Frost, Robert (Vol. 9)
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 skepticism and back toward belief, but at any given moment he could turn in any direction…. Biographers and critics use a word like essentially before Christian to describe Frost, but in his maturity, I believe, he never precisely described himself as Christian. He did maintain that he was orthodox, but how he defined orthodoxy may be a question. (p. 445)
Frost's statements about his religious beliefs and God are often enigmatic. Moral or intellectual or otherworldly terms cause ambiguity. At first glance what he says may seem to be certain and orthodox; a second look raises doubts. Often Frost reveals faith only in the possibilities of man. He describes the condition of the believer without regard for the divinity of the thing believed. His equation of the soul with decency and integrity affirms morality but denies religion. (p. 446)
Frost's statements of disbelief reach far greater extremes than his affirmations. Only an outright atheist could subscribe to some of them. Religion is "All froth." Despite the constant search for something in nature, the poet once concluded that "there's probably nothing 'up there' but a stockpile of nature observations that came from earth." Almost promising never to believe, Frost described himself as "safely secular till the last go down." And he stated that he had "never had a religious experience." He said that he "never prayed except formally and politely with the Lord's prayer in public." In short, any statement about Frost's religion at one time contradicts something he said at another time.
Frost's poetry does not reflect the wide variety of his prose statements about religion and God. The poems fall into only two chronological and religious categories. Those of some belief come mainly early and late in his life. They are weak artistically, and their religious assertions are superficial general statements without convincing and serious personae, without the concrete imagery and the emotional tensions of the better poems. Many of them seem to follow conventional patterns of prayer without the poet's making them a vital part of his poem. Frost could be sincerely religious, but the bad verse raises questions, rightly or wrongly, about his belief. It is difficult to see depth of faith in a shallow well of poetry. The poems of doubt come mostly in the middle of Frost's career; they are figured intricately in concrete images, groping personae, and dramatic tensions. (p. 447)
All Frost's poems that treat religion reach some middle height, some point between the realms of spirit and matter. Then the poet wavers between two poles, unhappy with mere matter, afraid of pure spirit, discontent with a middle, aware that no metaphor can perfectly combine matter and spirit. (p. 448)
Several of Frost's narrative and dramatic poems like "The Mountain" have obscure and subtle origins in religious belief. The meaning of "Maple" depends upon Frost's excellent use of a Biblical allusion and a religious subject. The chief character spends her life trying to discover why she was named Maple by her mother, who died shortly after childbirth…. Maple's mother left a maple leaf as a bookmark in a Bible. The girl reads the two pages, removes the leaf, and loses the place…. With the name and the maple leaf the mother had tried to leave her child an understanding of a relationship between herself, the child, God, and nature. The relationship is never comprehended by the child, who, as a representative of a generation of disbelief, puzzles over enigmas without solving them. Faith in one generation gives way to excessive and futile seeking in the next. (p. 451)
The strongest and most obvious indication of which direction Frost's lyric poetry would take in his middle years is found in "Birches," which has been popular not only because of the beautiful imagery early in the poem but also because of the directness of the conclusion. Religion begins to come to the surface:
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
"Toward heaven" but never to, never all the way. Frost fears transcendence. Despite all the apparent moralizing ("earth's the right place for love"), this passage is one of the most skeptical in Frost. He contemplates a moment when the soul may become completely absorbed into a union with the divine. But he is earthbound, limited, afraid. No sooner does he wish to get away from earth than he thinks of "fate"—rather than God. And what might be a mystical experience turns into a fear of death, a fear that he would be snatched away "not to return." He rejects the unknown, the love of God, because he cannot know it, and he clings to the finite: "Earth's the right place for love."
Between 1920 and 1923 Frost made the most significant change of his entire career in the form of his poetry. He clearly divides New Hampshire into fifteen narrative-dramatic poems at first, followed by thirty lyrics. The dividing poem is "I Will Sing You One-O," possibly chosen because it exactly sets the course for the prevailing subject and manner. This poem marks a sharp shift to lyrics which solemnly inquire into the place of man in the cosmos. It is a pivotal poem in the last complete collection of poems published in his lifetime. It is transitional in his entire poetic career.
After lying awake long at night listening for the sound of a clock striking the hour, the speaker of the poem at last hears clocks in a tower and in a steeple say "'One!'" These two clocks represent two established orders: The civil or human (the tower) and the religious (the steeple). Both derive their concepts of time from the natural order ("the sun/And moon and stars"), the only reference by which man, civil or religious, may attempt to establish a scheme of time based upon an ordering principle outside himself. But man's view of time and the eternities is so limited that his clocks are unreliable, "unfettered":
They left the named
And spoke of the lettered,
The sigmas and taus
That is, the eighteenth and nineteenth brightest stars of constellations, the remote and unknowable.
They filled their throats
With the furthest bodies
To which man sends his
Beyond which God is….
No matter how far man extends his exploration in the mysteries of astronomical space, God is even farther away, beyond the apprehension of mortals who attempt to establish time and fathom truth. The distance of man from God and of finite time from the eternal is emphasized perhaps by the remoteness (two lines intervene) of the feminine rhymes God is and bodies, which seem, however, to belittle God more than they exalt man. The humor usually associated with double rhyme becomes ironical and satirical. In God is the possible existence of the eternal is linked with a term which connotes extreme finiteness, bodies.
The next lines suggest the impersonality of God by describing the stars as "The cosmic motes/Of yawning lenses."… Frost … regretfully states the limitations of his own belief, and he sings of the absence of an ordering principle. What appears to be order in astronomical distance is violent chaos…. If man finds more "whirling frenzies" as he penetrates deeper into space, he also finds disorder and lawless energy omnipresent in time, in history, and in all man's attempts to see God…. (pp. 453-55)
The subject matter of Frost's lyrics is usually the place of the individual in his universe. The best poems treat three levels of being—man, nature, ultimate. No poem treats less than two of these three levels. Few develop relationships between man and man, between one individual and another. The speaker or the poet is usually the only major character in the poem. In the best lyrics communication between man and nature or man and the ultimate is uncertain if not impossible; in the lesser ones communication between levels of being is certain, especially between man and nature. The best poems are based upon disbelief. They hint in unexplained images of possible relationships between levels of beings; the lesser poems make explicit statements—disbelief embodied in poetic figures is more credible than belief asserted in direct words. The better poems often establish the speaker as a dramatic vehicle, a concrete persona in a defined moment of time; the lesser ones present meditations which are uttered by an unknown and undescribed speaker. The better poems deny the pathetic fallacy, the existence of mind in nature or human characteristics in nature; the lesser ones contain implausible personifications, accept the reality of the pathetic fallacy and the human qualities of the natural world, make weak and forced analogies between different levels of being. Finally, the speakers of the better poems are able to arrive at no certain beliefs or conclusions; in the lesser poems the poet or the speaker becomes didactic.
