroud, and by rubbing him with the watery discharge of the nettles. These were the orders of the ants' Queen. Immediately a grave-looking undertaker appears on the scene and takes the formal position with feelers calmly spread and turns over the dead by the middle of his body and throws him high in the air to carry him away. No ant is to stand and watch all this, since it is nobody else's affair.

 The attitude of the other ants adopted towards one of their dead can't be called 'ungentle' or unmannerly. But it shows how disciplined and organized these ants really are.

This comic poem written in light mood is highly satirical about certain institutions or organizations claiming to be 'departmental' and disciplined. As stated above in the beginning of this poem. It is a satire on the orderliness, "a criticism of standardization". It is in the form of an ant-fable. Ants are typically known for their industry and movement in groups. They represent the useless brain draining search of the so-called philosophers who wear and tire out themselves in making the mysteries of God, time and space, known to man. The poem is "a warning that the ant-order, if brought into the human way of existence, would kill the very spirit behind living." The ants have a queer habit of bypassing everything big or small, even one of their own dead, unless they are to cross the antennae of another of the race. They are always on the move, doing something or the other by way of habit, and business.

Despite the satirical tone of the, poem, which is so much clear in it, it should not mislead the reader to believe that the poet has any special lesson to impart herein. One should take it easy, read it lightly, and enjoy it fully— that's all. One may not resist praising the imaginable thinking of the poet who is trying to evolve an analogy, though in a very refined manner, between the ants and the mankind. It can be deduced after reading the poem, that man is no better than ants in being ‘departmental.’

A didactic poem, usually adopts a direct and unambiguous tone in expression which Frost does not-display here. He has rather adopted, consciously perhaps, equivocation. One is not sure whether, at the end of the poem, the poet is simply stating a fact or he is ridiculing the ants. This is the closing couplet

 It couldn't be called ungentle, But how thoroughly departmental.

Even if there is hidden any element of satire in it, it does not mean that the poet is moralizing in any way. Perhaps the fable is most easily considered as a parody of governmental bureaucracy (lettered and numbered) or of academic specializations in the structure of colleges and universities. And in the last line the irony of regimentation is amusingly pronounced.