A Cliff Dwelling, Robert Frost: Summary & Analysis

In "A Cliff Dwelling" by Robert Frost, the poet contemplates the remnants of a civilization long past, painting a vivid picture of a cliff dwelling and reflecting on the passage of time and the impermanence of human existence. Through descriptive imagery and a reflective tone, Frost conveys a sense of wonder and melancholy, inviting readers to ponder the legacy of those who once inhabited the dwelling.

A Cliff Dwelling by Robert Frost

There sandy seems the golden sky
And golden seems the sandy plain.
No habitation meets the eye
Unless in the horizon rim,
Some halfway up the limestone wall,
That spot of black is not a stain
Or shadow, but a cavern hole,
Where someone used to climb and crawl
To rest from his besetting fears.
I see the callus on his soul
The disappearing last of him
And of his race starvation slim,
Oh years ago - ten thousand years.

Critical Analysis

"A Cliff Dwelling" by Robert Frost takes readers on a contemplative journey to an ancient cliff dwelling, where remnants of a forgotten civilization evoke a sense of wonder and introspection. The poem captures the dual nature of time, juxtaposing the immediacy of the poet's observation with the vast span of human history that has passed since the dwelling's inhabitants.

The opening lines set the scene, describing the landscape as "sandy" and "golden," creating an image of an arid, desert-like setting. The lack of any visible habitation emphasizes the isolation and solitude of the location.

The mention of a "cavern hole" halfway up the limestone wall evokes the image of a cliff dwelling where someone sought refuge from their fears. The image of climbing and crawling suggests both the physical effort and the emotional struggle that characterized the lives of those who lived there.

The phrase "callus on his soul" captures the toll that time and hardship took on the inhabitants. The use of "callus" metaphorically conveys the emotional scars and resilience of the individual, as well as the gradual erosion of memory and identity over time.

The closing lines, "The disappearing last of him / And of his race starvation slim, / Oh years ago - ten thousand years," underscore the ephemeral nature of human existence. The poet reflects on the passing of millennia and the inevitable fading of individual lives and legacies into the annals of history.

"A Cliff Dwelling" prompts readers to reflect on the fleeting nature of human accomplishments and the echoes of the past that linger in the present.

Themes of the Poem

  • Transience of Human Existence: The poem explores the impermanence of human life and the way that time erases the traces of past civilizations.
  • Legacy and Memory: The remnants of the cliff dwelling serve as a reminder of the lives that once occupied the space, prompting contemplation about the legacies we leave behind.
  • Time and History: The poem contrasts the immediacy of the poet's observation with the vast expanse of history that has passed since the dwelling was inhabited.

Stylistic Analysis

  • Descriptive Imagery: Frost's descriptive language paints a vivid picture of the landscape, the dwelling, and the emotional toll of time on the inhabitants.
  • Mood and Tone: The reflective and contemplative tone contributes to the sense of wonder and melancholy that permeates the poem.
  • Metaphorical Language: The use of metaphors, such as "callus on his soul," adds depth to the portrayal of the individuals who once lived in the dwelling.


  • Wonder and Melancholy: The poet's observations evoke a mix of emotions, including a sense of awe at the passage of time and a touch of sadness for the vanished lives.
  • Contemplation of History: The poem's contemplative mood invites readers to reflect on the significance of the past and the traces it leaves behind.


  • Descriptive Language: The poem's descriptive language immerses readers in the landscape and atmosphere of the cliff dwelling.
  • Metaphorical Language: Metaphors, such as "disappearing last of him" and "callus on his soul," enrich the imagery and meaning of the poem.

Sound Devices

  • Rhythmic Flow: The rhythmic flow of the poem contributes to the contemplative and introspective mood, guiding readers through the speaker's reflections.

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