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...
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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. To them, an act of kindness which other folk would think the sheerest matter of course seems so unnatural, so momentous, that it must be sedulously concealed. Even more striking is the meanness and the pettiness of these people. Not that they are unfeeling or frigid; on the contrary, they attach an excessive, often a morbid, intensity of feeling to the merest trifles. This makes them touchy, always with a chip on their shoulder, often close to hysterics. Most of them show an extraordinary capacity for dislike, hatred, and contempt—which may explain why New England has been the nursery of so many great reformers.
A good example of this exaggerated emotionalism is found in "The Code": a farmer tells his hired man, who is unloading hay, "Let her come," and the farmhand, injured in his dignity by the order, dumps the whole load on his employer. A more startling instance is "The Vanishing Red": a miller, because he does not like an Indian's tone of voice, proceeds to drown the Indian. Evidently, what at most would make a normal man swear, makes a Frost character commit murder. The most terrible and tragic illustration of this morbid excess, though here the cause is not trivial, is "Home Burial," the story of a woman so sunk in her grief for her child, so deliberately and purposely sunk in it, that she has contracted a violent hatred of her husband and is all but outright insane. In much of Frost's work, particularly in North of Boston, his harshest book, he emphasizes the dark background of life in rural New England, with its degeneration sinking too often into total madness.
Frost apparently regards the woman in "Home Burial" as abnormal, but he seems to approve the hired man's "independence" in "The Code" and to find nothing out of the way in the miller's murder of the Indian in "The Vanishing Red." The explanation is not far to seek. These folk look normal to Frost because his own turn of mind is similar to theirs; his is the Yankee mind transmuted, raised to a higher level. Indirectness and suspiciousness are transformed in him into an extraordinary subtlety, which shows itself in his narratives as subtlety of analysis and portrayal of character, in his lyrics as subtlety of thought, feeling, and imagination. Similarly, he has all the Yankee intensity; but this keenness, instead of manifesting itself as meanness and pettiness, undergoes a metamorphosis and weights details with feeling and significance. Because he feels details so sharply, he is unexcelled for minute and exact observation. No less is Frost Yankee in his restraint. He surprises us, to alter [John] Keats' saying, by a fine deficiency—perhaps omission or suppression would be the better word. He never whips up his emotion or strives for a spurious effect. His flashes of intensity, when they come, are the more effective because his manner is uniformly easy and unforced. Even at his climaxes the language and the rhythm remain colloquial; his method is to build up a dramatic situation and then, in the same even tone of voice, to condense the whole into one touch…. (pp. 98-100)
To many tastes [Frost's] peculiar virtues may not appeal, but not his harshest critic would charge him with pretense. By the side of his genuineness most poetry of the day looks more than a little forced. He carries sincerity, indeed, to the point of absolute naturalness. It is a triumph of art to be so natural as Frost; only an expert artist could manage the feat. His is the ars celare artem with a difference: it is not merely that he attains the apparent ease which Horace had in mind, the classical simplicity, but that his poems seem spoken impromptu, not written at all, as if we overheard him speaking aloud. In part, of course, this is an amazing gift for mimicry, but it is more than that: to the mimetic skill is added a gift for condensation and selection and an exquisite sense of form, which give his work not only verisimilitude but also the typical and essential quality of high art. (pp. 100-01)
Frost's love of reality is so pronounced as to constitute a danger, though so far eluded, the danger to which [Henry David] Thoreau succumbed, of coming to feel that any fact, however insignificant, was important. None of his lines is more characteristic than the early "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows."… Similarly he carves his poetry out of experience, merely educing what is already implicit. And yet—here we approach the inmost secret of his poetry—he values the fact because to him it is more than mere fact. He is reported to have said that "sight and insight" are the whole business of the poet, and the second term is even more important than the first. As [Louis] Untermeyer has observed, Frost's writing possesses "the double force of observation and implication"; in it are sounded "spiritual overtones above the actual theme." Frost, in short, has not a little of the transcendentalist in his make-up. Sometimes his feeling as to the significance of the fact is worked out into overt and explicit symbolism and even allegory, as in "Mending Wall," "Birches," "Wild Grapes," "Two Look at Two," but in his most characteristic and appealing work the feeling of mystery is left merely as a mood of strangeness and not developed intellectually. (pp. 101-02)
Apparently, Frost is not so constituted that his reaction to a sense-impression is simple and direct, and in proportion to the force of the impression. His reaction bears no obvious and calculable relation to the stimulus; on the contrary, the relation of cause to effect is unpredictable, perhaps incomprehensible. It is a relation as incommensurate and arbitrary as that between pushing a button and turning on an electric light or ringing a bell. With him it is not only—not, I think, chiefly—sensuous pleasure that counts, but a subtle train of emotion and thought which the perception rouses in his mind. He is devoted to the fact, true—but because the fact is necessary to light the fuses of suggestion in his mind. A birch tree is to him not primarily an arabesque in black and white: it is fraught with hidden import. Conversely, he may be greatly moved by something quite devoid of sensuous appeal—a grindstone or axe-helve or woodpile—because to him it is tinged with hints of meaning that impart a feeling of the mysterious and the wonderful. And this is especially true if the perception is such as to excite the buried savage who sleeps within the most sophisticated of us. Consequently, in such a man's account of what he sees and hears we get sounds and sights not simply as they are, but on the one hand almost denuded of their physical beauty, on the other so transfigured that we see and hear them as it were through the shimmering veil of the more or less vague ideas and feelings which they have served to liberate. (pp. 103-04)
[In] spite of his close observation and minute detail, [Frost] is not a markedly sensuous poet; in fact, he is markedly ascetic…. Though Frost deals by preference in the concrete, though his writing abounds in images that are sharp and specific, he does not luxuriate in sensuous gratification, in a frank relish for savor and color and sound. A mere reference to Keats and [Algernon Charles] Swinburne is enough to illustrate this point: there is no "purple-stained mouth," no "cloth of woven crimson, gold, and jet," no "lisp of leaves and ripple of rain" in Frost. Or perhaps the sensuous austerity is more in the expression than in the image itself. He all but eschews the appeal of musical sound, preferring the effect of talk to that of song; such lines as "The slow smokeless burning of decay" are conspicuous by their rarity. In his treatment of feeling also,… he is ascetic; his language seldom swells or rises; the emotion is conveyed by implication only, by economy and elimination. Consequently, a reader less abstemious by nature than Frost may make the mistake of thinking him severe and stark, even bleak and bare and cold. (p. 105)
[Frost] tells us little of his philosophy, for he is as chary with his reflection as he is with his feeling, preferring hints and implication to forthright statement. But he tells enough to show that his is a philosophy of attachment, of realization, of intuitive apprehension, of what [Walt] Whitman unpleasantly called "adhesiveness."… There can be no doubt of Frost's passion for experience; he calls himself "Slave to a springtime passion for the earth"; and he returns to the theme again and again—at the end of "Birches," of "Wild Grapes," and in his striking lines called "To Earthward."… He cannot take actuality for granted; he shows an almost bloodthirsty clinging to people and things. He never knows repletion; he is like a hungry man who never gets enough to eat.
How shall this paradox of Frost's asceticism and of his craving for experience be resolved? Would it be too fanciful to liken him to a newsboy gazing into a confectioner's window at Christmas time? Frost sees all the beauties of the world spread before him, but some mysterious agency prevents him from getting at them and absorbing them…. Perhaps it is the old transcendental streak which keeps him from a simple, naïve, unreflecting enjoyment of things, which suggests that a bird is not merely a song and a splash of color, but something mysteriously tinged with meaning, and which always sets up an inner experience to vie with, if not to outdo, the outer…. Whoever it was told Frost he always saw himself was a discerning critic, though I think it is more accurate to say that he sees the world, not himself, but the world only as reflected in his own temperament, and that, if he could, he would turn from reflections altogether and deal direct with actuality. But in spite of his wishes, the New England reserve, the New England tensity, will no more permit him to abandon himself freely to the world than to pour out his heart in unpremeditated verse. Always in his attitude there is a check or rigor which he cannot let go or relax; he cannot lose himself and be absorbed wholly by experience.
Yet, in trying to account for the vein of austerity which is always in Frost, apparently in spite of himself, I do not wish to overstress it. There is nothing gaunt or famished about him. Rather the reverse: his work, as contemporary American poetry goes, is remarkable for its solidity and completeness. He has come to better terms than most of our poets with his environment, and has had a better environment to come to terms with, and has profited by both circumstances. That may explain why …, though the tragedy of frustration is by no means absent from his writing, it is not set forth as the whole or even the norm of human life. Whatever may be Frost's limitations, he gives the impression of a wider and sounder and more many-sided development than that of any other living American poet. (pp. 107-09)
Robert Frost's is preëminently a farmer's poetry. His familiarity with nature and with objects is not, for all his deservedly famous observation, that of the observer or spectator, but that of the man who has worked with them and used them. His acquaintance with them is more intimate and more intuitive than that of the onlooker. A grindstone to him is not a quaint object with rustic associations, but something which has made him groan and sweat; a scythe does not remind him of Theocritus but of the feel of the implement as he has swung it. Blueberries and apples are less connected in his mind with their color or their taste than with the process of picking them…. [As a poet] he is still the craftsman and the husbandman; he judges a poem by the same standards which he would apply to an axe or a hoe or a spade: it must be solid, strong, honest. And his own poetry meets the test, severe though it is. (pp. 110-11)
[Frost's] work, to be sure, is severly restricted by the bonds of his own nature and by the lacks of his subject-matter. His is a poetry of exclusions, of limitations not only in area and in localism, but equally in temperament…. He has given us poetry with little music, little delight for the senses, little glow of warm feeling. He has introduced us to a world not rich in color, sound, taste, and smell, a world mainly black and white and gray, etched in with acid in deep shadow and fine lines and sharp edges, lighted with a fitful white radiance as of starlight. His predilection, among natural phenomena, for stars and snow is symptomatic. Even his people are etchings, or woodcuts—droll, bizarre, sometimes pathetic: when we see them crumple up, we know how they can suffer. But somewhere among their ancestors there was a snow man, and his essence runs in their veins, a sharper, keener fluid than common blood, burning and biting like snow water. Yet, like the etchings of the older masters and like the best of modern woodcuts, this poetic world of his has a good three-dimensional solidity. One cannot put one's finger through it.
And it has an even more valuable quality. Frost's poetry is among those useless, uncommercial products of New England which constitute her tenacious charm. It belongs with the silver birches and the bayberry, and it shares their uniqueness. It has the edged loveliness and the acrid relish and fragrance of every growth native to New England earth and air. It is the last flowering of the seeds blown to the Massachusetts coast by the storms of 1620. For it has about it the quality of the final and ultimate; it is an epitome. As perfect in its way as blueberries or wintergreen, what it lacks in nutriment and profusion it atones for like them in flavor. We may look elsewhere for our bread and meat; but nowhere else can we find in all its pungency that piquant aromatic raciness which is New England. (pp. 113-14)
T. K. Whipple, "Robert Frost," in his Spokesmen: Modern Writers and American Life (copyright—1928—by D. Appleton and Company), Appleton, 1928, pp. 94-114.
Perhaps no poet in our history has put the best of the Yankee spirit into a book so completely, so happily, as Robert Frost. [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, greatest of the early New England group, was a citizen of the world—or shall we say of the other world. [John Greenleaf] Whittier was a Quaker, with something of the Yankee thrift of tongue. [Henry Wadsworth] Long-fellow was a Boston scholar, untouched by Yankee humor. [James Russell] Lowell had some of the humor, but he condescended to it, lived above it. Edwin Arlington Robinson came from New England, but his spirit did not stay there and his poetry escapes its boundaries…. But none of these is so completely the real Yankee, and so content to confess it in his poetry, as this "plain New Hampshire farmer."… (p. 59)
There are three or four facets of this local tang in Mr. Frost's art. One is the rural background—landscape, farms, animals. We have this more or less in all the poems, and specifically in a number—Birches, The Woodpile, The Mountain, The Cow in Apple-time, The Runaway and others. And close to these are the poems of farm life, showing the human reaction to nature's processes—Mowing, Mending Wall, The Axe-helve, After Apple-picking, Putting in the Seed and others. Then there are the narratives or dialogues presenting aspects of human character: some of them dryly satirical, with a keen but always sympathetic humor, like The Code; others, Snow for example, broadly humane and philosophic; a few lit with tragic beauty—The Death of the Hired Man, the agonizing Home Burial, the exalted and half-mystical Hill Wife. And lastly we have the more personal poems, never brief confessional lyrics of emotion such as most poets give us—here Mr. Frost guards his reserves—but reflective bits like Storm Fear, Bond and Free, Flower-gathering, or meditative monologues quaintly, keenly, sympathetically humorous, the humor veiling a peering questing wisdom…. (p. 60)
The poems of nature and of farm life all express delight, and some are ecstatic. The poet knows what he is talking about, and loves the country and the life…. His touch upon these subjects is sure and individual, the loving touch of a specialist…. And in the character pieces we feel just as sure of him. (pp. 60-1)
When it comes to personal confession—to autobiography, so to speak—Mr. Frost refuses to take himself seriously. He has to laugh—or rather, he has to smile in that whimsical observant side-long way of his. This mood greets us most characteristically in New Hampshire, the long poem which, in painting a portrait, so to speak, of his state, establishes a sympathetic relation with himself, and paints, more or less consciously, his own portrait. That is, he presents a spare, self-niggardly, self-respecting, determined, uncompromising member of the sisterhood of states…. (p. 61)
New Hampshire and her poet both have character, as well as a penetrating, humorous and sympathetic quality of genius. They face the half-glance of the world, and the huge laughter of destiny, with pride and grit, and without egotism. (p. 62)
Harriet Monroe, "Robert Frost," in her Poets and Their Art (© 1926 and 1932 by Macmillan Publishing Company; reprinted by permission of the Literary Estate of Harriet Monroe), revised edition, Macmillan, 1932, pp. 56-62.
