Francis, Robert (Poetry Criticism)
Robert Francis 1901-1987
American poet, essayist, and novelist.
Francis may be thought of as a poet's poet: he has been much celebrated by fellow poets, but little acknowledged by literary critics and the reading public. His poetry is frequently compared to that of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, and his lifestyle and sensibilities to those of Henry David Thoreau. Francis's work is characterized by short poems, simple and elegant in form, written in plain, colloquial speech, and filled with concise, vivid descriptions of concrete objects from nature.
Robert Churchhill Francis was born on August 12, 1901, in Upland, Pennsylvania to Ebenezer and Ida May Allen Francis. He graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in 1923 and a master's degree in education in 1926. Shortly thereafter he moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, where he taught high school for a year before devoting himself full-time to writing poetry. Throughout most of his adult life Francis lived very simply on the meager income from his poetry, in a home he built himself and named Fort Juniper, in the woods on the outskirts of Amherst. Francis's self-imposed isolation and simplicity has often been compared to that of Thoreau, who wrote Walden based on his experiences living in a small cabin in the wilderness of Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century. As a young poet Francis met Frost, who became his mentor and a major influence on his writing. In addition to writing poetry, Francis occasionally taught at summer writers' workshops and conferences, and lectured at various universities around the country, including Harvard and Tufts, as well as the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. From 1957 to 1958 Francis lived in Rome, on the Prix de Rome fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1974 the University of Massachusetts Press established the Juniper Prize in his honor, and he received a fellowship award from the Academy of American Poets in 1984. Francis died on July 13, 1987, in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Francis's first volume of poetry, Stand With Me Here (1936), was well received as a promising work of lyrical beauty. Valhalla and Other Poems (1938) features “Valhalla,” a long narrative poem about a family who moves to Vermont, seeking a better life through proximity to nature. The Sound I Listened For (1944) speaks of the New England countryside. The Face against the Glass (1950), The Orb Weaver (1960),Come Out into the Sun (1965), and Like Ghosts of Eagles (1974), continue Francis's concern with the simple beauty of nature, as captured through concise, concrete description, and the musical qualities of plain, everyday language. In addition to volumes of poetry, Francis wrote a novel, We Fly Away (1948), a collection of essays, The Satirical Rogue on Poetry (1968), and an autobiography, The Trouble with Francis (1971).
Francis was much admired by his peers. Robert Frost considered him America's “best neglected poet,” and Donald Hall called him “a modern American classic.” Such supporters have often lamented that Francis has not received greater attention from critics, and that his poems are often excluded from major anthologies of American poetry. Those who have reviewed his work, however, have been almost uniformly enthusiastic about it. As a New England nature poet, Francis has often been compared to Frost, Dickinson, and Thoreau. Like Frost, Jack Lindeman has observed, Francis “is a type of bucolic philosopher … who translates the wisdom of nature into a means for achieving human contentment.” His poems have been admired for their use of colloquial language and concrete images which display an apparent simplicity that, upon closer examination, reveal a hidden depth and profundity. Critics have frequently praised Francis's craftsmanship, pointing to the formal elegance of his poetry; they add, however, that his finest pieces transcend mere craft, and possess a magical quality not explicable through formal analyses. As David Young has observed, “When one has pointed out the technical mastery of a Francis poem, one has only partly accounted for its effectiveness. There's a mysterious something beyond technique in his best poems.”
Stand With Me Here 1936
Valhalla and Other Poems 1938
The Sound I Listened For 1944
The Face against the Glass 1950
The Orb Weaver 1960
Come Out into the Sun: Poems New and Selected 1965
Like Ghosts of Eagles 1974
Robert Francis: Collected Poems, 1936-1976 1976
We Fly Away (novel) 1948
The Satirical Rogue on Poetry (essays) 1968
The Trouble with Francis (autobiography) 1971
(The entire section is 54 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Valhalla and Other Poems, in The New York Times Book Review, October 23, 1938, p. 10.
[In the following review, Morton praises Francis's “Valhalla” as a narrative poem on the timeless theme of “a family seeking its heaven on earth.” He comments that, in the Depression era, this theme is particularly poignant.]
