Discuss Robert Frost's themes of modernism, such as urbanization, loneliness, and individualism, with reference to "Mending Wall," "Oven Bird," and "Acquainted with the Night." 

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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...

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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.

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While critics disagree about Frost's place as a modernist poet (many argue that he is a pastoral poet... one concerned more with the sensuality of nature than the angst of the modern man) several of his poems are rife with modernist themes, particularly loneliness, isolation, and frustration.

Of the three you list here, "Acquainted with the Night" offers perhaps the most overt modernist approach. The speaker's sense of being alone in, if not an outright hostile world, is certainly not a world that is an ally to the individual. The speaker walks in the darkness "in rain -- and out of rain." In a brief encounter with the night watchman, he shuns human interaction. He hears footsteps and stops; he hears a cry and does not respond or investigate. All of these combine to give a sense of the modernist sense of being both distanced from others and isolated within the self. 

"Mending Wall" shares the modernist themes of separate-but-together. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," the poem begins, "That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, / And spills the upper boulders in the sun; / And makes gaps even two can pass abreast." Modern man wants to make boundaries, but nature seems bent on throwing men together, making him fight again and again to maintain his foolish sense of privacy. The famous line "Good fences make good neighbors" comes from this poem, but there is no such thing as a stable fence or a good neighbor. 

"The Oven Bird" is Frost's rather tongue-in-cheek take on those earlier, Romantic poets whose "birdsong," their poems, were active only in sunny, happy, pastoral conditions. Says critic George Montiero, "Unlike those poets who can burst into song only in the spring, [Frost] has learned the ovenbird's paradoxical trick. He has learned how to sing an unlyrical song in those times that are not at all conducive to joyous song." Modern times, for Frost, for many modernist writers, were hardly conducive to joyous times. 

 

 

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