illustrated portrait of American poet Robert Frost

Robert Frost

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Frost, Robert (Vol. 4)

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Frost, Robert 1875–1963

Frost, an American, was one of our most honest and masterful poets. His personal and deceptively simple lyrics, usually in a pastoral mode, chronicle his unceasing pursuit of the nature and meaning of life.

We have seen the growth or revival in this country of a narrow nationalism that has spread from politics into literature (although its literary adherents are usually not political isolationists). They demand, however, that American writing should be affirmative, optimistic, not too critical, and "truly of this nation." They have been looking round for a poet to exalt; and Frost, through no effort of his own—but more through the weakness than the strength of his work—has been adopted as their symbol. Some of the honors heaped upon him are less poetic than political. He is being praised too often and with too great vehemence by people who don't like poetry, especially modern poetry. He is being presented as a sort of Sunday-school paragon, a saint among miserable sinners. And the result is that his honors shed little of their luster on other poets, who in turn feel none of the pride in his achievements that a battalion feels, for example, when one of its officers is cited for outstanding services. Frost's common sense and his "native quality" are used as an excuse for belittling and berating all his contemporaries, who have supposedly fallen into the sins of pessimism, obscurity, obscenity, and yielding to foreign influences; we even hear of their treachery to the American dream. Frost, on the other hand, is depicted as a loyal, autochthonous, and almost aboriginal Yankee. We are told not only that he is "the purest classical poet of America today"—and there is truth in Gorham B. Munson's early judgment—but also that he is "the one great American poet of our time" and "the only living New Englander in the great tradition, fit to be placed beside Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau."

But when he is so placed and measured against them, his stature seems diminished; it is almost as if a Morgan horse from Vermont, best of its breed, had been judged by the standards that apply to Clydesdales and Percherons. Height and breadth and strength: he falls short in all these qualities of the great New Englanders. And the other quality for which he is often praised, his utter faithfulness to the New England spirit, is hardly a virtue that they tried to cultivate. They realized that the New England spirit, when it stands alone, is inclined to be narrow and rigid and arithmetical. It has reached its finest growth only when cross-fertilized with alien philosophies. Hinduism, Sufism, Fourierism, and German Romanticism: each of these contributed its share to the New England renaissance of the 1850's….

[Frost] is a poet neither of the mountains nor of the woods, although he lives among both, but rather of the hill pastures, the intervales, the dooryard in autumn with the leaves swirling, the closed house shaking in the winter gales (and who else has described these scenes more accurately, in more lasting colors?). In the same way, he is not the poet of New England in its great days, or in its catastrophic late-nineteenth-century decline (except in some of his earlier poems); he is rather a poet who celebrates the diminished but prosperous and self-respecting New England of the tourist home and the antique shop in the old stone mill. And the praise heaped on Frost in recent years is somehow connected in one's mind with the search for authentic ancestors and the collecting of old New England furniture. One imagines...

(This entire section contains 4849 words.)

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a saltbox cottage restored to its original lines; outside it a wellsweep preserved for its picturesque quality, even though there is also an electric pump; at the doorway a coach lamp wired and polished; inside the house, a set of authentic Shaker benches, a Salem rocker, willow-ware plates and Sandwich glass; and, on the tip-top table, carefully dusted, a first edition of Robert Frost.

Malcolm Cowley, "Robert Frost: A Dissenting Opinion" (originally published, in two parts, in The New Republic, September 11, 1944 and September 18, 1944), in his A Many-Windowed House (copyright 1970 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 201-12.

Time has made it evident that "The Oven Bird" stands at the center of Robert Frost's early poetry. Indeed, this sonnet struck a note which was to become central to the themes of many of the major poets of the first quarter of the twentieth century. Anticipating by several years that sorrowful observation of his younger contemporary, T. S. Eliot, that in our time the ancient song of the nightingale had degenerated into the "Jug Jug" of dirty ears, Frost focused on the transformation and diminution of Whitman's central symbol for the poet. In the mid-summer, mid-wood song of the ovenbird Frost hears a parable of the modern poet who, unlike those poets who can burst into song only in the spring, has learned the ovenbird's paradoxical trick. He has learned how to sing an unlyrical song in those times that are not at all conducive to joyous song….

Like his ovenbird of mid-summer song, the poet that Frost continued to recognize in himself was one who faced the hardest of facts: seasonally, but above all historically, the world has diminished, and "dust is over all." Still, the difficulty of the situation cannot reduce the durable poet to compliance: he resists the fact and his resistance becomes the impulse—bone and sinew—for his poem.

