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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 maturity (if it is to continue to grow) takes its nourishment from sterner stuff….
There is no pretence at metaphysical profundity in Mr. Frost's poetry. There is only the profundity that springs from his wrestlings with the problems of life. If his answers differ little or only slightly from those found by others to the same questions, their validity is no less. The restatement of these answers in terms that enrich their communication is important. We have not only the ideas themselves, but Mr. Frost's passionate expression of his conviction and joy in those truths, in language that inspires the reader of his poems with a renewed conviction of the timelessness of basic ethical truths. Few modern poets have with so little ostentation assimilated the findings of science….
Adequately to grasp the reaches of Mr. Frost's thought, one must understand his use of nature as metaphor. In the early work his images are drawn largely from the woods. The woods represent his own inner nature and his withdrawal into them typifies his examination of himself. It is necessary, he repeats over and over, that a person must withdraw himself from the activities of life that absorb so large a part of one's time and make experiences from the sensations accompanying these activities. In his middle years references to the woods are less frequent. In … Steeple Bush, the metaphors from the woods have almost wholly given way to those drawn from the stars. The poet has turned from the problems of the personal to those of the universal and abstract. No modern poet has made the transition with more graciousness, because no one else possesses in such large measure the saving grace of humour, a humour which laughs through all cant and sham to the basic truths so far as man has yet been able to reach them….
Because of the manner in which Mr. Frost has clothed his conclusions on life, he has at one time or other been called non-intellectual. This is, of course, to misunderstand him and his achievement. He is intellectual enough. As a poet, however, he is aware, as I have mentioned, of the value of colour. He is almost impressionistic in his concern for colour in his work. Because of his insistence on this quality—evident in his images, image-words, rhythms, and prosodic patterns, he achieves a correspondence with the reader otherwise impossible. The majority of his poems have an intellectual idea, but the idea is so transfused with emotion that it becomes knowledge and wisdom rather than cold fact. He knew, too, that wisdom came not so much from books as from an intelligent observation of life. He realized, too, as he grew older that although the colours of a poet's palette may become cooler, the emotion they evoke is no less profound….
Mr. Frost's imagery never gives the impression of being tacked on or borrowed. It springs from his own observations of the world about him and, more frequently than a reader might suspect, from the world of literature, particularly from Shakespeare and some of the Latin poets. Nowhere is the poet's whole-hearted absorption in nature more clearly revealed than in his dependence on nature for vivifying an impression from the world of people.
James G. Southworth, "Robert Frost," in his Some Modern American Poets, Basil Blackwell, 1950, pp. 42-87.
Robert Frost, along with Stevens and Eliot, seems to me the greatest of the American poets of this century. 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. It is hard to overestimate the effect of this exact, spaced-out, prosaic movement, whose objects have the tremendous strength—you find it in Hardy's best poems—of things merely put down and left to speak for themselves…. Frost's seriousness and honesty; the bare sorrow with which, sometimes, things are accepted as they are, neither exaggerated nor explained away; the many, many poems in which there are real people with their real speech and real thought and real emotions—all this, in conjunction with so much subtlety and exactness, such classical understatement and restraint, makes the reader feel that he is not in a book but a world, and a world that has in common with his own some of the things that are most important in both….
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 what the world seemed to one man. 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—the limits which existence approaches and falls back from have seldom been stated with such bare composure—but no more justice than is done to the tenderness and love and delight; and everything in between is represented somewhere too….
Randall Jarrell, "Fifty Years of American Poetry" (1962), in his The Third Book of Criticism (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1941, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; copyright © 1963, 1965 by Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus, 1969.
Robert Frost's poems are generally in small scale, but their apparent simplicity is deceptive. He calls himself "a synecdochist"; he gives the part for the whole, because it is the nature of poetry to "make you remember what you didn't know you knew." Most often this subtlety is a casually suggested connection between man and nature…. The real poem, the "synecdoche," completed only in the reader's mind, is the shaping of nature by experience to form human character.
Sculley Bradley, "The Renaissance in Poetry," in A Time of Harvest, edited by Robert E. Spiller (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1962 by Robert E. Spiller), Hill & Wang, 1962, pp. 21-32.
The best of Robert Frost, like the best of most writers, is small in quantity, narrow in scope and seldom the object of popular acclaim. There are a dozen or fifteen of his lyrics which register a completely personal voice, both as to subject and tone, and which it would be impossible to mistake for the work of anyone else. These lyrics mark Frost as a severe and unaccommodating writer: they are ironic, troubled and ambiguous in many of the ways modernist poems are. Despite a lamentable gift for public impersonations and for shrewdly consolidating his success in a country that cares little about poetry, Frost has remained faithful to what Yeats calls "the modern mind in search of its own meanings."
