North of Boston Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Like his first book, A Boy’s Will (1913), Robert Frost’s second, North of Boston, was first published in England. Despite that irony, it was, and remains, the book that connects the name Robert Frost with America’s New England.

Frost began writing poetry in the 1890’s while running a small farm in Derry, New Hampshire, but he found few publications that would accept his work. By the time he took his family to England in 1912, he had published a handful of poems in magazines and newspapers. He was a virtually unknown poet approaching the age of forty.

Frost was, and still is, seen as a poet on the fringe of the modernist movement from the 1910’s through the 1930’s. While others experimented with free verse, jazz rhythms, fragmentation, and other nontraditional methods, Frost chose to stick with conventions such as rhyme and meter. His own experiments had to do with the nuances of human speech organized along a poetic line. Frost theorized that it was possible to understand a sentence’s “sound of sense” even if the listener-reader could not make out the individual words spoken. Consequently, his poems sound like talk one might hear between two people—that is, everyday conversation—but talk of uncommon wit and intelligence. Some of the finest examples of that talk appear in the poems of North of Boston. A Boy’s Will presented a speaker who had moved away from the world of people and was observing from a distance. North of Boston, however, is Frost’s “book of people.”

Most of the poems in this volume are dramatic monologues, in which one speaker narrates a story, or dramatic dialogues, in which two speakers act out a conflict. The dialogues depend strongly on tensions to create drama, and Frost presents a great variety of them. “Mending Wall,” the opening poem in North of Boston, is one of Frost’s most famous dramatic dialogues. Two neighbors meet each spring to repair the stone walls that separate their properties. The persona, or narrator, of the poem, observes that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” His neighbor, on the other hand, quotes his father, saying “Good fences make good neighbors” and thus setting up one of the principal tensions in the poem. The narrator feels that his neighbor is too practical, too old-fashioned in his thinking. He says, “He moves in darkness as it seems to me,/ not of woods only and the shade of trees. . . .” He clings to ideas long held by his people, and to the narrator he is “like an old-stone savage armed.” Games and work, the mystical and the realistic, humor and seriousness are tensions that combine to make this poem rich in drama and insight into human nature.

“The Death of the Hired Man” is a longer dramatic dialogue that introduces the reader to a husband and wife, Warren and Mary, who have a problem to solve, and two opposing points of view. Silas, a hired hand, has returned to Warren and Mary’s farm after having abandoned them to work for someone else at harvest time. Silas is dying. Mary argues for making his last days comfortable and letting bygones be bygones. Warren knows Silas to have a rich brother in a town nearby and wants to send him there.

There is very little action in the story, although the speakers summon up many scenes while talking about the past. Two opposing images form, and the reader is left to choose a side. The use of specific and general language is another source of tension in the poem, as are contrasts of darkness and light, of softness and hardness, and of inside (where Silas sleeps and dies) and outside (where Warren and Mary talk). Each concept is associated with one or the other of the principal characters, but all resolve into a kind of grayness after Silas dies.

Blank verse is Frost’s favorite form in North of Boston. Blank verse is defined as unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter. (An iamb is a metrical foot of two syllables in which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable—for example, the words “about” and “against”; pentameter means there are five feet in the line.) The line “And gave/ him tea/ and tried/ to make/ him smoke” from “The Death of the Hired Man” is regular blank verse. Obviously, not all the lines of a poem are equally regular. Frost was a master at substituting other metrical feet to give his lines variety. Blank verse has been used in English since...

(The entire section is 1827 words.)