George Monteiro, "Robert Frost's Solitary Singer," in The New England Quarterly, March, 1971, pp. 134-40.

[It] is … possible that [Frost's] success in playing the role of the Great Poet prevented him from developing as a great poet as he became less of a farmer and more of a performer, cutting himself off from the life which had given a hard core of factuality to the fiction in the early narratives. Talking to his audience directly he lost his own voice in his public voice. He had always thought of the making of a poem as a performance, but latterly he was distracted by the performance he knew he was going to give on the platform, allowing his talent for pleasing his public to draw him away from the talent that really mattered.

But there is also something perverse about his refusal to commit himself more deeply. A poem called "At Woodward's Gardens" in the 1936 volume A Further Range describes how two monkeys in a cage get the better of a boy who has been burning them with a magnifying glass. Incapable of understanding how the glass focuses the sun's rays, they nevertheless succeed in gaining possession of it. "It's knowing what to do with things that counts" concludes the poem, and in some editions it is sub-titled Resourcefulness Is More than Understanding. Frost's poetry is a monument to this doubtful precept.

Ronald Hayman, "A Talent for Pleasing," in Encounter, September, 1971, pp. 76-7.

[The] feeling of being drawn down into the depths, the sensation of being lured on by elusive perspectives arises in us when we enter Robert Frost's poetry for the first time, a feeling which keeps growing as we keep reading and absorbing it…. Frost reproduces reality in such a manner that the very scene presented to our view entices us bit by bit, then involves us completely.

His images … are stereoscopic. They surround the viewer like trees in a wood from behind which now and then other trees—and clearings—gaze at us, creating the illusion that there beyond the next turn the goal will be reached, the goal which we involuntarily keep pursuing until we realize that there is no end to the woods. But by then the original purpose of our walk, strictly speaking, is already behind us.

This analogy of a walk in the woods confronts us strikingly on reading Frost. His lyric poems are not only rich in motifs of this kind (a natural phenomenon for the man living close to nature), but one could also say that they are based on a corresponding "entrance" of the poet (and, along with him, of the reader too) into the world he himself depicts, a world presented three-dimensionally and charged with mysterious, alluring depths and significant happenings. We are fascinated by the close attention paid by the poet to the most ordinary things, by his clear focus upon the actual, the concrete. We are even intrigued by the scrupulousness with which he reports about everything surrounding him. It is a kind of scrupulousness rich in suggestion. And we come to suspect that life's occurrences are not as simple and commonplace as they may have seemed at first glance….

For Frost it is extraordinarily essential to bring different levels together: life and death, past and present, external and internal, spring and autumn, lake and wood. This kind of conjunction may take place in Frost by an exchange of views: "Two had seen two, whichever side you spoke from"—but by such a momentary contact the sought-for fullness and an all-embracing universal integrity are achieved—the internal concatenation of phenomena that may be remote from one another but still appear in the poetic image as a unity. According to Frost, there is "something" in the very nature of things "that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down." For this reason, for example, racial discrimination, social and spiritual segregation, everybody's living for himself alone according to the principle "good fences make good neighbors" found in Frost a definite enemy….

In his insistence upon the unity of the world, which in our consciousness frequently appears to be divided and atomized into countless cells, nuclei, poles, lies the ethical and the actual aesthetic program of Frost. He wished he could embrace both heaven and earth ("Birches"). His work, the work of artists in general, consists of building a short bridge from one man to another, of establishing connections between man and nature, body and soul, of demonstrating reality in the wonderful interaction of its individual parts.

Frost's landscapes and genre scenes—with all their realistic delicacy and liveliness of portrayal—contain something that is more than just a mere imitation of life, a copying of nature. At the same time the metaphysical essence of nature and existence which he abstracts from everyday life surrounding him are always in Frost rooted deep in the soil of reality. Poetry and prose, abstract philosophy and sober everyday occurrences are so closely interwoven in his poetry that the one becomes now the source, now the shell of the other. Like his characters, Frost himself, to use his own expression, "mingled reckless talk of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming." Physical work he coupled with poetic inspiration and gave himself to philosophy, meditation, contemplation, whether he was chopping wood or gathering hay….

Undoubtedly Frost, the poet-philosopher who preferred to "walk" through the world in order to observe life closely and contemplate its origins, goes contrary to modern rhythm. He looks into the depth of things, not merely at their spectacular, sparkling surfaces; and consequently his slow and easy, pensive step outruns the field time and again. His whole art sounds in fact like an invitation to a walk along an old familiar country road where behind every apparent trifle a new miracle is waiting to be revealed.