Frost's greatest accomplishment as a lyric poet, then, occurs in poems with concrete imagery and concrete situations which represent an intense yearning for faith which never comes. (pp. 455-56)
Frost's best-known lyric poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," confronts many kinds of being and experience: woods (nature); the village; a horse (the animal world); promises (duty and obligations to some social world). This poem hardly defines the attempt to communicate with the ultimate; but much of its beauty derives from the concreteness with which Frost embodies the mysteriousness of the ultimate in the dark beauty of a silent natural world. For once he contemplates without asking for explanations. He stops "Between the woods and frozen lake/The darkest evening of the year." Much of the appeal of the poem may be attributable to its acceptance of beauty without finding or asking for truth in the woods, which "are lovely, dark and deep."
The range in the quality of the poems in Frost's last four volumes (A Further Range, A Witness Tree, Steeple Bush, and In the Clearing) is wide. The worst poems reduce the old subject and the old manner to absurdity, even while Frost seems momentarily to be near acceptance. Generally, the nearer the poet seems to be to faith, the more absurd his figures of speech are. (p. 457)
There is never a deep love of God in the poetry of Frost. His greatest poems reveal a fear of God, a fear of the absence of God, or frustration at the limitations of man. The loss of poetic vision and imagination in Frost's late years corresponds with a decline in his interest in cosmic questions. On one page in Steeple Bush he argues facetiously that his love of the stars in this world ought to save his soul in the next…. And on the page facing this poem he uses the same stars as an argument that man is only a scientific and material phenomenon…. The late poems on the subject of faith vacillate more than ever in attitude and state the opinion of the moment in explicitness, generality, and obviousness.
Even in his late period Frost wrote about a half-dozen great poems. "Design" leaves out the human level altogether and effectively treats Frost's theme in a miniature world. The "dimpled spider, fat and white," the white heal-all, and the moth act out a terrible travesty of the evil design of the universe, "If design govern in a thing so small." If design does govern such a small thing, then the universal plan can be only evil. If design does not govern here, the implication is that man is also created without design. God's eye is no more on man than it is on the moth and the sparrow. In "Design" Frost found an objective correlative for his theme which enabled him to terrify without reducing his meaning to statement.
In "Neither Out Far Nor in Deep" a single-minded group of people on the seashore "look at the sea all day."… Many critics of the poem interpret it as a satire on the illimitable desire of man to know despite his limited capabilities: Frost is said to ridicule "blind persistence in seeking beyond the horizon at the neglect of present realities" in a "witty epigrammatic treatment" and with a tone of "quasijocular cynicism." The trouble with these interpretations is that they reverse the thematic and developmental patterns of the poetry of Frost's entire career. Most of his best poems attempt to look out far and in deep, and the finiteness of man was no hindrance to Frost's own wishes to perceive. The thrust of the last stanza, furthermore, and the tone hardly support the argument for satire. The simplicity of the entire poem well represents the single-mindedness of the yearners for truth…. Every poetic device of the poem makes it a chant of simplicity, longing, need, and unanimity. "Neither Out Far Nor in Deep" represents not satire, but the poet's and mankind's deepest spiritual need.
Frost was never able to write a poem at a moment of intense belief—if he had such moments. Without exception, I believe, his good poems come in the shadows of yearnings and doubts. His great lyric and dramatic poems never place much confidence in nature or in God. His only significant deep belief was in the possibility of man and especially in his capacity to suffer and to endure adversity. In technique, he appeared to preach more and more, to become wiser and wiser; in subject matter he shallowly accepted obvious truisms or hid his skepticism behind the facade of the moralizing of a grandfatherly sage, a good gray poet. (pp. 458-59)
Floyd C. Watkins, "Going and Coming Back: Robert Frost's Religious Poetry," in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Autumn, 1974, pp. 445-59.
Frost was no more eager than any other poet to define poetry, but when he spoke about it he generally used such phrases as: "a way of grappling with life," "a little voyage of discovery," "a way out of something." All these phrases represent poetry not as entity but activity, and, more specifically, as "a way," that is, as method. In the essay "Education by Poetry," Frost suggests that in coming close to poetry the student enters the world of metaphor and, through metaphor, learns what it is to think: "it is just putting this and that together; it is just saying one thing in terms of another." He is not speaking of trivial comparisons but the most profound thinking humans engage in. "Unless you have had your proper poetical education in metaphor," he writes, "you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don't know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don't know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history."… The figure Frost uses to describe metaphor in this sentence is itself worth attending to: we "ride" our metaphors. Metaphor should be construed not merely as an identification of resemblance but as an instrument used to get somewhere, a tool for thinking, the vehicle, perhaps, on which the poet undertakes his "voyages of discovery." Poems become methods of moving toward new insights on the strength of the poet's figures. (p. 66)
Love, belief, and poetry. Frost … associates these three, and through that association he expresses the same vision of poetic activity that Stevens articulates in "A Primitive like an Orb" [see especially Cantos 4, 5, and 6]. Frost often used love as an analogy for poetry, as, for example, in saying that "the figure a poem makes … is the same as for love."… But love is more than an analogy for poetry; it is also Frost's name for the positive force that impels poetry, the energy behind all true thinking. In "Accidentally on Purpose" love is called the basic instinctual force that underlies "intention, purpose, and design" in the universe. (p. 79)
For Frost love and poetry function as twin figures of the creative activity in which man commits himself, with "passionate preference," to a certain tacit foreknowledge that he has and, by believing in it, brings it to fulfillment. In "Education by Poetry" he wrote that, in connection with learning about thinking, "the person who gets close enough to poetry, he is going to know more about the word belief than anybody else knows, even in religion nowadays"…. Like the relationship of two people in love, the process of poetic thinking demands the act of "believing the thing into existence," and in poetry as in love one learns that the indwelling of the human spirit in its forms is essential to all creation and to all knowledge. Like Stevens, Frost came to see poems as individual embodiments of a single, central activity. (pp. 79-80)
Frost's best treatment of the role of belief and commitment in establishing truth appears in "Directive," a poem about returning to some basic source of wholeness and strength, "beyond confusion." It begins with an introspective journey through a landscape of desolation, marked by waste land imagery which makes it seem doubtful that this journey can lead in a valuable direction. Yet a guide appears, vague and phantom-like at first but increasingly more concrete and personal toward the end of the poem. By the final lines it is clear that the guide is the poet, and the source of wholeness he discloses is a fundamental power within the self. The poet is a guide to the life of the imagination, to the "broken drinking goblet like the Grail" taken from the children's "house of make-believe."… Like the teachings of Christ, poetic truth depends on commitment and faith. The power Frost guides us to in "Directive" is the power of belief in ourselves and our figures, the power of poetry itself as a method of thinking and knowing. (pp. 81-2)
Todd M. Lieber, "Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens: 'What to Make of a Diminished Thing'," in American Literature (copyright © 1975 by Duke University Press), March, 1975, pp. 64-83.