The second book of a new poet is a crucial phenomenon—for poet, publisher and reader. Those who took special delight in Robert Francis's Stand With Me Here, two years ago, need have no misgivings about opening Valhalla. The first book was something more than promising; the second carries the achievement farther—and in a new direction. Valhalla is narrative, with narrative's first requisite, a good story. In any period of the world's affairs the vicissitudes of a family seeking its heaven on earth so deliberately, so persistently, so thoughtfully, would be provocative reading. At the moment of Valhalla's publication the theme has an interest more than ordinarily acute. The beauty is in the passion that informs the quest, in the delicate and profound feeling that attends its incidents, and in the lyrical intensity of the writing.
The line that the narrative follows is direct enough. John and Edith, with their children, have moved to a hill farm in Vermont, on the adventure of shaping life toward its greatest beauty...
(The entire section is 586 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Sound I Listened For, in The New York Times Book Review, July 9, 1944, p. 26.
[In the following review, Troubetzkoy offers a mixed assessment of The Sound I Listened For, and compares Francis to Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, and Emily Dickinson.]
Robert Francis writes lyrics which in essential spirit spring clearly from New England rock. Like Bryant, he has developed a moral attitude from nature, but his didacticism is lighter and less insistent. Like Thoreau, he has derived his philosophy from an intimacy with the same source, though he scarcely attains the same breadth of vision. Like Frost, he has found ample material for song and essay in the lean New England countryside and character. This is not to say that Mr. Francis writes in imitation, for it well may be a case of environment rather than heredity.
Robert Francis is a confident and dextrous poet, but his facility at times is such that one suspects he has been bewitched by his own virtuosity. He has made an extensive and successful use of triple and internal rhyme, of assonance and alliteration, though now and then he goes to unusually great lengths to sustain a sound. Many of the poems are pattern verse. Sometimes the device amounts to a conceit, but at its best it adds coherence and emphasis without being intrusive:
Between the under and the upper blue All day the...
(The entire section is 460 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Orb Weaver, in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 52, No. 76, February 25, 1960, p. 11.
[In the following review, Booth offers a favorable assessment of The Orb Weaver, comparing Francis to Emily Dickinson.]
Robert Francis is clearly “The Orb Weaver” of his own poems, thick as they are with “The art, the craftsmanship, the cunning. / The patience, the self-control, the waiting. / The sudden dart and the needled poison” of words woven to net both sound and sense.
The poems invite a reader in to share what's common enough. “Squash in Blossom,” “Tomatoes,” or “Waxwings”; but like that other Amherst poet who caught intimations of the universe in the buzz of a backyard fly, Mr. Francis spins his verbal web to capture whatever images vibrate with a meaning of their own.
Like Emily Dickinson, Robert Francis sometimes claims more meaning than his images earn, but his best poems are sustained on their own terms, which ask no less than that readers share in the bright immediacy of the images. Like Hopkins, Mr. Francis charges his lines with language, demanding that a reader not only hear, but feel, whatever is “swift, slow; sweet, sour, adazzle, dim.”
Heavily stressed and alliteratively textured as his lines are, Mr. Francis works his poems with sharply-simple words; his gardens grow, his mountains...
(The entire section is 268 words.)
SOURCE: “Three Poets,” in Poetry, Vol. 97, No. 2, November, 1960, pp. 109-10.
[In the following excerpt, Lindeman offers a favorable review of Francis's The Orb Weaver, comparing the poet to Robert Frost.]
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. He speaks of vines: one as “Thick as a man's wrist”; another that “swept a tree like fire”; and still others which grew too close to people's homes and had to be rooted out only to return again with untiring persistence, “something from the vine fastened / Upon their flesh and burned”, so that soon, “in a year / Or two”, his
… neighbor's cow grazing beside the road Munches with joy (and almost with a smile) The salad of its leaves, …
This is the first poem in the volume and, along with the poem from which the book takes its title and “Swimmer,”...
(The entire section is 406 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Come Out into the Sun, in Antioch Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1966, pp. 276-277.
[In the following review, Allen provides a favorable assessment of Francis's Come Out into the Sun, expressing the opinion that Francis deserves a wider audience for his poetry.]
Another New Englander, Robert Francis, escaped the past long ago. His new and selected poems confirm his stature. Francis is a poet to be read and reread, a poet who shapes his lines to perfect forms, graceful, unforced balances. Listen to him in “Hogwash”:
What beside sports and flowers could you find To praise better than the American language?
Bruised by American foreign policy What shall I soothe me, what defend me with
But a handful of clean unmistakable words— Daisies, daisies, in a field of daisies?
