Robert Frost American Literature Analysis
Frost is that rare twentieth century poet who achieved both enormous popularity and critical acclaim. In an introductory essay to his collected poems, Frost insists that a poem “will forever keep its freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went,” an observation that applies to most of his three hundred-odd poems. Once his work came into circulation, its freshness and deceptive simplicity captivated audiences that shied away from more difficult poets such as T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, while astute critics came to recognize the subtlety of thought and feeling that so often pervade these “simple” poems.
North of Boston ranks among the most original books of American poetry. Its title suggests its locale; one of the titles Frost originally proposed for it, “Farm Servants,” indicates its typical subject matter. Most of its best-known poems—“Mending Wall,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Home Burial,” “The Wood-Pile”—are in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). The language consists of everyday words, Frost having discarded the “poetic” vocabulary that he had occasionally used in A Boy’s Will. None of these features was new in poetry, but in combination they result in strikingly innovative poetry.
The works in this volume represent the conscious application of a theory which Frost set forth most directly in several letters to a friend named John Bartlett. He aimed to accommodate what he called “the sound of sense” to blank verse. He noted that many casual utterances of the people among whom he lived fell into a basically iambic rhythm: “She thinks I have no eye for these,” “My father used to say,” “Never you say a thing like that to a man,” and so on. Writing poetry involved listening for and adapting to meter—what Frost called “sentence sounds.” In this way Frost created poems that did not only talk about rural New Englanders but also enacted them. Ten of the sixteen poems in North of Boston consist almost entirely of dialogue, one is a monologue, and several others incorporate colloquial lines. Many readers do not even notice that the poems all “scan” according to the rules of iambic meter, but it is there, a firm substratum to Frost’s “sound of sense.”
To Frost’s credit, he refused merely to repeat the effects of this book in subsequent work. While he continued from time to time to base poems on dialogue—especially between husband and wife—dialogue does not dominate any of his later books. Mountain Interval (1916), his first book to appear originally in the United States, offers much greater variety in form: sonnets, poems in four-and five-line rhymed stanzas, poems written in short lines, and others in patterns made up of lines of different lengths. Several, including “The Road Not Taken” and “The Sound of Trees,” are reflective poems that raise deep questions and provide teasing or ambiguous answers in a fashion that delighted Frost. They also remind the reader that many of life’s important questions do not have answers both simple and unfailingly satisfying.
A number of Frost’s poems celebrate encounters with nature. The first poem in his first book, “Into My Own,” and the last poem in his final book, an untitled one beginning “In winter in the woods alone,” depict a solitary person entering the woods, while in the long stretch between those poems the one that may be his best known of all, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” portrays the desire to do so. On one level, Frost can be seen as simply continuing the love affair with the wilderness so common in American mythology, whose literary manifestations include such classics as James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (1823-1841) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). On another level, the woodsman—independent, defiant of urban artificiality, at one with nature—is one of Frost’s conceptions of himself. These poems convey a number of themes and even more attitudes. The woods can be a place for restoration of the spirit through vigorous activity and communion with nature, the locus of deep and sometimes sinister psychic forces, or a happy hunting ground for analogies of the human condition generally. Frost portrays both the perils and joys of isolation.
A considerable portion of Frost’s poems are set either in winter or at night or both. These are the times that tend to isolate people, to throw them on their own resources, to encourage reflection. Those readers who think that Frost’s reflections are always mild and cheerful have not read his poems carefully enough. In West-Running Brook, a group of poems gathered under the epigraph “Fiat Nox” (“let there be night”) suggests something of Frost’s nocturnal range. These poems include “Acceptance,” “Once by the Pacific,” “Bereft,” “Tree at My Window,” and “Acquainted with the Night.”
Frost is also a daylight observer of ordinary people and their ways. The relationships of husbands and wives interested him particularly, and his range is wide, from the telepathic harmony of a couple in “The Telephone” to the marital disintegration of “Home Burial.” Perhaps no other poet has portrayed the give-and-take of marriage so variously and so vividly. His world is also one of neighbors, passing tramps, and even garrulous witches.
Neither children nor sophisticated adults appear very often in his poetry. Rooted in the countryside, his writing focuses on simple things and people. He used language with the same economy and precision his characters display in their use of the scythe, the axe, and the pitchfork. Demonstrating how much can be done by the skillful application of simple tools, Frost has left to an increasingly industrialized and impersonal society a valuable legacy of poems celebrating basic emotions and relationships.
First published: 1914 (collected in North of Boston, 1914)
Type of work: Poem
Under the strain of their child’s recent death, a young couple try vainly to communicate.
“Home Burial” is an intensely dramatic poem about a bereaved and increasingly estranged married couple. The husband has just returned from burying their young son in a family plot of the sort that served northern New Englanders as cemeteries for generations. He mounts the stairs toward his wife “until she cowered under him.” What follows is a bitter exchange. The wife, unable to understand his failure to express grief vocally, accuses him of indifference to their loss; he, rankled by what he considers a groundless charge, tries blunderingly to assure her, but they fail to comprehend each other. At the end of the poem she is threatening to leave and find someone else who can console her, while he threatens, “I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—”
The poem is nearly all dialogue except for a few sections of description which work like stage directions in a play, serving to relate the couple spatially and to underline by movement and gestures the tension between them. Although the poem does not require staging, it is easily stageable, so dramatically is it presented. The reader surmises that the two really do love—or at least have loved—each other and that the difficulties between them have resulted not from willful malice but from clashes of temperament and different training. The man is expected to be stoical, tight-lipped in adversity. Having learned to hide his feelings, he is unable to express them in a way recognizable to his wife, with her different emotional orientation.