I am tempted to look upon [Robert Frost] as a major poet. A major poet is one who brings into a language and its poetry a new element of thought and experience, and a new twist of phraseology. (p. 29)
What is this new element which Frost has brought? It is difficult to define, because it is a quality of the man, of his whole personality and outlook on life. It is also something which is local, belonging to the people, the stock from which he springs. It is a characteristic of New England Puritanism, and its source may thus be traced back a long way until we find it originating in the Home Country, amongst the Quakers and Wesleyans of the eighteenth century. It is a complicated element (if that is not a contradiction in terms). It is a combination of quietism, piety with its underlying enthusiasm, suspicion of this world and especially of the world of man, self-restraint with its ever-imminent abandonment, humility with its threat of arrogance. There is a negativeness about these forces. They have a sort of dove-grey colour, like the cloak of a Quakeress. But how restful that colour is, how tender, how evocative of the latent beauty of all other hues with which it comes into contact! They represent a whole period of English history. It is that period which included the break away of the American branch, and established a community in New England more emphatic of the same power than the trunk from which it sprang.
Many sociologists to-day believe that this quality of quietism, of exerting authority by means of understatement, is doomed to extinction beneath the flood of barbaric noise brought in by the machine, the radio, and the dictator. I don't believe it. The United States, which is supposed to be the pioneer of latter-day hustle and go-getting, is saturated in this spirit of allusiveness, of understatement, of quiet emphasis. Examine the pages of the New Yorker, that hard-boiled humorous journal, and you will find that its technique has much in common with that which Robert Frost accentuated in English poetry thirty-five years ago. It is a native technique; that of the laconic Yankee…. Robert Frost is thus a spokesman of his own people. He is probably a more representative American than Walt Whitman. That is why his fame has not been a temporary one. His work needed only to be pointed out to the self-distrustful Americans, and they at once recognized it as something near home, something expressing their own habits, their own point of view, their own reaction to the society which they were still building, and the wild nature which they were still only beginning to subdue and to appreciate.
We all need to get things outside ourselves before we can see them and appreciate them. Robert Frost thus did his people as well as himself a service by leaving home and settling for a decade in Europe. Further, the scenery and the folk of England stirred something ancestral in him, waking his instincts to a fuller consciousness. He strengthened those instincts by means of a fine detachment, which enabled him to objectify the material from which his verse was made, and to give the result a universality without spoiling its local flavour. (pp. 31-3)
[Simplicity] is the quality which most marks him. He has practised it until he can make it convey the most subtle ideas and emotions…. It is another aspect of his inherited puritanism; and the other outstanding feature of his work, its marvellous utilization of the laconic, is only another development of this same quality. And the discipline necessary for the constant refining down of a poetic nature to this purpose has added something else to that nature; a gift of humour; a humour wry, dry, sharp, but an eager participant in the process of unifying a personality.
That personality I have always found very much to my liking. There is no other poet to whom he can be compared…. Frost seems, for one thing, always to choose the disappearances of human life and of wild nature as symbols to fit his moods. His is the genius of shyness, and its abbreviated gestures may be overlooked by the reader who expects to find the fine exaggerations so common to poetry. (pp. 34-5)
[There is, too, laughter] lurking in this poet's work. It is a serious laughter, folded over tenderness and love, ringing through his poems, toning down the high lights, lifting up the shadows, and intensifying that laconic monotone, at first strange to the ear, which becomes dearer and more entrancing by familiarity. And with this laughter, there trembles a note of passion, and deep understanding of the conflict of mind with heart, of man with woman, of humanity with the forces of life and death. (pp. 37-8)
Laughter denotes detachment, and detachment denotes dramatic sense. Frost has that sense, and he uses it as [Robert] Browning did in a collection of narrative poems, each of which deals with a tense situation that he solves with humour, but sardonic humour that delights in revealing the subtlety of false endings, inconclusive endings, irrelevancies; devices which real life abounds in, but literature is shy of. But Frost loves such implicit criticism of human and natural affairs. (pp. 38-9)
[His philosophy is: reject] nothing; but minimize it, in order to see it more roundly, and to locate it in its place in the chain of endless eventuality. So though his work is so quiet, it is not static. He pretends to step aside, as observer, from the universal mobility. But he also makes poetry out of that pretence. Indeed, it is the source of his laughter. (p. 39)
Richard Church, "Robert Frost," in his Eight for Immortality (copyright 1941 Richard Church; reprinted by permission of Laurence Pollinger, Ltd. and the Literary Estate of Richard Church), J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1941 (and reprinted by Books for Libraries Press, 1969), pp. 27-40.
Robert Frost's name is rarely heard among the exquisites of avant-garde. His poems are like those plants that flourish in the earth of the broad plains and valleys but will not strike root in more rarefied atmospheres. The fact remains that he is one of the world's greatest living poets. Frost, W. H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams are the contemporary poets in America whose styles are most intensely original, most unmistakably their own. Of the four, Frost is the only one to be widely read in terms of general circulation and the only one who has never been adequately subjected to the Higher Criticism of the doctores subtiles of the Little Magazines.
On first reading, Frost seems easier than he really is. This helps account both for the enormous number of his readers, some of whom like him for wrong or irrelevant reasons, and for the indifference of the coteries, who become almost resentful when they can find no double-crostics to solve. Frost's cheerfulness is often mistaken as smug, folksy, Rotarian. This fact, plus his reputation for a solid New England conservatism, frightens away rebel youth and "advanced" professors.
In truth, his cheerfulness is the direct opposite of Mr. Babbitt's or even of Mr. Pickwick's. It is a Greek cheerfulness. And the apparent blandness of the Greeks was, as [Friedrich] Nietzsche showed in his Birth of Tragedy, the result of their having looked so deeply into life's tragic meaning that they had to protect themselves by cultivating a deliberately superficial jolliness in order to bear the unbearable. Frost's benign calm, the comic mask of a whittling rustic, is designed for gazing—without dizziness—into a tragic abyss of desperation. This is the same eternal abyss that gaped not only for the Hellenes but for such moderns as [Blaise Pascal, Sören Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Charles Baudelaire, Franz Kafka]…. In the case of this great New England tragic poet, the desperation is no less real for being a quiet one, as befits a master of overwhelming understatements. His almost too smooth quietness is a booby trap to spring the ruthless doubt of the following typical Frostian quatrain:—
It was the drought of deserts. Earth would soon Be uninhabitable as the moon. What for that matter had it ever been? Who advised man to come and live therein? (pp. 67-8)
Let those who consider Frost obvious or superficial brood a bit upon the last line of "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same." Consisting only of simple monosyllables yet subtly musical and full of "the shock of recognition," that concluding sentence is perhaps the most beautiful single line in American literature, a needed touchstone for all poets writing today….
A word about his metrics and his diction. Frost is one of the few poets today who dare use contractions like "as 'twere" and "e'er." I don't care for this sort of thing, especially in a poet who makes a point of catching the idiom of everyday speech. But I don't let this annoying anachronism spoil my enjoyment of him. Equally old-fashioned, but this time in a better sense of the word, is the fact that his meters scan with a beat-by-beat regularity, usually in the form of rhymed iambic pentameters. In this connection, do not overlook his thoughtful preface [to Complete Poems of Robert Frost] on poetic techniques and meters.
Frost's stubborn conventionality of form makes many young poets and readers think his is also a conventionality of meaning. On the contrary, he is one of the most original writers of our time. It is the self-conscious avant-garde rebels who follow the really rigid and tiresome conventions. (p. 68)
Peter Viereck, "Parnassus Divided," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1949, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 184, No. 4, October, 1949, pp. 67-70.∗
A large body of criticism has been written on the poetry of Robert Frost, and we know the labels which have been used: nature poet, New England Yankee, symbolist, humanist, skeptic, synecdochist, anti-Platonist, and many others. These labels have their utility, true or half true as they may be. They point to something in our author. But the important thing about a poet is the kind of poetry he writes. (p. 118)
In any case, I do not want to begin by quarreling with the particular labels. Instead, I want to begin with some poems and try to see how their particular truths are operative within the poems themselves. (p. 119)
As a starting point I am taking one of Frost's best-known and most widely anthologized pieces, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."… It will lead us to the other poems because it represents but one manifestation of an impulse very common in Frost's poetry. (p. 120)
The poem does, in fact, look simple. A man driving by a dark woods stops to admire the scene, to watch the snow falling into the special darkness. He remembers the name of the man who owns the woods and knows that the man, snug in his house in the village, cannot begrudge him a look. He is not trespassing. The little horse is restive and shakes the harness bells. The man decides to drive on, because, as he says, he has promises to keep—he has to get home to deliver the groceries for supper—and he has miles to go before he can afford to stop, before he can sleep.
At the literal level that is all the poem has to say. But if we read it at that level, we shall say, and quite rightly, that it is the silliest stuff we ever saw. (p. 121)
With [the] first stanza we have a simple contrast, the contrast between the man in the village, snug at his hearthside, and the man who stops by the woods. The sane, practical man has shut himself up against the weather; certainly he would not stop in the middle of the weather for no reason at all. But, being a practical man, he does not mind if some fool stops by his woods so long as the fool merely looks and does not do any practical damage, does not steal firewood or break down fences. With this stanza we seem to have a contrast between the sensitive and the insensitive man, the man who uses the world and the man who contemplates the world. And the contrast seems to be in favor of the gazer and not the owner—for the purposes of the poem at least. In fact, we may even have the question: Who is the owner, the man who is miles away or the man who can really see the woods? (p. 122)
[In the second stanza] we have the horse-man contrast. The horse is practical too. He can see no good reason for stopping, not a farmhouse near, no oats available. The horse becomes an extension, as it were, of the man in the village—both at the practical level, the level of the beast which cannot understand why a man would stop, on the darkest evening of the year, to stare into the darker darkness of the snowy woods. In other words, the act of stopping is the specially human act, the thing that differentiates the man from the beast. The same contrast is continued into the third stanza—the contrast between the impatient shake of the harness bells and the soothing whish of easy wind and downy flake.
To this point we would have a poem all right, but not much of a poem. It would set up the essential contrast between, shall we say, action and contemplation, but it would not be very satisfying because it would fail to indicate much concerning the implications of the contrast. It would be a rather too complacent poem, too much at ease in the Zion of contemplation.
But in the poem the poet actually wrote, the fourth and last stanza brings a very definite turn, a refusal to accept either term of the contrast developed to this point. (pp. 122-23)
The first line proclaims the beauty, the attraction of the scene…. But with this statement concerning the attraction—the statement merely gives us what we have already dramatically arrived at by the fact of the stopping—we find the repudiation of the attraction. The beauty, the peace, is a sinister beauty, a sinister peace. It is the beauty and peace of surrender—the repudiation of action and obligation. The darkness of the woods is delicious—but treacherous. The beauty which cuts itself off from action is sterile; the peace which is a peace of escape is a meaningless and, therefore, a suicidal peace. There will be beauty and peace at the end of the journey, in the terms of the fulfillment of the promises, but that will be an earned beauty stemming from action.
In other words, we have a new contrast here. The fact of the capacity to stop by the roadside and contemplate the woods sets man off from the beast, but in so far as such contemplation involves a repudiation of the world of action and obligation it cancels the definition of man which it had seemed to establish. So the poem leaves us with that paradox, and that problem…. We must find a definition of our humanity which will transcend both terms.