In the popular mind Frost appears in the guise of a gentle nature poet who writes poems which the common man can understand—poems free of those dreadful complexities and sexual allusions found in much modern poetry. How this image can persist in the mind of anyone who has read such a terrifying poem as "Out, Out—" I do not know. But most people have not read "Out, Out—" and others of its tone. When such appreciaters encounter Lionel Trilling's theory … that their sweet cracker-barrel philosopher conceives of an essentially "terrifying universe," indignant sparks fly. These people have made Frost in their own image and cannot bear to have the mirror cracked.
To anyone who has read all of Frost's poems with an open mind, however, Trilling's conclusions become inescapable. Frost's landscape is bleak. His doctrine is disturbing. That doctrine appears most clearly in two poems which are central to an understanding of Frost, A Masque of Reason and A Masque of Mercy…. These poems were published in 1945 and 1947, when Frost was in his seventies and had had time to formulate his ideas about life. These poems are overtly doctrinal and should give us a good look at that bleak Frostian landscape.
Using a method similar to Thornton Wilder's in The Skin of Our Teeth, Frost bases his two masques upon Biblical stories but sets them in modern time. A Masque of Reason tells the story of God's encounter with Job and Job's wife on Judgment Day. Jonah's story forms the basis of A Masque of Mercy. Stated simply, the theme of both masques is the choice between reason and unreason. In the Book of Job,… Job learns that man must not expect to be treated logically…. God is a free agent, not bound by mere man's conceptions of the way the world should be. The "discipline man needed most/Was to learn his submission to unreason." So it is that A Masque of Reason affirms unreason. The world, says Frost through God, is not run by any laws which man's reason can grasp. Job should not expect God to heed his plea, "The artist in me cries out for design." A man who probes deeply finds that there is no design at all, that God is forced to admit, as He does to Job, "I was just showing off to the Devil."
The lesson for Jonah in A Masque of Mercy continues the theme of reason and unreason. Man cannot demand logical treatment, in the form of strict justice. In this case, God's injustice is manifested, not in hurting the innocent, but in showing mercy to the guilty. The reasonable virtue, justice, falls before the unreasonable virtue, mercy. (pp. 453-55)
[Is] there anything disturbing in what I have said so far? Job and Jonah learn to accept unreason. They find that man's ideas of justice and logic are small and insignificant in God's plan. Both learn that faith surpasses reason, and Jonah comes to realize that God's mercy and love are greater than man's justice and logic. If these are heresies, Thomas Aquinas was a heretic. The ideas summarized here are not at all disruptive but are to be found among very traditional Christian beliefs. These conventional doctrines in the masques lead Harold Watts to conclude erroneously [in "Robert Frost and the Interrupted Dialogue"] that the masques "must, in the 'Frost story,' stand for a sad acceptance of traditional stereotypes." However, an understanding of the total system of belief in the two masques suggests that Frost denies the traditional stereotypes. Indeed, seen from a traditional point of view, Frost is a heretic.
First, Frost does not give the traditional justifications for having faith and avoiding the doubts of reason. The faithful receive no promise of salvation. The door slams in Jonah's face.
Second, Frost's portrayal of God is deliberately and shockingly unorthodox. In A Masque of Mercy, God is a friendly little being who deserves respect but is something of a bungler and is overly idealistic…. In A Masque of Reason, Frost's God looms largest—and smallest. He struggles out of the Burning Bush and "pitches throne," the throne being a "plywood flat, prefabricated." A blunderer, He cannot prevent the throne from collapsing under Him. His speeches are most undignified…. God here is no more than human. He is, in fact, a puny and insecure being with an inferiority complex. In an attempt at dignity, He clambers back onto His throne to meet the supercilious Devil. The end of the masque is significant for Frost's conception of God: Thyatira gathers God, Job, and the Devil all together to take a snapshot of them with her Kodak. She treats all three alike, with no reverence, and they all appear side by side in the picture. God, Man, and Satan are of equal status in this masque.
The status of God is crucial to the interpretation of A Masque of Reason. Marion Montgomery argues [in "Robert Frost and His Use of Barriers: Man vs. Nature Toward God"] that Frost's "presentation of a cavalier God is a deliberate device [which shows] … not lack of reason or justice in God, but rather man's stubbornness and lack of understanding. It is like man, especially in our day, to see God 'pitching throne with a ply-wood chair'." I believe, however, that Frost is trying to show not man's misunderstanding of God, but God's lack of superhuman perfection. Throughout his poems, Frost treats God with little awe…. John Ciardi, who knew Frost personally, believes that the poet gave up all thought of religion. The portrayal of a humanized and fallible God colors the whole masque. According to traditional doctrine, the world cannot be understood in terms of mere man's ideas of order and logic because God is very great and has a plan beyond the comprehension of man; here, the mystery arises only because God is too small for one man to comprehend by his present reverent ways of thinking. As Job says:
I expected more
Than I could understand and what I get
Is almost less than I can understand.
This new God makes necessary a new doctrine. If God is a fool, the whole edifice of ancient justifications collapses. The comforting old landscape grows bleaker and bleaker. Frost has removed from it the hope of salvation. He has debased God until He can be spoken of without a capital letter. What next? The universe. Frost's universe is lonely and terrifying. In both "Choose Something like a Star" and "The Most of It," Frost's lone speakers seek an answer to loneliness but find that the universe never answers in a language which man can comprehend. Man is alone in a gigantic, echoing universe. (pp. 457-59)
What is left in the darkening landscape? People. But people are no source of comfort in a Frostian landscape. In most of Frost's shorter poems, only one person is present. Both the masques present several important characters; however, they serve to underline the loneliness of Job and Jonah. (p. 459)
I believe that Frost is saying, "The universe is indifferent. God, if He exists, is weak. There is no justification for your efforts beyond your own purposes for them. Make up a meaning for yourself if you need to think you have a purpose. If it is a lie in the absolute sense, that is all right so long as you find it meaningful." Frost has dealt with this problem before. A terse sonnet, "Any Size We Please," portrays the loneliness of every man and the tragicomic necessity to make one's own world. (p. 460)
In Frost's poetry, people who make their own worlds usually go about it in one of two ways. Some merely get by, endure…. But others of Frost's characters acquire a kind of heroic quality in the process of making their own worlds. It does not matter that their chosen purpose cannot be supported by an absolute standard of validity, that it cannot be affirmed by religious and universal consent. Such people make a commitment and act upon it. Jonah makes such a commitment when he almost sees the shining gate and says,
I want to run
Toward what you make me see beyond the world.