This Frost seldom ventures upon major experiments in meter or diction, nor is he as difficult in reference and complex in structure as are the great poets of the 20th Century. But as he contemplates the thinning landscape of his world and repeatedly finds himself before closures of outlook and experience, he ends, almost against his will, in the company of the moderns. With their temperament and technique he has little in common; he shares with them only a vision of disturbance. This Frost is problematic in his style of thought, quite unlike the twinkling Sage who in his last years became the darling of the nation. At his best Frost is a poet of elusiveness, wit and modesty; he does not posture in blank verse nor does he reinforce the complacence of his audience; he can even approach a hard and unmannered wisdom.
Frost has also written a small number of memorable poems in another vein: dramatic monologues and dialogues set in northern New England which present realistic vignettes of social exhaustion. While neither as original or distinguished as the best of his lyrics, they often live in one's mind, somewhat as a harshly monochromatic picture might. And that, apart from a few scattered pieces, represents the sum of his first-rate work….
In his long poems, most of them uniting satire and didacticism, Frost is at his worst. An early long poem, "New Hampshire," foreshadows the sly folksiness that would later endear him to native moralists, lady schoolteachers, and miscellaneous middlebrows. The verse is limp; the manner coy; the thought a display of provincialism. In the least happy sense of the word, the poem is mannered: Frost catering to his idiosyncracies and minor virtuosities….
Much of Frost's later work—"A Masque of Reason," "Build Soil," "A Masque of Mercy" and the bulk of "Steeple Bush"—illustrates the hardening of his public pose. It is a pose of crustiness and sometimes even heartlessness, and it reflects the feeling of a writer that he need no longer engage with the problems of his time. In such writing he is the dealer in packaged whimsies, the homespun Horace scrutinizing man, God and liberalism…. In these poems conversational tone slips into garrulousness, conservatism declines into smallness of mind, and public declamation ends as mere vanity of pronouncement….
Frost the national favorite is a somewhat different figure. He is a writer of lyrics that often achieve a flawed or partial distinction: the language clear, the picture sharp, the rhythm ingratiating. "Birches," "Mending Wall," "The Death of the Hired Man," "The Pasture"—such poems are not contemptible but neither are they first-rate. They lack the urge to move past easy facilities that characterizes major writing. They depend too much on stock sentiments, especially the unconsidered respect good Americans feel obliged to show for "nature."…
Frost is so skillful a performer that some of his most popular poems, like "Acquainted With the Night," "After Apple-Picking," and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" are also among his finest. It might be convenient, but is also a dangerous simplification, to draw a sharp line between his popular and superior poems. The two have a way of shading into one another, as has always been the case with those major writers of the past two centuries, like Dickens, Mark Twain and Sholom Aleichem, who managed to speak both to cultivated persons and to the mass audience. And part of what Frost's ordinary readers admire or look for in his poetry they are, I think, right in wanting: a renewal of primary experience, a relatedness to the physical world, a wisdom resting on moral health….
[While] Frost can be a master of nuance, it is only, or almost only, when he speaks in his own voice. And that he does when he bears down with full seriousness in his small number of distinguished lyrics. Here the archness and sentimentalism have been ruthlessly purged; he is writing for sheer life. To read these poems, as they confront basic human troubles and obliquely notice the special dislocations of our time, can be unnerving—they offer neither security nor solace. They are the work of a poet who, without the mediation of formal thought or religious sentiments, gives close and hard battle to his own experience. They seek to capture those moments when we confront experience in its bareness, observing some natural event or place with a pure sense of the dynamics of reception. They set out to record such tremors of being in their purity and isolation: as if through a critical encounter with the physical world one could move beyond the weariness of selfhood and into the repose of matter. But Frost, now supremely hard on himself, also knows that the very intensity with which these moments are felt makes certain their rapid dissolution, and that what then remains is the familiar self, once again its own prisoner. Approaching a condition in which the narrator strains to achieve a sense of oneness with the universe and thereby lose himself in the delight of merger, these lyrics return, chastened, with the necessity of shaped meaning. And in their somewhat rueful turning back to the discipline of consciousness, the effect is both painful and final. They conclude with the reflection that the central quandary of selfhood—that it must forever spiral back to its own starting point—cannot be dissolved….