This theme is one which appears over and over in Frost's poems—the relation, to state the issue a little differently, between the fact and the dream. In another poem, "Mowing," he puts it this way, "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows." That is, the action and the reward cannot be defined separately, man must fulfill himself, in action, and the dream must not violate the real. But the solution is not to sink into the brute—to act like the little horse who knows that the farm-houses mean oats—to sink into nature, into appetite. But at the same time, to accept the other term of the original contrast in our poem, to surrender to the pull of the delicious blackness of the woods, is to forfeit the human definition, to sink into nature by another way, a dangerous way which only the human can achieve. So our poem, which is supposed to celebrate nature, may really be a poem about man defining himself by resisting the pull into nature. There are many poems on this subject in Frost's work. (pp. 123-24)
[But let] us leave the dark-wood symbol and turn to a poem which, with other materials, treats Frost's basic theme. This is "After Apple-Picking," the poem which I am inclined to think is Frost's masterpiece, it is so poised, so subtle, so poetically coherent in detail. (p. 127)
The items [in this poem]—ladder in apple tree, the orchard, drinking trough, pane of ice, woodchuck—all have their perfectly literal meanings—the echo of their meaning in actuality. And the poem, for a while anyway, seems to be commenting on that actual existence those items have. Now, some poems make a pretense of living only in terms of that actuality. For instance, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is perfectly consistent at the level of actuality—a man stops by the woods, looks into the woods, which he finds lovely, dark and deep, and then goes on, for he has promises to keep. It can be left at that level, if we happen to be that literal-minded, and it will make a sort of sense.
However, "After Apple-Picking" is scarcely consistent at the level of actuality. It starts off with a kind of consistency, but something happens. The hero of the poem says that he is drowsing off—and in broad daylight, too. He says that he has a strangeness in his sight which he drew from the drinking trough. So the literal world dissolves into a kind of dream world—the literal world and the dream world overlapping, as it were, like the two sets of elements in a superimposed photograph. (pp. 128-29)
The dream will relive the world of effort, even to the ache of the instep arch where the ladder rung was pressed. But is this a cause for regret or for self-congratulation? Is it a good dream or a bad dream? (p. 130)
[We] must look for the answer in the temper of the description he gives of the dream—the apples, stem end and blossom end, and every fleck of russet showing clear. The richness and beauty of the harvest—magnified now—is what is dwelt upon. In the dream world every detail is bigger than life, and richer, and can be contemplated in its fullness. And the accent here is on the word contemplated. Further, even as the apple picker recalls the details of labor which made him overtired, he does so in a way which denies the very statement that the recapitulation in dream will "trouble" him. For instance, we have the delicious rhythm of the line,
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
It is not the rhythm of nightmare, but of the good dream…. So even though we find the poet saying that his sleep will be troubled, the word troubled comes to us colored by the whole temper of the passage, ironically qualified by that temper. For he would not have it otherwise than troubled, in this sense. (p. 131)
[What] does the woodchuck have to do with it?… His sleep is contrasted with "just some human sleep." The contrast, we see, is on the basis of the dream. The woodchuck's sleep will be dreamless and untroubled. The woodchuck is simply in the nature from which man is set apart. The animal's sleep is the sleep of oblivion. But man has a dream which distinguishes him from the woodchuck. But how is this dream related to the literal world, the world of the woodchuck and apple harvests and daily experience? It is not a dream which is cut off from that literal world of effort—a heaven of ease and perpetual rewards, in the sense of rewards as coming after and in consequence of effort. No, the dream, the heaven, will simply be a reliving of the effort—magnified apples, stem end and blossom end, and every fleck, every aspect of experience, showing clear. (pp. 131-32)
[It] may be well to ask ourselves if the poet is really talking about immortality and heaven—if he is really trying to define the heaven he wants and expects after this mortal life. No, he is only using that as an image for his meaning, a way to define his attitude. And that attitude is an attitude toward the here and now, toward man's conduct of his life in the literal world. (p. 132)
What would be some of the implied applications [of such an attitude]? First, let us take it in reference to the question of any sort of ideal which man sets up for himself, in reference to his dream. By this application the valid ideal would be that which stems from and involves the literal world, which is arrived at in terms of the literal world and not by violation of man's nature as an inhabitant of that literal world. Second, let us take it in reference to man's reward in this literal world. By this application we would arrive at a statement like this: Man must seek his reward in his fulfillment through effort and must not expect reward as something coming at the end of effort, like the oats for the dray horse in the trough at the end of the day's pull. He must cherish each thing in his hand. Third, let us take it in reference to poetry, or the arts. By this application, which is really a variant of the first, we would find that art must stem from the literal world, from the common body of experience, and must be a magnified "dream" of that experience as it has achieved meaning, and not a thing set apart, a mere decoration.
These examples, chosen from among many, are intended merely to point us back into the poem—to the central impulse of the poem itself. But they are all summed up in this line from "Mowing," another of Frost's poems: "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows." (pp. 132-33)
The process [Frost] has employed in all of these poems, but most fully and subtly I think in "After Apple-Picking," is to order his literal materials so that, in looking back upon them as the poem proceeds, the reader suddenly realizes that they have been transmuted…. [In] these poems, Frost is trying to indicate, as it were, the very process of the transmutation, of the interpenetration. That, and what that implies as an attitude toward all our activities, is the very center of these poems, and of many others among his work. (pp. 135-36)
Robert Penn Warren, "The Themes of Robert Frost" (1947), in his Selected Essays (copyright © 1958 by Robert Penn Warren; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1958, pp. 118-36.
Together with "Birches," "Mending Wall," "The Road Not Taken," "After Apple-Picking," and a dozen or so other familiar descriptive pieces, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is one of Robert Frost's most admired poems. The beginning poetry student in particular is likely to take to it, for quite understandable reasons: its diction is unpretentious and subtly musical; it presents an engaging picture and hints at a "story" without too much taxing the imagination; it is short and seemingly unambiguous. And the teacher, from his side, likewise welcomes the opportunity to present a poem that can be enjoyed purely for its visual and verbal interest without having to be subjected to a rigorous search for "hidden meanings." But, as experienced readers of this poem know, "Stopping by Woods" has a disconcerting way of deepening in dimension as one looks at it, of darkening in tone, until it emerges as a full-blown critical and pedagogical problem. One comes to feel that there is more in the poem than is given to the senses alone. But how is one to treat a poem which has so simple and clear a descriptive surface, yet which somehow implies a complex emotional attitude? (p. 64)
"Stopping by Woods," I believe, represents one of those junctures where the critic must enlarge on his findings through searching comparisons with other of the author's productions. Taken in isolation, "Stopping by Woods" gives only a partial view (and for some readers possibly a misleading view) of what is actually an absorbing and central concern in Frost's poetry. The collaboration of a number of related poems is required to reveal this preoccupation in its entirety.
The visible sign of the poet's preoccupation—the word is not too strong—is the recurrent image, particularly in his earlier work, of dark woods and trees. Often, as in the lyric with which we have begun, the world of the woods …, a world offering perfect quiet and solitude, exists side by side with the realization that there is also another world, a world of people and social obligations. Both worlds have claims on the poet. He stops by woods on this "darkest evening of the year" to watch them "fill up with snow," and lingers so long that his "little horse" shakes his harness bells "to ask if there is some mistake." The poet is put in mind of the "promises" he has to keep, of the miles he still must travel. We are not told, however, that the call of social responsibility proves stronger than the attraction of the woods, which are "lovely" as well as "dark and deep"; the poet and his horse have not moved on at the poem's end. The dichotomy of the poet's obligations both to the woods and to a world of "promises"—the latter filtering like a barely heard echo through the almost hypnotic state induced by the woods and falling snow—is what gives this poem its singular interest…. The artfulness of "Stopping by Woods" consists in the way the two worlds are established and balanced. The poet is aware that the woods by which he is stopping belong to someone in the village; they are owned by the world of men. But at the same time they are his, the poet's woods, too, by virtue of what they mean to him in terms of emotion and private signification.
In Frost's first book, A Boy's Will (1913), we find a dark-woods imagery used repeatedly. It is not too much to say that the quiet drama of youthful love portrayed in the subjective lyrics of this volume takes place within the constant shadow of surrounding trees. That the trees are themselves part of this drama, and not simply descriptive background, is evident from such pieces as "Going for Water" and "A Dream Pang," in which the act of withdrawing into "forest" and "wood" becomes the very subject of the poem and is endowed with an undefined, almost ritualistic significance. In the first poem, husband and wife enter a wood together on a moonlit autumn evening to get water from a brook. In the second, the poet dreams that he has "withdrawn in forest," his song "swallowed up in leaves…." He watches his wife, who comes to the edge of the forest in search of him, "behind low boughs the trees let down outside," but does not call to her, though it costs him a "sweet pang" not to do so. The overtones here may be too "romantic" for most readers, but the psychological pattern symbolized is of considerable interest in a total view of Frost's poetry. (pp. 65-6)
[In the opening lyric of A Boy's Will, "Into My Own," the] wished-for freedom to retreat into the "vastness" of "those dark trees," where the poet will not encounter the exposed, man-made world of open land and highways, is identified with coming "into his own": for this he is willing to forsake even those he holds dear—they must seek him out. The pattern is the same as in "A Dream Pang." In another revealing lyric of this volume, "The Vantage Point," the poet pictures himself occupying a strategic position, a "slope," between the world of nature and the world of human society. (p. 67)
[It is] typical of Frost, as in "Stopping by Woods" and "The Vantage Point," to counter the emotional drift toward "woods" with the realistic knowledge that, as a human being, he is implicated in the affairs of men and cannot justifiably disclaim them. The necessity for participating in both worlds, the worlds of self-in-society and self-in-seclusion, sets up a rhythm of continual advance and retreat which informs Frost's entire poetic expression. "Trees" and "mankind" are alternately sought and avoided as circumstances direct…. There must be periodic withdrawals from the world "of considerations," but not a permanent withdrawal…. The double set of obligations enforces a partial compromise. Frost's characteristic attitude, as the title of a later poem indicates, is "not quite social." But on the whole, the balance between society and solitude in his poetry is successfully maintained: the poet presents two full sides to his experience—the "neighborly" and the introspective. One feels, however, that the neighborly Frost, being the more accessible Frost, is much better known, while the poet of the dark trees, the poet who is "acquainted with the night," remains furtive and ambiguous for most readers. Yet there are reasons for thinking, I believe, that the latter image is closer to being the essential Frost.
To begin with, the creative impulse itself, in at least two poems ("Pan With Us" and "The Demiurge's Laugh," both from A Boy's Will), is identified in a quite intriguing way with the dark woods. In the first, Pan (the god of forests and pastures and also a musician), gray of skin, hair, and eyes, comes out of the woods one day and stands in the sun above an uninhabited wooded valley. Although he is pleased with the solitude of the scene, he tosses away his pipes. They are "too hard to teach a new-world song"; he lets nature speak instead…. Pan (the poet) is in love with his woodland solitude; yet having no audience, his impulse toward expression tends to dwindle away into fruitless self-interrogation. In the second poem, the poet pictures himself pursuing "the Demon," the Demiurge (again the creative impulse) "far in the sameness of the wood." He follows the trail "with joy," though aware that his quarry is "no true god." Then suddenly he hears [laughter behind him]…. The mocking laugh from somewhere in the dim woods is the mockery of the poet's search, the mockery of self-expression in the middle of such a solitude. The loneliness of the dark woods gives rise to poetry, but that same loneliness ultimately defeats its meaning and pleasure. (pp. 67-9)
The imagery of dark woods, woven so indelibly into the texture of these early poems, persists in succeeding collections. "The Road Not Taken," introductory to Mountain Interval (1916), can be read as a further commentary on the price of the poet's dedication. The two roads that "diverged in a yellow wood" represent a critical choice between two ways of life. The poet takes "the one less traveled by," the lonelier road, which, we can presume, leads deeper into the wood…. The dark woods, though they hold a salutary privacy, impose a stern isolation, an isolation endured not without cost. In the poem "An Encounter," the poet pictures himself "half boring through, half climbing through a swamp of cedar," weary and overheated, and sorry he had ever left the road he knew. While resting, he looks skyward and sees above him "a barkless specter," a telegraph pole "dragging yellow strands of wire with something in it from men to men."… The poet's quest, in contrast to the unswerving telegraph lines, appears to lack direction and purpose. The poet is alone, in communication only with himself.
In the lyrics of A Boy's Will, woods and trees foster a mood of youthful yearning and romantic furtiveness. In later poems, however, the mood perceptibly darkens. In "The Sound of Trees" and "Misgiving," for example, trees and leaves are associated with thwarted desire. As they are swayed by the wind, their sound and motion suggest to the poet a longing to get away; but "a sleep oppresses them as they go" and they end by remaining, vaguely stirred, where they are. The poet himself desires the freedom to make "the reckless choice," to "set forth for somewhere," but by association we are led to believe that he will not do so. Though they are less congenial to him now, he will stay with the trees. (pp. 69-70)
[In several of Frost's] poems, the imagery of woods, trees, and leaves is so intimately and persistently identified with certain psychological states as to assume a symbolic significance. The dark woods represent the privacy of the self, the sacred domain where poetry is made. Their area is the area of the poet's introspective life, his subjective experience. The pattern of feelings established by this recurrent imagery is fluctuating and ambivalent. The poet guards and cherishes the woods as his own, but there are times when he must close his windows against them and turn outward toward the larger world of social intercourse. There is lurking terror in his woods as well as keen pleasure, numbing loneliness as well as quiet satisfaction; one can as much lose himself there as find himself. This becomes more apparent as the poet grows older and his introspective life deepens. In "Leaves Compared with Flowers" (A Further Range) he confesses that "leaves are all my darker mood," and finally he reaches a point when he cannot be enticed into the dark woods at all.
