Wednesday, September 10, 2014


 Ant in Flower
Photo by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For many decades, beginning in the early seventies, I walked around with ten to fifteen memorized poems in my head.  Generally, these were poems that sustained me through the challenges of life, and I simply enjoyed having them always available to me, whatever the place or circumstances.  I felt then, as I do now, that quiet reflection upon a poem that I "know by heart" is a rewarding form of meditation that can deepen my understanding of both the poem and myself.

Most of the memorized poems that I carried around in my head during those years provided valuable insights or inspiration for my personal journey — e.g., Tennyson's Ulysses.  There was one poem, however — Departmental, by Robert Frost —  that I memorized for the simple reason that I loved its rhyming structure,  its musicality, its lighthearted humor, and its sheer entertainment value.  The poem offers more, however, than a delightful and entertaining structure.  While it is ostensibly an observation of the "curious race" of ants, it is also a reflection on the societal traits of another curious race, namely, the human race.  

Read the poem and see what you think.  For what it's worth, I find it very satisfying to read this particular poem out loud.  

                                                     by Robert Frost

                                             An ant on the tablecloth
                                             Ran into a dormant moth
                                             Of many times his size.
                                             He showed not the least surprise.
                                             His business wasn't with such.
                                             He gave it scarcely a touch,
                                             And was off on his duty run.
                                             Yet if he encountered one
                                             Of the hive's enquiry squad
                                             Whose work is to find out God
                                             And the nature of time and space,
                                             He would put him onto the case.
                                             Ants are a curious race;
                                             One crossing with hurried tread
                                             The body of one of their dead
                                             Isn't given a moment's arrest —
                                             Seems not even impressed.
                                             But he no doubt reports to any 
                                             With whom he crosses antennae, 
                                             And they no doubt report
                                             To the higher-up at court.
                                             Then word goes forth in Formic:
                                             "Death's come to Jerry McCormic,
                                             Our selfless forager Jerry.
                                             Will the special Janizary
                                             Whose office it is to bury
                                             The dead of the commissary
                                             Go bring him home to his people.
                                             Lay him in state on a sepal.
                                             Wrap him for shroud in a petal.
                                             Embalm him with ichor of nettle.
                                             This is the word of your Queen."
                                             And presently on the scene
                                             Appears a solemn mortician;
                                             And taking formal position,
                                             With feelers calmly atwiddle,
                                             Seizes the dead by the middle,
                                             And heaving him high in the air,
                                             Carries him out of there.
                                             No one stands round to stare.
                                             It's nobody else's affair.

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


  1. I love the capture of the ant on the yellow flower and enjoyed the poem "Departmental". However, unlike humans, the ant doesn't seem the least perturbed or upset about his dead brother/sister, but completely matter-of-fact.

    1. Thanks, Sandra. I take your point, but some of the world's misery makes me wonder if even humans are becoming less concerned with the wellbeing of one another. By the way, I prepared your Mediterranean ratatouille and we've had it for dinner for the past two nights. Wonderful! Thanks so much for your posting on this.

  2. I have several books about Frost but I have never seen, or read this poem George. I love it, and, as you say, how apt for the human race too. He is one of my favourites. A few years ago the farmer and I searched out his grave.

    1. Glad you liked this poem, Pat. Consider reading it at one of you poetry gatherings. I've found that it always evokes interesting responses from groups.

  3. Lovely, George.

    This ant's job may very well have been departmental ... and yet so much more than that. Years ago a previous home had an expansive solarium that was metal on the outside and wood on the inside. One day as I sat in that solarium holding my sleeping baby and gazing out at the countryside, I spotted a carpenter ant (we later discovered they had a nest in that wood-lined solarium) about to crawl up onto my foot. Instinctively (and unconsciously) I brushed it away and stepped on it.

    After taking my baby up to her crib, as I came back into the room to dispose of the ant, I saw another ant approaching, deliberately, the dead ant. Intrigued I watched the living ant pick up the dead ant and carry it away - carry it home. It was such a sobering moment for my unconscious young self. The ant I killed had a community - a community that took care of their own. It was my 'affair' on that day. I was ashamed, touched and humbled.

    I have since made it a point to trap any little critters in my environment and release them outdoors - due to the lesson from that 'departmental Janizary'.

    I've never read this Frost poem before, George. So enjoyed it, and enjoyed recalling the lesson learned and feelings evoked by that loyal, little 'departmental' ant of long ago.

    1. Wow, Bonnie! Your story is amazing, and it really animates this poem for me. Your story is also moving. It's reassuring that even an ant instinctively felt to need to recover the dead colleague and return it home. So there is a "special Janizary whose duty it is to bury the dead of the commissary." Glad we had this little bit of synchronicity once again.

  4. Yes! That is what struck me about this Frost poem. I had seen ants (that one on that particular day) loyally venture into the dangerous human zone to recover their fallen and transport them back to the nest - just as Frost so rhythmically describes.

    But contrary to Frost's last two lines in the first long stanza - there was someone to stand round and stare - it was my affair ...

    Thanks again, dear George.

  5. Thanks for your additional comment, Bonnie.

  6. …fascinating. I have never read this poem and I find Bonnie's comment equally so (if not more so). I am also impressed with anyone who can memorize like you say you can. My son can as well - being an actor who loves Shakespeare.

    1. Thanks, Margaret, and how wonderful it must be to have a son who love Shakespeare. That would be great fun for a guy like me.