Robert (Lee) Frost 1874–1963
American poet. See also Robert Frost Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 4, 9, 15.
Frost is recognized as one of the foremost American poets of the twentieth century. Because his settings and subjects are usually the landscapes and folk of New England, Frost was once considered a simple farmer-poet. However, critical reevaluation has centered on the complex themes and profound philosophic issues beneath the deliberately rustic surface of his poems. Frost's best work explores fundamental questions of existence, depicting with chilling starkness the loneliness of the individual in an indifferent universe.
Although Frost was forced to seek publication for his first poems in England, he became a public literary figure, almost an artistic institution, in America. While critical opinion concerning the importance of his poetry has varied, most critics agree that Frost's poems can be read and enjoyed on many levels. Frost received many honorary degrees and numerous awards, including four Pulitzer Prizes in poetry.
In the title-poem of New Hampshire, Robert Frost demurs at being thought a local poet; he says that his books are "against the world in general," and that to apply them more narrowly is to restrict his meaning.
This assertion Frost's readers outside New England are inclined to question. True, he is not local in the derogatory sense; he is not provincial. But to say that Frost is not a New England poet would be like saying that [Robert] Burns is not Scottish or that [John Millington] Synge is not Irish. For good and for evil his work is the distilled essence of New England, and from this fact spring both his marked limitations and his unique value. Frost himself, with his belief that "all poetry is the reproduction of the tones of actual speech," must admit that his language is local, that his diction and his rhythms bear much the same relation to the talk of New Hampshire farmers that Synge's bear to the talk of West Irish fisherfolk. But Frost's localism does not stop there: his characters and their life as he pictures it, the natural setting in which they live, the poet himself in his point of view and habit of mind, are all peculiarly local, for better and for worse. Only in so far as New England is not entirely unlike other regions and Yankees are not entirely inhuman, and in so far as poetry of marked excellence appeals to every one, can Frost claim to write for "the world in general."Frost's district does not cover all New England even; it is confined to the inland, to the hilly farm country. And needless to say, he concerns himself only with the present, not with the New England of witches, Jamaica rum, the slave trade, reform crusades, and elevated philosophizing. His is the New England which most of us know only from the verandas of summer hotels, a land of great natural loveliness, with a sprinkling of uncomfortably quaint natives,… strange fragments of for-gotten peoples, somehow more remote from us than the Poles and other immigrants who are settling the abandoned farms. (pp. 94-5)
Frost himself, by saying that he writes "against the world in general," intimates that he considers his characters not essentially different from the normal, average run of humanity; but west of the Hudson he will find few to agree with him. To the rest of us, they look like very queer fish indeed. In brief, what ails them is their ingrowing dispositions. Not merely the famous New England reserve: it is a positive lack of frankness, an innate love of indirectness and concealment, which leads them not only to hide their own thoughts and feelings and motives, but to assume, naturally, that others do the same. Out of this tendency grows a suspiciousness, a tortuous habit of mind, which is a constant source of surprise to the more credulous and easy-going alien. To them, an act of kindness which other folk would think the sheerest matter of course seems so unnatural, so momentous, that it must be sedulously concealed. Even more striking is the meanness and the pettiness of these people. Not that they are unfeeling or frigid; on the contrary, they attach an excessive, often a morbid, intensity of feeling to the merest trifles. This makes them touchy, always with a chip on their shoulder, often close to hysterics. Most of them show an extraordinary capacity for dislike, hatred, and contempt—which may explain why New England has been the nursery of so many great reformers.
A good example of this exaggerated emotionalism is found in "The Code": a farmer tells his hired man, who is unloading hay, "Let her come," and the farmhand, injured in his dignity by the order, dumps the whole load on his employer. A more startling instance is "The Vanishing Red": a miller, because he does not like an Indian's tone of voice, proceeds to drown the Indian. Evidently, what at most would make a normal man swear, makes a Frost character commit murder. The most terrible and tragic illustration of this morbid excess, though here the cause is not trivial, is "Home Burial," the story of a woman so sunk in her grief for her child, so deliberately and purposely sunk in it, that she has contracted a violent hatred of her husband and is all but outright insane. In much of Frost's work, particularly in North of Boston, his harshest book, he emphasizes the dark background of life in rural New England, with its degeneration sinking too often into total madness.