When viewed as part of this pattern, such a poem as "Stopping by Woods" is put into meaningful perspective. What appears to be "simple" is shown to be not really simple, what appears to be innocent not really innocent…. The poet is fascinated and lulled by the empty wastes of white and black. The repetition of "sleep" in the final two lines suggests that he may succumb to the influences that are at work. There is no reason to suppose that these influences are benignant. It is, after all, "the darkest evening of the year," and the poet is alone "between the woods and frozen lake." His one bond with the security and warmth of the "outer" world, the "little horse" who wants to be about his errand, is an unsure one. The ascription of "lovely" to this scene of desolate woods, effacing snow, and black night complicates rather than alleviates the mood when we consider how pervasive are the connotations of dangerous isolation and menacing death. (pp. 72-3)
When reading through the Complete Poems (1949), one can see that at some undefined point in Frost's mid-career—roughly with West-Running Brook (1928) and A Further Range (1936)—his orientation begins to shift. He becomes more the "neighborly" poet who chats at length with his readers about the issues of the day, and less the objective dramatist and self-exploring lyricist of the earlier books. He becomes more outspoken about himself and about the world of men. He projects himself into the "further ranges" of politics, science, philosophy, education, and theology. "Ideas" as such become more important to him than the individual persons and objects of nature, the "specimens" of concrete life, so lovingly collected in North of Boston and Mountain Interval. The very manner of voice changes. Metaphorical indirection gives way to explicit generalizations. The forms of satirical discourse and epigram are introduced to convey his opinions more directly. The poet's old game of hide-and-seek is still evident but now is carried on more by means of a bantering verbal irony…. (pp. 73-4)
The drift in Frost's poetry from an empirically operative intuitiveness toward an insistent didacticism is reflected, interestingly enough, by a shift in imagery pattern. Woods, symbolic of the introspective life, are gradually displaced by the heavenly bodies of outer space, symbolic of more impersonal, intellectual considerations…. As loneliness and grief more and more fill those woods where youth and love once delighted, the poet turns his attention upward toward the abstract questions framed by the stars. (See, for examples, such later productions as "Canis Major," "On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations," "Lost in Heaven," "All Revelation," "A Loose Mountain [Telescopic]," "The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus," "An Unstamped Letter in Our Rural Letter Box," "Bravado," "On Making Certain Anything Has Happened," "Astrometaphysical," "Skeptic," and "Two Leading Lights.") (p. 74)
The passage from woods to stars that we have been tracing in Frost's poetry is poignantly recorded in one late lyric (A Witness Tree, 1942) called "Come In."… [In this poem, the] poet refuses to re-enter the dark woods; he will not answer that beautiful voice (his own deepest poetic impulse?) that bids him come and lament. He is a stranger to the woods now. He is "out for stars," and will stay out…. The empty spaces above are preferred to the empty spaces within…. It is not so much a different Frost speaking in the later poems as it is the same Frost who, like the people portrayed in North of Boston, has had to make adjustments in the face of life's "shocks and changes" in order to survive. Though there is less of the true poetic vision in the later work, the courage and the intelligence are steadfast:
They would not find me changed from him they knew— Only more sure of all I thought was true. (pp. 75-6)
John T. Ogilvie, "From Woods to Stars: A Pattern of Imagery in Robert Frost's Poetry," in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright © 1959 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Vol. LVIII, No. 1, Winter, 1959, pp. 64-76 [the excerpts of Robert Frost's poetry used here were originally published in The Complete Poems of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem (copyright © 1916, 1923, 1928, 1934; © 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston; copyright 1936, 1942, 1944, 1951; © 1956, 1962 by Robert Frost; copyright © 1964, 1970 by Lesley Frost Ballantine; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969].
Frost has established himself securely in the position which Mark Twain created in the closing years of the last century—the position of American literary man as public entertainer. Frost brings to his rôle the grave face, the regional turn of phrase, the pithy generalization, and the salty experience which Twain before him brought to his listeners. He is the homespun farmer who assures his audiences that he was made in America before the advent of the assembly line, and he presides over his following with what is at once casual ease and lonely austerity.
Because the popularity surrounding Frost the public figure and hovering about his poetry has become the halo under which admirers enshrine his work, to many serious critics bent on assessing the value of the poetry this halo becomes a sinister mist clouding the genuine achievement. (pp. 73-4)
Yet Frost's success as a public figure, rather than being a calculated addition to his poetic career, is a natural extension of it, and one way to approach his poetry is to see that the character who moves in the poems anticipates the one who occupies the platform. They are in all essentials the same character—a dramatization of the farmer poet come out of his New England landscape bringing with him the poems he plays a rôle in. To observe this insistent regional stance is to realize that Frost has done, and is still doing, for American poetry what [William] Faulkner has more recently accomplished in American fiction. They both have made their worlds in the image of their particular regions, and, moving within these self-contained and self-made microcosms, they have given their provincial centers universal significance. But while Faulkner has concerned himself with establishing the legendary Yoknapatawpha county and its mythical components. Frost has, from the very first poem of "A Boy's Will," been engaged in creating the myth of Robert Frost, [the one Randall Jarrell calls, "The Only Genuine Robert Frost in Captivity"]. It is a myth with a hero and a drama.
The hero is the New England farmer who wears the mask, or better, the anti-mask of the traditional poet. But it is not a literal mask concealing the poet who lurks behind it; rather, it is a mode of being which releases the poetic personality in the person of a character who lives and moves. (p. 74)
It is Frost's ability to be a farmer poet which distinguishes him most sharply from [William] Wordsworth, with whom he is often compared. Wordsworth played the part of the Poet concerned with common man, but Frost has persistently cast himself in the rôle of the common man concerned with poetry. Such a strategy, while it cuts him off from the philosophically autobiographical poetry which Wordsworth built toward, opens up avenues of irony, wit, comedy, and dramatic narrative largely closed to Wordsworth. (p. 75)
[Instead] of direct revelation through autobiography and confession, Frost has from the start pursued the more indirect but equally effective mode of dramatizing and characterizing himself. Even the lyrics of "A Boy's Will" lean toward narrative and monologue, and the peculiar Frost idiom, so integral a part of the Frost character who eventually emerges, is evident in remarkable maturity in such early poems as "Into My Own," "Mowing," "A Tuft of Flowers," and "In Hardwood Groves." The dramatic monologues and dialogues of "North of Boston," which have impressed many critics as a wide departure from Frost's lyric vein, constitute a full discovery and perfection of that idiom. Moreover, Frost himself emerges prominently as a member of the volume's dramatis personae, playing an important rôle in nine of the sixteen poems. As a matter of fact, "Mending Wall," the first poem in the volume, marks the full-dress entrance of the farmer poet. Possessed of all the characteristics by which we have come to know him, this figure is full of sly observations as he assumes a slightly comic poise with eye asquint—already poetry is "his kind of fooling." He goes to great length to disarm his audience with colloquial familiarity and whimsical parentheses. Then, after an agile imaginative leap in the grand style, he returns to earth as if he feared being caught off guard.
This cautious refusal to declaim too far or too soon, while it may leave too much unsaid or enclose the issue in a blurred dual vision which accepts both sides, is often one of Frost's most effective modes of self awareness. (pp. 75-6)
Beyond this playfully ironic self portrayal so characteristic of Frost, there is also the tragic self-awareness which enabled him to create the great dramatic monologues In such poems as "The Fear," "Home Burial," and "A Servant to Servants," for example, sensitive wives are so caught between the lonely natural world and the rigid proverbs of their husbands that, locked in an unutterable loneliness, they disintegrate into hysteria or slump into depression. Those husbands bear enough similarity to the figure of the farmer poet to indicate how much Frost realizes, for all his willingness to exploit the poetic possibilities of aphorism—how blind and hard a proverb quoter can be. (pp. 76-7)
Like his great New England antecedents, Emerson and Thoreau, he casts his own shadow upon the landscape he surveys. Skeptical in his cast of mind, Frost inclines away from their tendency to abstract doctrine, but he retains much of the method and many of the attitudes they left behind them…. (p. 77)
Seeing the nature of his task, one can understand why he contended in "The Constant Symbol" that every poem is "an epitome of the great predicament; a figure of the will braving alien entanglements."… [The] drama he sees the poet playing recalls Emerson's insistence that a man must be self-reliant, "obeying the Almighty Effort and advancing on Chaos and the dark." But even as he accepts the antagonists of the Emersonian drama, Frost, lacking Emerson's evangelical temperament, recognizes a larger chaos and sees the drama of existence as man's willingness to risk himself before the spell of the dark woods. For him self-reliance becomes sell-possession, and the victory lies not in the march forward into the wilderness but in the freedom he feels while patroling the boundary of consciousness. (p. 80)
Unlike Emerson, [Frost] is deeply concerned with his past—not the past of organized tradition so much as the disorganized past he himself has strewn behind…. In repossessing [familiar rural New England artifacts], Frost is turning back upon himself to reclaim the fragments of his personal past—fragments which apparently meant nothing when they were current but which come to constitute the primary medium of exchange in the economy of reorganization. (pp. 80-1)
In addition to the remnants of abandoned farms, there are also the living victims who linger in stunned confusion along the border…. Above all, there is the poet himself, who feels the terror of loneliness…. [Occasionally, Frost's] entire landscape becomes a haunting reflection of psychic desolation. (pp. 81-2)
The haunting rhythms of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" express the powerful fascination the woods have upon the lonely traveler, who, in the face of a long journey, descending night, and falling snow, pauses in the gathering gloom of the "darkest evening of the year," transfixed by the compelling invitation of the forest…. The poem is about the spell of the woods—the traveler's own woods, we want to say, but they are alien enough and belong to someone else enough for him to sense the trespass of his intent gaze into them at the same time he recognizes their sway over him. His heightened awareness projects his concern for himself back to the representatives of civilization, the unseen owner of the woods and the horse in harness. Thus, the indifferent animal becomes, in his master's alerted imagination, the guardian who sounds the alarm which rings above the whispered invitation.
The poem is the counter-spell against the invitation, the act by which the traveler regains dominion of his will…. The logic of the rhyme scheme, in which the divergent third line of one stanza becomes the organizing principle of the next, is an expression of the growing control and determination described in the syntax. Thus, the first line of the last quatrain finally names the nature of the spell and also provides the term which is answered in rhyme by the poet's decision to refuse the invitation.
Seen in this light, the poem reveals what Frost means when he says that "every poem written regular is a symbol small or great of the way the will has to pitch into the commitments deeper and deeper to a rounded conclusion…."… The poem in its totality is the image of the will in action, and the poet's spirit and courage convert words into deeds. (pp. 82-4)
Frost, like the Paul Bunyan in "Paul's Wife," is a terrible possessor; indeed, the action of that poem recapitulates Frost's own process of creation…. Frost too has gone back into the desolation of a world abandoned to seize his own particular kind of beauty.
Of course, he has shared it with the world, but he clings fiercely to his poems as his private property, and even the titles of his several volumes describe the progress of his endeavor to lay claim to his world. From "A Boy's Will" he went on to define his province, "North of Boston," and in "Mountain Interval," "New Hampshire," and "West Running Brook," he established enough landmarks within the region to open what he calls "A Further Range." (pp. 84-5)
Frost's long career of returning into his own to enlarge his province has been a continual thrust of both will and memory, and he quite logically defines the initial delight of making a poem as the "surprise of remembering something I didn't know I knew." If there are times when his poetry fails, as in the editorializing poems which have been increasing in ratio until they fairly dot "Steeple Bush," he fails because he is remembering something he knew all the time, and his poetry hardens into provincial cynicism. Although critics have lamented this departure from the earlier lyric and dramatic vein. Frost's penchant for bald statement followed as necessarily from his earlier poems as self-assurance follows self-possession. Moreover, out of this almost brash assurance comes "Directive," surely one of Frost's highest achievements.