Frost's best lyrics aim at the kind of wisdom that is struck aslant and not to be settled into the comforts of an intellectual system. It is the wisdom of a mind confessing its nakedness, caught in its aloneness. Frost writes as a modern poet who shares in the loss of firm assumptions and seeks, through a disciplined observation of the natural world and a related sequel of reflection, to provide some tentative basis for existence, some "momentary stay," as he once remarked, "against confusion." The best of his poems are neither indulgences in homely philosophy nor wanderings in romanticism. If anything, they are antipathetic to the notion that the universe is inherently good or delightful or hospitable to our needs. The symbols they establish in relation to the natural world are not, as in transcendentalist poetry, tokens of benevolence. These lyrics speak of the hardness and recalcitrance of the natural world; of its absolute indifference to our needs and its refusal to lend itself to an allegory of affection; of the certainty of physical dissolution; but also of the refreshment that can be found through a brief submission to the alienness of nature, always provided one recognizes the need to move on, not stopping for rest but remaining locked, alone, in consciousness.
Irving Howe, "Robert Frost: A Momentary Stay," in his A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics (© 1963; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1963, pp. 144-57.
The people about whom [Frost] writes are usually of New England stock, folk who cultivate their rocky acres with stubborn courage and bear, until they break, the drudgery and isolation of their lot. His subjects are the commonplaces of the countryside: apple-picking, hay-making, the sleep of an old man alone in an old farmhouse, the cleaning of the pasture spring. His diction is simple and colloquial…. In the many instances where Frost allows some rural figure to speak for himself, his lapses into his own mannerisms are few. These dramatic monologues are spoken by people who might be his kindred or his neighbors. There is verismilitude in their diction, whether the person speaking is the farmer who sees no reason for mending the wall between his apple orchard and his neighbor's pine grove; the farm woman whose mad uncle was housed in a home-made cage in the attic and who dimly senses his fate crawling toward her; the man and wife to whose kitchen the incompetent worn-out hired hand comes "home" to die; or either one of the middle-aging pair whose removal from the city to a farm invites scrutiny of the rewards of more than one way of life and a glance at the chilling shadows that encroach on each. Frost has about as much to say of happy wooings and matings, of friendly encounters and generous neighborliness, as of the bleaker aspects of farm life….
Frost's poems repeatedly remind us that the central fact in nature for himself and his kind is human nature. However interestedly he may observe such impersonal things as storms and stars, he is apt to relate his observations to some insight into humanity. Mankind has consecrated the earth for him, both as a poet and as a tiller of the soil. "Nothing not built with hands of course is sacred," he asserts. The hermit of Walden, for all his aloofness, would have understood what the poet meant. Certainly Frost's poetry, like Thoreau's prose, reveals not only an unshakable independence but also an intimate knowledge of the bases of existence ignored by the citydweller and a loverly patience with and delight in the natural scene….
Frost's remoteness from things urban, his acceptance of the traditional forms, obviously ally him with the Georgians. Like that British group, he is closer to Wordsworth and John Clare and to the Dorcetshire poet of rural life, William Barnes, then to his contemporaries…. For the most part this verse ignores such features of contemporary life as the city and the slum, as it evades our confusions and anxieties. In this respect it differs markedly from poetry written after World War II by men who are again willing to employ traditional forms, to speak without raising their voices, to evoke the homely interior and the suburban scene.
Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch), revised edition, Doubleday, 1963, pp. 65-8.
