18 pages 36 minutes read

Robert Frost

A Time To Talk

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1972

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Coming upon Robert Frost’s inviting little poem “A Time to Talk” can be something of a pleasant surprise. Frost, like few other poets of the 20th century, has found a secure place in anthologies and syllabi. He is a known commodity: Frost’s iconic poems use the rural backdrop of his adopted New England home and, in his laconic pitch-perfect folksy voice, explore some of the darkest and most terrifying philosophical implications of his generation and its unsettling discovery of a vast and free-wheeling universe where God suddenly becomes completely irrelevant.

In contrast, “A Time to Talk” (1916) celebrates those little moments in a too busy day when friends stop and indulge in conversation. Without his signature irony, Frost elevates such stolen moments. Friends step entirely outside the furious busyness of their routine and, against their own better judgment, simply, happily chat. They indulge a “friendly visit” (Line 10) that in its very brevity and triviality offers deep and abiding consolation in a world that is otherwise full of motion without progress and purpose without meaning. In this encounter between friends, the poem reminds its contemporary audience of the importance of friendship, the need not to be ruled by work, and ultimately the value of communication itself through the simple tonic of another person’s voice in an increasingly lonely postmodern world.

Poet Biography

Despite his reputation as the poet of the forbidding New England outback, Frost was born in San Francisco. His family moved to Massachusetts in 1885 when Frost was 11 after his father, a promising journalist, died suddenly. Frost was a precocious reader, particularly of Edgar Allan Poe and the loving investigations into nature by the British Romantics. Because of this, Frost knew he would be a poet.

He struggled to commit to the discipline of education, attending first Dartmouth College and then Harvard briefly, but he never completed a degree. Although he always wrote poetry, he tried a number of occupations—shoe repair, carpenter, journalism, and even working the farm his grandfather bought for him when Frost married. He failed at all of them, and in 1912, desperate to find a publisher for his poetry, he and his wife relocated to Dymock, England, about two hours west of London. There he found welcome company with the Modernists, a companionship of artists and writers in and around London who were determined, given the catastrophe of World War One, to upend every conventional assumption about art, its forms as well as its themes.

Frost, then in his forties, quickly found a home among these mavericks and published two well-received volumes of poetry. When Frost returned to the United States in 1915, his work was recognized for its lyrical grace, its carefully chiseled lines, and its exploration of the complex dynamic between humanity and nature. The 1916 publication of Mountain Interval, which contained “A Time to Talk” as well as “Birches” and “Out, Out—,” cemented Frost’s reputation.

Over the next 20 years, Frost became America’s most prolific and most admired poet; his collections were best sellers. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize four times, the only writer so honored. Frost accepted appointments at different universities working with young poets. He gave public readings that became entertainment sensations. With his craggy face, his crooked mischievous smile, and a shock of unkempt white hair, Frost became the most recognized writer of his generation after Ernest Hemingway, gracing magazine covers and even finding a home in the new medium of television.

His verse, grounded in traditional notions of careful metrics and strict rhyme (free verse, he often groused, was like playing tennis without the net), was at once accessible and conversational and yet philosophically profound, even unsettling. He was invited by President John F. Kennedy, a fellow New Englander and an avid admirer of Frost’s work, to deliver an original poem at Kennedy’s inauguration in January, 1961; he was 86 at the time and could not make out the typed lines of the poem he wrote because of the glare of the noon sun. Without missing a beat, he recited from memory “The Gift Outright,” a poem he published nearly 50 years earlier. The bravura performance cemented Frost’s international reputation as America’s unofficial Poet Laureate.

Frost continued to write until his death in Boston in January 1963, following a massive heart attack. Flags over federal office buildings were lowered to half- staff. Frost was buried next to his wife and five of his children in a modest church yard of the rustic Old First Church in Bennington, Vermont. His epitaph quotes his own poem “The Lesson for Today”: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

Poem Text

When a friend calls to me from the road 

And slows his horse to a meaning walk,  

I don’t stand still and look around  

On all the hills I haven’t hoed,  

And shout from where I am, What is it? 

No, not as there is a time to talk. 

I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,

Blade-end up and five feet tall, 

And plod: I go up to the stone wall

For a friendly visit.

Frost, Robert. “A Time to Talk.” 1916. Poets.org.


The poem narrates an entirely inconsequential moment that finds its way to consequential implications. The setting is at once specific and general, a farm’s field, itself bordered by a stone wall, alongside a nondescript country road. The poem offers no geographic specificity. We are given no exposition to endow the speaker, or his farm or his friend for that matter, with any distinguishing features. It is like an Expressionist landscape (reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s forbidding stage landscapes): we are positioned in a vastness set against the figure of a tiny solitary figure striving to find in a commitment to the drudgery of work a kind of validation, a kind of meaning.

The plot itself is more symbolic than specific. The speaker, presumably a farmer, works his land. It is another typical backbreaking workday. Hoe in hand, he busies himself turning the ground soil, one tedious row at a time. No horse helps and no tractor makes the onerous work easier. He is more than aware of the long workday ahead of him, “all the hills [he hasn’t] hoed” (Line 4).

Then the poem offers its complication: another person enters the moment. Without expectation, the speaker is hailed from the road, a friend passes by on horseback and calls to him, a simple greeting. The friend slows down his horse and waves, and the farmer takes from that gesture an invitation to chat, to set aside his hoe, even for a moment or two, and catch up. There is no sense of urgency to the man’s presence, no indication that he bears a message of some consequence. His demeanor is casual, his wave uncomplicated and inviting. The speaker points out he is certainly not going to ignore the passing friend nor is he going to be petulant about the interruption, keen to return to the work at hand. “I don’t stand still and look around / On all the hills I haven’t hoed” (Lines 3-4). Nor will he be rude and stay where he is and simply shout back to the passing friend, “What is it?” (Line 5).

As long as there is time to talk, the speaker argues, work can wait. He thrusts his hoe into the ground, “blade-end up” (Line 8), signaling it is time for a break, a time to talk. Matching his commitment to working the farm, the speaker, in stopping work, heads to the fence not with a spring in his step, not lightly or without thought. He is not grateful for a break, happy to be free of working his farm. Rather he “plods” (Line 9), suggesting a slow and heavy step, a measured and thoughtful motion that indicates that the speaker takes equally seriously his responsibility to his farm and his human need for others.

The poem closes with the speaker approaching the stone wall “for a friendly visit” (Line 10). That is all we are given. The poem refuses to disclose the subject of the conversation—it could be something urgent, it could be nothing more urgent than a good morning between neighbors. The subject of their conversation, in the end, is irrelevant. It is not the content of their conversation that concerns the poet. Rather the poem celebrates the simple, elegant, and easily dismissed art of conversation itself and its promise of connection. The poem closes on the threshold of “Hello,” a single fragile human voice finding its way to another single fragile, human voice. That splendid connection achieved through the agency of words defies the burdens of the day’s chores and the forbidding empty vastness of the world about them.