Robert Francis Francis, Robert (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Robert Francis 1901-1987

American poet, essayist, and novelist.

Francis may be thought of as a poet's poet: he has been much celebrated by fellow poets, but little acknowledged by literary critics and the reading public. His poetry is frequently compared to that of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, and his lifestyle and sensibilities to those of Henry David Thoreau. Francis's work is characterized by short poems, simple and elegant in form, written in plain, colloquial speech, and filled with concise, vivid descriptions of concrete objects from nature.

Biographical Information

Robert Churchhill Francis was born on August 12, 1901, in Upland, Pennsylvania to Ebenezer and Ida May Allen Francis. He graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in 1923 and a master's degree in education in 1926. Shortly thereafter he moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, where he taught high school for a year before devoting himself full-time to writing poetry. Throughout most of his adult life Francis lived very simply on the meager income from his poetry, in a home he built himself and named Fort Juniper, in the woods on the outskirts of Amherst. Francis's self-imposed isolation and simplicity has often been compared to that of Thoreau, who wrote Walden based on his experiences living in a small cabin in the wilderness of Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century. As a young poet Francis met Frost, who became his mentor and a major influence on his writing. In addition to writing poetry, Francis occasionally taught at summer writers' workshops and conferences, and lectured at various universities around the country, including Harvard and Tufts, as well as the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. From 1957 to 1958 Francis lived in Rome, on the Prix de Rome fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1974 the University of Massachusetts Press established the Juniper Prize in his honor, and he received a fellowship award from the Academy of American Poets in 1984. Francis died on July 13, 1987, in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Major Works

Francis's first volume of poetry, Stand With Me Here (1936), was well received as a promising work of lyrical beauty. Valhalla and Other Poems (1938) features “Valhalla,” a long narrative poem about a family who moves to Vermont, seeking a better life through proximity to nature. The Sound I Listened For (1944) speaks of the New England countryside. The Face against the Glass (1950), The Orb Weaver (1960),Come Out into the Sun (1965), and Like Ghosts of Eagles (1974), continue Francis's concern with the simple beauty of nature, as captured through concise, concrete description, and the musical qualities of plain, everyday language. In addition to volumes of poetry, Francis wrote a novel, We Fly Away (1948), a collection of essays, The Satirical Rogue on Poetry (1968), and an autobiography, The Trouble with Francis (1971).

Critical Reception

Francis was much admired by his peers. Robert Frost considered him America's “best neglected poet,” and Donald Hall called him “a modern American classic.” Such supporters have often lamented that Francis has not received greater attention from critics, and that his poems are often excluded from major anthologies of American poetry. Those who have reviewed his work, however, have been almost uniformly enthusiastic about it. As a New England nature poet, Francis has often been compared to Frost, Dickinson, and Thoreau. Like Frost, Jack Lindeman has observed, Francis “is a type of bucolic philosopher … who translates the wisdom of nature into a means for achieving human contentment.” His poems have been admired for their use of colloquial language and concrete images which display an apparent simplicity that, upon closer examination, reveal a hidden depth and profundity. Critics have frequently praised Francis's craftsmanship, pointing to the formal elegance of his poetry; they add, however, that his finest pieces transcend mere craft, and possess a magical quality not explicable through formal analyses. As David Young has observed, “When one has pointed out the technical mastery of a Francis poem, one has only partly accounted for its effectiveness. There's a mysterious something beyond technique in his best poems.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Stand With Me Here 1936

Valhalla and Other Poems 1938

The Sound I Listened For 1944

The Face against the Glass 1950

The Orb Weaver 1960

Come Out into the Sun: Poems New and Selected 1965

Like Ghosts of Eagles 1974

Robert Francis: Collected Poems, 1936-1976 1976

We Fly Away (novel) 1948

The Satirical Rogue on Poetry (essays) 1968

The Trouble with Francis (autobiography) 1971

David Morton (review date 1938)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Valhalla and Other Poems, in The New York Times Book Review, October 23, 1938, p. 10.

[In the following review, Morton praises Francis's “Valhalla” as a narrative poem on the timeless theme of “a family seeking its heaven on earth.” He comments that, in the Depression era, this theme is particularly poignant.]

The second book of a new poet is a crucial phenomenon—for poet, publisher and reader. Those who took special delight in Robert Francis's Stand With Me Here, two years ago, need have no misgivings about opening Valhalla. The first book was something more than promising; the second carries the achievement farther—and in a new direction. Valhalla is narrative, with narrative's first requisite, a good story. In any period of the world's affairs the vicissitudes of a family seeking its heaven on earth so deliberately, so persistently, so thoughtfully, would be provocative reading. At the moment of Valhalla's publication the theme has an interest more than ordinarily acute. The beauty is in the passion that informs the quest, in the delicate and profound feeling that attends its incidents, and in the lyrical intensity of the writing.

The line that the narrative follows is direct enough. John and Edith, with their children, have moved to a hill farm in Vermont, on the adventure of shaping life toward its greatest beauty...

