Francis, Robert (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Francis, Robert 1901–
Francis is an American poet. An artist of unique gifts, he says of his own style that it is "neither avant-garde nor traditional." His poetry is generally lyrical and has often been compared to that of Robert Frost, although many critics find this a rather simplistic comparison. The setting of his poetry is most often, rural, reflecting a life spent in a solitary, indeed Thoreau-like, existence. This lifestyle has contributed to Francis's relative obscurity and it is only in his later years that he has received his well-deserved recognition. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
No literary echoes, no awkwardness, no bewilderment clearly mark Robert Francis's "Stand With Me Here," as poems of youth; but none the less it is immediately apparent that they reflect a boy's will and a young man's thoughts. Strangely there is nothing here adventurous, curious, impatient, avid for life, but rather as though Santayana's last Puritan were writing verse, there is tranquility, appreciation of old ways and simple pleasures, a strict moral sense, and a conscientious craftsman's attitude toward balance, order and good form.
Pastoral New England has become a tradition in American literature…. Robert Francis has tried his hand with skill at the traditional themes. Apple picking, haying, wood-chopping, they are all there. Though verbal echoes are few, the influence of Robert Frost, his humor and his further range lacking, is to be seen in every thicket and field of this land, not far west or northwest of Boston.
In such verse as this there is a definite appeal not only to other youths who faced with the complexities of modern life find reassurance in art forms, but also to those who buffeted by experience seek escape by turning to things simple, natural, old and lovely…. Mr. Francis makes of his old people grotesque figures, such as are found in Grimm's Tales. Age for him has pathos, a good deal more than it has perhaps for those who understand its great compensations from experience. But more important...
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William Rose BenéT
WILLIAM ROSE BENÉT
A slight book in bulk is Robert Francis's "Stand With Me Here" … but I have found a distinct person in it. He is another of our New Englanders, terse and direct….
It would be inequitable to lay too great emphasis on this volume; but, in expectation of finding little, in reality I found much. Those who are fond of the lonely New England country world will find its flavor here, will discover dark comfort in these unobtrusive verses.
William Rose Benét, "The Phoenix Nest," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1936 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 14, No. 24, October 10, 1936, p. 36.∗
[In Stand with Me Here] the terse yet tender quality of [Robert Francis'] verse springs from … deep roots in primitive experience. Not that he is ever obscure or tenebrous. He sees things clear-cut and draws them objectively whether it is a frog sitting on a stone beside a spring, a boy waiting to plunge into still water, or runners going up a hill under elms. But behind the foreground definition there is an elemental background, felt if not necessarily sketched in, but dominating such poems as "Monotone By a Cellar Hole," "Slow," or "Appearance and Disappearance."… [He] has a remarkable gift for identifying himself with natural things—with snow and hay...
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"The Sound I Listened For" is all clear sound, precise, honest, unequivocal. Robert Francis has a gift for seeing minutiae which are anything but trivial. In this he reminds the reader of his more illustrious forerunners, especially of one whose background is contiguous. It is nothing against Robert Francis that he often resembles Robert Frost. But, though he sometimes chooses the same landscape, he should avoid using the same language. "True North," "Statement," and "The Wasp"—to name only three—read like poems that Frost had been writing and had not yet decided to print. They are admirably neat, they are playfully philosophical, they blend observation with imagination. But we know who wrote them first. (p. 345)
Louis Untermeyer, "Among the Poets," in The Yale Review (© 1944 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Winter, 1945, pp. 341-46.∗
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The Orb Weaver is Robert Francis's fifth book of poems. The attitude, style and tone are much the same as they were in 1938. His world is rural New England, but not a New England which has undergone any significant changes during the past twenty-five years. It is a world of personal observations made within a quiet, peaceful, static environment walled off from the loud, blaring events of Mr. Auden's "age of anxiety."
Though Mr. Francis lacks the gritty muscularity of Robert Frost, he can stand side by side with the elder poet as an exponent of pantheistic serenity. (p. 109)
Mr. Francis seems to favor a loose blank verse, a "Freedom that flows in form and still is free" is what he calls it in an earlier book in a poem about seagulls. Not even the most impatient reader could register a charge of obscurity against these poems. The author himself has said,
Words of a poem should be glass
But glass so simple-subtle its shape
Is nothing but the shape of what it holds.