Although he fails to reach his goal, Jonah's example inspires Keeper. Until Jonah's death, Keeper has been one of those who simply get by. He is a coward, not because he is wrong about God or about the meaninglessness of everything in the absolute, but because he has let his awareness of the absolute truth prevent him from making an attempt at human heroism. Suddenly Jonah's example teaches him that Jesse Bel was right in glorifying courage, for we need firm courage to overcome the fundamental insecurity of the human condition….
Frost has left us with a bleak landscape indeed. The universe is indifferent to man. God is a well-meaning but bumbling being. There is no promise of salvation or of any reason beyond our own for our efforts. And other men are of little help. If a man merely gets by in such a world, that is well enough. But if he adheres to some kind of purpose, commits himself to a set of values in the face of universal indifference, he achieves a measure of heroism. Still, such a one is likely to fail in the absolute judgment—his best sacrifice may be found unacceptable in Heaven's sight. (p. 462)
I believe that Frost did not freely choose to cultivate soundness and balance [as George Whicher contends]; he felt forced to take the position he did, and it was not a rational or comfortable posture. His aversion to that bleak outlook which he found inescapable made him increasingly melancholy and marked his later poems, in which he shows how little he relished [his] pessimism…. And Frost begins to laugh more and more, to laugh when laughter seems a desperate shield against despair. "Bursting Rapture" and "U.S. 1946 King's X" conjure up a mocking, scornful laugh at the possibility of nuclear destruction. In the face of the ultimate denial of human dignity, Frost offers no solace, no cosy cracker-barrel certainties—only bitter laughter.
[Frost's doctrine] is, in fact, a caricature of the old doctrine of faith and reason, justice and mercy. It leaves man the burden of accepting unreason without the assurance that, by doing so, he will be "saved." The perfect complement to Frost's doctrine, which is a parody of ancient beliefs, is his form, which is a burlesque of conventional forms. The two poems under consideration are called "masques." Traditionally, a masque was an elaborate poetic drama, containing music, song, dance, costumes, and spectacle. Frost's masques are "anti-masques." There is no elaborate spectacle, no dance, no song, and even no drama—Frost is essentially a meditative rather than a dramatic poet. Full of debate over abstract ideas, the two masques contain hardly any action and little characterization; if presented on stage, they would probably fall as flat as God's plywood throne. They are all talk. And such talk! It has no dignity…. Both masques are full of outrageous puns. (pp. 463-65)
The undignified tone is even more apparent when casual conversation and puns are joined by a multitude of mocking literary allusions…. [And there are] light barbs on every side—hits at psychiatry, Socialism, and The New Yorker. Frost has chosen a form and style of language perfectly suited to the purpose of his content. The form is a mockery of serious form because the content is a mockery of men's old illusive comforts about life. In order to tear down the hypocritical platitudes which lull men into complacence, Frost has created a new form by the process of "committing an outrage" on several conventional literary forms. (pp. 465-66)
The Man of La Mancha has so distorted Cervantes' intentions that its theme song glorifies the "impossible dreams" of a simplified, idealized Don Quixote. Dickens's horrifying London of Oliver Twist has undergone the magic of movie-industry metamorphosis and emerged as a nineteenth-century Fun City, from true nightmare to sweet dream. Robert Frost has too long suffered the same cosyfying falsification. It is time to read him with an attentive ear, one attuned to chords that are not warm, nostalgic, friendly, harmless. It is time to take him out of the junior high schools, to stop stopping by woods on a snowy evening, to read him as a mature poet who has shown the courage to describe unflinchingly the bleak landscape facing the twentieth-century reader. (p. 466)
Roberta F. Sarfatt Borkat, "The Bleak Landscape of Robert Frost," in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1975, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Summer, 1975, pp. 453-67.
Frost's In the Clearing was celebrated as a great public event, with an appropriate burst of sentimental and patriotic flourishes. His late elevation to the post of fireside bard to the American people and laureate of the Kennedy administration, officiating at the vaunted marriage of Poetry and Power, had certain comic overtones, for he was anything but "progressive" (in the liberal Democratic tradition), his characteristic vision could scarcely be described as optimistic, and in the main body of his work, forgetting the embarrassing doggerel towards the end, he was to be seen as hermetic, idiosyncratic, and egocentric—qualities that he shared with many other famous poets.
Even in his decline one gets occasional flashes of the intrinsic Frost, as when he notes, of butterflies, in "Pod of the Milkweed": "They knock the dyestuff off each other's wings," after which he appends his undeceived reflection, "But waste was of the essence of the scheme." In the title-poem ("A Cabin in the Clearing") the speakers are Mist and Smoke, and the subject of their dialogue is the uncertainty of the human condition. The final lines, though too stiffly articulated, carry a recognizable beat and moral: "Than smoke and mist who better would appraise/The kindred spirit of an inner haze."
One of the most profound of his aphorisms stresses the necessity coupled with the difficulty of making choices: "Nature within her inmost self divides/To trouble men with having to take sides." The theme is a recurrent one. Years before he had written in lines that every schoolboy thinks he understands: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference." What, in passing, could be more artful than that suspended first person singular? This traveler's pride in his ability to confront his fate and to make up his mind, despite the persistence of the "inner haze," induces him to call one of his last lyrics, "Escapist—Never." The title has a ring of defiance, perhaps a hollow ring. As the poem reaches its climax we are given a momentary glimpse of a redemptive pathos: "His life is a pursuit of a pursuit forever./It is the future that creates his present./All is an interminable chain of longing." (pp. 252-53)
Stanley Kunitz, in his A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly (© 1935, 1937, 1938, 1941, 1942, 1947, 1949, 1957, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 by Stanley Kunitz; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1975.
As far as I can tell, no one has explained the relationship between Frost's two dramatic narratives "The Witch of Coös" and "The Pauper Witch of Grafton," which he published together in 1923 under the title "Two Witches." "The Witch of Coös" has been very widely praised (Randall Jarrell called it "the best thing of its kind since Chaucer"), frequently anthologized, and thoughtfully discussed. "The Pauper Witch of Grafton," however, has received very scattered praise and only fragmentary explanation…. A close study reveals that not only are these poems mutually illuminating to a startling degree but that they were surely written as companion pieces and ought to be seen as a single poem formed like a two-panelled picture. "Coös" is a study of sexual failure between one kind of witch and her husband, and "Grafton" a study of sexual triumph between a different kind of witch and her husband…. I find "Grafton" as good a poem as "Coös" and richly deserving of explanation, but strange to say, I understood its sexual psychology and symbolism before I understood that of the more popular "Coös" and was led by this discovery back to "Coös" and to a grasp of its barely explored plot, psychology, and symbolism….