Here the poet is not the listener or the narrator, but the confident guide leading his reader back into a "time made simple by the loss of detail," to discover among the ruins of a vacant farm the broken goblet the guide has hidden under a cedar tree against the day of his return. The broken goblet, originally cast aside by the adults as a mere toy for the children's playhouse and again abandoned when everyone departed, becomes the all important detail which the poet has seized to save from the ruins of the past. It is for Frost an image of the charmed grail itself, a talisman not carried like a spear of grass but stored away in a secret niche and displayed only to the right persons who, following the poet along the intricate pathways toward the heart of his property, are lost enough to find themselves. (pp. 85-6)
Yet Frost maintains a sharp comic detachment from the central association he exploits, the allusion to the grail quest. His poem is not a recapitulation or variation of the legend but a masque, a performance staged for his audience's benefit by the knowing god who owns the salvaged grail. His whimsy … is actually an aspect of his comic delicacy…. (p. 86)
"Directive" rehearses the course Frost has pursued as a poet and is thus a survey of the ground he has possessed. But it also points toward what is to come, toward the masques and beyond to his latest poem, "Kitty Hawk," in which, while commemorating the Wright brothers' famous flight, he seizes the chance to celebrate his own first flight into poetry with his sacred muse—an event which considerably anticipated the first propeller-driven flight.
Finally, "Directive" is a performance by the same "character" who so often commands the central stage as lecturer and whose public performances imitate to a remarkable degree the structure of his poems. For Frost's primal subject is always poetry and the poet—his poetry and himself the poet…. Even in [the poem's] introductory movement, Frost is already retreating from his audience toward himself, and the conversational idiom functions as an invitation, never as an appeal.
When he reaches the poems he is to "say," as he puts it, Frost has gained a presence of remote loneliness. His manner of "saying" them is neither recitative, declamatory, nor bardic; rather he seems to be remembering each poem as he moves through it, and even when he forgets his way he usually chooses to find himself without benefit of text. There is a manifest anticipation both in speaker and audience as the remembering proceeds, a kind of wonder and suspense as the tenuous thread of the poem is pursued; and when the end is grasped there is a distinct sense of discovery and relief. (pp. 87-8)
To know Frost's poems and then to watch his mind close tenderly about them is to see again that they are his triumphs in form wrought out of the chaos he has lived through. (p. 88)
James M. Cox, "Robert Frost and the Edge of the Clearing," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1959, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 35, No. 1 (Winter, 1959), pp. 73-88.
Frost allies himself with Emerson, not Whitman, thereby demonstrating that he has resisted the temptation (so fatal because so self assuring) to take a way of poetry that only a person as tremendous as Whitman could take without losing his identity as poet. Even better than Emerson, Frost knows the dangers of too much inwardness. For this is clearly an Emersonian sentiment, and yet not quite the sort entertained by those readers of Frost who would make him "easier" than he is—a celebrant of hard-headed self-reliance, village style, a "sound" poet because somehow "traditional." Moreover, in the poems themselves, even this authentic Emersonianism is qualified, qualified by being projected always out of situations which are not quite "modern."… Frost has no interest in being a specifically "contemporary" poet—which is what Emerson felt he had to be, or perish. Moreover, in his poems Frost is master of all he surveys in a way that Emerson would never allow himself to be. Frost knows himself as person so well, he can record the knowledge in such exacting detail, that he never has occasion to celebrate the more general and inclusive concept of self which is everywhere the efficient cause of Emerson's poetry.
The gain is one of objectivity and precision. Unlike his prose (of which there is precious little), his poetry is not at all slippery. The loss is one of that inclusiveness and sense of ever-widening possibility, characteristic of Emerson's poetry at its best…. At the heart of Frost's achievement lies his ability to consolidate the Emersonian mode, to adopt it on his own terms, and so make it a means whereby a certain stability and certitude, however limited, might be achieved. From his position of strength, he bids others depart—and leave him behind. As poet, he will not be a leader. The farthest thing from his mind is the desire to be a culture hero. For good and for bad, this has been the heart's desire of most of his predecessors and contemporaries. Herein his work marks a pause—a series of moments in which confusion is stayed, perhaps comprehended—in the continuity of American poetry. Frost is our greatest stock-taker.
The major tradition of American poetry before his time serves Frost as a limiting condition for the making of poems. He has come to be a large poet (in a way, our most "complete" poet), because he knows how small man is when he acknowledges the limitations within which he labors. Frost has been able to perfect his work as have none of his contemporaries. Maybe we refer to this sort of thing when we are tempted to speak of him as a "minor poet." We mean perhaps that in his work he portrays a world, and himself in it, that is not as readily available to us as is that of some of his contemporaries. In any case, he has known quite clearly what he has been doing. (pp. 272-73)
The conditions which circumscribe Frost's poems are those of a world not yet dominated by urban, industrialized, bureaucratized culture—the very world which, seeing its inevitable coming, Emerson and his kind strove to confront and save for man before it would be too late. Frost glances at this world, only to turn to one he knows better. In that world the proper life style—which in turn generates the literary style—is that of Frost's characteristic protagonists: individuals who again and again are made to face up to the fact of their individualism as such; who can believe that a community is no more than the sum of the individuals who make it up; who are situated so as to have only a dim sense, even that resisted mightily, of the transformations which the individual might have to undergo if he is to live fully in the modern world and still retain his identity as an individual. But, of course, Frost's protagonists refuse to live fully in the modern world and will have little or nothing to do with such transformations. Frost's work is in the end a series of expressions of that refusal and assessments of its cost. The cost is great, and is acknowledged unflinchingly. Reading Frost, many of us—finding ourselves in the end unable to go along with him and deny the world in which we live—must deny the world of a poet who will not live in ours with us. It is not so much that he does not speak our language, but that we do not, cannot, speak his. Perhaps he means us to deny his world, so that we will be forced to live in our own, all the while knowing just how much we must pay in order to do so. This indeed would be freedom, but a dreadful freedom, generating none of the confidence in the future toward which Emerson pointed his poems. (pp. 273-74)
Even if we cannot speak his language, we yet know what he means. We listen to him as we would listen to a sage, not daring to interrupt him because not knowing how…. His individualism, as it comes out in his poems, is of a self which is emphatically not free to sound its barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world. Its freedom is a freedom to decide not what it will do unto others but rather what it will allow others to do unto it. (p. 274)
[Frost] puts the Emersonian doctrine of freedom to his own special use. For Emerson, and his great contemporaries too, conceived of the "free" person as, by internal necessity, one who had to break through and away from substantial concerns—the life of the workaday world, the life of the older order—so as to transform himself in the breaking…. Emerson broke from the past in order to look forward. Frost does so in order to look at the here and now, and thereby is by far more loyal to the past than Emerson could bear to be.
For Frost there is a new order, to be sure; but it is the product of a recovery and reconstitution, rather than of a reinvention and transformation, of the old. For the great nineteenth-century poets, life consisted of an infinite series of willed, self-generated transformations forward; the opportunity for each transformation was only that—an opportunity, its possibilities exhausted as soon as the transformation had occurred…. Thus, in the deepest sense, the "opportunism" of their poetry. In Frost, however, this conception of the transformative opportunity has been stabilized to a point where it is not a means of advancing, but of withdrawing and consolidating…. The freedom, he might say, allows him to define, not unleash himself. To be sure, Frost has called freedom "departure." But, as he departs, he looks backward, not forward. He would have us enjoy our going hence because he knows so well whence we have come hither.
Frost's best poems demonstrate … his certainty that he is one kind of man moving down one kind of road. The most telling of the poems are the monologues and dialogues which begin in North of Boston, early in his career. Again and again the subject is the failure of communication, a failure which shows just how small and delimited the effective community can be. As often as not it comes to be a community of one—a community which can be called such only because its existence is, as it were, authorized by the fact that all men of high sensibility who live in it will quite readily come to recognize that in the end they can communicate only the fact that they cannot communicate, that they can but find the rather limited terms in which they can communicate this fact. The terms—deriving from Frost's abiding sense of farm, mountain, and village life—are sharp enough to cut off cleanly from his fellows him who lives by them.
Moreover, Frost is honest and clear-headed enough to admit that they cut off from one another even those who would together live by them. This sentiment is at the heart of most of the monologues and dialogues…. (pp. 276-77)
Always in Frost there is the desire (or a temptation so strong as to be a desire) to "go behind" something. Almost always there is the failure to do so, and then the triumph in living with the failure and discovering that it is a condition of strength—the strength in discovering oneself as a person, limited by the conditions which can be made clearly to define oneself as a person. This is the subject which "shall be fulfilled." In the dramatic poems it is difficult to find precise points where this is fully realized, because the realization is not the protagonist's, but rather the poet's—as a result of the total effect of the poem. For Frost (and this is an aspect of the achievement of such poems) the failure infuses what he makes out to be a whole experience. Here, one might say, Frost is almost a novelist, because the meaning of his poems depends so much upon a minute attendance to the conditions in which particular failures must be portrayed. There are moments of pure, unmediated realization, however—epiphanies. Such moments are by definition private and are accordingly rendered in first-person lyrics—"Tree at My Window," "Desert Places," "The Tuft of Flowers," "The Road Not Taken," "Bereft," "Once by the Pacific," "Stopping by Woods …" and so many more. To name them is to recall a series of instants of awareness whose abounding clarity is gained at the expense of a certain willed irrelevance to many of the conditions in modern life. This is, one is forced to conclude, a failure which Frost wills so that he can understand it and proceed to build positively out from it. (p. 278)
What finally gives the best poems their tremendous effectiveness is a sense of local detail so sharp, so fully controlled, so wholly the poet's own, as to make us know once and forever the gulf between his world and all others. Above all, Frost can call up a sense of place and of the working of an individual sensibility when limited by and therefore complementary to it…. (p. 279)
Frost has long well known where and who he is. But more and more he has chosen to speak only to himself, albeit in public. We listen, we are delighted, we are moved and enlightened; but we are on the outside looking in at a poet who remains resolutely on the inside looking out, telling us what we are not by telling us what he and his special kind are…. In his work the nineteenth-century faith in the ultimate equivalence of the "I" and the "we" has been renounced. He has no need for the after-the-fact transcendentalism toward which such a faith drove Emerson and Whitman. What is gained is a sense of the concrete, particular, bounded "I," anticipated only in the work of Emily Dickinson. Yet Frost lacks even her variety—the product of a mind which dares to be more capacious than his. That is what is lost, the expense of Frost's greatness: variety and capaciousness. Frost manages in his poems to create nothing less than an orthodoxy—as against Emerson's heterodoxy—of the self. (p. 283)
Roy Harvey Pearce, "The Old Poetry and the New," in his The Continuity of American Poetry (copyright © 1961 by Princeton University Press; excerpts reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1961, pp. 253-92.∗
Frost was the first American who could be honestly reckoned a master-poet by world standards. [Edgar Allan] Poe, Long-fellow, Whittier, and many more of his American predecessors had written good provincial verse; and Whitman, a homespun eccentric, had fallen short of the master-poet title only through failing to realize how much more was required of him. Frost has won the title fairly, not by turning his back on ancient European tradition, nor by imitating its successes, but by developing it in a way that at last matches the American climate and the American language. (p. ix)
Frost has always respected metre. When, during the Vers Libre period of the Nineteen Twenties and Thirties his poems were disdained as old-fashioned, he remarked disdainfully that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net. The Vers Librists, it should be explained, had rebelled against a degenerate sort of poetry in which nothing mattered except getting the ball neatly over the net. Few games are so wearisome to watch as a methodical ping-pong, ping-pong tennis match in which each player allows his opponent an easy forehand return from the same court. The Vers Librists, therefore, abandoned the tennis-net of metre altogether, and concentrated on rhythm. But though metre is boring without rhythm, the reverse is equally true. A rhythmic manipulation of metre means—in this tennis metaphor—so placing your shots that you force the other fellow to dart all round his territory, using backhand, forehand, volley or half-volley as the play demands. Only the 'strain of rhythm upon metre' (Frost's own phrase), makes a poem worth reading, or a long rally in tennis worth watching. That you can't achieve much in poetry without, so to speak, a taut net and straight whitewashed lines, is shown by the difficulty of memorizing free verse; it does not fix itself firmly enough in the imagination.
Frost farmed for ten years among the well-wooded hills of Vermont. The four natural objects most proper to poems are, by common consent, the moon, water, hills and trees; with sun, birds, beasts and flowers as useful subsidiaries. It is remarkable that, among the ancient Irish, Highland Scots and Welsh, from whose tradition (though at second or third hand) English poetry derives most of its strange magic—the Muse was a Moon, Mountain and Water-goddess, and the word for poetic literature was always 'trees'. Bardic schools were built in forests, not in towns; and every letter of the alphabet had a tree name. Frost's most haunting poems, such as The Wood-Pile, Birches, An Encounter, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, are set in woods. The moon floats above, and water rushes down from every hill. The farmhouse in the clearing—unless it is staging one of those poignant country dramas which are his specialty—provides him with a convenient centre from which to saunter out and commune in thought with the birches, maples, hickories, pines, or wild apples…. Among trees, you are usually alone, but seldom lonely: they are companionable presences for those in love and, although Frost seldom uses the word 'love', all his poems are instinct with it.
