Six humans trapped by happenstance
In bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood
Or so the story’s told.
The poet begins by recounting that six people were trapped in a place by chance amidst very bitter cold weather. Each of those six people had a stick of wood according to everyone retelling the story.
Their dying fire in need of logs
The first man held his back
For of the faces round the fire
He noticed one was black.
They were trapped in the bitter cold and the fire that was keeping them warm was dying and it needed wood to keep burning. However, the story takes a selfish turn when the first man kept back his log and didn’t add it to the dying fire for he had checked each of the remaining five strangers and noticed that one of them was black. This was subtle racism at play. He didn’t want a black man to be kept warm with his log of wood.
The next man looking ‘cross the way
Saw one not of his church
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.
The next person saw a guy in the group who was not of his church and he thus couldn’t bring himself to add the log of wood to the fire. This shows religious intolerance on the part of the man.
The third one sat in tattered clothes.
He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?
The third man who was wearing tattered clothes pulled his coat closer to his body to keep himself warm. He being poor didn’t want to give his log of wood to the fire as he didn’t want the rich to be benefited from his action. The class indifference looms large.
The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy shiftless poor.
The rich man just sat and thought of the wealth he had amassed and how to keep his wealth from falling into the hands of the poor lazy poor. The animosity towards poor people is evident in his action.
The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight.
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.
The black man wanted revenge and he finally realised the opportunity to get back at the white people for mistreating him. He kept back his stick of wood to himself too.
The last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain.
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game.
The final man of this sad group never did anything for free and he contributed only when others did. Thus seeing nobody giving their stick of wood to feed the fire, he kept his stick of wood to himself too.
Their logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without
They died from the cold within.
The final stanza paints a grim picture of all the six people frozen to death whilst still selfishly holding their log of wood. The poet says that nature’s cold and harsh weather didn’t kill them but the coldness of their heart and nature brought about their premature death.