[It has been noted that] the protagonist of "Coös" has been unable to distinguish between her terrifying fantasies and reality, whereas the protagonist of "Grafton" has an excellent understanding both of herself and of others' reactions to her. This as yet undeveloped insight is, I think the clue to the earlier failure of critics (and myself) to see the complementary nature of the poems, for the obsessional material of the witch in "Coös" needs to be both uncovered and synthesized by the reader, whereas the psychology of "Grafton" only requires a synthesis of attitudes (her own and others') that the witch herself understands. (p. 69)
The core of the contrast between the psycho-sexual histories of two marriages leads to differing manipulations of point of view. In "Coös" the focus tends to be inward—however random—for the protagonist and less so for the other characters. In "Grafton" the focus for the protagonist tends to be outward and for the other characters inward. "Coös" centers on the supposed witch's fantasies; "Grafton" on the fantasies and authentic reactions of other characters to the witch….
Although "Coös" is occasionally referred to as a tale of the supernatural, most commentators recognize that the witch describes fantasies based on painful and persistent feelings of guilt about her infidelity to her husband and her assistance in hiding the fact of the lover's murder by helping to bury his corpse below the cellar floor. (p. 70)
Frost's own scepticism about psychoanalytic explanations and his reticence about all matters sexual should not keep us from acknowledging in him a deep intuitive knowledge of such things and a partly unconscious recording of them in symbolic action and detail. More troublesome than Frost's supposed rejection of psychoanalytic paradigms are the hazy outlines of this grim love-triangle, but the witch's confusion and incomprehension are the cause of this haze and once it is penetrated, sharper lines become visible. The woman and her husband are sexually inadequate to each other. She is frigid to him and he has inhibitions which make it difficult to penetrate or relax her defenses. Thus they shore up each other's inadequacies. The wild lover can and does penetrate these defenses but he arouses enough guilt in the woman either to lend to his betrayal or to compound her turning against him when her husband discovers the adultery. The exact action remains somewhat obscure. (p. 71)
The description of the cellar with its snow- and sawdust-packed doors and windows is symbolic of the woman's repressed sexuality and of her perverse pleasure in an unconscious pact with her husband to remain tight within the confines of their marriage. The skeleton is a symbol of the sexuality that both of them have repressed. Her "I knew them—and good reason" about the bones suggests sexual intimacy, haunted guilt, and obsessive perplexity. The continuing description of the bones and their behavior is a marvelous melange of ambivalent motifs. That the bones waited "for things to happen in their favor" is a recognition that they are now part of her mentality and that she had once encouraged them when they were part of her lover. The description of the bones as a chandelier and as a chalk pile that brushes "chalky skull with chalky fingers" combines suggestions of burning, of grotesquerie, and of puzzlement. The chandelier connects with the later images of fire in the skull, the grotesquerie with her desire to reduce her guilt to a fanciful game, and the puzzlement with her desire to know what the dead are keeping back and why she is haunted. The chalk-pile also shows her great reluctance to acknowledge the lover's sexual superiority to her husband. Her desire to "bring the chalk-pile down" with her husband's aid suggests a wish to lay the ghost of guilt and to deny the lover's superiority. The husband's taking hold of her is a gesture of fright, not of intimacy, and it occurs in a lighted room where neither of them can see the skeleton. His gesture reinforces the sense of his minimal masculinity, but his inability to hear the phantom skeleton is a reminder that it is less a threat to him than to her. But the skeleton symbolizes more than guilt and bafflement. "A moment he stood balancing with emotion/And all but lost himself" suggests a sexual commitment desperately beyond social bounds…. Her pursuit of a finger piece in her button box shows the attempt to control her obsessions and connects to images of old man, infant, and chandelier as unsexed. If the bone she searches for were really in the button box it would belong to a game in which it could be found and defined. The opposition of the woman's puritanical impulses and the lover's sexual force is repeated in "So that it looked like lighting or a scribble/From the slap I had just now given its hand," and the "scribble" reinforces the idea of the lover as a messenger from another mode of experience—in this case, the sexual, though I think in the poem as a whole this connects with the "something the dead are keeping back." (pp. 71-2)
Probably the most difficult and ambiguous symbol in the poem is the skeleton's ascent from cellar to attic. Most probably this action represents the bursting out of both the woman's buried guilt about her double betrayal of her husband (the adultery itself and adultery as an accusation against his sexual failure) and her continued perplexity about the significance of the whole involvement: Why did she yield to the lover? Why is she still unable to entirely regret her yielding? Why does she share the lover's puzzlement about her betrayal? When she hears the bones "come down the stairs at night and stand perplexed" she is reenacting her own puzzlement. A skeleton in the attic is worse than one in the cellar. In the cellar it is undetected and kept out of consciousness. In the attic it is close to the bedroom and to consciousness, continually haunting, and—insofar as its presence is described—it must be accounted for. The accounting is a strange melange of puzzlement, falsification, and psychological revelation…. Tormented by guilt and by perplexity about the meaning of the passionate relationship which she helped betray, she teeters at the borderline of ultimate realization. (pp. 72-3)
The couple in "Grafton" have experienced deep love rooted in sexual satisfaction and that satisfaction sheds a permanent glow through the gloom at the poem's end. The couple in "Coös" not only failed to have such a communion but suffered through cruel act and persistent guilt over an experience which dramatized their sexual-love failure. (p. 73)
[The witch of Grafton's] descent in life was from great and enviable personal and sexual power to social rejection and isolation. Her "It doesn't seem as if I'd had the courage/To make so free and kick up in folks' faces" does stress the pathos of her situation, but more importantly it shows that her life was unlike the witch of Coös, for the Grafton witch did play a kind of joyous game of button, button in which sexual elements were delightfully discovered in not-very-hidden places as part of living her deepest nature. She may be disappointed, but she has gained something partaking of the permanent—knowledge that her nature brought deep fulfillment to herself and her husband. The poem ends on a balance between that triumph and her present plight, but surely her memories show that she could say with Frost in "I Could Give All to Time": "And what I would not part with I have kept." Her memories are precious. Those of the witch of Coös are dreadful. The metaphysical dimensions of both poems are sketchy, but they do suggest a contrast between dooms and triumphs of memory, and quite possibly imply dimensions of such failure and success extending beyond this life.