Of all the well-established and much venerated American poets, Robert Frost is probably the most popular and the least criticised. His work appears regularly in school anthologies, yet he himself has failed to receive the close critical attention which has, for example, been accorded so freely to Wallace Stevens. Frost has been widely honoured in England and in the United States, and his poems have never been subject to the fluctuations of literary taste and fashions. Yet he himself has seldom received that careful critical analysis, that exacting exegesis which is such a popular literary activity nowadays. The main reason for this is, of course, that Frost has never belonged to any literary movements; he never took part in the great modernist battles, in the search for new forms and new language. He escaped both the assistance and the dangers of literary alignments. Thus, during his stay in England before and in the early part of the First World War, he never became so attached to the "Georgian" poetic idiom that he could be truly called a member of that movement. Frost has never been in or out of fashion, but always respected, even if sometimes taken too much for granted. (p. 1)
He is one of those poets who not only forge their own idiom and versification but who also create the context in which that work will appear at its best and most acceptable. Frost's gnomic simplicity and rustic clarity, in fact, often conceal remarkable subtleties and some extremely disturbing elements. The accommodating quality of his poems, is often only a surface matter. Frost, indeed, is primarily a philosophical poet and also a highly skilled practitioner of all the arts and artifices of verse. (p. 2)
Frost has no place in the great poetic experiments of this century; his development has been entirely his own. If his style has changed, if his thought has become increasingly complex over the years—that is entirely Frost's affair. Truthfully, though often indirectly, his poems chart his own inner world; and, oddly enough, this poet who appears to be gazing constantly at the natural world, is also very much an inward poet. e does not rearrange nature, as Wallace Stevens did, or view it allegorically, as Edwin Muir did. He never, in fact, imposes himself on the external world. Instead, he strikes an extremely delicate balance in his poems between the world he sees and works in and the processes of thought and emotion which he is always keenly aware of in himself. When this balance fails, Frost's poems become either merely didactic, on the one hand, or else descriptive, on the other: but when they succeed, they communicate an almost visionary quality—a vision which is immanent, not transcendent. (pp. 3-4)
Because Frost has never been associated with Pound, Eliot, or any of the great twentieth-century poetic innovators, it would be wrong to conclude that his poems are written in a sort of "timeless" language, an idiom belonging to no particular age or country. Indeed, one of the most striking things about his work is its relevance to our own time; only in its earliest manifestations does it give one the sense of being slightly archaic or even dated. One of the reasons for this is Frost's conversational, almost casual manner. Many of his poems sound like the poet either ruminating or else talking to his friends; such poems as these are written in "the language of ordinary men," though other, more complex ones, whose pattern of thought is closely bound into their poetic texture, are by no means always simple or straightforward. (pp. 4-5)
It is true that many of Frost's poems carry a moral, but the moral is usually presented either as an argument running through a descriptive or sensuous lyric, or as part of a dramatic situation. It is very seldom indeed that Frost makes his "lessons" as overt and obvious as Wordsworth sometimes did. Both are poets who turn to nature for moral and emotional elevation or with a certain acquiescent desolation. But both men—and this fact is too often forgotten in critiques of their work—are poets of mood. They are, in the best sense, exploiters of moods, looters of the present moment, and, in their more complex states of mind, searchers after symbols. At times, Frost's symbols, analogies, and equivalences too readily assert themselves; the reader feels that they have not been sufficiently worked for, that they emerge too easily from the general shape and design of the poem. (p. 11)
Robert Frost has been called many things—a symbolist, a spiritual drifter, a homespun philosopher, a lyricist, a moraliser, a preacher, a farmer who writes verse. It is perhaps the surface simplicity of his poetry which has enabled so many different critics to impose their own idea[s] of what he is upon his work. Frost has suffered from this. Very little of his work is really simple, yet his poetry does undoubtedly yield something even to the most casual reading. What is this "something," this quality which is surely responsible for Frost's present enormous popularity? It is, in the first place, an honest, steady attitude to the reader, a willingness to admit that he or she will quickly understand and feel what Frost is presenting. This quality expresses itself in the tone of the poems, a tone which is more than a question of a similarity to ordinary conversation. A conversational note is not in itself a poetic virtue. Frost's tone—easy and offhand as it so often sounds—is really full of artistry. The music is always decisive, yet seldom over-intrusive, the language, however simple, is always a matter of art rather than of ordinary life. (p. 13)
Frost's quiet struggles with words and music have undoubtedly had a purifying effect on the American poetic language. It is almost impossible to read a formal poem by a young American poet to-day without being aware of the presiding influence of Frost. His gentle irony, his absolute simplicity and honesty, his fastidious use of abstractions—these and many other qualities can be felt in the work of many of the younger poets, and it is from Frost that those qualities largely derive.
