The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag
Was once the beauty Abishag,
The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.
Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state.
Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone.
Some have relied on what they knew,
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.
No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.
Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
Randall Jarrell called this poem a subtle description of how “wisdom of this world… demonstrates to us that the wisdom of this world isn’t enough.” There’s no level of material success or social status — nor is there a level of knowledge about either — that will save you from the brute realities of life.
Writing about “Provide, Provide” in his book Modernist Quartet, Frank Lentricchia observes that,
The entire tone and manner is that of the public poet speaking to his democratic culture. The diction is appropriately drawn from the accessible middle level, with the exception of “boughten,” a regionalist trace of the authentic life, meaning “store-bought” as opposed to “homemade,” the real thing as opposed to the commodified version; no major problem if the subject is ice cream or bread, but with “boughten friendship” we step into an ugly world. The bardic voice speaks, but now in mock-directives (“Die early and avoid the fate,” “Make the whole stock exchange your own”), counseling the value of money and power; how they command fear; how fear commands, at a minimum, a sham of decency from others (better that than the authenticity of their meanness). Genuine knowledge? Sincerity? Devices only in the Hollywood of everyday life. Try them, they might work.
I also found the following comments, from an unknown author, helpful:
Robert Frost doesn’t mince words and refuses to whitewash the hard realities of life. The world & nature are essentially unconcerned about human welfare or wellbeing. The onus to provide for oneself squarely lies on one’s own self come what may, under all circumstances. Morals and ethics may fail to garner support or friendship for oneself in the end.
Terrifying? Yes and no. Superficially yes, actually not. Nowhere does Frost want you to show your back and run away. The poet neither suggests escapism nor a cowardly exit from this world. Rather, there is a clear cut call to gird up your loins and provide provide, whatever the circumstances, whatever the situation to the best of your ability.