illustrated portrait of American poet Robert Frost

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Frost, Robert (Vol. 1)

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Frost, Robert 1874–1963

Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, Frost celebrated especially the rural aspects of New England.

Besides the Frost that everybody knows there is one whom no one even talks about. Everybody knows what the regular Frost is: the one living poet who has written good poems that ordinary readers like without any trouble and understand without any trouble: the conservative editorialist and self-made apothegm-joiner, full of dry wisdom and free, complacent, Yankee enterprise…. It is this "easy" side of Frost that is most attractive to academic readers, who are eager to canonize any modern poet who condemns in example the modern poetry which they condemn in precept; and it is this side that has helped to get him neglected or depreciated by intellectuals—the reader of Eliot or Auden usually dismisses Frost as something inconsequentially good that he knew about long ago. Ordinary readers think Frost the greatest poet alive, and love some of his best poems almost as much as they love some of his worst ones. He seems to them a sensible, tender, humorous poet who knows all about trees and farms and folks in New England, and still has managed to get an individualistic, fairly optimistic, thoroughly American philosophy out of what he knows; there's something reassuring about his poetry, they feel—almost like prose. Certainly there's nothing hard or odd or gloomy about it.

These views of Frost, it seems to me, come either from not knowing his poems well enough or from knowing the wrong poems too well. Frost's best-known poems, with a few exceptions, are not his best poems at all;… [one] can make a list of ten or twelve of Frost's best poems that is likely to seem to anybody too new to be true. Here it is: "The Witch of Coös," "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep," "Directive," "Design," "A Servant to Servants," "Provide Provide," "Home-Burial," "Acquainted with the Night," "The Pauper Witch of Grafton" (mainly for its ending), "An Old Man's Winter Night," "The Gift Outright," "After Apple-Picking," "Desert Places," and "The Fear."… [So] far from being obvious, optimistic, orthodox, many of these poems are extraordinarily subtle and strange, poems which express an attitude that, at its most extreme, makes pessimism seem a hopeful evasion; they begin with a flat and terrible reproduction of the evil in the world and end by saying: It's so; and there's nothing you can do about it; and if there were, would you ever do it? The limits which existence approaches and falls back from have seldom been stated with such bare composure.

Frost's virtues are extraordinary. No other living poet has written so well about the actions of ordinary men: his wonderful dramatic monologues or dramatic scenes come out of a knowledge of people that few poets have had, and they are written in a verse that uses, sometimes with absolute mastery, the rhythms of actual speech. (From "The Other Frost," pp. 26-33)

Frost is that rare thing, a complete or representative poet, and not one of the brilliant partial poets who do justice, far more than justice, to a portion of reality, and leave the rest of things forlorn. When you know Frost's poems you know surprisingly well how the world seemed to one man, and what it was to seem that way: the great Gestalt that each of us makes from himself and all that isn't himself is very clear, very complicated, very contradictory in the poetry. The grimness and awfulness and untouchable sadness of things, both in the world and in the self, have justice done to them in the poems, but no more justice than is done to the tenderness and love and delight; and everything in between is represented somewhere too, some things willingly and often and other things only as much—in Marianne Moore's delicate phrase—"as one's natural reticence will allow." If some of the poems come out of a cynical commonsense that is only wisdom's backward shadow, others come out of wisdom itself—for it is, still, just possible for that most old-fashioned of old-fashioned things, wisdom, to maintain a marginal existence in our world. (From "To the Laodiceans," pp. 34-62)

Randall Jarrell, in his Poetry and the Age (© 1953 by Randall Jarrell; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf-Vintage, 1953.

Literate America is not, for the most part, to be found in 'the country,' and in general the world of modern poetry has been dominated by a metropolitan consciousness. Frost gives us a welcome release, puts us in touch with something 'purer,' something idyllic, which is also real. But beneath the surface appeal there lurks a further and terrifying implication. At his most powerful Frost is as staggered by 'the horror' as Eliot and approaches the hysterical edge of sensibility in a comparable way. The consciousness at work in his poetry is neither that of a plain New England farmer nor that of a Romantic rediscoverer of primitive delights. His is still the modern mind in search of its own meanings. The aim is comparable to that of the Georgians, among whom Frost first found kindred sensibilities and became certain of his true bearings. Only his work is richer than theirs in every way: it includes the nostalgic, it 'proves' the pastoral pleasures, it savors the contemplative calm the ancient poets praised, but it also seeks to encompass the dreadful and the neurasthenia-breeding aspects of man's existence as the modern consciousness feels them.