Andrei Sinyavsky, "Come Walk With Us," in his For Freedom of Imagination, translated and with an introduction by Laszlo Tikos and Murray Peppard (copyright © 1971 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, 1971, pp. 64-70.

Few poets have elaborated images and metaphors more insistently than Robert Frost or mixed them so judiciously at times with controlling axioms and guiding philosophic commentary…. Ultimately, the context of any single image in Frost is not merely the poem in which it occurs but the special language that develops throughout the collected poems. Taken as a related set of symbols, these elements of Frost's habitual landscape form a particularly comprehensive view of many … pastoral themes … and allow us to realize their modern potential in perhaps the only way it can be fully realized—in the densely compacted medium of the lyric. Frost's insights into the nature of pastoral can thus be of valuable help to us in understanding those aspects of pastoral that have managed to survive and get translated into modern terms. They have an additional value in that, like Stevens, Frost is very conscious of the nature of the poem in its fusion of the imagination and reality and its creation of an order pleasing to the mind in the midst of potential confusion and chaos….

To define its engagement and disengagement, to winnow the grain of rationality from the chaff of meaningless objects in the landscape, is in effect the mind's special "georgic" labor. For Frost, pastoral is an easier set of correspondences that come about in scenes where wonder and beauty thrust themselves forward, like the tuft of flowers, without need of arduous probing. One simply crosses a fence and discovers an abundance he has not expected. In contrast, georgic requires a muscular effort against a resistant terrain, and Frost's poetry frequently works hard at creating its rational, axiom-filled order in a universe at odds with it. "The Most of It" is an impressive balance of these two impulses because the laboring poet has not forced himself to encapsulate the grain in axioms: he merely brings the central revelation far enough forward for us to wonder at it with him as the poem remains arrested between plunging in and withholding….

In each of these images—the road, the unharvested area, the swamp and the woodpile, the witness tree, and spring pools—Frost explores the basic metaphysical reasons that nature cannot be idyllic and that, by implication, the poet cannot compose himself in final acts or pure poems as he might like. Another way of putting it is to say that neither the design nor the language of poetry can derive from a realm of Ideas abstractable from nature's forms but must try to be reflections of real things in passage in a local geography obviously quite unlike the permanent landscape of an Eden or Arcadia. Even the kind of songs that nature offers (like the ovenbird's) are a guide to the poet's songs and symbols for them; they are clearly not those of the romantic cuckoo, skylark, or nightingale, who bear little resemblance to the real songsters that pass under those names….

Frost's poetry … survives between the flux of the wilderness and the order that people choose to enact, in the difficulty of living on the "edge." For the place the poet most seeks to establish form is the boundary between himself and the Alien, where form is negotiation rather than an artifice of eternity.

Typical of these places of discovery, and perhaps an appropriate one to cite as a summing up of the pastoral aspects of Frost's clearing operations, is "Far-away Meadow" in "The Last Mowing."… Though echoes of romanticism are strong plangencies here, Frost's meadow compromises between them and the world of necessary mowing and plowing. Unlike mythological scenes, Far-away Meadow is a real place (or could be), and unlike the infinitude that lies beyond boundaries for the romantic, the distance beyond it is unknowable and inhospitable: one does not want to go farther, and the trees will soon erase all human marks even there…. [Especially in Far-away Meadow], Frost places the age-old concerns of pastoral in a new context. Like the main poets of the tradition, he seeks for ways to transform into the harbored order of poetry the momentary perfection that he glimpses in the landscape of New England. But these moments exist for him only perilously between social disturbances of one kind or another and the shadowy claims of an impenetrable nature. At times they exist only in the poet's verbal enclosures, which like woodpiles are not permanent but are more long-lived than most things. Thus poems are momentary havens from the confusion that presses insistently into the life of the real Frost, the struggling farmer and poet. Not only his success as a poet but his peace of mind depended upon his reconstituting of pastoral and discovery of forms to withstand those dark powers that "blot out and drink up and sweep away."

Harold E. Toliver, "Frost's Enclosures and Clearings," in his Pastoral Forms and Attitudes (originally published by the University of California Press; reprinted by permission of The Regents of the University of California), University of California Press, 1971, pp. 334-60.

[The] Robert Frost whom I knew in his old age as a friend (closer than casual but not close enough for intimacy) contained in various proportions humanity and genius, jealousy and spitefulness, generosity, careerism, ease of access and an ultimately obsessive secrecy. He was a man who on the one hand spoke to every acquaintance with the unaffectedness of a lifelong friend; but who on the other hand succeeded in concealing some of the important elements of his life even from his authorized biographer.