Quite probably the downbeat in "Grafton's" last six lines has limited comprehension of its portrayal of triumph. Perhaps Frost was playing the fox in showing us two lonely old women who are both social-butts to a degree but are actually in contrasting situations. When we see the greatly differing bases and nature of their loneliness, and of their scoffed-at social positions, we are led back to contrasting portraits of psychological fragmentation and integration. "Coös" is a poem largely about holding back. The woman and her husband hold back from each other. The cellar, house, and attic present images of containment. The pursuit of bone as button suggests confinement. The something the dead are holding back represents a kind of knowledge but also a containment like that of the sexual failure. The poem ends with a blank confrontation of time and an implied empty gaping of the grave. In "Grafton" images of openness, expansion, and liberation abound. The Grafton witch lets both her husband and us into her secrets. Her liberation keeps her desirous of life and concerned about her husband and his love—both past and the possible present and future. The Coös witch vaguely and desperately fumbles with the facts of unfulfillment. The Grafton witch has earthly ills but goes on living with a center of faith. The poems offer another contrast on the social level. Even though she has taken a lover at one time, the witch of Coös is socially more conventional than the Grafton witch. She and her husband have conspired to conceal from the world their sexual problems and a murder. The Grafton witch is straightforward about her sexual powers and needs, but has a less savory reputation. Thus the two poems taken together make an ironic comment on society's capacity for bumbling judgments about interrelations between sex, society, and morality. (pp. 77-8)
Mordecai Marcus, "The Whole Pattern of Robert Frost's 'Two Witches': Contrasting Psycho-Sexual Modes," in Literature and Psychology (© Morton Kaplan 1976), Vol. XXVI, No. 2, 1976, pp. 69-78.
[Why] did Frost become such a migrant and meandering talker? What propelled, for it does seem finally a compulsion, this inherently most private of men to conduct more of his mental life in public than even naturally effusive men generally do? It could be suggested that it was the only outlet of this nature which he permitted himself. He was not an abundant letter writer, that safety valve for so many disciplined men, and gave Dr. Johnson as an authority for not doing so…. Moreover, Frost was not, in any sense, a "confessional" writer in his poetry and would be horrified at this aspect of the Lowells and Sextons of our day. Also, one hazards the guess, based on a good deal of observation, that Frost had many acquaintances but few, if any, intimates. He could suffer fools gladly (meaning professors and students!) but not equals though he made a humorous show of being an "equalitarian" who wanted to "associate only with his equals."
If [his] Bread Loaf talks often in their unfettered expansiveness and garrulity seem to be giving us both the baby and the bath, in complex men like Frost we must search for multiple reasons. Assuredly a principal one may be that, with utter confidence in their reception, he is testing his conceptions and their possible range, chewing his intellectual cud in public. Many of the ideas that go into the poems are found in the talks, loosely scattered and sometimes as cloudy as nebulae. We have had peripatetic poets, like Wordsworth, who thought out their poems on solitary walks, but few who could do it so successfully on the platform, giving us like a scattered bill of fare the nutrition that would sustain the poems.
Thus there is a kind of prodigal indulgence, an almost bohemian recklessness in the grasping imagination of these talks. One wanders into other territory to see Frost as one of Henry James's "greedy feeders," a man who believes his digestion can handle almost any intellectual topic. Consequently, a certain animus of appetite crops up, and one remembers a bull-like look which could come into the face of the shaggy-eyed poet when he was opposed, as if most of the fodder belonged to him by right of superior force. Anyone who could move the feast so entirely according to whim, so bent on taking possession of the world through language, is bound to have some of it come back on him, and there is no doubt an occasional flatulence in Frost just as Edmund Wilson pointed out that in the work of the Master there was a certain "Jamesian gas." (pp. 451-52)
Not infrequently, though introduced so as not to be noticeable to his audience, an element of guilt seems to motivate the mock-confessional tenor of the intellectual display as if so guarded a man must expose his intentions a little in spite of himself. It is as though this man who purified himself so powerfully and incorruptibly in the best of his poems should show, at least glancingly, that he was humanly and normally corrupt. The "darkness" of Robert Frost does come through despite the folksiness, the cuteness, the ostensible rational discourse of the surface and, in fact, helps to dramatize the soporific effect of what the poet himself called his "preliminary indulgences." (p. 452)
[Frost] was perhaps the greatest poet-performer of our times, a master whose timing was almost as good as his text. "Style," he once said, "is the way a man takes himself," and he was adept at making his listeners accept him at face value. And it was not a "low" performance either, though it contained elements of vulgarization. Few poets can successfully stage and sustain the uncanny way in which Frost could walk the thin line between candor and corn, facetiousness and farce, the platitude and the apperception. He once told me, almost as if in justification after having "assassinated" the reputations of most of his contemporaries, that the primary element of poetry was conversation about others, and in his public and private appearances, he came across as the Great Gossip, both cosy and caustic, and not many will deny that few can command our attention like one who insinuates that he knows the secrets of others as well as of the universe—Old Wives' Tales, except that the teller is masculine, and we are reminded that Frost said that poetry may be a feminine thing and for that reason he generally preferred it written by a man. As one story leads to another, one may turn a little uneasily like the man shifting with the log in "An Old Man's Winter Night," but this may be the price we must pay for having been "acquainted with the night" which seems to be, underneath the japes and the jokes, what "gossip" is most nearly all about. (p. 453)
Charles Edward Eaton, in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1976, by The University of Georgia), Summer, 1976.
Along with Whitman, Dickinson and Stevens, Frost has a place among the greatest of American writers. We know something about the lives of all these poets and they were all isolated souls. Dickinson was fierce in her detachment, Whitman troubled by it, Stevens at perfect ease. Frost is really in a different class: a more hateful human being cannot have lived who wrote words that moved other human beings to tears….
There is a cant about "the dark Frost" and a cant about "Frost, the tragic poet." On the occasion of his 85th birthday Frost heard himself lauded, in an after-dinner speech by Lionel Trilling, as a bearer of bad tidings for civilization—as one who, like Sophocles, fulfilled the proper role of the poet. Frost was visibly shaken for days afterward. At last someone had called his bluff on the popular audience—and at a public ceremony. But he may have been shaken too because he had succeeded in yet another lie. Frost wrote out of the darkness in himself, and said so. He knew nothing else. But here was a critic of reputation, with enormous gravity and tact, calling that darkness a universal condition and praising Frost for having revealed it. Once more he found himself where he wanted to be: before the others yet thoroughly hidden from their view.
What meaning, if any, does this life have for the art that came from it? Frost carried the dream of self-reliance farther than his heroes, Emerson and William James, would have dared, or wished. His recovery of his own axis was a project that had no end, and it made him the bleakest of lords. To realize this does not make his poems less astonishing. It does allow us to read them more truly and severely as what they are. At the end of "To a Moth Seen in Winter" Frost spoke for himself.
You must become more simply wise than I
To know the hand I stretch impulsively
Across the gulf of well nigh everything
May reach to you, but cannot touch your fate.
I cannot touch your life, much less can save,
Who am tasked to save my own a little while.
The lines can be read, many of us once read them, as a touching confession of humility and even modesty. But, if we think of Frost's own life, we can hear him biting off every word. He is signing off. As we survey 90 years for the most part so mean and so desperate, the artful and endearing "a little while" seems the only lie. (p. 28)
David Bromwich, "Nedwick's Season of Frost," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 16, 1977, pp. 4-5, 28.