Like Frost, Mr. Francis is a type of bucolic philosopher with which we are all familiar, who translates the wisdom of nature into a means for achieving human contentment. (p. 110)
Jack Lindeman, "Three Poets," in Poetry (© 1960 by The Modern Poetry Association;...
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With his mind clearly at pains to confront and express them, Robert Francis delights in and is disturbed by the incongruities of life. In Dog-Day Night the speaker, realising that the objects of love are self-interested and free, is pained by the vanity of selfless love. Man must look for and never find his identity (The Spy), strain but fail to achieve his aims, and experience the elation and despair of recognizing this truth (The Rock Climbers). Moreover man is a construct of belief and scepticism, freedom and restriction, communion and loneliness, for which polarities he is both praised and damned, distinguished and forgotten (Epitaph). The mind separates by means of symbols the amoral union of vitality and death, and man, once he finds that this truth of being eludes his abstractions, rages at life (As Near to Eden). Conversely, a joyful acceptance of such antinomies and of the illogical variety of life is the intention of Sing a Song of Juniper and Statement.
One of Mr. Francis's favorite figures is iteration: in Hide-and-Seek "hide" acquires a dual coloration in terms of life and death, and in While I Slept, sleep means both the inattention of the beloved and the death of the lover. This figure is excessive in Old Man's Confession of Faith, where the "wind" of chance blows on long after its implications are exhausted, and in The Orb Weaver, where the...
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Autobiographical writings are supposed to be spectacular these days, a thrill a page…. But I know that kind of thing won't do for the autobiography of Robert Francis…. [Rather, The Trouble with Francis invites comparison with] Walden, Edwin Muir's An Autobiography, Nadezha Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope. Like them it uses one life, one set of experiences, as a way of investigating how an individual existence can gain coherence, shape, and meaning under social circumstances that are hostile or indifferent; and like them it succeeds through a scrupulous honesty that is especially wary of tidal waving. The books I have mentioned could be called low-key, but they all turn out to be engrossing and memorable…. (pp. 28-9)
Words like "recluse" and "hermit" do not really fit [Robert Francis], but there can be no doubt that by most standards his life has been marked by solitude, and that his literary reputation, to those who know and admire his poems, is misleadingly slight. But the life and the work, as the autobiography reveals, make a curious fit, the obscurity of the one contributing to the neglect of the other, and the excellence of the poetry, it now appears, deriving in part from the originality, economy, and harmony of the life. For Francis, who has lived with astonishing frugality on the tiny income from his writing and occasional lecturing … is a poet of retrenchment and modesty. His effects are...
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The verse of Robert Francis is like a small, sun-warmed stone, smooth to the touch, pleasant to handle, and as you hold it, releasing a hidden inner warmth.
[In Like Ghosts of Eagles] he writes of mountain and water, of permanence and change, of what it is to forget and what it is to remember. Francis is a poet of seasons, the seasons men keep in their comings and goings over the face of the earth.
He takes the long view, the focus of his camera eye being set just short of infinity….
He is sober but not somber, delighting to play the games language plays with us—"The bulldozer / bulls by day / And dozes by night. / Would that the dulldozer / Dozed all the time."…
Like Robert Frost, his friend and an acknowledged mentor, Robert Francis learns many of his best poems by studying nature up close, collecting blue colors for a cornucopia: "blue-green turquoise peacock blue spruce / blue verging on violet the fringed gentian / gray blue blue bonfire smoke autumnal / haze," a tour de force of azure nouns….
Poem after poem in "Like Ghosts of Eagles" hits the bulls-eye of delight with epigrammatic force and artful cunning.
Francis is a traditionalist who experiments, a wisdom-writer unafraid to stoop to folly, a local poet who looks out on an expanded horizon. He has packed a brief book with enduring matter.
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[Robert Francis's Collected Poems exhibits] clearly the achievement of an exceptional, if infrequently honored, craftsman….