He reminds us that poems, like love, begin in surprise, delight and tears, and end in wisdom. Whereas scholars follow projected lines of logic, he collects his knowledge undeliberately, he says, like burrs that stick to your legs when you walk through a field. Surprise always clings to a real poem, however often it is read; but must come naturally, cannot be achieved by the cunning formula of a short story or detective thriller. (pp. xi-xiii)
One good way of judging a particular poem … is to ask yourself whether the package contains anything irrelevant to its declared contents, and whether anything essential has been left out. I admit that even Frost lapses at times into literary references, philosophy, political argument and idle play with words; yet has any other man now alive written more poems that stand up to this packaging test? His chief preoccupation is freedom: freedom to be himself, to make discoveries, to work, to love, and not to be limited by any power except personal conscience or common sense. (p. xiii)
Though Frost owns to the growing materialism of the United States, which stultifies the Founding Fathers' prayer for courage and self-control among those destined to occupy the land, he refuses to lament bygone times. The land, the tools, and the language are all still available, and he has himself proved how nobly they can be used…. A great part of the countryside has been scheduled for industrialization and, as everyone tells me, this is a critical, rather than a creative, age. But give thanks, at least, that you still have Frost's poems; and when you feel the need of solitude, retreat to the companionship of moon, waters, hills and trees. Retreat, he reminds us, should not be confused with escape. (p. xiv)
Robert Graves, "Introduction" (copyright © 1963 by Robert Graves; reprinted by permission of the author), in Selected Poems of Robert Frost by Robert Frost, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963, pp. ix-xiv.
Robert Frost wrote some of the finest verse of our time. He created his own extraordinarily flat, "unpoetic" variant of the conversational idiom which has become the medium of most modern poetry. He restricted himself to the homeliest diction, to words largely of one or two syllables, a remarkable feat. And he countered this simplicity with a highly sophisticated rhetoric, with the devious twistings of the poem's development, with the irony of simple word and subtle thought. His diction was just right for the rural scene he chose in the face of the intimidating international subjects of [T. S.] Eliot and Pound, and just right, too, for its simple particulars. He was no doubt our master of the realistic particular. Things magnified at his touch; they seemed to live. His themes were familiar to most, and appealed—though in widely varying degrees—to everyone: the exhaustion of living, the sense of imminent danger …, personal isolation, the need for community, etc. Frost is so good, so much pleasure to read that you wonder why he needs to be defended so often…. Is there some really critical defect in him, one that might explain why Frost never had the passionate following Eliot had? Why didn't Frost so affect us, so transform us that we had no choice but to be his?
What I want to do is to develop an aspect of Frost's poems which I feel represents such a defect…. My principal argument is that Frost never risked his life, his whole being; he was never really lost, like the Eliot of The Waste Land. He remained in control, in possession of himself. He did this by keeping himself from the deepest experiences, the kind you stake your life on. And this is reflected in various ways, all of which point to a central division in Frost's experience, in himself. He has been represented, by himself as well as by others, as one able to integrate his life…. But when we read his poetry we encounter division of several kinds.
To begin with, it has been pointed out that though Frost looks at nature closely, and renders it faithfully, he often fails to fuse his idea of it with his feeling. Thus poems like "Tuft of Flowers," "Two Tramps in Mud Time," and "Hyla Brook" divide in two: the things described, the pure existent, free of any abstraction, and the abstract comment, the moral or philosophical lesson in the tradition of Longfellow and Emerson, whom he admired. (pp. 57-8)
Frost does not resolve his identification with particulars and his separation from them by laying on a general meaning. His poetry reveals a division between the imagist and the commentator, between the man who is involved and the man who observes, between the naturalist and the rationalist. In some remarks on Edwin Arlington Robinson, Frost says, "I am not the Platonist Robinson was. By Platonist I mean one who believes what we have here is an imperfect copy of what is in heaven." But the structure of many of his poems, an ascent from matter to idea, is Platonic. I do not mean to imply that Frost thought matter inferior to the idea; he is frequently skeptical about the mind's way of knowing…. Still, it is fair to say that the structure of his poems often gives the impression that matter, or, more generally, existence is an illustration of an idea.
The dramatic narratives ("The Death of the Hired Man," "A Servant of Servants," etc.) are exceptions to Frost's Platonic structure. Because of the form, probably, the action is sustained all the way; no formulation is tagged on; these poems are memorable in themselves, free of abstract wisdom. Of course this fusion of image and idea happens on occasion in the lyrics … and with fine effect…. But this fusion is not characteristic. Generally there is a division between subject matter and idea, and the poem suffers. (pp. 59-60)
This division in Frost is reflected in the frequent disjunction between his subject matter and his verse rhythms. The meter is varied from poem to poem; the iambic measure has a human voice, a quiet one which secures a tension between the dramatic substance and its own effortlessness. Yet as we read a number of poems at a stretch, another effect emerges, one of monotony—especially, as Yvor Winters points out, in those in blank verse [see CLC, Vol. 10]…. You get the same rhythm in a poem of rural manners like "Mending Wall," with its theme of community, as you do in a quasi-tragic piece like "An Old Man's Winter Night," with its theme of isolation. The poems call for different intensities of feeling, but there is little evidence of this in the rhythms…. Frost rarely breaks up [the flow of his rhythms]; rarely staggers under the burden of his subject; his tone is level even when the theme is disintegration. The effect of his rhythms is generally one of understatement—all to the good in the modern canon. But continual understatement acts as an anodyne, beguiling us into what we like to believe is the quiet voice of wisdom. This may have been all right in more contemplative times; but I would think our age is more authentically expressed through pain, through the pure, simple scream it would have been so pleasant to hear at times in Frost's poems. Frost's level tone works well in poems of trance-like surrender, as in "After Apple-Picking" or "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"; here there is a happy conjunction of rhythm and subject matter. Frost's "monotony" may be connected with his philosophic attitude, an even-tempered skeptical rationalism which has been the dominant tradition in Western culture since Plato and Aristotle. It has little in common with another tradition, that of the great howlers who risked everything: the Old Testament prophets, Job …, the Greek tragic playwrights and Shakespeare, or romantics like [William] Blake and [Arthur] Rimbaud.
Frost's incapacity for the tragic howl is of a piece, I believe, with the sentimentality which marks a further division in him, the separation of fact and feeling…. [In "The Road Not Taken"] Frost acknowledges that life has limits …, yet he indulges himself in the sentimental notion that we could be really different from what we have become. He treats this romantic cliché on the level of the cliché; hence the appeal of the poem for many. But after having grown up, who still wants to be that glamorous movie star or ball player of our adolescent daydreams? In "The Jolly Corner" James saw the other road leading to corruption, the fate of those who deny themselves, who suffer a division of the self.
These divisions in Frost may help us see what is unsatisfactory about a finely wrought poem like "The Onset."… [In this poem] Frost is again divided in his response. He resists winter and welcomes spring; he welcomes life but does not see that death is organic to it…. But Frost largely flirted with the dark woods that appear with some frequency in his poems; he was not lost in them so deeply … for them to transform him. Instead, he made a "strategic retreat."
If Frost's resistance to death is unnatural, his sense of spring in "The Onset" is incomplete. It lacks the organic singleness of spring and winter of Dylan Thomas' "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer." What is also lacking is the pain of birth, as in [D. H.] Lawrence's "Tortoise Shout."… For Frost spring is simply another occasion for his even-tempered reassurance, compounded in the idyllic image of houses and church worthy of Rockwell Kent…. The village church is pretty to look at, but too often filled with people divided in their own ways: loving mankind but fearing if not hating Catholics, Jews, and Negroes, not to speak of foreigners. (pp. 60-3)
Now "The Onset" hints at difficulties, but these are over-looked or forgotten in the interests of the pleasant solution. The speaker says he is like one who "lets death descend / Upon him where he is, with nothing done / To evil, no important triumph won. / More than if life had never been begun." This is a characterization of the Laodicean temper comparable to [William Butler] Yeats' "The best lack all conviction," or Eliot's "We who were living are now dying / With a little patience." But Frost does not draw the conclusions Yeats and Eliot do…. April's slender rill will still return as life-giving as ever, untouched by Laodicean lifelessness; April will not be the cruelest month, bringing a rebirth we do not want and cannot stand. Frost's Chaucerian response to spring is simply no longer possible, even before the fallout, except to one who has seriously isolated himself from our times…. (p. 63)
Frost generally separates himself from nature, as when he speaks with an oddly exploitative élan of our increasing "hold on the planet"; unlike Wordsworth, who identifies with nature as his spirit is "Rolled round in earth's diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees." Now there is a sense of fully meeting nature in "After Apple-Picking," but usually, as in "Come In" or "Stopping by Woods," the poet only seems to give himself, while actually withdrawing. Robert Penn Warren explains the withdrawal in "Stopping by Woods" as "man defining himself by resisting the pull of nature" [see excerpt above]. No doubt we must distinguish ourselves from the rest of nature, but we cut ourselves off from a critical part of our existence if we do this by resisting…. Sometimes, as in the beautiful "Oven Bird," Frost seems to identify with nature, but even here he is really personifying the bird, imposing his philosophical mood of the moment: "The question that he [the bird] frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing."
The difference between Frost and Lawrence and Thomas is critical. Lawrence defines his humanness in a mutual encounter with nature. Frost by resisting it…. Both [Thomas and Lawrence] become more profoundly human by surrendering, or at least immersing themselves in nature. They grow out of their relation to it; Frost does not because he is curiously divided from it, observing it to introduce his own ideas. He does not sink to come up new; he cannot lose himself, follow his own advice and surrender himself; he will not let go of himself, allow nature to work on him and change him. As a skeptic, the poet of the middle way, not committing himself to extremes—passional or intellectual—Frost remains separate from the objects he looks at, unchanged. There is no mutual penetration which transforms subject and object. Instead, Frost puts on his armor of ideas to confront nature with; perhaps, strangely, to protect him from it. Two impulses work against each other, the naturalistic and the civilized, and the latter prevails. Despite all the suggestions of disaster in his poetry Frost does not really disturb us. He is all too frequently prepared to reach some reasonable agreement. Problems—yes; but solutions too.
What all this comes to is a detachment which in its cultural context is a poetry of isolationism. This is obviously appealing to an American audience. The title of his first volume, A Boy's Will, alludes to the favorite American poet of the nineteenth century, Longfellow, and to the poem which appeals to our nostalgia as well as our Edenic impulse. Succeeding titles—North of Boston, Mountain Interval, New Hampshire, West-running Brook—all reassure us of the importance, the validity, the worth not merely of our country, but of that part where we began and where our virtues were seeded and flourished. Nor do the images which trouble that scene—the hired man, the servant of servants, and the others—trouble Frost's audience; on the contrary, the harsh realism validates its nostalgia. Rural America is offered as the theatre of this world, appealing to anyone who would like to forget the world.
Delmore Schwartz once called T. S. Eliot our international hero; Frost is our national, isolationist hero, withdrawn as Americans generally are from the dialogue of ideas which give form to living not only in our time but at least as far back as the Old Testament days. (pp. 63-5)
Intellectual heat has tempered most of us; but Frost "is able," as Robert Langbaum says, "to shrug off those conflicts between man and nature, thought and reality, head and heart, science and religion, which since the romantic period have torn other poets apart." As a consequence, many of his poems which seem to bear upon our crises do not really confront them…. Frost paralyzes us with merely passive or stunned responses to modern terror, as in "Design," "Bereft," or "Once By the Pacific"; he does not take up the arms of the intellect against our sea of troubles. Failing to be involved, he falls back on eternal commonplaces. (p. 66)
When Frost confronts our civilization in its totality—the encounter that defines our great moderns, as Stephen Spender has pointed out—he is inadequate; all he can muster is a commonplace. Perhaps he is prone to aphorisms in a poem dealing with the modern scene because he does not see it. He talks about it, but is incapable of creating its personae, like Eliot's carbuncular clerk. Having committed himself to by-road, rural figures not shaped by central modern concerns, he falls into archness or waspishness when dealing with features of our world—and not least, incidentally, its representative literature. In the later, rightly admired "Directive," he advises us to retreat from "all this now too much for us" back to a "time made simple by the loss / of detail." Here once more is the refusal to confront the particulars of our world; after a journey which Frost invites us to compare with that of a Grail knight, yet with only a hint of the Grail trials, we will be saved, "be whole again beyond confusion" by drinking the cup of the past, the simple time…. Langbaum comments that Frost's poetry is the kind "that delivers us from the poignancy of the historical moment to place us in contact with a survival-making eternal folk wisdom. We can live by Frost's poetry as we could not by Yeats's or Pound's." On the contrary. The poetry that disturbs us most strengthens us most, much the way the tragic hero affirms himself by acknowledging the last truth. Eternal wisdom is comic to those conscious of the awful fact of this historic moment. Divided from our time. Frost, our wisdom-poet, has so little of the kind of wisdom appropriate to our time, the hellish, existential wisdom of Kafka and [Albert] Camus, or the biological wisdom of Lawrence.