Frost apparently regards the woman in "Home Burial" as abnormal, but he seems to approve the hired man's "independence" in "The Code" and to find nothing out of the way in the miller's murder of the Indian in "The Vanishing Red." The explanation is not far to seek. These folk look normal to Frost because his own turn of mind is similar to theirs; his is the Yankee mind transmuted, raised to a higher level. Indirectness and suspiciousness are transformed in him into an extraordinary subtlety, which shows itself in his narratives as subtlety of analysis and portrayal of character, in his lyrics as subtlety of thought, feeling, and imagination. Similarly, he has all the Yankee intensity; but this keenness, instead of manifesting itself as meanness and pettiness, undergoes a metamorphosis and weights details with feeling and significance. Because he feels details so sharply, he is unexcelled for minute and exact observation. No less is Frost Yankee in his restraint. He surprises us, to alter [John] Keats' saying, by a fine deficiency—perhaps omission or suppression would be the better word. He never whips up his emotion or strives for a spurious effect. His flashes of intensity, when they come, are the more effective because his manner is uniformly easy and unforced. Even at his climaxes the language and the rhythm remain colloquial; his method is to build up a dramatic situation and then, in the same even tone of voice, to condense the whole into one touch…. (pp. 98-100)
To many tastes [Frost's] peculiar virtues may not appeal, but not his harshest critic would charge him with pretense. By the side of his genuineness most poetry of the day looks more than a little forced. He carries sincerity, indeed, to the point of absolute naturalness. It is a triumph of art to be so natural as Frost; only an expert artist could manage the feat. His is the ars celare artem with a difference: it is not merely that he attains the apparent ease which Horace had in mind, the classical simplicity, but that his poems seem spoken impromptu, not written at all, as if we overheard him speaking aloud. In part, of course, this is an amazing gift for mimicry, but it is more than that: to the mimetic skill is added a gift for condensation and selection and an exquisite sense of form, which give his work not only verisimilitude but also the typical and essential quality of high art. (pp. 100-01)
Frost's love of reality is so pronounced as to constitute a danger, though so far eluded, the danger to which [Henry David] Thoreau succumbed, of coming to feel that any fact, however insignificant, was important. None of his lines is more characteristic than the early "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor...
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Perhaps no poet in our history has put the best of the Yankee spirit into a book so completely, so happily, as Robert Frost. [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, greatest of the early New England group, was a citizen of the world—or shall we say of the other world. [John Greenleaf] Whittier was a Quaker, with something of the Yankee thrift of tongue. [Henry Wadsworth] Long-fellow was a Boston scholar, untouched by Yankee humor. [James Russell] Lowell had some of the humor, but he condescended to it, lived above it. Edwin Arlington Robinson came from New England, but his spirit did not stay there and his poetry escapes its boundaries…. But none of these is so completely the real Yankee, and so content to confess it in his...
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I am tempted to look upon [Robert Frost] as a major poet. A major poet is one who brings into a language and its poetry a new element of thought and experience, and a new twist of phraseology. (p. 29)
What is this new element which Frost has brought? It is difficult to define, because it is a quality of the man, of his whole personality and outlook on life. It is also something which is local, belonging to the people, the stock from which he springs. It is a characteristic of New England Puritanism, and its source may thus be traced back a long way until we find it originating in the Home Country, amongst the Quakers and Wesleyans of the eighteenth century. It is a complicated element (if that...
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Robert Frost's name is rarely heard among the exquisites of avant-garde. His poems are like those plants that flourish in the earth of the broad plains and valleys but will not strike root in more rarefied atmospheres. The fact remains that he is one of the world's greatest living poets. Frost, W. H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams are the contemporary poets in America whose styles are most intensely original, most unmistakably their own. Of the four, Frost is the only one to be widely read in terms of general circulation and the only one who has never been adequately subjected to the Higher Criticism of the doctores subtiles of the Little Magazines.
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A large body of criticism has been written on the poetry of Robert Frost, and we know the labels which have been used: nature poet, New England Yankee, symbolist, humanist, skeptic, synecdochist, anti-Platonist, and many others. These labels have their utility, true or half true as they may be. They point to something in our author. But the important thing about a poet is the kind of poetry he writes. (p. 118)
In any case, I do not want to begin by quarreling with the particular labels. Instead, I want to begin with some poems and try to see how their particular truths are operative within the poems themselves. (p. 119)
As a starting point I am taking one of Frost's best-known and...
