At first glance, Robert Frost doesn’t seem to have much in common with the experimental poetry of the Modernist writers; his poetry often relies on traditional forms, rhymes, and blank verse. Frost famously said that “writing free verse was like playing tennis with the net down”; he didn’t "break...
At first glance, Robert Frost doesn’t seem to have much in common with the experimental poetry of the Modernist writers; his poetry often relies on traditional forms, rhymes, and blank verse. Frost famously said that “writing free verse was like playing tennis with the net down”; he didn’t "break the rules" like other Modernist poets who wanted to be free of poetic limitations. However, even though his forms are traditional, he shares many thematic connections with Modernist writers, and many critics point to this “darker” aspect in his poems. In “Mending Wall,” “The Oven Bird,” and “Acquainted with the Night,” one can note an increasing sense of Modernist themes such as a sense of fragmentation, a sense of loss, and a sense of loneliness arising when one is cut off from nature and people.
“Mending Wall” (published in 1914) is about the forces of fragmentation that threaten to break things apart. The speaker tells the story of how he and his neighbor work together every spring to build up the rock fence between their lands. They fix the wall, even though they know every spring they will have to redo their work because the “frozen-ground-swell” will continue to tear apart their efforts. While his neighbor insists on his ability to control the natural world and keep it in order, relying on his father’s saying that “Good fences make good neighbors,” the speaker questions this tradition. He jokes that he must cast spells on the rocks in order to keep them in place: “Stay where you are until our backs our turned.” Nature is shown as breaking down what people build up, mocking our attempts at “civilization.” Yet despite emphasizing how things fall apart, the poem remains light-hearted in tone as the speaker playfully pokes fun at his neighbor’s ideas, saying “spring is the mischief in me.”
Frost’s tone shifts in “Oven Bird” (published in 1916). Unlike “Mending Wall,” which is set in the spring time, the setting is no longer spring but instead is now mid-summer. In mid-summer, there is abundant evidence to show that the natural world is starting to decline, and there is a sense of mourning for such loss. “Leaves are old” and the flower blooms have all gone due to “sunny days a moment overcast.” Despite evidence of the coming fall (not just a seasonal reference, of course, but also a biblical allusion to the Garden of Eden), this bird sings, even though “he knows in singing not to sing.” The bird is trying to figure out how to continue to sing (singing being a metaphor for writing poetry) in such “diminished” times, times that have been diminished by war, loss of faith, and loss of traditions. “Dust is over all.” And yet, the bleakness of the poem is lifted by the sense of the rhythm of nature. Although it is the time of decay, one can always look forward to the next cycle of life. Spring will come again.
In the final poem, “Acquainted with the Night” (published in 1928), there is no spring. There is no mid-summer. In fact, we don’t know what the season is. We are trapped in a world of only night. In this later poem, we see Frost’s darkness truly emerge. We cannot outwalk this darkness. The darkness separates us from others; the speaker cannot bear to lift his eyes to make eye contact with the watchman. He is even separated from his own sounds, as the noise that his feet make simply become a part of the sounds of the city. We have nothing to build in this poem, not even the temporary wall, like we did in “Mending Wall,” and we have nothing to sing about, not even about diminished things, like we did in “The Oven Bird.” There is no more striving. The only potential source of meaning is the strange “luminary clock” lighting up the night at an “unearthly height,” but even this clock has failed to provide any marking of time. It too is cut off and trapped in negation: “neither wrong nor right.” The clock emphasizes the loneliness of the speaker, cut off from humanity and nature and trapped in a meaningless dark time.