In his famous speech celebrating Frost's eighty-fifth birthday Lionel Trilling links Frost with the tragic poets. He makes this assertion with an unusual rhetorical violence: "when ever have people been so isolated, so lightning-blasted, so tried down and calcined by life, so reduced, each in his own way, to some last irreducible core of being."… He cites "Design" as an example of Frost's tragic sense…. Its argument is that the universe is a "design of darkness." But the tragic sense involves something more. It requires a belief in or a coherent vision of the design of life, traditional as with Eliot or private as with Yeats and Kafka; it requires this together with the feeling that the design is breaking down. It implies more than mere ruin. The tragic sense requires a person highly developed in spirit and mind who, broken by the imminent failure of his sense of things, is moved to probe and question—apocalyptically, or humorously, but always passionately, not with the mild, wry, even-tempered humor of Frost.
The great moderns have thought steadily about our age; from this has come intense commitments taking the form of those consistent visions of modern life which have shaped our imagination…. Frost writes in a historical vacuum, with almost nothing to say to us about the modern content of our alienation and fragmentation. His efforts here yield little that has not been more passionately and tragically said by many others…. No one seems to be more solidly planted in the world, yet no one of Frost's stature tells us less about our world.
It is the absence of a modern texture which in one way gives Frost his special appeal to moderns. As a poet of particulars, especially of nature, Frost has an effect on the city person something like that Wordsworth had for John Stuart Mill. For such a person—especially a bookish one—Frost brings a momentary salvation. He restores the things that our organized way of living and our abstract way of seeing have obliterated…. And in making us see these things he saturates us with the texture of American life, the life of its beginnings. This too is good for the intellectual who for many reasons … often feels like an outsider in his own country. Frost has reminded us of all that cannot be spoiled by the politician or the brassy patriot. For this we are grateful. Blueberries, ax-helves, birches, oven birds—these are stable vantage points, solid stations—but not enough. They are the moving particulars common to any time, not the disturbing particulars of our own. Neither his images nor his scenes are modern; his isolation provides him only with situations out of another era…. Frost is contemporary rather than modern. He lives in our time but at bottom is not affected, disturbed, shaken, transformed by it. Everyone rightly praises "An Old Man's Winter Night," but [Eliot's] "Gerontion," drawing on fewer particulars of old age, disturbs us more, for it is a portrait of old age in our age, and so becomes a portrait of our age.
The division in much of Frost's poetry between image and idea, matter and rhythm, the naturalist and the rationalist is reflected in Frost's withholding himself from nature, and this in turn we see is a reflection of the division between his subject matter and that of the age. This was fatal to his full development, preventing the kind of growth and transformations that marked Yeats and Eliot. His simplicity and homeliness probably contributed to this fate. He took these qualities too seriously, as though they were the heart of truth. He became his own imitator, beguiling himself enough to keep himself out of the complexities and contentions of our time, out of the political, moral, religious, and philosophical crises which might have led to a passionate commitment. Even if wrongheaded, this at least would have opened hell to him. (pp. 67-70)
Isadore Traschen, "Robert Frost: Some Divisions in a Whole Man," in The Yale Review (© 1965 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LV, No. 1, Autumn, 1965, pp. 57-70.
Frost was not a systematic thinker. He was against systems on principle…. Part of his suspiciousness toward "structure" lay in the fact that "wisdom" could so easily lose itself in questions of political or ideological debate, in "grievances" rather than "griefs."… But essentially he would have been suspicious of anything that implied a single answer. He was born too late to be reassured by Emerson's cheerful monism.
If the subjects of Frost's meditative poems tend to be disparate and inconclusive, simply "momentary stays against confusion," they at least deal with complex and important issues. Exploratory and speculative, they represent a lonely pondering on the central problems of existence: man's identity and freedom, his relation to the natural world and the flux of time, his defenses against an engulfing chaos, the place of human suffering and the possibility of salvation. His poems are torn, as his life was, between affirmation and negation, and if the resolution of this conflict seems at best tenuous, that tenuousness is deliberate. Essentially a pragmatist, Frost was less concerned with chronicling the spirit of his age, as Eliot was, or with forging his insights into a philosophical system, as Wallace Stevens was, than with working out a practical modus vivendi, a way of making something out of the facts that life presented him with.
One extremity of the philosophical spectrum that Frost's mind sought to encompass finds expression in the poems of terror that Lionel Trilling referred to. This is the pull of the annihilating dark, the fear of his "own desert places." The personal tragedies in his life added poignancy to the basic question of whether "all the soul-and-body scars / Were not too much to pay for birth." Intellectually he had even taken the step beyond the romantic awareness of personal despair to contemplate the possibility of cosmic meaninglessness. "Design" and "Neither Out Far Nor in Deep" give us a glimpse of absurd and absolute blankness, just as [Herman] Melville's "Bartleby" does. But, unlike Melville, Frost never steps into this blankness to explore its bleak reality, and his poetry thus lacks that dimension of intellectual daring. He does not even create a positive metaphor for it. Perhaps Frost could not afford to risk his precarious sanity. (pp. 100-02)
Very few of Frost's poems are as unequivocally affirmative as "Bereft" or "Acquainted with the Night" are unequivocally negative. In most of them a sense of affirmation is hard won, with a realistic awareness of its opposite clearly present in the poem. It is rarely simplistic or moralistic…. If Frost's poetry on the whole is positive in its attitude to life, the affirmation is scarcely exuberant.
Yet his overall attitude is positive, despite a temperamental bias toward negation, and it is won through a conscious and tough-minded pragmatism. Pragmatism is the general philosophical premise behind most of Frost's poetry…. If his refusal to follow his intuitions of meaninglessness through to an intellectual conclusion denied his poetry the tragic intensity of Melville, this was partly due to a courageous awareness that life has to be lived on its own terms. (pp. 102-03)
[Frost's] attitude in this was reinforced by the contemporary philosopher and psychologist, William James…. (p. 103)
James based his commitment to living on the practical grounds of creating one's own human meaning and value rather than on orthodox Christian attitudes to faith…. Unlike Emerson, James was skeptical, doubting, yet determined to use his doubts in a positive way. His "self-reliance" is far more tentative and courageous than that of Emerson; it is what Frost meant later by "falling forward in the dark." (pp. 103-04)
There were many things about James's philosophy that appealed to Frost. Frost was agnostic enough to need a philosophy that would justify itself in purely human terms and yet would satisfy the spiritual and intuitive in him; James's emphasis on self-realization did that. Perhaps more importantly, Frost was temperamentally receptive to the moral commitments that James demanded—the courage, will, effort, that were needed to choose life and to propel the "maybes" into positive action. All through Frost's writing we find such ideas reoccurring, the Jamesian vocabulary unchanged—words such as courage …, [will, effort, hero]; words such as "risk," "tussle," "threat."…
The basic premise, then, is a conscious, pragmatic acceptance of life as it is…. With a certain self-righteousness he poured scorn on T. S. Eliot and other prophets of doom who saw the 1920s as fragmented and sterile, the worst of all possible ages. (p. 105)
As part of [his] tough, pragmatic acceptance of life as it is, Frost accepts the limitations of human knowledge and capacity. Commenting on the folly of bringing a peach tree too far north into New England for it to have a fair chance of survival, the speaker of "There Are Roughly Zones" recognizes that "There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed," though he has a sneaking admiration for "this limitless trait in the hearts of men" that will gamble on defying the "zones." (p. 107)
Heroic will, conscious choice, self-definition through suffering: these are the concepts through which Frost tried to find an intellectual rationale for his pragmatism, his acceptance of life as it is. At a time when naturalism, with its philosophy of pessimistic determinism, had a strong foothold in American literature, Frost refused to admit that men's fate might be determined by such factors as heredity or environment. His concepts of individualism and self-reliance were as strong as Emerson's, though more existential, more grounded in the idea that man not only improves himself but actually creates himself, defines himself, through taking on a "trial."
These ideas of will, choice, and trial are basic to Frost's thinking…. But "The Trial by Existence" is not a convincing poem—partly because this argument for an affirmative attitude to life is intrinsically implausible, and partly because it is presented in too didactic a way. In his later meditative poems Frost overcame both these drawbacks. In such poems as "Mending Wall," "Birches," and "West-Running Brook" the ideas are presented through the richer and subtler techniques of metaphor and symbol rather than through simple didactic exposition. And the ideas themselves are less abstract and moralistic. That sense of conflicting tensions that Frost was all too aware of in his life, and to which his pragmatism was a conscious answer, is explored in terms that are more human and practical.
In "Mending Wall" (1914) the central symbol of the wall acts as a focus for two conflicting attitudes. Economically, it thus concentrates the poem's theme. The poem describes how each spring two farmers—the narrator and an older neighbor—meet at their property boundary to repair their common stone wall after the ravages of winter. The narrator questions the need for a wall at all, since he has an apple orchard and his neighbor pine trees…. To this rationalizing, the old man simply retorts: "Good fences make good neighbors," and they go on constructing the barrier between them.
The balance of sympathy in the poem seems to rest with the narrator, and an inattentive reader might be led to assume that the poem simply advocates the abolition of walls. The narrator's argument is practical and sensible, his voice easygoing and tolerant. (pp. 109-10)
All reasonableness is on the narrator's side. Yet it is not ultimately convincing. Despite his good-humored condescension toward the old man, he continues with the job. In fact, it was he who initiated the wall mending…. Ultimately the poem would seem to be not so much about a simple conflict of attitude as about the different modes of thinking that inform both attitudes. Each of these modes—the purely empirical and the purely traditional—is found wanting. The conflict is deliberately unresolved, and the total effect of the poem is, ironically, more thoughtful and subtle, more true to human experience, than the effect of "Trial by Existence," in which Frost tried to justify the general conflicts of life by a simplistic account of their origin.
The equivocation in "Mending Wall" reflects Frost's own feeling. Whatever compunction he might have had at times, he would on the whole have opted for the principle of maintaining walls…. He had no time for any philosophy that assumed that absolute harmony was possible or even desirable…. The consciousness of individuality, the constructive tension between disparate elements, and the instinctual, intuitive interaction that he called "passionate preference"—these, for Frost, were the only viable premises for human action and creative thought. The function of a wall as a symbol then, lies not in the fact that it shuts people off from each other ("Good fences make good neighbors") or that it may be rationally unnecessary ("Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out"), but that it focuses the constant tension of opposing elements, which Frost saw as the essence of the human condition. (pp. 111-12)
Finally, let us look at a poem that is in many ways the pinnacle of Frost's achievement as a poet—"Directive" (1946). It is perhaps the most fully realized of all his poems. It is one in which theme is inseparable from symbol, tone, rhythm, and structure, and one in which so many of the Frostian themes reach a kind of culmination: the existential loneliness, the self-defining resistance to the engulfing flow of existence, the individual salvation that is partly given … and partly earned…. Yet it is a poem that has been largely overlooked….
["Directive"] is a journey back up the "universal cataract of death," a step beyond that stoic point where human identity bravely holds its own, "not gaining but not losing," against the annihilating tide; a step beyond the tension of contrariety to an original source. It is Frost's only attempt at some reconciliation of that conscious ambivalence that he maintained so deliberately in so many of his poems. (p. 120)
"Directive" describes a journey that begins in a world of confusion and decay, and progresses, through various "serial ordeals" that echo the quests of Arthurian romance and the paradoxes of the Christian mystics, to a state "beyond confusion." (p. 121)
The present world which is the starting point of the poem is not "too much with us" but "too much for us." How subtly Frost modifies and extends the Wordsworthian echo here. His phrasing, after what we have already noted in his themes about the creative value of some tension of contrariety, implies a flabby lack of challenge—the world is too much for us. At the same time, its colloquial sense—as in "It's all too much for me"—reinforces the impression of spiritual defeatism.
The journey is "back … back": past individual life …; past a Whitmanesque identification with others who have lived on the same earth …; past the "upstart" reclamation of one's human traces by Nature, which has overgrown the apple orchards that man had long ago won from her; past even the marks of geological change in which the "road" is described as following a "ledge" that was "the chisel work of an enormous Glacier / That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole"; and back beyond the anthropomorphic world of myth…. (pp. 122-23)
The speaker maintains an assured colloquiality. He addresses most of the poem to "you," but the "you" slips so easily into "I" at the end that it is obvious the two are integral. The "you" form makes the total effect less personal perhaps, but more importantly it establishes an easy colloquial tone…. The only other "character" in the poem is a "guide"—if you'll let him direct you—who also blends so easily into the "you" and the "I" that he may be seen as a kind of alter ego of both the reader and the poet.