Or in “The Articles of War”:
Somebody next, who knows? may try Resigning from the human race, Somebody aghast at history, Haunted by hawk's eyes in the human face. Somebody—could it be I?
or in these lines from “Skier”: “He swings down like the flourish of a pen / Signing a signature in white on white.”
I could quote Francis for pages. I, and many other poets, have been reading him for years—time after time taking out his books and finding in ourselves an emotion akin to...
(The entire section is 264 words.)
SOURCE: “Of Bulldozers and Bees,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 66, No. 149, June 26, 1974, p. F4.
[In the following review, Howes offers a favorable assessment of Like Ghosts of Eagles, particularly praising Francis's poems of nature.]
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 his fifth book of poems, 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 sees how earth “takes her time / all man's perdurable fabrications / his structural steel, his factories, his forts / his moon machines she will in time / like a great summer pasture cow / digest in time assimilate / it all to pure geology.”
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.” Or he reflects how “In the sca're city / no scarcity / of fear / of fire / no scarcity / of goons / of guns.”
Like Robert Frost, his friend and an acknowledged mentor,...
(The entire section is 377 words.)
SOURCE: “Faith and Form: Some American Poetry of 1976,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 85, No. 3, July, 1977, pp. 537-38.
[In the following review, Ramsey offers a favorable assessment of Francis's Collected Poems, pointing to the many good and “extremely good” poems in the collection.]
Robert Francis's Collected Poems 1936-1976 presents us with a career to be admired, to be enjoyed, to be examined with careful respect. Francis is almost infallibly a good poet, at ease with the graces of the iambic line, a clear eye looking at nature, a man quietly stoic, or rejoicing, or loving, or amused. Robert Frost is a strong influence, though Francis has tempered and smoothed some Frostian themes, impishnesses, and ironies. Francis's eye and feelings are sure; his thought, less so. He writes, “I follow Plato with my mind. / Pure beauty strikes me as a little thin.” Then a rudeness tempts me to say that Francis hasn't followed Plato, surely not the Plato of the myth of the mixing fountains in the Philebus. Plato did not know about struggle? Of Francis's “Gloria” I wish to say (and I think Bach, whom he praises in the poem, would agree) no. Neither our praise nor our valuing invents the reality; we, at best, respond.
His poems end more often smoothly than surprisingly; his metrical gracefulness is too often only that. Rare and worth waiting for are such rhythms...
(The entire section is 404 words.)
SOURCE: “Two Poets Named Robert,” in Ohio Review, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1977, pp. 110-25.
[In the following excerpt, Hall compares the praise and recognition heaped upon the poet Robert Lowell with the undeserved neglect of Francis by literary critics. Hall offers a favorable assessment of Francis's Collected Poems.]
In 1976 Robert Lowell published his Selected Poems, two hundred and thirty-eight pages taken from Lord Weary's Castle, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, Life Studies, For the Union Dead, Near the Ocean, Notebooks, Notebook, History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin. Four of the last five volumes involve duplication, because Lowell kept revising the fourteen-line poems first collected in the plural Notebooks of 1966. Selected Poems includes nothing from Imitations or the plays. I believe that a few of the early poems first appeared in different form in Land of Unlikeness (1944) but I have been unable to check that volume. Lowell was born in 1917, and turned sixty this year.
Also in 1976, Robert Francis—born in 1901, seventy-six this year—published his Collected Poems, filling out two hundred and eighty-four pages. Francis published his first volume in 1936, Stand With Me Here, and a second in 1938, Valhalla and Other Poems. In 1944, he published The Sound I Listened For. There were long...
(The entire section is 2539 words.)
SOURCE: “Moving Unnoticed: Notes on Robert Francis's Poetry,” in The Hollins Critic, Vol. 14, No. 4, October, 1977, pp. 1-12.
[In the following essay, Nelson provides an overview of the central themes and stylistic elements of Francis's poetry.]
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.
Since 1940 Francis has lived in a small house on the outskirts of Amherst, Massachusetts, which he calls Fort Juniper, liking the tenacity and naturalness the name suggests. He has taken Thoreau more literally than most of the rest of us have dared, not only appreciating some of his attitudes, but taking up the practical challenge of...
(The entire section is 3645 words.)
SOURCE: “Permitting Craft,” in Field, No. 25, Fall, 1981, pp. 20-2.
