The White-Tailed Hornet or Doubts About an Instinct

Robert Frost

The white-tailed hornet lives in a balloon
That floats against the ceiling of the woodshed.
The exit he comes out at like a bullet
Is like the pupil of a pointed gun.
And having power to change his aim in flight,
He comes out more unerring than a bullet.
Verse could be written on the certainty
With which he penetrates my best defense
Of whirling hands and arms about the head
To stab me in the sneeze-nerve of a nostril.
Such is the instinct of it I allow.

Yet how about the insect certainty
That in the neighborhood of home and children
Is such an execrable judge of motives
As not to recognize in me the exception
I like to think I am in everything,
One who would never hang above a bookcase
His Japanese crepe-paper globe for trophy?
He stings me first and stings me afterward,
He rolls me off the field head over heels,
And will not listen to an explanation.

That’s when I go as visitor to his house.
As visitor to my house he is better.
Hawking for flies about the kitchen door,
In at one door perhaps and out the other,
Trust him then not to put you in the wrong.
He won’t misunderstand your freest movements.
Let him light on your skin, unless you mind
So many prickly grappling-feet at once.
He’s after the domesticated fly
To feed his thumping grubs as big as he is.
Here he is at his best. But even here—

I watched him where he swooped, he pounced, he struck;
But what he found he had was just a nailhead.
He struck a second time. Another nailhead.
“Those are just nailheads. Those are fastened down.”
Then disconcerted and not unannoyed,
He stooped and struck a little huckleberry
The way a player curls around a football.
“Wrong shape, wrong color, and wrong smell,” I said.
The huckleberry rolled him on his head.
At last it was a fly. He shot and missed.
And the fly circled round him in derision.
But for the fly he might have made me think
He had been at his poetry comparing
Nailhead with fly and fly with huckleberry:
How like a fly, how very like a fly!
But the real fly he missed would never do.
The missed fly made me dangerously skeptic.

Won't this whole instinct matter bear revision?
Won't almost any theory bear revision?
To err is human, not to, animal.
Or so we pay the compliment to instinct,
Only too liberal of our compliment
That robs someone of what we want to keep,
I mean our cherished fallibility.
Our worship, humor, conscientiousness
Went long since to the dogs under the table,
And served us right for having instituted
Downward comparison. As long on earth
As our comparisons were stoutly upward
With gods and angels, we were men at least
But little lower than gods and angels.
But once comparison was yielded downward,
Once we began to see our images
Reflected in the mud and even dust,
‘Twas disillusion upon disillusion.
We were lost piecemeal to the animals,
Like people thrown out to delay the wolves.
Nothing but fallibility was left to us.
And this day’s work made even that seem doubtful.

Robert Frost was an American poet and four-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. He died in 1963.
Originally published:
March 1, 1936


10 Ways Ms., Sassy, and Jezebel Changed Your Life!

How contradiction drove fifty years of feminist media
Maggie Doherty

How Emily Wilson Reimagined Homer

Her boldly innovative translation of the Iliad is an epic for our time
Emily Greenwood

In the Shallows

Why do public intellectuals condescend to their readers?
Becca Rothfeld

You Might Also Like


Sign up for The Yale Review newsletter and keep up with news, events, and more.