Frost is basically a philosophic poet who often uses the pastoral mode as a vehicle for his inquiries into the nature and meaning of life. His irony, didacticism and lyricism, all serve this end. Yet, so completely are form and content united in Frost's work, it is scarcely possible to remove the philosophical element in any given poem without completely dislocating it. (p. 16)
Frost's complexity is more the complexity of a riddle or a spell than that of a dry philosophical argument. His aphorisms have a quality of magic about them; the poet, one feels, is revealing a secret rather than simply teaching a lesson…. For Frost, life is a mystery; poetry may penetrate a little way into that mystery but even it will never discover the whole truth. So Frost's poems are, as it were, partial revelations, notes on the way taken from one man's experience. Yet in spite of the intimately personal flavour of many of his poems, Frost is not an autobiographical or introspective writer. His first gaze is always outward and he turns inward to examine his own mind more to discover how the human mind functions than because he is specially interested in his own mental processes. He has, in fact, that splendid generalising power which we find in all major poets, but he starts always from a particular instance, a certain scene, a single man working, or a group of people. (p. 17)
Already in North of Boston Frost's reticence is manifested, a reticence which springs both from awe and from a fear of the grandiose. He seems to feel instinctively that the vast continent of America is too large, too unknowable, perhaps too alien, to demand from man the kind of relationship which Wordsworth, for example, discovered in the Lake District in England. There is no "nature mysticism" in Frost and little reference to the transcendent. Yet, if he repudiates the grandiose, he does not therefore make needless concessions to the commonplace. His awed reticence produces in his poetry a perfect balance between the natural objects observed and the thoughts and feelings of the observer. (p. 24)
There is a sense in which the fact of being labelled a "nature poet" may be said to protect the poet from too much ratiocination, too much introspection; a life lived close to the land is, after all, essentially an extrovert and active life. Frost's attitude to the land is not as simple as this. He is a representative of a more subtle, more tormented school of poets. He combines the questioning of Wordsworth with the tortured self-awareness of Clare or R. S. Thomas. Thinking is in everything that he writes, yet he has never allowed cold thinking to have the last word. This conflict between thought and action is at the very heart of Frost's poetry. It certainly accounts for his comparatively few failures; but it is also undoubtedly responsible for his many large and triumphant successes. Abstractions haunt him but they are never exorcised except by the concrete image, the living word. (p. 40)
Frost's verse is formal, even, at times, stately; its movements are often easily anticipated. Yet, despite this, his technique is so flexible, his handling of language and cadence so careful and delicate, that he is able to give his most elegant poems the air of spontaneity. His ideas thus appear not as preconceived notions, but as sudden discoveries. His best poetry conveys the very processes of thought and speculation. (p. 52)
Frost is far from being an unlearned man. If he sometimes chooses to appear as the simple countryman who knows little of books, this is because he likes at times to hide his real self behind this mask or persona. Why does he do this? Why is he, sometimes, so evasive? It is not easy to answer such questions satisfactorily. Like most poets, and particularly lyric poets …, Frost is extraordinarily sensitive to the discrepancy between his poetry and his life as it appears superficially to other men and women. To hide this shyness and diffidence, he sometimes poses (this word is not being used pejoratively) as a homespun philosopher, an unlearned farmer, and he does this not because he wants to deceive either himself or other people, but rather because he wants to diminish the gulf between the ease and simplicity of much of his work and the darkness and self-questioning of his own inner life. (p. 68)
Frost prizes spontaneity above almost every other quality: but it is too often forgotten how much stress he also lays on discipline, patience, and watchfulness. Frost may say that a poem "begins in delight and ends in wisdom," but he never forgets the pain, care, and craftsmanship which temper the delight and help to achieve the wisdom. (p. 69)
A Masque of Reason is one of Frost's very few complete failures. He is a prolific poet and he has written and succeeded with far more difficult tasks than this one…. [It] is not sufficient to view the weaknesses of the masque merely as literary weaknesses. They also indicate the limitations of trying to balance and maintain too many opposites; this attitude is well suited to lyric poetry, where mood, emotion and ideas run together, and where one lyric may try out, as it were, a concept which has previously been opposed or rejected in an earlier poem. Provisional beliefs and judgments are adequate for such poems because, in them, Frost is always arguing with himself, meditating and the sharing the fruits of his meditation with his readers. In didactic and dramatic verse, however (and A Masque of Reason is an attempt at both genres) Frost seems to be hiding his own seriousness behind a front of jocularity and bluffness. In other words, he seems to be deeply embarrassed both by his characters and by the ideas which they are putting forth. (pp. 74-5)
Perhaps A Masque of Mercy is more deeply felt and carries greater conviction simply because it is so much concerned with fear—an emotion which appears in different forms throughout Frost's work. Fear is the one thing about which this poet is never ambivalent. He sees it both as a dominant human feeling and also as one of the chief factors governing the universe; there is nothing theoretical about it. Maybe the relationship between darkness and light produces the tension which we sense in all Frost's best poems, even the most superficially tranquil ones. The darkness is felt, even if only by its absence. Sometimes Frost confronts it with stoicism, sometimes with humour, sometimes with a barely restrained terror. But he is never hysterical, and the horror he sees "deep down things" is the more convincing because he never gets indignant or excited about it. He accepts, not because he likes this condition of things, but because he understands its necessity. (p. 80)