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Together with "Birches," "Mending Wall," "The Road Not Taken," "After Apple-Picking," and a dozen or so other familiar descriptive pieces, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is one of Robert Frost's most admired poems. The beginning poetry student in particular is likely to take to it, for quite understandable reasons: its diction is unpretentious and subtly musical; it presents an engaging picture and hints at a "story" without too much taxing the imagination; it is short and seemingly unambiguous. And the teacher, from his side, likewise welcomes the opportunity to present a poem that can be enjoyed purely for its visual and verbal interest without having to be subjected to a rigorous search for "hidden...
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Frost has established himself securely in the position which Mark Twain created in the closing years of the last century—the position of American literary man as public entertainer. Frost brings to his rôle the grave face, the regional turn of phrase, the pithy generalization, and the salty experience which Twain before him brought to his listeners. He is the homespun farmer who assures his audiences that he was made in America before the advent of the assembly line, and he presides over his following with what is at once casual ease and lonely austerity.
Because the popularity surrounding Frost the public figure and hovering about his poetry has become the halo under which admirers enshrine his...
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Frost allies himself with Emerson, not Whitman, thereby demonstrating that he has resisted the temptation (so fatal because so self assuring) to take a way of poetry that only a person as tremendous as Whitman could take without losing his identity as poet. Even better than Emerson, Frost knows the dangers of too much inwardness. For this is clearly an Emersonian sentiment, and yet not quite the sort entertained by those readers of Frost who would make him "easier" than he is—a celebrant of hard-headed self-reliance, village style, a "sound" poet because somehow "traditional." Moreover, in the poems themselves, even this authentic Emersonianism is qualified, qualified by being projected always out of...
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Frost was the first American who could be honestly reckoned a master-poet by world standards. [Edgar Allan] Poe, Long-fellow, Whittier, and many more of his American predecessors had written good provincial verse; and Whitman, a homespun eccentric, had fallen short of the master-poet title only through failing to realize how much more was required of him. Frost has won the title fairly, not by turning his back on ancient European tradition, nor by imitating its successes, but by developing it in a way that at last matches the American climate and the American language. (p. ix)
Frost has always respected metre. When, during the Vers Libre period of the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties his poems...
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Robert Frost wrote some of the finest verse of our time. He created his own extraordinarily flat, "unpoetic" variant of the conversational idiom which has become the medium of most modern poetry. He restricted himself to the homeliest diction, to words largely of one or two syllables, a remarkable feat. And he countered this simplicity with a highly sophisticated rhetoric, with the devious twistings of the poem's development, with the irony of simple word and subtle thought. His diction was just right for the rural scene he chose in the face of the intimidating international subjects of [T. S.] Eliot and Pound, and just right, too, for its simple particulars. He was no doubt our master of the realistic particular....
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Frost was not a systematic thinker. He was against systems on principle…. Part of his suspiciousness toward "structure" lay in the fact that "wisdom" could so easily lose itself in questions of political or ideological debate, in "grievances" rather than "griefs."… But essentially he would have been suspicious of anything that implied a single answer. He was born too late to be reassured by Emerson's cheerful monism.
If the subjects of Frost's meditative poems tend to be disparate and inconclusive, simply "momentary stays against confusion," they at least deal with complex and important issues. Exploratory and speculative, they represent a lonely pondering on the central problems of existence:...
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[What Frost did] to American poetry was to insist that a poem must have definite form, be dramatic, and use voice tones to vary the "te tum" effect of traditional iambic meter. Although all three prescriptions reflect his belief that poetry should include the intonation of the speaking voice, his concern with form has philosophical implications as well. Frost writes about confusion, about the universal "cataract of death" that spins away to nothingness. Yet while he faces the chasm, he refuses to accede to its lure. Confusion is a universal state to be acknowledged as a kind of boundary against which man can act by creating form. No form is permanent, as Frost suggests in his famous phrase "a momentary stay against...
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[Let us consider Frost's] relation to his material…. [There are] some poems in which no narrator is specified, and others in which the centre of attention has been 'I,' 'he,' 'they,' and even 'we.' Frost has always been conscious of the artistic possibilities of such variation, and one reason for the narrative variety clearly lies in the poet's reluctance to be identified too closely with the speaker of his poems…. The angle of narration depends not on the reflection in subject-matter of autobiographical experience but, as in poets from whom he learned his trade, on the artistic needs of individual poems.
One has only to alter the pronoun in the first line of 'The Most of It' and read,...
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