“Departmental” by Robert Frost is a poem written in rhymed couplets with three beats per line (trimeter). Throughout the poem, Frost uses poetic devices such as personification, allusion, rhyme, and alliteration. The poem as a whole serves as a metaphor for the way humans deal with issues like death.
The poem begins with a description of a scene familiar to many, “an ant on a tablecloth” Then the ant bumps into a day drowsy moth that is much larger than him. The ant seems a tad bit jealous that the moth lacks the amount of responsibility that ants are burdened with. The ant thinks that if the moth were one of his own race he’d chastise him and send him back to work. He describes how the ant society is much more sophisticated and intellectual than the likes of the moth. Their philosophy is to learn about religion, nature, and space. The ant then being concerned with his own duties hurries back to his own job. The ant subsequently runs into another ant carrying “the body of one of their dead.” The poem goes on to describe the ants’ treatment and procedures of the dead. The ants are not taken aback by the death ” isn’t even given a moment’s arrest, seems not even impressed.” However, word of the deceased is passed along among the ants, “death has come to Jerry McCormick.” They reflect briefly on the life of Jerry, mentioning that he was a “selfless forager.” The dutiful priorities of the ants then kick in when they put out the call for a worker to attend to the body. Then the poem goes on to describe the burial process of the ant. Laying the body on a flower, wrapping him in a petal, and embalming him with the blood of the gods. These orders had been handed down from the Queen. The “mortician” ant arrives to carry away Jerry, and no one “stands around to stare” because it is not their business to. This type of thing happens every day in the ant world, so there is no use in dwelling or wasting time mourning one of their own. The poem ends by saying that you can’t call the process “ungentle,” but realizes how detached and overly organized the whole progression is.
The poet uses a number of poetic devices to enrich his poem. The most obvious device used is the rhyme scheme. The poem uses the aa, bb, cc, dd rhyme format. Frost uses personification to draw a correlation between ant life and human life. For example, the line “he showed not the least surprise,” gives the ant a human quality of emotion such as surprise. The author also uses several forms of allusion. Janizary is an allusion to an elite guard in the 14th century Turkish army, a sepal is an allusion to the outer-protective covering of a flower, and ichor is an allusion to a mythological word meaning the blood of the gods. This poem uses a few instances of alliteration as well. One example is the line ” and heaving him high in the air,” with the repetition of the consonant sound “h.”
“Departmental” may be taken as a humorous poem at first glance, but I feel that its comic elements serve as a means of portraying such serious matters as the unsighted effects of custom in a society and the lack of concern of a group to an individual. In this poem the human race is viewed through the analogy of an ant hive, and we see the irrationality of society’s adherence to a distant social edict by observing the ants as they discover the death of one of their coworkers. The author depicts with savage irony the government structured measures for handling Jerry’s burial. Frost also illustrates the “mortician” ant’s somewhat cold professionalism, and the general indifference of the ant colony. If we imagine the ant colony as a microcosm for our own human society, the author reveals the similarity between the blurring effects of departmentalism among humans and the blindly emotionless functions of insect life. Examining the poem at this level, it may seem to lose its humor. However, this is a classic example of satire; the poem is humorous because it explores the likeness between ants and men thoroughly, but with detached amusement.