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (© 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 110-11.

An Evening's Frost is easily the high point of the new season—a modest enough compliment, but a heartfelt one.

Most of it was written by Frost himself, so it contains some real language: not spastic wisecracks or eclectic chitchat, but the real stuff, coarse, personal, sly; shaped and hardened like an old man's face by geologic layers of experience and cunning. Since Frost had only one good voice, you could hardly make a decent verse play out of it; but you can turn its narrow, incantatory power onto Frost himself, and this is what Donald Hall has done, with considerable success.

Frost's writings, when assembled in this way, are not only pretty to listen to, but dramatically intriguing; for Frost is in a way a genuine dramatic creation. Although his poems are seldom directly about himself, they justify T. S. Eliot's accusation "self-centered." Each of them does a job for Frost: each of them projects the persona. He is never off-guard for a moment.

Wilfrid Sheed, "An Evening's Frost" (1965), in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; © 1968 by Postrib Corp.; foreword © 1971 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 138-41.

Readers seem unwilling to discriminate between [Frost's] poems, preferring to consider them together as parts of some one great poem which constitutes a sort of life record. It would be an overstatement to say that Frost the culture hero is more in demand than Frost the poet. But there is a strong tendency to value Frost's poems as phases in the story of the poet's triumph in making sense of his own experience, rather than to suppose that in a life one cannot ever have the skill or the information to judge, Frost wrote a number of poems each of which, when read by itself, can make sense of reality for us….

The merits of Frost's style are the result of his ability to make language function as the utterance of someone speaking. And the merits of his ideas are the result of their being true. But it is Frost's power to conceive a whole world of circumstances that counts most, for only there are the words speech and the statements meaningful enough to be true….

There is in Frost a strange discrepancy between intellectual daring and rockbound conviction. He may speak of the kind of poem he writes as 'a momentary stay against confusion,' he may stress the need to meet each moment freshly, the touch-and-go nature of reason, the necessity to stake all on a metaphor; but Frost's rashness is balanced by a conservatism which remains loyal to its prejudices forever…. However venturesome Frost's speculations may be, they exist within a set of beliefs he never questions, and, indeed, often delights in proclaiming beyond question. If a few decades ago these sacred premises were thought to present a merely political riddle, now they are ignored altogether in favor of Frost's seemingly free play of mind. And, to be sure, as opinions these beliefs are mere prejudices; but they are much more than that, or evidences of much more. They manifest the assumed world within which Frost's theories are examined and his experiences occur; and this world must remain absolutely unquestioned if Frost's ideas or objects are to be seen at all. In the weaker poems, the assumed world is so vague that the poet's adventures, like some of Tom Sawyer's, risk too little to matter. In the best of Frost's poems, however, this world is the source of all feeling, the ground of all belief.

John F. Lynen, "The Poet's Meaning and the Poem's World," in The Southern Review, Vol. II, No. 4, Autumn, 1966, pp. 800-16.

At his simplest, his most rhythmical and cryptic, Frost is a remarkable poet. In deceptively "straight" syntax and in rhymes that are like the first rhymes one thinks of when one thinks of rhymes, Frost found his particular way of making mysteries and moral-judgments start up from the ground under the reader's feet, come out of the work one did in order to survive and the environment in which both the work and the survival prolonged themselves, leap into the mind from a tuft of flowers, an ax handle suddenly become sin itself, as when "the snake stood up for evil in the garden." This individualizing and localizing way of getting generalities to reveal themselves—original sin, universal Design, love, death, fate, large meanings of all kinds—is a major factor in Frost's approach, and is his most original and valuable contribution to poetry. Like most procedures, it has both its triumphs and its self-belittlements, and there are both good Frost poems and awful ones, not as dissimilar as one might think, to bear this out.

James Dickey, "Robert Frost" (1966), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 200-09.

