Robert (Lee) Frost 1874–1963
American poet. See also Robert Frost Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 4, 9, 15.
Frost is recognized as one of the foremost American poets of the twentieth century. Because his settings and subjects are usually the landscapes and folk of New England, Frost was once considered a simple farmer-poet. However, critical reevaluation has centered on the complex themes and profound philosophic issues beneath the deliberately rustic surface of his poems. Frost's best work explores fundamental questions of existence, depicting with chilling starkness the loneliness of the individual in an indifferent universe.
Although Frost was forced to seek publication for his first poems in England, he became a public literary figure, almost an artistic institution, in America. While critical opinion concerning the importance of his poetry has varied, most critics agree that Frost's poems can be read and enjoyed on many levels. Frost received many honorary degrees and numerous awards, including four Pulitzer Prizes in poetry.
In the title-poem of New Hampshire, Robert Frost demurs at being thought a local poet; he says that his books are "against the world in general," and that to apply them more narrowly is to restrict his meaning.
This assertion Frost's readers outside New England are inclined to question. True, he is not local in the derogatory sense; he is not provincial. But to say that Frost is not a New England poet would be like saying that [Robert] Burns is not Scottish or that [John Millington] Synge is not Irish. For good and for evil his work is the distilled essence of New England, and from this fact spring both his marked limitations and his unique value. Frost himself, with his belief that "all poetry is the reproduction of the tones of actual speech," must admit that his language is local, that his diction and his rhythms bear much the same relation to the talk of New Hampshire farmers that Synge's bear to the talk of West Irish fisherfolk. But Frost's localism does not stop there: his characters and their life as he pictures it, the natural setting in which they live, the poet himself in his point of view and habit of mind, are all peculiarly local, for better and for worse. Only in so far as New England is not entirely unlike other regions and Yankees are not entirely inhuman, and in so far as poetry of marked excellence appeals to every one, can Frost claim to write for "the world in general."Frost's district does not cover all New England even; it is confined to the inland, to the hilly farm country. And needless to say, he concerns himself only with the present, not with the New England of witches, Jamaica rum, the slave trade, reform crusades, and elevated philosophizing. His is the New England which most of us know only from the verandas of summer hotels, a land of great natural loveliness, with a sprinkling of uncomfortably quaint natives,… strange fragments of for-gotten peoples, somehow more remote from us than the Poles and other immigrants who are settling the abandoned farms. (pp. 94-5)
Frost himself, by saying that he writes "against the world in general," intimates that he considers his characters not essentially different from the normal, average run of humanity; but west of the Hudson he will find few to agree with him. To the rest of us, they look like very queer fish indeed. In brief, what ails them is their ingrowing dispositions. Not merely the famous New England reserve: it is a positive lack of frankness, an innate love of indirectness and concealment, which leads them not only to hide their own thoughts and feelings and motives, but to assume, naturally, that others do the same. Out of this tendency grows a suspiciousness, a tortuous habit of mind, which is a constant source of surprise to the more credulous and easy-going alien....
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- Critical Essays