Francis's poems, like the athletes he often writes about and whose superior form he imitates, are firm, clean, and graceful. In "Pitcher," one of his best-known poems, Francis might be describing himself: "He / Throws to be a moment misunderstood. / Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild, / But every seeming aberration willed. /"…
There is often a sense of the inevitability of fate in these poems, events or lives working themselves out and revealing what has to be. Elemental questions are posed with a kind of sureness, the speaker confident, yet never smug about where the answers lie. At their best, things achieve a balance between freedom and conformity…. (p. 441)
Such mysteries are the subject of Francis's best poems, in a style that recognizes a need for tradition and experimentation, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not. These lines, from "Epitaph," suggest a persistent theme and tone: "Freedom he loved and order he embraced. / Fifty extremists called him Janus-faced. / Though cool centrality was his desire, / He drew the zealot fire and counter-fire."
Like A. E. Housman, Francis is fascinated with human beings, with flowers and small insects, caught at the moment of peak performance, at the height of their powers. He is a person fiercely in...
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September, 1976, marked the publication of the Collected Poems of an American poet who at seventy-six has written quietly over the past half-century a body of poems which deserves to be celebrated. The poet is Robert Francis. His career was long characterized by a lack of recognition—Robert Frost called him America's "best neglected poet"—and even after the publication of The Orb Weaver by Wesleyan in 1960 and Come Out Into the Sun by the University of Massachusetts in 1968 helped change this situation to some degree, his work has continued to be omitted from most of the anthologies which have tried to represent the best contemporary American poetry. It seems to me that any sampling of "the best" of our poetry that doesn't include Francis is incomplete. (pp. 1-2)
In the experimentation and vital restlessness of the American poetry of the past twenty years or so, certain basic poetic values—e.g., music, clarity of statement, the calm light of a reflective mind, a polished surface—have often been overshadowed or shunted aside. Not without a certain growing interest of his own in more open variations of form, Francis throughout his career has been calmly stubborn in his devotion to a kind of poem that exists in the currents of literary experiment and opinion like a smooth, deeply imbedded stone in a stream: the short, clear, meditative, lyrical poem. Francis has followed no poetic movements but those of his...
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Robert B. Shaw
No doubt a sense of fulfillment attaches to any poet's Collected Poems. In the case of Robert Francis, the volume carries a sense not merely of fulfillment but of vindication. One of our most knowing, skilled, and dedicated poets has survived decades of critical indifference to find himself, in his old age, possessed of a secure and even flowering reputation. (p. 106)
Robert B. Shaw, "Coming Out into the Sun," in Poetry (© 1977 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXXI, No. 2, November, 1977, pp. 106-10.
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Robert Francis's A Certain Distance is an ill-conceived project. In his introductory remarks, Francis refers to the "erotic impulse" which has prompted artists, through the ages to concentrate on the female form in their paintings and poems. He avers that the same impulse has led him to write this group of poem-pictures of the male form. While I can sympathize with the motive and the interest, it seems to me that Francis is, perhaps, working out of a tradition which dooms his project to just the embarrassing sentimentality and simpering obliquity which characterize this volume. There have been volumes by individuals, and anthologies as well, of homoerotic poems. None has yet risen above maudlin self-congratulation. A revolution in consciousness and form is necessary if this situation is ever to be alleviated. If an example is needed, we can look at one of the typically failed-Keatsian efforts:
Boy over water,
Boy waiting to plunge
Into still water
Among white clouds
That will shatter
Into bright foam—
I could wish you
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James K. Robinson
Francis has, if anything, written more impressively as he has grown older. His first volume, Stand With Me Here (1936), appeared when he was thirty-five …, and his serene, detached style was already formed. He has published slowly—eight books in forty years. He has grown slowly.
What sticks in the memory about Francis is his quiet ebullience, his understated Yankee wit. Take, for instance, "Pitcher," one of several gems about baseball:
His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,
His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.
The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.
Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.
Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.
This is a very tight little poem, playful, as deceptively artful as the art of pitching. Quite unobtrusively Francis slides past the reader stanzas pitched to varying lengths. A first stanza with a decasyllabic line followed by a hendecasyllabic is succeeded...
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