As a poet with a speculative interest in ideas, Frost is referred to as a metaphysical lyrist. I can only think it must mean that the mode of his imagination does not represent a recording of realities; such, for example, as Stendhal meant when he called a novel "a mirror carried along the highway." Instead the mode of his imagination represents a way of seeing and feeling the reality of the world as well as discovering what is common in experience but obscured perhaps by what Coleridge called "the film of familiarity" until Frost's insight and idiom put it in common possession. To borrow a provocative phrase from Wallace Stevens, Frost engages his world as "the spirit's alchemiciana." This is surely what he means when he says of the poet's subject matter: "It should have happened to everyone but it should have occurred to no one before as material."…

As a poet of place, ideas, and tones of voice, is there an unconscious as well as conscious motivation in Frost's poetry? If his avowed motivation is to bring "the sound of sense" to book, from what angle of vision does he make his approach? He has been variously identified as a classical poet, a symbolist, a poet in the pastoral tradition, an Emersonian romantic, a localist, a revisionist, a spiritual drifter, a diversionist, and an ordinary man. A willing player of this game, he is self-described as an environmentalist, a realmist, a synecdochist. Whatever he may be, essentially what is intriguing to the reader is a motivation more felt than stated. "Creation," he once said, "has its end implicit in the beginning but not foreknown." In approaching a poem "as an adventure," he always denied he knew the end. "What," he asked "do you go into a poem for? To see if you can get out." He often used the image of dawning as explanatory of the genesis of a poem. The experience was like a disclosure, like the dawning of a thought, a new day. He was stubborn about this contention and consequently implacably opposed to Poe's ex post facto explanation of the genesis of "The Raven" in the famous explanation in "The Philosophy of Composition." In "The Constant Symbol" he clarified his angle of vision. "The freshness of a poem," he said, "belongs absolutely to its not having been thought out and then set to verse as the verse in turn might be set to music. A poem is the emotion of having a thought while the reader waits a little anxiously for the success of dawn." Calculation, then, is hardly one of the benchmarks in his poetic profession. Some unconscious motivation is contributory to the poem. The poet is taking a chance and the risk is a challenge to his craftsmanship.

Reginald L. Cook, "Robert Frost's Constellated Sky," in Western Humanities Review, Summer, 1968, pp. 189-98.

Frost's great appeal to his fellow Americans, which in his latter years amounted to veneration, perhaps lay in his projection of a kind of father image—the image of what Americans think a poet should look like and be: homespun, self-reliant, Yankee-shrewd and full of mellow, ripe wisdom which only the hoary, patriarchial [sic] old age Robert Frost achieved could bring.

Bernard Dekle, "Robert Frost: Poetry Came Naturally," in his Profiles of Modern American Authors, Charles E. Tuttle, 1969, pp. 32-7.

Those poems of [Frost's] that deal with what we commonly call nature are concerned with human nature, from the turns and whimsicalities of mood in response to natural occasions to our perilous "hold on the planet" and our faith or lack of it in human destiny. He could find in woods and flora and spring pools parables of the human situation, but he did not mystically or romantically identify man with nature. He kept the distinction between them sharp and clear. Frost was not so much a nature poet, if there is such a thing, as a country poet….

Everyone who reads Frost feels, I suppose, that in some sense he was a deeply religious man, if only in the sense that his poems are emotionally charged with an ultimate piety. But beyond this it is difficult to ascribe to him a definite religious position. Unquestionably he believed in a God of some sort, but what sort it would be hard to say. He could be very flip about divinity in private conversation, and I think he was actually repelled by the Christ and the Mary of the traditional Christian scheme.

Theodore Morrison, "Frost: Country Poet and Cosmopolitan Poet" (© 1970 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), in Yale Review, Winter, 1970, pp. 179-96.

Frost's conception of man's relation to an unpredictable universe is one which should especially appeal to men in the twentieth century. At a time when old values are being attacked by the thinking and unthinking alike, when the belief in God as the director of individual man's destiny is being questioned in theological as well as in secular circles, when the future seems filled with ominous perils which statesmen in their candid moments admit that they frequently lack the wisdom to avert, then Frost's myth of the individual dodging, at times retreating, but never cowering has a special appeal for men facing an uncertain and perilous world. Independence and courage such as Frost teaches may indeed have survival value.

Arthur M. Sampley, "The Myth and the Quest: The Stature of Robert Frost," in South Atlantic Quarterly (© 1971 by the Duke University Press), Summer, 1971, pp. 287-98.

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