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Philip Booth (review date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Orb Weaver, in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 52, No. 76, February 25, 1960, p. 11.

[In the following review, Booth offers a favorable assessment of The Orb Weaver, comparing Francis to Emily Dickinson.]

Robert Francis is clearly “The Orb Weaver” of his own poems, thick as they are with “The art, the craftsmanship, the cunning. / The patience, the self-control, the waiting. / The sudden dart and the needled poison” of words woven to net both sound and sense.

The poems invite a reader in to share what's common enough. “Squash in Blossom,” “Tomatoes,” or “Waxwings”; but like that other Amherst poet who caught intimations of the universe in the buzz of a backyard fly, Mr. Francis spins his verbal web to capture whatever images vibrate with a meaning of their own.

Like Emily Dickinson, Robert Francis sometimes claims more meaning than his images earn, but his best poems are sustained on their own terms, which ask no less than that readers share in the bright immediacy of the images. Like Hopkins, Mr. Francis charges his lines with language, demanding that a reader not only hear, but feel, whatever is “swift, slow; sweet, sour, adazzle, dim.”

Heavily stressed and alliteratively textured as his lines are, Mr. Francis works his poems with sharply-simple words; his gardens grow, his mountains move, but his chief pleasure is less in the movement of nature than in the nature of movement; he is at his best in poems about a “Pitcher,” “Two Wrestlers,” or “Boy Riding Forward Backward”:

Presto, pronto! Two-boys, two horses.
But the boy on backward riding forward.
Is the boy to watch.

Jack Lindeman (review date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Three Poets,” in Poetry, Vol. 97, No. 2, November, 1960, pp. 109-10.

[In the following excerpt, Lindeman offers a favorable review of Francis's The Orb Weaver, comparing the poet to Robert Frost.]

The Orb Weaver is Robert Francis's fifth book of poems. The attitude, style and tone are much the same as they were in 1938. His world is rural New England, but not a New England which has undergone any significant changes during the past twenty-five years. It is a world of personal observations made within a quiet, peaceful, static environment walled off from the loud, blaring events of Mr. Auden's “age of anxiety.”

Though Mr....

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Dick Allen (review date 1966)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Come Out into the Sun, in Antioch Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1966, pp. 276-277.

[In the following review, Allen provides a favorable assessment of Francis's Come Out into the Sun, expressing the opinion that Francis deserves a wider audience for his poetry.]

Another New Englander, Robert Francis, escaped the past long ago. His new and selected poems confirm his stature. Francis is a poet to be read and reread, a poet who shapes his lines to perfect forms, graceful, unforced balances. Listen to him in “Hogwash”:

What beside sports and flowers could you find
To praise better than the American language?
Bruised by American foreign policy
What shall I soothe me, what defend me with
But a handful of clean unmistakable words—
Daisies, daisies, in a field of daisies?

Or in “The Articles of War”:

Somebody next, who knows? may try
Resigning from the human race,
Somebody aghast at history,
Haunted by hawk's eyes in the human face.
Somebody—could it be I?

or in these lines from “Skier”: “He swings down like the flourish of a pen / Signing a signature in white on white.”

I could quote Francis for pages. I, and many other poets, have been reading him for years—time after time taking out his books and finding in ourselves an emotion akin to love, as we are continually given a needed knowledge of the evenness won out of terrible calm with which he confronts the world. He is a poet who deserves a much wider audience. I hope Come Out into the Sun gains it for him.

Paul Ramsey (review date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Faith and Form: Some American Poetry of 1976,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 85, No. 3, July, 1977, pp. 537-38.

[In the following review, Ramsey offers a favorable assessment of Francis's Collected Poems, pointing to the many good and “extremely good” poems in the collection.]

Robert Francis's Collected Poems 1936-1976 presents us with a career to be admired, to be enjoyed, to be examined with careful respect. Francis is almost infallibly a good poet, at ease with the graces of the iambic line, a clear eye looking at nature, a man quietly stoic, or rejoicing, or loving, or amused. Robert Frost is a strong influence, though Francis has tempered...

(The entire section is 404 words.)

Donald Hall (review date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Two Poets Named Robert,” in Ohio Review, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1977, pp. 110-25.

[In the following excerpt, Hall compares the praise and recognition heaped upon the poet Robert Lowell with the undeserved neglect of Francis by literary critics. Hall offers a favorable assessment of Francis's Collected Poems.]

In 1976 Robert Lowell published his Selected Poems, two hundred and thirty-eight pages taken from Lord Weary's Castle, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, Life Studies, For the Union Dead, Near the Ocean, Notebooks, Notebook, History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin. Four of the last five volumes involve duplication, because...

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Howard Nelson (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Moving Unnoticed: Notes on Robert Francis's Poetry,” in The Hollins Critic, Vol. 14, No. 4, October, 1977, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, Nelson provides an overview of the central themes and stylistic elements of Francis's poetry.]


