Frost, Robert (Lee)
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.
T. K. Whipple
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...
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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 poetry, as this "plain New Hampshire farmer."… (p. 59)
There are three or four facets of this local tang in Mr. Frost's art. One is the rural background—landscape, farms, animals. We have this more or less in all the poems, and specifically in a number—Birches, The Woodpile, The Mountain, The Cow in Apple-time, The Runaway and others. And close to these are the poems of farm life, showing the human reaction to nature's processes—Mowing, Mending Wall, The Axe-helve, After Apple-picking, Putting in the Seed and others. Then there are the narratives or dialogues presenting aspects of human character: some of them dryly satirical, with a keen but always sympathetic humor, like The Code; others,...
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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 is not a contradiction in terms). It is a combination of quietism, piety with its underlying enthusiasm, suspicion of this world and especially of the world of man, self-restraint with its ever-imminent abandonment, humility with its threat of arrogance. There is a negativeness about these forces. They have a sort of dove-grey colour, like the cloak of a Quakeress. But how restful that colour is, how tender, how evocative of the latent beauty of all other hues with which it comes into contact! They represent a whole period of English history. It is that period which included the break away of the American branch, and established a community in New England more emphatic of the same power than the trunk from which it sprang.
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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.
On first reading, Frost seems easier than he really is. This helps account both for the enormous number of his readers, some of whom like him for wrong or irrelevant reasons, and for the indifference of the coteries, who become almost resentful when they can find no double-crostics to solve. Frost's cheerfulness is often mistaken as smug, folksy, Rotarian. This fact, plus his reputation for a solid New England conservatism, frightens away rebel youth and "advanced" professors.
In truth, his cheerfulness is the direct opposite of Mr. Babbitt's or even of Mr. Pickwick's. It is a Greek cheerfulness. And the apparent blandness of the Greeks was, as [Friedrich] Nietzsche showed in his Birth of Tragedy, the result of their having looked...
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Robert Penn Warren
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 most widely anthologized pieces, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."… It will lead us to the other poems because it represents but one manifestation of an impulse very common in Frost's poetry. (p. 120)
The poem does, in fact, look simple. A man driving by a dark woods stops to admire the scene, to watch the snow falling into the special darkness. He remembers the name of the man who owns the woods and knows that the man, snug in his house in the village, cannot begrudge him a look. He is not trespassing. The little horse is restive and shakes the harness bells. The man decides to drive on, because, as he says, he has promises to keep—he has to get home to deliver the groceries for supper—and he has miles to go...
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John T. Ogilvie
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 meanings." But, as experienced readers of this poem know, "Stopping by Woods" has a disconcerting way of deepening in dimension as one looks at it, of darkening in tone, until it emerges as a full-blown critical and pedagogical problem. One comes to feel that there is more in the poem than is given to the senses alone. But how is one to treat a poem which has so simple and clear a descriptive surface, yet which somehow implies a complex emotional attitude? (p. 64)
"Stopping by Woods," I believe, represents one of those junctures where the critic must enlarge on his findings through searching comparisons with other of the author's productions. Taken in isolation, "Stopping by Woods" gives only a partial view (and for some...
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James M. Cox
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 work, to many serious critics bent on assessing the value of the poetry this halo becomes a sinister mist clouding the genuine achievement. (pp. 73-4)
Yet Frost's success as a public figure, rather than being a calculated addition to his poetic career, is a natural extension of it, and one way to approach his poetry is to see that the character who moves in the poems anticipates the one who occupies the platform. They are in all essentials the same character—a dramatization of the farmer poet come out of his New England landscape bringing with him the poems he plays a rôle in. To observe this insistent regional stance is to realize that Frost has done, and is still doing, for American poetry what [William] Faulkner has...
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Roy Harvey Pearce
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 situations which are not quite "modern."… Frost has no interest in being a specifically "contemporary" poet—which is what Emerson felt he had to be, or perish. Moreover, in his poems Frost is master of all he surveys in a way that Emerson would never allow himself to be. Frost knows himself as person so well, he can record the knowledge in such exacting detail, that he never has occasion to celebrate the more general and inclusive concept of self which is everywhere the efficient cause of Emerson's poetry.
The gain is one of objectivity and precision. Unlike his prose (of which there is precious little), his poetry is not at all slippery. The loss is one of that inclusiveness and sense of ever-widening possibility,...
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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 were disdained as old-fashioned, he remarked disdainfully that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net. The Vers Librists, it should be explained, had rebelled against a degenerate sort of poetry in which nothing mattered except getting the ball neatly over the net. Few games are so wearisome to watch as a methodical ping-pong, ping-pong tennis match in which each player allows his opponent an easy forehand return from the same court. The Vers Librists, therefore, abandoned the tennis-net of metre altogether, and concentrated on rhythm. But though metre is boring without rhythm, the reverse is equally true. A rhythmic manipulation of metre means—in this tennis metaphor—so placing your shots that you force...
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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. Things magnified at his touch; they seemed to live. His themes were familiar to most, and appealed—though in widely varying degrees—to everyone: the exhaustion of living, the sense of imminent danger …, personal isolation, the need for community, etc. Frost is so good, so much pleasure to read that you wonder why he needs to be defended so often…. Is there some really critical defect in him, one that might explain why Frost never had the passionate following Eliot had? Why didn't Frost so affect us, so transform us that we had no choice but to be his?
What I want to do is to develop an aspect of Frost's poems which I feel represents such a defect…. My principal argument is that Frost never risked his life, his whole...
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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: man's identity and freedom, his relation to the natural world and the flux of time, his defenses against an engulfing chaos, the place of human suffering and the possibility of salvation. His poems are torn, as his life was, between affirmation and negation, and if the resolution of this conflict seems at best tenuous, that tenuousness is deliberate. Essentially a pragmatist, Frost was less concerned with chronicling the spirit of his age, as Eliot was, or with forging his insights into a philosophical system, as Wallace Stevens was, than with working out a practical modus vivendi, a way of making something out of the facts that life presented him with.
One extremity of the philosophical spectrum that Frost's mind...
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Donald J. Greiner
[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 confusion," but man may delight in chaos because it provides the opportunity for form. (p. 5)
When Frost applies his ideas about form to the art of poetry, he shifts his concern with universal chaos to the "wildness" of the creative impulse. The tension generated by the union of the untamed impulse and the countering restrictions of traditional meter and stanza forms reflects some of Frost's philosophical concerns as well as adds to the appeal of his poems. To abandon poetic form is to court chaos. One can thus understand his averson to free verse.
Frost also suggests that the absence of traditional form in poetry diminishes the dramatic element, a quality he prized. Calling on poets to show "a dramatic...
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W. J. Keith
[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,
I thought I kept the universe alone,
to begin to realize what is at stake. Although we tend to assume that the first person gives greater vividness and immediacy, and that vividness and immediacy are unquestionably desirable qualities, Frost's effect in this poem … clearly depends upon impersonality and detachment. We need to look down on the solitary human being by the side of the lake and watch the great buck blundering past him. So far as I am aware, there is no evidence that the poem was based on any autobiographical experience, but even if it were, Frost's point is not 'This is how I feel in relation to the natural world,' but 'This is every man's situation when...
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