She has watched with a kind of horror his energetic digging at the gravesite; he has made the gravel “leap up . . . and land so lightly.” She cannot understand that he has converted his frustration into a relevant and necessary physical activity, as men have traditionally learned to do. Nor does she realize that a seemingly callous remark of his about the rotting of birch fences may well constitute an oblique way of referring to the demise of the child that he has helped make. Instead she draws the conclusion that, because he does not grieve overtly as she does, he has no feelings. Because he is inexpert at oral communication, he cannot say the kind of thing that might alleviate her grief.
The poem becomes a painful study in misinterpretation that is in the process of leading to the disintegration of a marriage. The poem is also a brilliant example of Frost’s success at unobtrusively adapting a vignette from life to the formal requirements of blank verse. In the early twentieth century, avant-garde poets were strongly resisting traditional verse poems, but Frost had his own way of escaping the tyrannizing effects of meter.
Although “Home Burial” and the other blank verse poems in North of Boston look conventional on the page, and although the poet’s firm iambic support for the dialogue is readily apparent to well-versed readers, it is easy to forget that something such as the wife’s “There you go sneering now!” followed by his “I’m not, I’m not!” is a more or less regular pentameter line as well as an easily imaginable bit of argument between two disaffected people. Frost showed that ordinary people could inhabit a poem, could talk and argue and move convincingly within a medium that William Shakespeare and John Milton in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had tended to reserve for aristocrats and angels.
Unlike a play, Frost’s dramatic poem has no resolution. Will the wife leave, as she threatens? If so, will he restrain her by force as he threatens, or will he resign himself to the status quo, as he has before? It is not Frost’s intention to solve this marital problem. He had known conflict in his own marriage and observed it in other marriages; he certainly knew the ways in which spouses might resolve, or fail to resolve, their conflicts. What he chose to do was provide an opportunity to eavesdrop on a bereaved couple at an agonizing moment and feel their passion and frustration.
“The Road Not Taken”
First published: 1916 (collected in Mountain Interval, 1916)
Type of work: Poem
A traveler through life reflects on a past choice of route “that has made all the difference.”
The first poem in Frost’s book Mountain Interval, “The Road Not Taken,” has long been a popular favorite. Like many of his poems, it seems simple, but it is not exactly straightforward, and even perceptive readers have disagreed considerably over its best interpretation. It looks like a personal poem about a decision of vast importance, but there is evidence to the contrary both inside and outside the poem. Frost has created a richly mysterious reading experience out of a marvelous economy of means.
The first significant thing about “The Road Not Taken” is its title, which presumably refers to an unexercised option, something about which the speaker can only speculate. The traveler comes to a fork in a road through a “yellow wood” and wishes he could somehow manage to “travel both” routes; he rejects that aspiration as impractical, however, at least for the day at hand. The road he selects is “the one less traveled by,” suggesting the decision of an individualist, someone little inclined to follow the crowd. Almost immediately, however, he seems to contradict his own judgment: “Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same.” The poet appears to imply that the decision is based on evidence that is, or comes close to being, an illusion.
The contradictions continue. He decides to save the first, (perhaps) more traveled route for another day but then confesses that he does not think it probable that he will return, implying that this seemingly casual and inconsequential choice is really likely to be crucial—one of the choices of life that involve commitment or lead to the necessity of other choices that will divert the traveler forever from the original stopping place. In the final stanza, the traveler says that he will be “telling this with a sigh,” which may connote regret. His choice, in any event, “has made all the difference.” The tone of this stanza, coupled with the title, strongly suggests that the traveler, if not regretting his choice, at least laments the possibilities that the need to make a choice leave unfulfilled.
Has Frost in mind a particular and irrevocable choice of his own, and if so, what feeling, in this poem of mixed feelings, should be regarded as dominant? There is no way of identifying such a specific decision from the evidence of the poem itself. Although a prejudice exists in favor of identifying the “I” of the poem with the author in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the speaker may not be Frost at all. On more than one occasion the poet claimed that this poem was about his friend Edward Thomas, a man inclined to indecisiveness out of a strong—and, as Frost thought, amusing—habit of dwelling on the irrevocability of decisions. If so, the reference in the poem’s final stanza to “telling” of the experience “with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence” might be read not only as the boast of Robert Frost, who “tells” it as long as people read the poem, but also as a perpetual revelation of Thomas, also a fine poet.
What is clear is that the speaker is, at least, a person like Thomas in some respects (though there may well be some of Frost in him also). Critics of this poem are likely always to argue whether it is an affirmation of the crucial nature of the choices people must make on the road of life or a gentle satire on the sort of temperament that always insists on struggling with such choices. The extent of the poet’s sympathy with the traveler also remains an open question.
Frost composed this poem in four five-line stanzas with only two end rhymes in each stanza (abaab). The flexible iambic meter has four strong beats to the line. Of the technical achievements in “The Road Not...
(The entire section is 5845 words.)
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