The journey is fraught with the paradoxes that beleaguer most quest myths. The guide "only has at heart your getting lost." The apparent destination—"There is a house"—is immediately negated—"that is no more a house." And just when the "height of the adventure" is reached—a high place where two village cultures once faded into each other—we are deflated by the statement that "Both of them are lost." But the resolution of all this paradox is not the orthodox salvation-through-surrender idea, losing one's life in order to save it; that would be too clichéd altogether for this highly individualized poem. (pp. 123-24)
Ultimately, any attempt to explain the "meaning" of this poem belittles it. Its real power is emotional, drawn from the rich resonance of its sparse narrative. The Arthurian echoes combine with a certain fairy-tale incantation ("There is a house that is no more a house / Upon a farm that is no more a farm") to give it the dimension of myth. At the same time the colloquial voice of the guide ("pull in your ladder road behind you … make yourself at home") anchors it to the realities of individual experience. Indeed, the sureness with which all the literary echoes in the poem—biblical, Arthurian, Wordsworthian—are interwoven shows that Frost could match Eliot in the business of ironic analogy. In "Directive," Frost achieves a poetic integration of theme and form that makes it one of his finest poems.
Throughout this brief examination of some of Frost's major themes, we have seen that, despite his reputation as a nature poet, his concerns are essentially human ones. In a very real sense he is a philosophical poet. Nature simply provided him with a constant metaphor—the "fact" with which his imagination could work. Certainly it provided no haven for him; Frost's characters move in a terrible loneliness. (pp. 127-28)
Frost has his limitations as a thinker. Even in his definition of a poem as a "momentary stay against confusion," there is an implication that whatever meaning can be thus won is accidental and transitory. His intellectual preoccupations are disparate, not welded into any coherent structure. His moral values—concerned with consciously maintaining a perpetual cold war between affirmation and negation—make for an unglamorous stability rather than a tragic grandeur, for adjustment rather than confrontation.
In spite of all this, there is something reassuringly sane and unpretentious about Frost's thematic concerns. If he fails to explore the heart of darkness it is because he has come close enough to it to be wary of entering in. His acceptance of life on its own terms represents an affirmation that was won at the cost of bitter personal negations, and it rarely becomes complacent. There is an intellectual rigor behind the often whimsical irresolution of its expression. Frost held his irresolution deliberately. To say this is not to make it automatically a viable philosophical position. It may be "spiritual drifting" [as Yvor Winters charged (see CLC, Vol. 10)]. But, bearing in mind the consistency of such ideas in Frost's poetry, their hardheaded practicality, and the stern discipline of metaphor and symbol through which they are examined, this seems too glib a charge. (p. 129)
Elaine Barry, in her Robert Frost (copyright © 1973 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1973, 145 p. [the excerpts of Robert Frost's poetry used here were originally published in The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem (copyright © 1930, 1939, 1947; © 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston; copyright 1936, 1942; © 1958, 1960, 1962 by Robert Frost; copyright © 1964, 1967, 1970, 1975 by Lesley Frost Ballantine; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969].
[What Frost did] to American poetry was to insist that a poem must have definite form, be dramatic, and use voice tones to vary the "te tum" effect of traditional iambic meter. Although all three prescriptions reflect his belief that poetry should include the intonation of the speaking voice, his concern with form has philosophical implications as well. Frost writes about confusion, about the universal "cataract of death" that spins away to nothingness. Yet while he faces the chasm, he refuses to accede to its lure. Confusion is a universal state to be acknowledged as a kind of boundary against which man can act by creating form. No form is permanent, as Frost suggests in his famous phrase "a momentary stay against confusion," but man may delight in chaos because it provides the opportunity for form. (p. 5)
When Frost applies his ideas about form to the art of poetry, he shifts his concern with universal chaos to the "wildness" of the creative impulse. The tension generated by the union of the untamed impulse and the countering restrictions of traditional meter and stanza forms reflects some of Frost's philosophical concerns as well as adds to the appeal of his poems. To abandon poetic form is to court chaos. One can thus understand his averson to free verse.
Frost also suggests that the absence of traditional form in poetry diminishes the dramatic element, a quality he prized. Calling on poets to show "a dramatic necessity" in their art, he explains that the intonations of the speaking voice are the best means for creating a sense of drama…. Frost believes that sentences in poetry cannot hold the reader's attention unless they are dramatic and that only the entanglement of the "speaking tones of voice" in the words will supply drama.
His comments reflect his concern for what he calls "sentence sounds," his favorite topic when discussing prosody. Briefly, Frost tries to unite the free-ranging rhythms and tones of actual speech which do not necessarily have iambic pentameter and its variations. This union was primarily responsible for the bewilderment experienced by the first reviewers of North of Boston, for while Frost seemed to be writing in traditional forms, his lines did not scan in the traditional way. (pp. 5-6)
In short, the three elements of form, drama, and sentence sounds gives Frost's poetry what Lawrance Thompson calls "a fresh vitality without recourse to the fads and limitations of modern experimental techniques." (p. 6)
Frost looked for old ways to be new. No matter how bewildering his blank verse appeared to the first readers of North of Boston, he always stressed the necessity for traditional form and coherent content. His variations with standard meter and rhyme were designed not to cast away the heritage of American poetry but to renew it. Frost showed how recognizable voice tones encourage natural departure from the iambic rhythm even though the predominate poetic foot of the entire poem remains iambic. In his best poems,… he unites three levels of sound: the primary rhythm of the line, the pronunciation of words and phrases, and the sentence sounds communicated by inflections of tones of voice. One problem facing the uninitiated reader is not to let his feeling for the predominately iambic rhythm violate the pronunciation of the words and phrases. The enduring vitality of "Mending Wall" and "The Death of the Hired Man" results from the tension between the opposite pulls of the freer voice tones and the stricter poetic meter all within the restrictions of traditional verse forms. (p. 7)
[An] impressive example of Frost's prosody is the first line from "The Death of the Hired Man": "Mary sat musing on the lamp-flame at the table …" Despite the efforts of early reviewers to read it as free verse, "The Death of the Hired Man" is a blank verse poem. The reader's sense of puzzlement results from the conversational tone, prosaic vocabulary, the trochee "Mary," the spondee "lamp-flame," the anapest "at the table," and the thirteen syllables instead of the traditional ten. Frost not only varies the sound from the "te tum" effect of standard blank verse, but he also links the unusual rhythm with theme. Realizing that a close proximity of trochee, spondee, anapest, and additional syllables forces a slow reading of the line, the reader turns to the next line and notes that the first word is "waiting": "Waiting for Warren. When she heard his step …" Although Frost again begins with a trochee, he assigns this line the ten syllables normally expected in blank verse. In addition to the opening trochee, he includes alliteration and a caesura which once more slow the reader to reenforce the sense of waiting before the rush of sound in "When she heard his step."
The reader who compares the virtuosity of these lines to the relatively colorless blank verse of "Waiting—Afield at Dusk," published just a year before "The Death of the Hired Man," will marvel at the confidence Frost shows in so much of his poetry after A Boy's Will. He learned to avoid the jerkiness and rigidity present in poems of five-stress lines which rely too much on metrical regularity and too many end-stopped lines…. After Frost realized the possibilities for uniting dramatic speech tones with traditional meter, he used run-on lines, feminine endings, and the variations of trochaic and anapestic feet to illustrate the old way to be new. (pp. 7-8)
When Frost is at his lyrical best, the speech rhythms and variations determine even the position of rhymes. "After Apple-Picking" and "The Rabbit-Hunter," for example, are rhymed in spite of Frost's refusal to supply a traditional scheme to govern rhyme placement. The natural rhythm of the spoken phrases dictates both metrical variations and the unscheduled rhymes. At first reading, "After Apple-Picking" looks like free verse or even untraditional blank verse because of the surprising metrical irregularity which results in some lines of iambic dimeter. But when the poem is heard, the reader notes that it can be neither free verse nor blank verse because of the insistent sound of the iambic stresses and the gracefully placed rhymes. (p. 13)
In many of Frost's later lyrics, as opposed to the dramatic narratives, his genius with metrical variations and substitutions encourages the reader to ignore the central rhythmical pattern. Only by a deliberate notation of syllable count, poetic feet, and accent can the reader define the basic rhythm. Clearly, the more Frost wrote, the more confident and sophisticated he became with prosody. Even a lyric as short as the fifteen-line "November" has anapests, feminine endings to suggest uncertainty, unscheduled rhymes, and repetition of syntax. Yet the general cadence throughout is rhymed iambic trimeter.
Frost continued to experiment with versification during his long career. How mistaken are those readers who even today insist that he was too conservative with technique to be honored with the great modern poets of his time. His successful innovations with the traditional forms and rhythms of poetry confirm his goal to discover old ways to be new…. Surely it is fair to say that Frost's experiments with prosody rejuvenated the traditional rhythms, meters, and patterns of rhyme which readers have always associated with poetry. (p. 14)
Donald J. Greiner, "The Difference Made for Prosody," in Robert Frost: Studies of the Poetry, edited by Kathryn Gibbs Harris (copyright © 1979 by Kathryn Gibbs Harris), G. K. Hall & Co., 1979, pp. 1-16.
[Let us consider Frost's] relation to his material…. [There are] some poems in which no narrator is specified, and others in which the centre of attention has been 'I,' 'he,' 'they,' and even 'we.' Frost has always been conscious of the artistic possibilities of such variation, and one reason for the narrative variety clearly lies in the poet's reluctance to be identified too closely with the speaker of his poems…. The angle of narration depends not on the reflection in subject-matter of autobiographical experience but, as in poets from whom he learned his trade, on the artistic needs of individual poems.
One has only to alter the pronoun in the first line of 'The Most of It' and read,
I thought I kept the universe alone,
to begin to realize what is at stake. Although we tend to assume that the first person gives greater vividness and immediacy, and that vividness and immediacy are unquestionably desirable qualities, Frost's effect in this poem … clearly depends upon impersonality and detachment. We need to look down on the solitary human being by the side of the lake and watch the great buck blundering past him. So far as I am aware, there is no evidence that the poem was based on any autobiographical experience, but even if it were, Frost's point is not 'This is how I feel in relation to the natural world,' but 'This is every man's situation when ultimately faced with what is apparently the brute indifference of nature.' (pp. 134-35)
The well-known 'Mending Wall' offers a more complicated instance. Here, true to what is obviously a favourite Frostian pattern, one looks at one over a separating barrier. In this case, however, the 'I' is a participant, and this has caused some readers to assume (illegitimately, I think) that in the friendly disagreement that is the subject of the poem we are to take sides with the speaker against his more traditional and conservative neighbour. But although the speaker maintains that the tradition is kept up at the insistence of the neighbour, he initiates the ritual himself: 'I let my neighbour know beyond the hill.' One suspects that both men enjoy the annual duty, that the give-and-take of neighbourly argument is cherished on both sides. Even the two catch-phrases, 'Something there is that doesn't love a wall' and 'Good fences make good neighbors,' both occur twice in the poem and so help to maintain a balance. 'Mending Wall,' we might say, is poised between these two mutually exclusive 'right' attitudes.
But should we equate the 'I' of the poem with Frost? Surely not…. Just as the symbolic application of the wall needs to be kept flexible if the poem is to have the maximum effect, so the limitation that any specifically personal reference would imply needs to be avoided. Besides, Frost offered a valuable clue to the tensions behind 'Mending Wall' when he remarked during an interview: 'Maybe I was both fellows in the poem.'… Though 'Mending Wall' has been the subject of numerous critical commentaries, the possibility of Frost's deliberately dividing his allegiance between the two speakers has not yet been given the attention it deserves. Yet much of the poem's appeal may be explained by the way in which this conflict of attitudes which intrigued the poet is carried over to his readers. The poem's universality derives from the split sympathy that the vast majority of us feel between the respective claims of 'traditionalism' and 'progress.'
'The Road Not Taken' presents even greater complexities. Although countless readers have taken it at its face value, although it stands as opening poem in Mountain Interval and in one of Frost's recordings (suggesting that the poet saw it as a direct introductory statement), and although Elizabeth Sergeant has pointed to an autobiographical origin in an incident when Frost sensed that he was going to meet his double at an intersection in the woods, a strong case can be made for its not being about Frost at all. Frost claimed it to be a playful parody of Edward Thomas, whose hesitant indecision Frost found both amusing and appealing, and on different occasions he gave varying accounts of the poem's development and of Thomas's attitude towards it.
It is perfectly justifiable, however, to see the poem as about both Frost and Thomas. Indeed, the incident in the woods … may well have become associated in Frost's mind with Thomas's poems 'The Sign-Post' and 'The Other.' Both these were written while Frost was in England and he most probably read them quite soon after they were completed. The former is about choosing which direction to take, the latter about an alter ego who seems to dog Thomas's path. Frost, I suspect, saw in Thomas exaggerated manifestations of his own traits, and by the same token the poem appeals to a wide audience because it deals with the problem of choice in terms that are universally applicable. Once again, too much individualizing … would have limited the scope of the poem; as it is, the reader, faced with a poem that demands to be approached dramatically, has little difficulty in blending the 'I' with himself. (pp. 135-37)
W. J. Keith, "Robert Frost," in his The Poetry of Nature: Rural Perspectives in Poetry from Wordsworth to the Present (© University of Toronto Press 1980), University of Toronto Press, 1980, pp. 119-40.