Robert Frost

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Frost, Robert (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frost, Robert 1874–1963

One of America's most celebrated and widely read poets, Frost wrote poems depicting rural New England life in traditional verse and a seemingly simplistic style. Concerned with the human ability to develop an individual identity in a world bent against the individual, Frost was a poet who, according to Elizabeth Jennings, used "the pastoral mode as a vehicle for his inquiries into the nature and meaning of life." Frost's recognition as a great poet has lasted for more than fifty years and he won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry four times. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 4.)

The main difficulty in assessing, as in enjoying, Robert Frost is the extreme interdependence of his poetic virtues and vices. The agricultural canniness-within-canniness, the cracker-barrel philosophizing and the manly-coy flatness of tone yield so many dead acres it comes hard to admit these very qualities produce the best of the crop. And the best is so extraordinarily good, while so similar in persona, verse-method and aim, as to make the reader doubt whether the worst can be quite as bad as he thinks. Yet surely it is.

Which is not to say that Frost is a poet who does one thing either marvellously well or abysmally badly. He is a versatile writer, not only exploiting narrative, dramatic, lyric and argumentative forms in a wide variety of ways but accomplishing a multiplicity of effects. For instance, in addition to the major lyrics, "The Death of the Hired Man" is surely one of the best short stories of the century, "The Witch of Coös" and "Paul's Wife" important contributions to ghost and science fiction, and "To Earthward" a love poem that in tenderness, reach and music ranks with the best of the age…. [Views] have always been sharply divided on the point where the Frostian virtues, over-indulged, descend into self-caricature…. At [an] extreme of opinion on Frost's colloquial method is Yvor Winters's Johnsonian pronouncement that since poetry is very obviously not conversation, there is no virtue in its being conversational. That, in Frost's case, is surely wrong; his folksy tone may dilute and deaden longer poems, and it certainly makes for some heavy-handed satire, but it works to marvellous effect in many of the lyrics, especially when riding in unlikely harness with a very different sort of language: his own brand of high romantic rhetoric. In a similar way Frost's craggy pragmatism and determinedly no-nonsense pose coexist with a habitual and unreigned mysticism….

[Another] vulgarization that turns good Frost into bad [is] the over-exploitation of his genuine (and considerable) charm, the determination to please at all costs. The eagerness to displease is so prevalent in contemporary poetry that one feels Frost might be pardoned his more agreeable weakness; nevertheless it is a cloying defect and something more than that….

[Ian Hamilton contends in the introduction to Selected Poems] that Frost, by hogging the stage with his honest-to-goodness homely old wiseacre act, obscured—and deliberately obscured—his true, unbeautiful and superbly treated subject. Whether or not Mr. Hamilton is entirely right in this (however phoney the persona, is it not often put to remarkable poetic uses?), he is surely correct, with Lionel Trilling, in identifying that subject as the terminal desolation of life, the futility at the root, with the poet "yearning for the conditions to be otherwise". At the still centre of Frost's world is a terrifying blankness, caught unforgettably in such pieces as "Acquainted with the Night", "Neither Out Far nor In Deep" and that extraordinary poem, "The Most of It".

"Bad and Best," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), October 19, 1973, p. 1278.

Robert Frost in conversation and in his letters vacillated from one extreme to the other in religion, and his attitudes were more changeable than Aleutian winds. From youth to age he may have moved from some belief to...

(The entire section is 12,497 words.)