Robert Frost

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Frost, Robert (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frost, Robert 1874–1963

Frost, one of America's most celebrated poets, wrote moral and deceptively simple poems, in traditional verse forms, dealing with life in rural New England. The struggles of ordinary men to develop individual identities in an essentially hostile world was one of his most persistent themes.

Read chronologically, Mr. Frost's poetry, like that of every true genius, reveals the steady and almost imperceptible mutations demanded by inner necessity, not those arising from external causes. Mr. Frost has always been a truly intellectual poet: thoughtful, not bookish; independent, not a mere sounding board for others' thoughts. His intellectual qualities are as apparent in his images, rhythms, and forms as in the rational content. Few poets have ranged wider or deeper in their reading of the great works than he….

One errs greatly to mistake restraint for coldness; or decorum for lack of passion. Mr. Frost's restraint is the natural reserve one associates with persons with generations of New England ancestry. When such persons are able to give freely they can give abundantly. It is no opening of the sluices to let through a trickle. An Englishman could better appreciate Mr. Frost than the American who linguistically is not a part of the small New England area….

In Mr. Frost's earlier work …, the sensuous elements dominate but never obscure the rational; in mid-career the sensuous and rational are about evenly distributed; in his [late] work the purely rational gain a decided ascendancy. The emphasis changes, that is all. Both the sensuous and rational elements must be present at the beginning and persist to the end. Perhaps it would be truer to say that the sensuous elements in the later lyrics become subtler, are less of the surface than of the deeps. Since Mr. Frost brought his wares late to market this should be so. A man who publishes his first volume at thirty-seven must bring more than pure sensuousness if he expects to live. Mr. Frost is most sensuous in those subjects where persons are generally so, in their attitude toward love and nature….

He looked for no basic change in the fundamental tenets of his faith, only a greater surety of their truth…. The purely contemplative life away from the world, however, was not enough. He knew that man needs man; not, however, as a means of escaping from himself, but as food for his thinking. He needs to observe him in his daily activities, he needs to ponder the meaning of death, and, even more, the aims of life. When these do not suffice, he needs to turn to a bruised plant, the earth, or to look into the 'crater' of an ant…. He needs the perspective possible through a telescope and accuracy of facts possible through a microscope, and the tolerance that sometimes comes from politics. Mr. Frost's vision is not restricted to one plane. He has looked up, into, and across others. Because he based his thinking on facts—'the fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows'—he has attained unto wisdom….

Mr. Frost is strongly traditional; although he has little use for tradition as such. He is conservative in the finest sense of the word with a strong mixture of Yankee shrewdness and common sense. Each generation, he believes, must reexamine the customs by which it lives and discard the outmoded ones in order to keep vital those which are sound…. Not to do this keeps man from progressing; holds him, in fact, to the mental habits of a dweller in the stone age. This does not mean, however, that the poet believes a person should seize on every new and untried idea that passes by, or that he should discard a belief that happens to be out of fashion. Quite the contrary….

[His] constant insistence on the necessity for vibrant awareness of the immediacy of life here and now and his unwillingness to escape from life constitute much of Mr. Frost's strength. Sensuous beauty may be enough in youth—a kiss from the beloved, a touch of a rose petal on the hand—but...

(The entire section is 8,535 words.)