The fulfillment of Robert Frost's character, his maturing, took something like 20 years to gather momentum and then washed him up very suddenly on the shore of himself. Most poets find their voices in their 20s. Frost had to wait, in irritable obscurity until, at the age of 37, through an act of conscious will, his character finally changed, deepened and arrived….

In discussing Robert Frost's character I have chosen to concentrate on the few months before his English adventure, centering on January 1912, when I believe he lost himself and found himself at once. He never spoke much in his later life about this period, except in parables. The character he chose to embody in his middle and old age was one he had created as a form out of the deepest uncertainties….

The Robert Frost who took up residence in Derry in 1900 was arrogant, touchy, neurasthenic, sickly and shy. Contemporary photographs show us a smooth, stubborn, cold-eyed, sensitive face with sensuous lips. His handwriting was indecisive, scattered and slanting. He was preternaturally sensitive to slights and indignities and had long lived in resentment of his mother's struggle against genteel poverty. In the poems he had already written, and in the poems he would soon write, he often speaks of running away, of losing himself in the woods. In fact this theme would repeat itself again and again from the first poem of A Boy's Will until the very last poem of In the Clearing. He was perhaps more troubled by the fear of weakness than by weakness itself….

By 1906 the worst of his depression was over, and Frost little by little emerged from his isolation, began teaching school again, became inventive as a teacher and revered by many of his students. He was writing and sometimes publishing poems. In 1909 the Frosts left the Derry farm to share a house in Derry Village. Two years later Frost was invited to teach psychology at the Normal School in Plymouth, New Hampshire. He seemed to be displaying a new confidence in himself, for reasons not immediately clear, reasons he himself never made explicit in later years…. For the inward record we will have to turn to the poetry, for the biographers and Frost himself tell us all but nothing….

"Directive" tells us much about rage and division, about moving back from the present into the past, from the valleys to the mountains, into the psychically deserted New England culture. Can Robert Frost be suggesting, in the lines that conclude the poem, that he had found "wholeness" by returning to his own New England sources after a long resistance? That, "possessing what he still was unpossessed by," he had finally "found salvation in surrender"?… The external signs were all there in 1911: Frost's breakaway from Derry, his newly mannered speech, his evident confidence, his new cheerfulness and wit—all these must be taken as signs of self-definition, most particularly his newfound humor…. Frost's new style, like his new personality, was calculated to be both charming and bearable. Once the new style had been achieved and Frost knew he had mastered it, he minced no words: "To be perfectly frank with you I am one of the most notable craftsmen of my time … I alone of English writers have consciously set myself to make music out of what I may call the sound of sense."

I believe that before the end of the year 1911, in Plymouth, Robert Frost had begun "taking himself" differently enough to make this new style, this craftsman's revolution, possible….

Like many American writers Frost had been drawn from the West to the East. Henry James and Mark Twain, to name but two, had relished the eastward movement; Frost, until this time in his life, had begrudged that motion eastward because to him it meant disgrace and failure. But now he had recognized the validity of Bergson's retrograde movement, "obliged, though it goes forward, to look behind," and was willing to pay what he would later call "the tribute of the current to the source." Now he inwardly accepted the retrograde movement, the existence of his past, and he found himself whole at last. Wholeness so freed him, in fact, that he was able not only to liberate himself from Derry, that haunted place, but, a year later, to launch out on another great leap.

In the summer of 1912 the Frosts are said to have flipped a coin to decide whether to move to Vancouver or England. "The coin chose England," Frost reported. It pointed them toward the East, recapitulating the movement of 1885 from California; but this move eastward brought with it a tremendous access of new energy. Not a month after arriving in England, Frost was at last able to dust off the poems in A Boy's Will—almost all of them except "one or two things to round out the idea" long since completed during the Derry years—and take them to a publisher.

Throughout the fall of 1912 he went on writing poems in his adopted Yankee voice, in the North of Boston style, giving himself over to his sense of New Hampshire language and landscape and people…. By the late summer of 1913, a year after leaving the United States, not only was A Boy's Will already published, but North of Boston seems also to have been complete, and it was published in England the next year. Frost marveled a little at what had happened to him. The change was evident in a dozen ways. His very handwriting altered significantly during the year 1912, showing new traits that a graphologist might identify as increases in both boldness and secretiveness. Not only had Frost arrived at a new poetic style, but at a new personality that the style reflected. The style was indeed "the way the man took himself," with "outer humor but with inner seriousness."