Frost's poetry of "home" is a dramatization of the human costs and human benefits of decorum. As a reader becomes more intimate with the poems, however, it is hard to resist what seem like solicitations to think of social or psychological or domestic decorums as somehow synonymous with poetic ones. How much "extravagance" is possible within decorum; how much can be mediated by it; what extremities are induced by the constraints or failures of mediation; and what, in case of failure, are the prospects beyond decorum or mediation except nothingness or madness? These are issues central to English poetry, especially since 1800, and to the great Americans, Whitman and Stevens. One of the reasons Frost has not been taken as seriously as Stevens is in part explained by the fact that though he can be found working within some of the same dialectical oppositions, he chose resolutely, even defiantly, to work also within the circumstantially or topically familiar, as if from a list of the hundred most famous poetic and novelistic situations. So insistently ordinary, so particularized is the domestic drama of his work that it appears to be written against that kind of poetry which is an interpretation of itself and of its potentialities. Of some importance, too, when it comes to the understandably Anglophilic bias of literary critics, is the fact that Frost chose a landscape … which does not have anything storied about it…. It was a landscape without poetic or sublime associations and Frost got credit for being able even to report on a region and a people so uninspiring.
Frost was treated mostly as the brilliant poet of the average human lot, and that attitude continues … to stand in the way of efforts to give him credit for being a great poet precisely because it was within that human lot that he found the glories and plights of poetry itself…. (pp. 136-37)
[While] it is possible … to infer from Frost's poems an interest in the drama of poetic "making," he is some of the time even tiresomely determined not to surrender the human actuality of his poems to a rhetoric by which action is transformed immediately into ritual, as in the account of the boy stealing the boat in The Prelude. Where such enlargement of rhetoric occurs in Frost, it redounds almost invariably to the disadvantage of the speaker; he must face the opposition both of nature and of the decorum, however pliant, which Frost establishes between himself and the reader…. Having met the challenge that no one can turn certain kinds of New England and especially household experience into metaphor, he then, with an exquisite pride, wants to show that he does not choose ostentatiously to extend his metaphor into a fashionable literariness. A great poem like "Home Burial" thus has to win its way, with a lean and sinewy and finally irresistible necessity, to a reading that tells us not only about lives but about Frost's own life in the writing of poetry and about his rescue of a life for poetry out of his own desperate need for circumscriptions.
He is a poet who finds his freedom of movement out of a sense of restraint: the movement to one extreme is provoked by the imminence of the other. "The Wood-Pile" is like a sequel to "Home Burial," with the man in this instance wandering from a "home" that seems little more than an abstraction to him and to us. More a meditation than a dramatic narrative, it offers the soliloquy of a lone figure walking in a winter landscape. (pp. 137-38)
[There] is a recognition of a wintry barrenness made more so … by a reductive process by which possibilities of metaphor—of finding some reassuring resemblances—are gradually disposed of…. It is as if the wintry prospect …, a cold clarity without redeeming deceptions, has in itself been an achievement of the imagination….
[The] speaker in "The Wood-Pile" shapes, from his very opening words, a human presence for us in his sentence sounds, his voice; he makes us imagine him as someone in a human plight "far from home." (p. 139)
The voice of this man ("So as to say for certain I was here/Or somewhere else") cannot be expected to test the poetic potentialities of what is seen and heard and can even less be expected to cheer itself up by indulging in the hyperbolic or the sublime vocabularies. There is an informality even in the initial placement—"out walking … one gray day"—of the spondaic effect of "gray day," as if it were a scheduled occurrence (like "pay day") and of the possible metaphoric weight in what he says, as in the allusion (but not really) to the lack of adequate support he can expect in this landscape ("The hard snow held me, save where now and then/One foot went through"). Such anxious and innocuous precision about the relative hardness of the snow or the size and contour of the trees is humanly and characterologically right. It expresses the kind of paranoia that goes with any feeling of being lost and of losing thereby a confident sense of self. (pp. 140-41)
From its opening moment ["The Wood-Pile"] becomes a human drama of dispossession, of failed possessiveness, and of the need to structure realities which are not "here."…
The only probable evidence or structure that he does find, already put together, is the "wood-pile," a forgotten remnant of earlier efforts to make a "home" by people who, when they did it, were also away from home. The pile of wood … once more excites [the speaker's] anxious precisions. He still needs to find some human resemblances, evidences in zones and demarcations for the human capacity to make a claim on an alien landscape. (p. 142)
If the speaker "resembles" anything at the end of the poem, it is the wood-pile itself, something without even a semblance of consciousness; it is wholly self-consuming. As in "Desert Places," another poem about a lonely man walking in a landscape of snow, the man in "The Wood-Pile" could say that "The loneliness includes me unawares."… He is on the point of being obliterated by the landscape, rather than allowed to exist even as an observer of it, much less a mediating or transcending presence…. For Frost's lonely walkers, far from "home," nothing can come from such nothing, and they therefore must try to speak again and in such a way as to make known an ordinary human presence. (p. 144)
Frost's whole theory of "sentence sounds" is implicitly a way of taking an exception to transcendental vision and to the Sublime as an alternative to the discovery of barrenness: "I cultivate … the hearing imagination rather than the seeing imagination though I should not want to be without the latter."… Barrenness, poetry, the mind of winter are posited as conditions of life and of poverty…. [In Frost] these same conditions are held [in a] … dialectical tension. "Home" exerts such a simultaneous restraint on and incentive to "extra-vagance" that anyone who feels it must become pugnacious in the expressed need for ventilation, for some degree of imaginative license. Hence the sharply … individuated and personalized tone of Frost's poems.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
The self-assertion here is implicit in the slangy schoolyard tone of "They cannot scare me."… It is typical of Frost that he would bring, without any signaling, a fashionable-sounding phraseology of self-diminishment into combination with that kind of vernacular voice which draws its strength from a sense of rootedness, no matter how unfertile the soil. (pp. 145-46)
Voice is the most important, distinguishing, and conspicuously insistent feature of Frost's poetry and of his writing about poetry. There is scarcely a single poem which does not ask the reader to imagine a human character equivalent to the movement of voice, and there is no other poet in English of whom this is so emphatically the case. Behind the theory of "voice" and "sentence sounds" that he presented wholly as a literary choice, behind his related insistence that poetry was as good as it was "dramatic," there is a psychological and moral imperative. It can be most simply described as a revulsion against the idea of human transparency. Under any and all circumstances he would resist becoming a "transparent eyeball." It would mean getting lost. This was never an agreeable prospect for him, despite little hints to the contrary in "Directive," and there are therefore no poems by him of visionary afflatus. There are, however, close to terrifying poems about wandering off, losing the self, or belonging nowhere. (pp. 146-47)