September, 1976, marked the publication of the Collected Poems of an American poet who at seventy-six has written quietly over the past half-century a body of poems which deserves to be celebrated. The poet is Robert Francis. His career was long characterized by a lack of recognition—Robert Frost called him America's “best neglected poet”—and even after the publication of The Orb...

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Alberta Turner (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Permitting Craft,” in Field, No. 25, Fall, 1981, pp. 20-2.

[In the following essay, Turner examines Francis's “Silent Poem,” not for his “craftmanship”—which has been thoroughly explored by other critics—but for the subtle qualities of the poem which go beyond the mere “craft” of poetry.]


backroad                    leafmold                    stonewall                    chipmunk
underbrush                    grapevine                    woodchuck                    shadblow
woodsmoke                    cowbarn                    honeysuckle                    woodpile...

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David Walker (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Francis Reading and Reading Francis,” in Field, No. 25, Fall, 1981, pp. 28-30.

[In the following essay, Walker discusses “Remind Me of Apples” as an example of Francis's skills as a poet.]


When the cicada celebrates the heat,
Intoning that tomorrow and today
Are only yesterday with the same dust
To dust on plantain and on roadside yarrow—
Remind me, someone, of the apples coming,
Cold in the dew of deep October grass,
A prophecy of snow in their white flesh.
In the long haze of dog days, or by night
When thunder growls and prowls but will not go
Or come, I lose the memory...

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Robert Wallace (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Excellence of ‘Excellence,’” in Field, No. 25, Fall, 1981, pp. 15-18.

[In the following essay, Wallace discusses the poem “Excellence” as an example of the formal elements of Francis's poetry which make his works “magical.”]


Excellence is millimeters and not miles.
From poor to good is great. From good to best is small.
From almost best to best sometimes not measurable.
The man who leaps the highest leaps perhaps an inch
Above the runner-up. How glorious that inch
And that split-second longer in the air before the fall.

In an era of the Avant-Avant-Garde, Robert Francis,...

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Richard Wilbur (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “On Robert Francis' ‘Sheep,’” in Field, No. 25, Fall, 1981, pp. 23-5.

[In the following essay, Wilbur discusses Francis's poem “Sheep” in terms of its simple formal elements, as well as its more profound implications.]


From where I stand the sheep stand still
As stones against the stony hill.
The stones are gray
And so are they.
And both are weatherworn and round,
Leading the eye back to the ground.
Two mingled flocks—
The sheep, the rocks.
And still no sheep stirs from its place
Or lifts its Babylonian face.

I think...

(The entire section is 864 words.)

David Young (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Robert Francis and the Bluejay,” in Field, No. 25, Fall, 1981, pp. 8-11.

[In the following essay, Young discusses Francis's poem “Bluejay” in terms of its formal and thematic elements.]


So bandit-eyed, so undovelike a bird
to be my pastoral father's favorite—
skulker and blusterer
whose every arrival is a raid.
Love made the bird no gentler
nor him who loved less gentle.
Still, still the wild blue feather
brings my mild father.

It is a troublesome fact that Robert Francis, at the age of 80, is still so little known. His modest and retired life near Amherst,...

(The entire section is 984 words.)

Richard Gillmann (review date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Color, Energy, Action,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 102, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. xi-xiii.

[In the following review, Gillmann provides a favorable assessment of Francis's collection Late Fire, Late Snow.]

Before opening this new volume of poems by a man who many believe was one of America's finest poets when he died in 1987, the reader might want to look at the back of the dustjacket.

There, in a two by three-and-a-half inch photograph, is the face of Robert Francis, his head angled, staring out at us from behind and between a woman at the left, only a slice of her face and hair revealed, and, to the right, a small part of a furrowed brow...

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Andrew Stambuk (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Learning to Hover,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Winter, 1999, Vol. 45, No. 4, p. 534–52.

[In the following essay, Stambuk discusses the influence of Robert Frost on Francis, and compares the works of the two poets.]

In Robert Francis's reminiscence of Robert Frost, A Time to Talk, the entry dated April 4, 1932, contains a poem published the day before in the Springfield Republican and Union. Francis wrote the poem to commemorate Frost's arrival at Amherst. Here are its final stanzas:

Best of all—you've heard?—he comes to stay.
This is his home now. He is here for good.
To leave us now would be running away.
(I too...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Sherman, Carl E. “‘Man Working’—Profile of Robert Francis.” Book Forum 3, No. 3 (1977): 436-41.

An interview with Francis, at age 75, in his home of Fort Juniper.


Abbe, George. “Glimpses of Robert Francis.” In The Old Century and the New: Essays in Honor of Charles Angoff, edited by Alfred Rosa, pp. 152-85. London: Associated University Presses, 1978.

Relates the course of the critic's personal friendship with Francis over a period in which the poet descended into mental illness and became increasingly isolated.

“The Satirical Rogue...

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