Frost's acceptance of things as they are does not prevent him from possessing and communicating the tragic sense. His juggling with opposites, his play among contraries—this activity is not a smug way of trying to impose order where there is no obvious order; rather it is an acknowledgment of wholeness, an admission that pain, evil and guilt are as real as pleasure, goodness and suffering. For, above all else, Frost's view of life is a complete one; it finds room for everything, even if it cannot explain everything. And, what is more, Frost is willing to admit that there are many things which he cannot explain. He has neither the Romantic poet's readiness to exclude all that does not fit into a sense of the transitoriness of things, nor the sceptic's refusal even to attempt to answer the questions which all men, who think or feel at all, are faced with at some time in their lives. In his best lyrics, Frost shows that his zest for life is tempered, but not minimised, by his sense of tragedy; he also shows that a strong feeling for the physical presence and concreteness of things is not incompatible with a certain hankering after abstractions. Physical objects and spiritual matters are opposites, and it is the aim of Frost's poetry to record both their interplay and their antagonism. (pp. 81-2)
His first poems were somewhat Georgian in flavour and only when he returned to the United States to spend the rest of his life there did his work acquire that tang, flavour, tone and accent which are unmistakably American. This flavour and tone have seeped into his style and idiom and appear not simply in the form of slang or colloquialisms but as a decided part of a complete language. Reading Frost, one never forgets that he is, above all else, an American poet. (p. 83)
There is almost nothing of the mystic in Frost. He does not seek in nature either a sense of oneness with all created things or union with God. There is nothing Platonic in his view of life; everything is good and valuable in itself, not becaure it is a fore-shadowing of something else. When Frost says: "All revelation has been ours," he means, literally and precisely, that. He is fairly taciturn about what happens to us after death, partly because he finds so much to engage his attention here and now. There are sufficient wonders, natural and supernatural, in everyday life as far as Frost is concerned; he is not, therefore, a visionary poet in the sense that Blake and Wordsworth were. He has no wish to prophesy. (p. 97)
It is easy to see how and why Frost distrusts the academic world; it is not that he abhors knowledge or learning or thought, but rather that he has an absolute dislike and distrust of anything which tampers with the free workings of the human mind and imagination; he wants knowledge, and as much of it as he can acquire. What he does not want, either for himself or for younger writers, is a fixed attitude of mind, the kind of mind which has become fixed because it has settled things finally and coldly by reason alone before it has tested them on the senses, the nerves, and the emotions.
But it must not be concluded that Frost is a believer in flashes of inspiration only. He is convinced that poetry is something given, but he also believes just as firmly that it is something that must be worked for and worked on. The thinker and the craftsman can never be neglected; to ignore them would be, according to Frost, unfaithful to his lifelong vocation as a poet. (p. 100)
[There] are other ways of meditating on reality than that of Wallace Stevens. Because Frost's is an older and more familiar method, completely divorced from the jargon of modern philosophies, we should be wary of missing the fact that he is "investigating reality" in all his best poems. (p. 111)
Elizabeth Jennings, in her Frost, Oliver and Boyd, 1964.
Comment since [Frost's] death has tended to follow one or the other of two quite different approaches to conclusions that have in common a scaled-down estimate. If the critic likes Frost and wants to save him as a major poet from being destroyed by the inanities and duplicities of the popular image Frost himself labored to create, he is likely to discover that Frost wrote some of the darkest poems ever written by any American. He will find the genuine Frost in the poems that yield most fully to a discovered "design of darkness."…
Frost is an Emersonian, we are told, but an Emersonian with no faith in the Soul, so that "self-reliance" becomes in him mere stubbornness and idiosyncrasy resting on a willful narrowing of the sympathies. Lacking a coherent view of nature, he is unable to tell us why he finds it so important. He keeps hinting that he has some secret source of strength, but he refuses to let anyone else in on the secret. In him Transcendental vision is reduced to canniness and the Emerson metaphysic of growth to a shrewdly calculated strategy aimed at survival. Fundamentally, it is fear of experience that produces the typical Frostian shrug of the shoulders, the wisecrack, the undercutting change of tone that comes at the end of so many of Frost's poems. Even "Design," we remember, ends with a line that invites us to deny, if we wish, that the pattern of images has revealed any important meaning—"If design govern in a thing so small."…
[But] in a great many of Frost's poems, particularly in those published before his wife's death in 1938—that is, up through A Further Range—we find ourselves in a diminished version of an Emersonian world. The familiar Emersonian emphases are here—the concentration on the individual searching for himself and for meaning, on nature as a resource, on immediate experience as a way to some kind of truth. But the mood is autumnal, the tone ironic or noncommittal, and the very categories of thought that are being played with have been scaled down in size. Emerson's "Woodnotes" for instance becomes Frost's "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things." The advantage gained from acquaintance with nature, Frost's poem says, is that it allows us to penetrate the illusion that nature cares for the burned house and deserted farm, allows us to realize that for the phoebes now nesting in the barn, "there was nothing really sad" about the scene the human observer finds so desolating….
