The image of Robert Frost, both as poet and person, has been considerably tarnished since his death in 1963. As was the case with Hemingway and Faulkner, for example, exhaustive biographies have given him more shortcomings and flaws than the public was aware of or was prepared to accept in our “unofficial poet laureate.” Of course, the reaction against Frost had set in well before his death. But the publication of Lawrance Thompson and R. H. Winnick’s Robert Frost: The Later Years, 1938-1963, the third and final volume in the official biography, instigated some of the most irresponsible reviews and articles since Ezra Pound was awarded the Bollingen Prize for the Pisan Cantos. Frost was not only presented as a monster of selfishness and cruelty, but was somehow made responsible for his son’s suicide and his sister’s being committed to an asylum.
Admittedly, Frost is partly responsible for this sometimes hysterical reaction, for during his long career, with the help of Louis Untermeyer and other friends, he was careful to manipulate the public image of himself—which often resulted in unfortunate distortions. Then, as the various collections of letters and the three-volume biography were published, revealing his egoism, instability, prejudices and even an occasional “tendency to falsification,” a change in his image was inevitable. (No doubt, his surviving daughter Lesley has not improved matters by censoring The Family Letters of Robert and Elinor Frost.)
In any case, Richard Poirier’s often fresh and brilliant study of the major poems comes at a time when Frost’s reputation is at a low ebb. His book should go far in not only cleansing but adding new luster to the tarnished image of one of America’s major poets.
However, it needs to be said that, as good as it is, this is not quite the book his publishers claim. Poirier is not the first critic to emphasize Frost’s sophistication and subtlety, his stressing of the “sound of sense”—or, for that matter, to point up the “submerged metaphors of sex and love-making.” What Poirier does here is rescue Frost’s best work from his friends and protectors who consistently stressed his popular side—his lucidity, balance, and saneness—as well as from the certified modernists who dismiss all poetry that is not written in the manner of Pound and Eliot. He also frees some of the poems from the poet’s own misleading comments and asides.
The organization of Robert Frost is simplicity itself. After “A Preview” indicating his aims and method, Poirier takes up the major poems in a roughly chronological order—not the order in which they were published. “Beginnings” is a long chapter devoted to A Boy’s Will (he calls it “a portrait of the artist as a young man”) which includes a fresh examination of Frost’s grouping of these early lyrics. “Outward Bound” focuses on the major poems of North of Boston, Frost’s greatest achievement, revealing a continued need in the poet for freedom and form, home and “extra-vagance.” “Time and the Keeping of Poetry” examines the role of time and the permanence of art, and later chapters offer helpful discussions of such late poems as “Kitty Hawk” and “Directive.” Poirier is particularly effective in his analysis of what he labels Frost’s “work poems,” as well as those dealing with marriage.
Perhaps the critic’s aims and style can best be suggested by a quote from “To the Reader”:Frost is a poet of genius because he could so often make his subtleties inextricable from an apparent availability. The assumption that he is more easily read than are his contemporaries, like Yeats and Eliot, persists only in ignorance of the unique but equally strenuous kinds of difficulty which inform his best work. He is likely to be most evasive when his idioms are so ordinary as to relax rather than stimulate attention; he is an allusive poet, but in a hedging and off-hand way, the allusions being often perceptible only to the ear, and then just barely—in echoings of earlier poets like Herbert or...
(The entire section is 1680 words.)