[In the following essay, Turner examines Francis's “Silent Poem,” not for his “craftmanship”—which has been thoroughly explored by other critics—but for the subtle qualities of the poem which go beyond the mere “craft” of poetry.]
backroad leafmold stonewall chipmunk underbrush grapevine woodchuck shadblow
woodsmoke cowbarn honeysuckle woodpile sawhorse bucksaw outhouse wellsweep
backdoor flagstone bulkhead buttermilk candlestick ragrug firedog brownbread
hilltop outcrop cowbell buttercup whetstone thunderstorm pitchfork steeplebush
gristmill millstone cornmeal waterwheel watercress buckwheat firefly jewelweed
(The entire section is 839 words.)
SOURCE: “Francis Reading and Reading Francis,” in Field, No. 25, Fall, 1981, pp. 28-30.
[In the following essay, Walker discusses “Remind Me of Apples” as an example of Francis's skills as a poet.]
“REMIND ME OF APPLES”
When the cicada celebrates the heat, Intoning that tomorrow and today Are only yesterday with the same dust To dust on plantain and on roadside yarrow— Remind me, someone, of the apples coming, Cold in the dew of deep October grass, A prophecy of snow in their white flesh.
In the long haze of dog days, or by night When thunder growls and prowls but will not go Or come, I lose the memory of apples. Name me the names, the goldens, russets, sweets, Pippin and blue pearmain and seek-no-further And the lost apples on forgotten farms And the wild pasture apples of no name.
The first time I heard Robert Francis read his poems seemed a miraculous occasion. Never had I experienced such rapport between a writer and his listeners: we were in the hands of a master who could do no wrong. Every lifted eyebrow, every shifting nuance, every puzzled repetition—“Could I have meant that? Yes, I suppose I did …”—was caught and savored by the audience. The poems themselves emerged as small treasures, perfectly ordered, paced, and delivered. Amazingly, the whole performance seemed entirely artless, spontaneous,...
(The entire section is 1038 words.)
SOURCE: “The Excellence of ‘Excellence,’” in Field, No. 25, Fall, 1981, pp. 15-18.
[In the following essay, Wallace discusses the poem “Excellence” as an example of the formal elements of Francis's poetry which make his works “magical.”]
Excellence is millimeters and not miles. From poor to good is great. From good to best is small. From almost best to best sometimes not measurable. The man who leaps the highest leaps perhaps an inch Above the runner-up. How glorious that inch And that split-second longer in the air before the fall.
In an era of the Avant-Avant-Garde, Robert Francis, who can be passionate without being puffy, is a poet daringly Horatian. Ars celare artem. The art is to hide the art. Like Herbert or Herrick a technician, a metrical Swiss-watchmaker, fond of the chime and the golden cogs, he happily relishes versing. His poems wound us cleanly by their diminutive and lovely precisions.
Consider, because it has so much to say on the matter, his poem “Excellence.” Little seems at first to astonish. The words are plain, the syntax easy. The meaning seems a truth so common we need hardly acknowledge it. The athletic metaphor earns its force by being obvious. But the poem sticks in the mind and its phrases come to hand. “From poor to good is great. From good to best is small.”...
(The entire section is 1077 words.)
SOURCE: “On Robert Francis' ‘Sheep,’” in Field, No. 25, Fall, 1981, pp. 23-5.
[In the following essay, Wilbur discusses Francis's poem “Sheep” in terms of its simple formal elements, as well as its more profound implications.]
From where I stand the sheep stand still As stones against the stony hill.
The stones are gray And so are they.
And both are weatherworn and round, Leading the eye back to the ground.
Two mingled flocks— The sheep, the rocks.
And still no sheep stirs from its place Or lifts its Babylonian face.
I think that I have known this poem since my undergraduate days at Amherst, and I remain grateful for its perfection.
It is, if you look for tricks, a very artful poem indeed. Two motionless constellations of things—sheep and rocks—are being likened, and this is formally expressed by the linked twoness of tetrameter couplets, and of tetrameter broken in two to make dimeter couplets. By the time you get to the second line of the fourth couplet, a line which simply juxtaposes “The sheep, the rocks,” there are two mirroring monometers within the dimeter measure.
The first line of the poem is the only one, to my ear, which remotely threatens to run over into the next; elsewhere, pauses and punctuation give an...
(The entire section is 864 words.)
SOURCE: “Robert Francis and the Bluejay,” in Field, No. 25, Fall, 1981, pp. 8-11.
[In the following essay, Young discusses Francis's poem “Bluejay” in terms of its formal and thematic elements.]
So bandit-eyed, so undovelike a bird to be my pastoral father's favorite— skulker and blusterer whose every arrival is a raid.
