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I read the poem 'A Roadside Stand' by Robert Frost, and I have accumulated a few questions through the poem. So, I will be posting some questions from the same poem, if you can please answer my other questions as well. Thanks to all :)

Here you can read the whole poem. Below I have given the particular paragraph.

Robert Frost says that the good-doers enforce benefits on the rural farmers, soothe them out of their wits and teach them how to sleep they sleep all day. Here I want to know a few things.

First, How do they enforce benefits? I mean, in what possible way? What possible benefits are being talked about here?

Second, How do they soothe them out of their wits by enforcing benefits?

Last, and most important, How do they make them sleep how they sleep all day? I mean, do they don't work in the day? How do they make them to not work in the day?

I know a little bit about what the poet actually wants to say, but I have very blurred information. So, it will be of grrrrrreat help if someone could elaborately answer the questions I put :)

It is in the news that all these pitiful kin
Are to be bought out and mercifully gathered in
To live in villages, next to the theatre and the store,
Where they won’t have to think for themselves anymore,
While greedy good-doers, beneficent beasts of prey,
Swarm over their lives enforcing benefits
That are calculated to soothe them out of their wits,
And by teaching them how to sleep they sleep all day,
Destroy their sleeping at night the ancient way.

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    Some context: “A Roadside Stand” was first published 1936 in The Atlantic Monthly. This was during the depths of the Great Depression, when nobody had any money. Farms were going bankrupt right and left.
    – Peter Shor
    Oct 8, 2022 at 10:42

2 Answers 2

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I think that to understand the poem Roadside Stand, you have to take into account when it was written. According to this webpage, it was published in the June 1936 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and I assume it had been written several months earlier. This was in the depths of the Great Depression, at a time when unemployment was around 20%, and the prices farmers could sell their products at were rock bottom. Farmers were having an incredibly difficult time staying in business—banks were foreclosing on their farms, rich investors were buying farms as investments, to sell once the Depression had come to an end, and small farms were being bought and combined into large ones.

I would take this poem as a plea for city folk to help and pity the farmers.

An analysis of the poem follows, including the lines the OP was asking about.

The farmer has just built the roadside stand:

The little old house was out with a little new shed

And the farmer is in desperate need of money:

A roadside stand that too pathetically pled,
It would not be fair to say for a dole of bread,
But for some of the money, the cash, whose flow supports
The flower of cities from sinking and withering faint.

The farmer isn't pleading for a dole of bread—they can grow their own food—but they desperately need money to pay their debts.

However, nobody is stopping to buy anything, even those people who have money:

You have the money, but if you want to be mean,
Why keep your money (this crossly) and go along.
...
Here far from the city we make our roadside stand
And ask for some city money to feel in hand
To try if it will not make our being expand,

The farm family is in danger of losing their farm, in which case they will be out of work and have to move to the city or to towns, where they won't be able to find work and will remain unemployed:

It is in the news that all these pitiful kin
Are to be bought out and mercifully gathered in
To live in villages, next to the theatre and the store,
Where they won’t have to think for themselves anymore,
While greedy good-doers, beneficent beasts of prey,
Swarm over their lives enforcing benefits
That are calculated to soothe them out of their wits,
And by teaching them how to sleep they sleep all day,
Destroy their sleeping at night the ancient way.

What are these "benefits" that they would get? At that time, the unemployed could eat from soup kitchens, and they either had to live on the street or in poorly-built shantytowns called "Hoovervilles" (possibly what Frost is referring to as "villages", although it's also possible he's referring to sleeping on the streets). The soup kitchens were run by philanthropists, churches, and other do-gooders. It's possible that do-gooders helped in building Hoovervilles, although presumably much of the work was done by the inhabitants.

So this part of the poem is somewhat ironic: these "benefits" don't actually amount to that much, and they're "enforced" because that's the only way the farmers can stay alive once they're in the city (assuming the money for they got for the sale of their farm went mainly to pay their debts).

You didn't ask about the last lines of the poem, but I'm going to address them anyway:

I can’t help owning the great relief it would be
To put these people at one stroke out of their pain.
And then next day as I come back into the sane,
I wonder how I should like you to come to me
And offer to put me gently out of my pain.

I assume that these lines were why Frost subtitled the poem “On Being Put out of Our Misery,” and thought of titling it "Euthanasia" (see the website I linked to above). I would guess that Frost had heard some people express the opinion "wouldn't it be great if these people just disappeared and we didn't have to see their ugly roadside stands, or think about their misery, anymore." In the last three lines of the poem, he rejects this idea.

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This is a variant on the longstanding critique of charity/welfare as robbing people of meaningful work and giving them a suffocating idleness instead.

By being given charity instead of work, the poor in Frost's poem sleep all day instead of spending their time productively. The end result is that they cannot sleep peacefully at night, the way one does after a hard day's physical labor.

In American politics, this is a prominent conservative viewpoint. It, itself, has been criticized as reactionary and heartless, and as idealizing the hardships of poverty and physical labor. In Frost's hands, it is arguably a bit self-satirizing --this is a poem all about a urban middle-class person's varied, contradictory, ambivalent and quite possibly wrong (or wrong-headed) thoughts about the rural poor and their experience.

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  • Thanks, Chris! Can you tell me what kind of benefits do they give to rural people that cause them not to work in the day? Mar 3, 2018 at 15:29
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    @RohitShekhawat If you read carefully, Frost is suggesting that the rural people will first be made into townspeople, and then given the charity. I'm not convinced Frost has any particular program in mind here, just the basic idea of it. Mar 3, 2018 at 21:06
  • Thanks for reply Chris :) I was just wondering, why would the so-called 'good-doers' give them benefits and do charity for them but not make them work for them? It doesn't make sense to me. It's like you go on a job and the job owner forcefully doesn't let you do anything but still pays you. Mar 4, 2018 at 4:19
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    @RohitShekhawat There's a lot to unpack here --is this an accurate criticism of charity/welfare? Does Frost mean it straight, or is it ironic? I'm not sure there are unambiguous answers to those questions. Mar 5, 2018 at 14:19
  • I understand your point here Chris :) Anyways, thanks thanks thanks a loooot for keeping the answers coming, Really thaaaank you :D Mar 6, 2018 at 14:40

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