There is so much of Emerson in Frost that it would seem very curious that it has not been more widely noticed—were it not for two considerations: Frost's masking proclivities, and the fact that most readers of Frost today, including some of his best-known critics, "know" Emerson only at second hand, know only somebody's idea of Emerson, or an essay or two read many years ago….
[In Frost's work] we have a body of poetry that belongs with the best ever written by any American, a body of work perhaps as permanent as, and certainly very much like, Emily Dickinson's. Frost must have been hard to live with, but he was tough and crafty, and he and his talent endured. We are the richer for the poems he forged in pain and loss and fear—and in determination to survive. In an age hostile to almost all that he most deeply believed and felt, he not only continued to write but won outstanding success, first with the anthologists who reflected the public taste, then at last, at the end of a very long and very difficult life, even with critics of the left, who found a part of his work "great" despite his politics; and with New Critics of the right, who thought "masks" essential in poetry and found his use of them admirable poetically. Both left and right, of course, deplored his "Emersonianism," which, as a poet hoping to be as tough and enduring as an oven bird, he had long hidden and disguised as best he could.
Hyatt H. Waggoner, "The Strategic Retreat: Robert Frost," in his American Poets From the Puritans to the Present (copyright © 1968 by Hyatt H. Waggoner; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton Mifflin, 1968, pp. 293-327.
Frost, a poet fascinated by the capturing, directive power of roads, paths, tracks, and by the steady indifference of everything from rock to birch, a poet whose delight leads to the repeated revelation of self-centred bleakness, a poet intermittently sure in the manipulation of limited means, is neither beast nor angel. Nor major poet—a claim which is riduculous….
A minor poet; to whom—such is his line—one is drawn back repeatedly, even reluctantly, but drawn back; and it is this reviewer's tip never to overlook in Frost one, on first reading, slightly sentimental poem, "Never Again Would Birds' Song be the Same"; in which Frost loses himself almost, yet recovers his ruefulness, his obstinacy, in a last line—seeming to say, I could have done but I wouldn't—of the most revelatory oddness. So the voice of Eve had given an oversound to the voice of birds which they had kept ever since: he would say it, he would believe it. But—the fraud of life and love—"to do that to birds was why she came". She came only to feed the illusion. Defeat always is defeat? But then again read Wordsworth undespondent, Wordsworth on bringing the glow-worm to the orchard.
"A Writer of Poems: The Life and Work of Robert Frost," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), April 16, 1971, pp. 433-34.
Like Aristotle in The Politics and like Edmund Burke throughout his political philosophy, Robert Frost believed that man is by his innate nature a social animal….
Frost was always intensely aware that there is a continuous and unresolved ambiguity between the necessary claims of society upon each individual, for duties to be performed, and the contrary claims of each individual upon his society, to be as free and independent as possible within the laws and customs of society…. Despite the perpetual conflict between the individual and society, Frost believed that there was a natural identity of self-interest and social benevolence in both individuals and society, which kept men together in society….
This idea of the simultaneous separateness and unity of each individual in society was the central theme in Frost's early poem, "The Tuft of Flowers," and it remained a firm personal conviction throughout Frost's whole life…. There are many of Frost's other poems, such as "The Vantage Point," "Mending Wall," and even "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," which affirm the same theme in a variety of ways….
The relationship between the individual and civil society was more natural, and more important to Frost, than the relationship between human nature and external physical "nature" itself. A line in "New Hampshire"—"Nothing not built with hands of course is sacred," summarizes Frost's belief that in the order of priorities and values the proper study of mankind is man himself, with external "nature" decidedly subordinated. If full weight is given to this important point, it would justify rejecting the common false stereotype of Frost as a "nature poet." In his poems physical "nature" is most often merely the background setting for a human drama, rather than the subject….
