Range Finding – Robert Frost


The battle rent a cobweb diamond-strung
And cut a flower beside a ground bird’s nest
Before it stained a single human breast.
The stricken flower bent double and so hung.
And still the bird revisited her young.
A butterfly its fall had dispossessed
A moment sought in air his flower of rest,
Then lightly stooped to it and fluttering clung.

On the bare upland pasture there had spread
O’ernight ‘twixt mullein stalks a wheel of thread
And straining cables wet with silver dew.
A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.


This poem makes the flight of a bullet that will kill a man incidental to the effects it has upon the insects and small flowers on a battlefield.

STRUCTURE NOTE: This poem is a Petrarchan sonnet.

Robert Frost: Frost was a renowned American poet.

Range-Finding: A speculative shot intended to find out a gun’s accuracy over distance. Here though, also a metaphor for how speculating how far the effects of war are felt.

First Stanza / Octet: The poem lies in a tradition of poetry that uses animals to provide a perspective on human affairs, particularly human carelessness— the most obvious precursor here being Rab Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ (in which a farmer bemoans destroying a field mouse’s nest while tilling the soil: he declares that “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft gley”). The Octet concentrates on how the bullet flies through a spider’s web, nearly bisects a flower that grows near a ground-bird’s nest, and upsets the actions of a butterfly.

“Before it stained a single human breast…”: The bullet will kill or maim a human at the end of its flight. This poem is not concerned with that terrible moment, but it remains in the background of the poem throughout. Instead the octet concentrates on a “stricken flower” and what occurs around it.

“…still the bird revisited her young.”: Nature and its creatures persist and continue to work, even during (man’s) war.

“A butterfly its fall had dispossessed…”: the focus here is on the delicate butterfly close-up, to the exclusion of all other things: hence the detail of the “fluttering” creature clinging to the stalk. The contrast between the fine beauty of a butterfly and the monstrous events that lie in the poem’s background is understated, but stark.

Second Stanza / Sextet: The perspective of the poem shifts here, as sonnets traditionally do. The ‘turn’, however, is not from nature to man, as might be expected, but to the spider first mentioned at the beginning.

“a wheel of thread / And straining cables wet with silver dew”: The beauty of the spider’s web is described through metaphors that accentuate technology and invention: the spider is, to this degree, humanized.

“The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly, / But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew”: The spider is fooled by the movement on its web to think that it has prey to feed on. There is a bitter irony here, for the mechanical action of the spider belies the truly inhuman actions occurring above and beyond, on the field of battle.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The second of the poems to look at nature and human nature in an unconventional manner. Both poems are by Americans, whose country at this point had not entered the war (Frost however was in Britain at the start of the war). Perhaps this allowed the sense of objectivity and philosophical space that these two poems seem to work in.]


5 thoughts on “Range Finding – Robert Frost”

  1. Personally i really like this poem.I really like the fact that the poem is a pastoral sonnet and that portrays Robert Frosts love for nature.From beginning to end the poem is very engaging makin the reader want to read on and find out what comes next.In the octet men are portrayed as fragile when they are portrayed as feminine creatures such as butterflies and also flowers.The audience see a different side to men and that they are actually fragile and not as strong as they make out. In the sectet i think that men are portrayed as both strong and weak when they are symbolised as a fly and spider. When in the trenches they can be both prey and predators they can be attacking the enemies but also likely to be attacked.

  2. This sonnet has to me hidden agenda, where it seems that it is speaking about a pastoral theme to me I think that Robert Frost is speaking about weaponry. He is talking about humans and animals and their similarities. ” a cobweb diamond-strung” this shows that animals make their own weapons and can adapt just like humans, this shows that Frost was showing us how battle is just natural.

  3. The poem was written by Robert Frost, an American poet, who had no direct involvement in the First World War, although he was a close friend of Edward Thomas, who fought in the war. The depiction of the natural world amidst the war in the poem is in some ways similar to the technique of Thomas, whose poems likewise use close observation of the natural world as a starting point for their consideration of the effects of the war.
    The title of the poem, Range-finding, refers to the practice of gunners of continually adjusting their angle and velocity of fire to more accurately target the enemy. The implications of this, which the poem seems to touch on, is that this inevitably will result in a certain amount of ‘collateral damage’ as unintended targets are hit, and hence the poem can be seen as discussing the consequences of war for those beyond the immediate participants.
    The poem is written in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet, with an octet followed by a sestet. The rhyme scheme is simple (abbaabba ccdeed) and this helps to establish a mood of calm and balance which matches the poem’s theme of the peacefulness of the natural world. The two stanzas allow for a shift of focus from the peaceful participants in the natural scene (the bird and the butterfly) in the first stanza to the natural predator and its prey (the spider and the fly) in the second stanza.
    Despite the title, the poem only addresses the subject of war indirectly, in terms of its impact (or its apparent lack of impact) on the natural scene described in the poem. The poem’s description of the calmness of the natural scene heightens the impact of the references to the war that do appear in the poem. So the impact of the gun-fire is seen as peripheral to the natural world, barely disturbing the bird’s or the butterfly’s activities, while the poem also indicates that it will ‘stain a human breast’. The implicit indication of the lethal quality of the gun-fire is only touched on in passing, by the indirect language used in the poem to indicate death.
    The poem uses anthropomorphism by referring to the bird, caring for her young, and the butterfly seeking ‘his flower of rest’. The spider is likewise described in human terms as ‘sullen’. The dominant image of the poem is that of the cobweb, which is described in lyrical terms as ‘diamond-strung’ and a ‘wheel of thread’, ‘wet with silver dew’. There is an underlying irony in this, since the cobweb is essentially an instrument of death in the natural world, used by the spider to entrap its victims. This irony is brought out in the final lines where poem says the spider ‘runs to greet the fly’. The underlying message of the poem appears to be that the apparent peacefulness of the natural world is deceptive and that death is very much part of the natural order of things, just as it is in human affairs.

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