Peter Davison, "The Self-Realization of Robert Frost, 1911–1912," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), March 30, 1974, pp. 17-20.

[In] trying to place Frost in our cultural history, it is important not to lose sight of the most evident peculiarity of his career: unlike many of his great contemporaries in poetry—Yeats, Lawrence, Stevens, and Eliot—Frost was from the start a truly popular poet. Before he belonged to the profession of criticism, he belonged to the general public. He still does. It would be presumptuous, if it were even possible, to say that the Frost who enthralled readers and listeners across the nation was mostly a kind of front, that there is a "real" Frost underneath who can be reached only by those able to stand the pressures of supposedly uncharted depths….

The attention [Frost asks for] is quite alien to the kind of reading we have been habituated to by most twentieth-century poetry and by most twentieth-century criticism of it. Usually, by close inspection of metaphors or of tones of voice, by recognition of philosophically or psychologically structured images, the reading moves gradually outward, the poem is expanded, techniques are translated into meanings. The line between the poem and mythology gradually becomes blurred; drama and voice become at last little more than a pretext—in a literal sense of that word.

Frost is a poet who obstinately resists that process. It's not too much to say that he writes against the disposition—poetic, critical, human—just described. This reluctance to reward the kinds of attention to which readers of Yeats and Eliot had become accustomed—quite aside from whether it ever gave a good picture of either Eliot or Yeats—would by itself be enough to make him both popular and unfashionable. But to compound the difficulty, the rewards Frost does offer require, I think, an even more strenuous kind of attention. Once you have decided, that is, to look for the remarkable power hidden behind the benign-ironic masks of his personality, you discover that Frost is quite without gratitude for small favors. He makes you work very hard indeed, simply to find out how much he's denying you by way of large significances. He will not let you have him as a poet in the style of Eliot or of Yeats; he will not let you even discuss him in the same terms. So that while, in the care you lavish upon him, you find yourself resolutely treating him like a very great poet, he is just as resolutely disqualifying the terms normally used to describe one….

Frost, more than Eliot, is pleased enough with momentariness, with his quite extraordinary satisfaction in the poem as a human performance, in the poem as an exemplification of how to perform in the face of the confusions of life or the impositions of authority, including literary authority.

It is this that makes Frost so unique and his genius so hard to account for. It can only be accounted for by the most precise notation of how he performs, of how he momentarily achieves a stay in particular poems and particular lines, even particular feet. It is as if the world of other people and of things, including again other poets and poems, existed in a sound which is not his and to which he will succumb if he does not fashion a sound of his own. Each poem is an act of such confrontation starting from scratch and with a chance of his losing. In poem after poem, all that is other than himself is identified by sound, either seductive or threatening, either meaningful or brute. There is the sound of the wind and the rain, of trees in their rustling, of the scythe in the field, the cry in the night, the beating on a box by a lonely old man, the movement of a beast, the song of birds, the voice of a lover or her silence.

It is a commonplace of romantic poetry, this obsession with sound and its possible clues, with silence and its promise of visionary afflatus. But nowhere is the person who is vulnerable to these sounds and silences so often characterized not as a common man but as the common man who is a poet, a "maker" of poetry….

Reuben Brower offers a good comment on "Mowing" when he says: "In feeling reverence and love in the common thing and act Frost renews the Wordsworthian sympathy between man and his world, but he does so in a decidedly American accent. The higher value for Frost is pragmatic, the fruit of action is in the moment."

The action in the moment is not only the acting dramatized by the poem but the poem itself as an enactment, an act of "earnest love." Many of the early poems, wherein I think one finds some of the psychological and structural source of all Frost's poetry, are about the relation of love to poetic vision and poetic making, of "making" it in all those senses. And they are also poems about sound and the danger of being silenced by failure in love….

[The] biographical material doesn't tell us as much about the man as the poetry does. By that I mean that the poetry doesn't necessarily come from the experiences of his life; rather the poetry and the life experiences emerge from the same configuration in him prior to his poems or to his experience. Sex and an obsession with sound, sexual love and poetic imagination partake of one another, are in some sense the same. As he observes in "The Figure a Poem Makes" (again note that sense of the poem as an action, as not merely a "made" but a "making thing"), "The figure is the same as for love." And as he continues, the metaphors, without his even having to intend it, so central is the identification of making love and making poems, assume a peculiarly sexual suggestiveness….

Richard Poirier, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1974 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), April, 1974, pp. 50-5.


Frost, Robert (Vol. 3)


Frost, Robert (Vol. 9)