[The] distinctions Frost made between rural and urban man fall within his grand conception of man as a social animal. Although he always preferred the rural to the urban life, he never set them against each other by identifying rural life with external nature: "I'm very much a country man, and I don't like to see city against country."…
There was no question in Frost's mind that in the initial stages of man's life the greatest degree of self-reliance, love of individual freedom, reflective leisure, and integrity and character, was to be found in the rural life of the country. The simplicity of rural life fostered these human qualities much more than their opposite traits, which were more common in urbanized centers. In particular, during the early period of life, the cultivation of personal character centered in the moral and intellectual virtues, could take place best in the country. The country also provided the basis for an aesthetic appreciation of external nature, although the aesthetics of art and special talents in most arts flourished best in the city. Frost believed that to develop as a total human being, a man had first to depend upon his own inner resources, and he learned to do this best through life on a farm…. Solitude for reflection is an essential ingredient in self-development…. Frost believed that a conscious sense of self-identity through isolation, like that of the speaker in "A Tuft of Flowers," should precede a sense of social relationships with other men.
Frost never believed that an individual should live a rural life in order to escape from the demands of urban society, but rather in order to plunge deeper into his own nature, to explore and find his strengths and weaknesses, to measure his ordinary self against his ideal self, so that when he ventured into urban society he came with the greatness of his intellectual, moral, aesthetic, and social capability already well-developed…. In the relationship of the individual and society, the perfection of the individual always remained for Frost the highest purpose of life.
Frost rejected the opposite doctrine that the individual should exist mainly as an instrument for the development of society as an end. In essence, this theory of man was the ideal of all totalitarian ideologies. There was nothing antisocial in Frost's self-reliant individualism. He believed that when large numbers of individuals became maturely developed as complete human beings, society would indeed receive the benefit of their knowledge, talents, and character, and therefore would naturally be improved….
To Frost the one unpardonable sin for an individual was to want to be someone or something else than himself: he should be proud of his national origin, his race, his religion, his culture, and whatever things gave him his individual character. By being his best self he could show the world what a person of his nationality, race, religion, culture, etc. was capable of achieving. As with individuals, so with nations. A nation should be proud of itself, and not be guilty of wishing to be like another nation….
Throughout his life Frost maintained his strong faith in the American republic as a system which provided the maximum of personal freedom against the claims of any collectivist society based upon an ideology
Peter L. Stanlis, "Robert Frost: The Individual and Society," in The Intercollegiate Review, Summer, 1973, pp. 211-34.
Essentially Frost examines the process of man's confronting the natural world and, through it, himself. Though greatly oversimplified, this is the focus of the American Romantic tradition….
The quest for Truth is a quest for security—the security of knowing, of being able to state something with conviction. The knowledge itself may be a realization of cosmic and individual emptiness and irrationality, but it is knowledge. And this can be said of Frost's protagonists—they confront, they refuse to be misled by comforting psychological projections.
What, then, are the aspects of the universe in which Frost's protagonists dwell? In the poem "On Looking Up By Chance At The Constellations," it becomes apparent that Frost's universe is not a static one. The fundamental law of the cosmos is change—not necessarily growth, but change. The acceptance of a universe of flux is played off against the futility of attempting to catch nature "in the act" of transformation….
Though the universe undergoes change, it little profits man to wait and see; man-time is faster than cosmos-time, and "the shocks and changes" should be looked for, presumably, in the lesser circle of terrestrial concerns. Nevertheless, a world of flux is therapeutically valuable, Frost seems to say….
Mental balance is dependent upon variety and change, but not predictable change…. [It] is impossible for the speaker to predict absolutely the time and nature of any particular change. So it is that the individual can make no prediction regarding "his particular time and personal sight." At best he can only utter a statement which is qualified into meaninglessness: "That calm seems certainly safe to last tonight." The great use made of alliteration in this closing line underscores its overqualification…. The forced qualification, whether the speaker is aware of it or not, derives from the struggle in his nature between persistently recurring attempts to state a certainty (thus circumscribing the world), and perpetual adjustments to a world of surprise (thus recognizing it)….
Frost contributes a firm empirical strain to modern American poetry. Like his own "strong" protagonists, Frost is "saying nothing" until he sees. Often he seems to echo Twain's lament in "The Mysterious Stranger": "No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is." When seen amid the tapestry of his work, Frost's poetry of grim uncertainty and resignation signifies but one aspect of the whole. But what an aspect it is, representing his best work and linking him, unmistakably with the earlier tradition established by America's "dark" Romantic writers.
Carl M. Lindner, "Robert Frost: Dark Romantic," in Arizona Quarterly, Autumn, 1973, pp. 235-45.