True "realization" for Frost occurs after the man who went outdoors comes back in. "I opened the door so my last look/Should be taken outside a house and book." Thus Frost begins a poem called "One More Brevity," in his last volume. But the "look," while a perfectly "extravagant" one, in that it is beyond both "home" and literature, is really a way of assuring himself that the stars are in place so that he may sleep more securely: "I said I would see how Sirius kept/His watchdog eye on what remains/To be gone into if not explained." "Intensifications" while "out of doors" are not in themselves a true form of "realization," so far as Frost is concerned, since the very nature of metaphor involves for him a constant pressure, at some point, against intensifications and the excesses that go with them. Quite charmingly, while the man is looking up at the star Sirius a dog slips by "to be my problem guest:/Not a heavenly dog made manifest,/But an earthly dog of the carriage breed." This is a fine example of what Frost means when he says "I would be willing to throw away everything else but that: enthusiasm tamed by metaphor."… (pp. 148-49)
In Frost, the ideal aspect of metaphor exists only that it may be tested. Metaphor is an education by which the reader learns to be "at ease with figurative values," at ease not to luxuriate but the better to know "how far [he] may expect to ride" a metaphor "and when it may break down with [him]."… (p. 149)
Frost asks us to be [two] kinds of readers; and his unique difficulty is in the demand that we be common and literary all at once. Which is a way of suggesting … the great difference sometimes between Frost, whose extensive literary allusiveness is always less apparent than are his allusions to clichés, and any of the other great figures of the first half of this century. (p. 152)
"On the Heart's Beginning to Cloud the Mind" and "The Figure in the Doorway," are about houses looked at with some sort of ulterior, "creative" intention by a poet-observer from a passing train. The poems are placed next to one another in A Further Range, which also includes "Desert Places," "Design," and "Provide, Provide." All these are meditations on bleakness, a subject of increasing frequency in Frost's work beginning with his fourth volume, New Hampshire. They are different from earlier poems about the failures of "home" to nourish the imagination in that the narrator is disengaged and relatively dispassionate. The houses are discovered by accident, and it is implied that the viewer is somebody who wanders less in a search for signs and embodiments than to amuse himself with the possibility of their existence. (pp. 154-55)
[In "The Figure in the Doorway" a] vision of the "great gaunt figure" filling the cabin door prompts little more than superficial reportage. Four lines in a row begin with the repeated "he had"; the man's possessions are then as dutifully listed. It reads as if the speaker were determined not to make anything out of what he sees. Beyond these measurements, all we learn about the man is the merest guesswork…. [There] is scarcely any scene at all here; there is no material for poetry except what might be guessed if the spectator were in a position to watch long enough. This, then, for all its self-discipline, also becomes a "surface flight," and the best he can do with the image of the giant man in the doorway is to make a "tall tale," in a grotesque sense of the term, about what might happen at some future time: "And had he fallen inward on the floor,/He must have measured to the further wall./But we who passed were not to see him fall." (p. 158)
["The Most of It"] is the most powerful of what might be called his spectatorial poems, those in which a wandering figure tries to locate a "home" by the exercise of vision, the making of metaphor, or the making of sound to which an answering call is expected…. "The Most of It" is a poem in which "life" is being asked to do some or all of a "poet's" work. The request is illegitimate, and it is made not by Frost but by the speakers or spectators—or would-be poets—in his poems. If their calls on "life" have a pathos of innocence, they also elicit that Frostean exasperation which is aroused by anyone who acts politically, or poetically, as if the world owes him a living, or as if it is easy to be "at home in the metaphors" one contrives about the world. (pp. 159-60)
Significantly, the poem following "The Most of It" is "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same." There, the world itself has already been made our "home," partly by the fact that the "birds" "from having heard the daylong voice of Eve/Had added to their own an oversound." It is a sound that still "persists" in the wilderness which is of our present moment. But her "sound," her "voice," was not, we have to remember, directed to birds at all in any naive expectation that they would answer her in kind or in any other way. The birds simply heard her voice as it was "carried aloft" from the intercourse between Adam and Eve, the "call or laughter" of their daily life together before the Fall. To the extent, then, that the sound of birds has been crossed with and become an echo of human sound, it is not to be confused with the kind of sound the man in the opening lines of "The Most of It" requests as an answering call from the wilderness around him. Keeping the universe alone, he is an Adam without an Eve. (p. 160)
In the best and simplest sense ["The Most of It"] is exciting for the largeness of its embrace, and because the man is beautifully anxious that "life" be allowed to exalt and enrapture itself. So that even without knowing classical literary analogues in echo literature, and all that is implied therein about man and his relation to the universe, any reader feels the presence and pressure here of a great human tradition and a great human predicament. In the expansive gestures of inclusiveness made at the outset, in the efforts to bring a universe into the focus of the self and its immediate environments, the poem is about the attempt to "make" a home by demanding a "return," a coming back of sound enriched and transformed by its movements out into the universe. If the man or "life" asks too much, then the response which they do get by the end of the poem is at least to that degree more powerfully informative about the nature of things than if they had asked for too little. If the aspiration is always to bring "home" what would otherwise be unseen, an element left to chaos, then at least the effort should show not only what can but also what cannot be given house room. (pp. 166-67)
"Never Again Would Birds' Song Be The Same" is quite properly located between two poems in which human sound fails in an attempted transaction with nature. It is as if the young man and the woman of "The Subverted Flower," the last of the three poems, were in a post-lapsarian world where flowers and sex have the power to transform them into beasts, while the man alone in "The Most of It" is in the world without an Eve of any kind, and where the only form of animal life which can be heard, seen, or imagined in response to a cry of loneliness is so alien as to be called "it." In both poems the world is devoid of love, and consequently, as Frost would have it, of the power to realize a human extension, "someone else additional to him," a metaphor, like Adam and Eve, that would augment the human animal and allow it to make a human "home." These three great poems are profoundly about finding a "home" in the largest sense—by propagating the self through love, through the metaphorical discovery of self in another. "You must have read the famous valentine/Pericles sent Aspasia in absentia," Frost writes at the end of the late poem (1951) "How Hard It Is to Keep from Being King When It's in You and in the Situation." And he then gives his version of the valentine:
For God himself the height of feeling free
Must have been His success in simile
When at sight of you He thought of me.
Simile or metaphor is the act of love, the act of writing poetry, and also evidence in each of these of how something as frighteningly big and potentially chaotic as the "universe" can be "kept" to a human measure. In the disproportion between these two words, "universe" and "kept," is both the pathos of "The Most of It" and a clue to Frost's sense that his own personal and poetic salvation lay in facing up to the full cost, in poetry and in daily living, of the metaphors he makes. "Earth's the right place for love," we are told in "Birches," and while there are times when the speaker of that poem would "like to get away from earth awhile," his aspiration for escape to something "larger" is safely controlled by the recognition that birch trees will only bear so much climbing before returning you, under the pressure of human weight, back home. (pp. 171-72)
Richard Poirier, "Soundings for Home" (originally published in The Georgia Review, Summer, 1977), in his Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (copyright © 1977 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press, 1977.