Love made the bird no gentler nor him who loved less gentle. Still, still the wild blue feather brings my mild father.
It is a troublesome fact that Robert Francis, at the age of 80, is still so little known. His modest and retired life near Amherst, Massachusetts, may partly explain his obscurity, along with a relatively slow development—most of his best poems were written after he turned fifty—and a number of years spent in the shadow of his friend and mentor Robert Frost. Then too, it must be noted that his poems are modest in scale and scope, and that in a time when it has been fashionable for poets to stress angst and anguish, their own and that of others, Francis has made a serious exploration of pleasure and delight. He is, as he says in his autobiography, The Trouble With Francis, a deeply pessimistic man, but his poems, while they occasionally reflect that outlook, mostly search out the properties of the natural world and of language that can act to offset or qualify the...
(The entire section is 984 words.)
SOURCE: “Color, Energy, Action,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 102, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. xi-xiii.
[In the following review, Gillmann provides a favorable assessment of Francis's collection Late Fire, Late Snow.]
Before opening this new volume of poems by a man who many believe was one of America's finest poets when he died in 1987, the reader might want to look at the back of the dustjacket.
There, in a two by three-and-a-half inch photograph, is the face of Robert Francis, his head angled, staring out at us from behind and between a woman at the left, only a slice of her face and hair revealed, and, to the right, a small part of a furrowed brow that would seem to be a man's. What on earth is this generally circumspect, sage poet doing? Is he sneaking a look at something? At us? What do the parted lips want to say—something wry? Or is his look one of surprise, as if he had been caught in the middle of mischief? And what is on the lower part of his cheek—a mosquito? Up on her six legs, her piercing, multineedled tube thrust into his flesh? Drawing his blood, even as we watch?
As I studied this tantalizing photo I became aware that it contained the elements of a Francis poem, a poem in which all manner of unlikely things can be included and somehow be made to connect with an exquisiteness and irony, as well as marked with a tension born of a very calculated...
(The entire section is 705 words.)
SOURCE: “Learning to Hover,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Winter, 1999, Vol. 45, No. 4, p. 534–52.
[In the following essay, Stambuk discusses the influence of Robert Frost on Francis, and compares the works of the two poets.]
In Robert Francis's reminiscence of Robert Frost, A Time to Talk, the entry dated April 4, 1932, contains a poem published the day before in the Springfield Republican and Union. Francis wrote the poem to commemorate Frost's arrival at Amherst. Here are its final stanzas:
Best of all—you've heard?—he comes to stay. This is his home now. He is here for good. To leave us now would be running away. (I too would stay forever if I could.) While he stays, life that breathless fugitive, Will stay. While he lives, some things here won't die. And we, breathing his air, may learn to live Close to the earth, like him, and near the sky.
An example of Francis's exuberant juvenilia (neither published in book form nor included in the Collected Poems), the lyric was, in his words, “the first pop gun fired in my private campaign to establish a significant relation with this most significant man in town” (48-49). The following January, he befriended Frost in his home on Sunset Avenue in Amherst; thereafter blossomed a relationship in which the younger poet found in Frost a mentor. In fact, he recalled, when he made Frost's...
(The entire section is 7909 words.)
Sherman, Carl E. “‘Man Working’—Profile of Robert Francis.” Book Forum 3, No. 3 (1977): 436-41.
An interview with Francis, at age 75, in his home of Fort Juniper.
Abbe, George. “Glimpses of Robert Francis.” In The Old Century and the New: Essays in Honor of Charles Angoff, edited by Alfred Rosa, pp. 152-85. London: Associated University Presses, 1978.
Relates the course of the critic's personal friendship with Francis over a period in which the poet descended into mental illness and became increasingly isolated.
“The Satirical Rogue Once More: Robert Francis on Poets and Poetry.” The Courier 8, No. 4 (July 1971): 36-9.
Discussion of the Robert Francis Papers located in the manuscript collection of the George Arents Research Library. Includes seven “bitesize essays” by Francis.
Fitts, Dudley. A review of Come Out into the Sun. The New York Times Book Review (April 17, 1966): 46.
Examines Francis's collection Come Out into the Sun. Fitts admits to Francis's technical skills as a poet, but finds that his poems are ultimately unexciting.
McCloskey, Mark. A review of Come Out into the Sun. Poetry 108, No. 4 (July, 1966): 275-76.
(The entire section is 251 words.)